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Blast from the past

Brian Black reveals some of the amazing archaeological treasures turned up in his new series of UTV’s Hidden Heritage

As anyone who knows me will tell you, I’m a water person. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else but by the sea, and every day I feel a genuine lift to my spirits as I watch the dawn break over Strangford Narrows.

I also grab every chance I can to get out there, sailing the seas. The high latitudes are my passion and in the last 15 years I’ve made several Arctic trips aboard my yacht, Caelan, but really as long as I’m afloat I’m happy anywhere, north or south, in ice or sunshine.

So planning and filming a series exploring the historic sites associated with water and humankind’s relationship with this vital element from earliest hunter gatherers to the present day has been a fascinating experience — both for me and for my wife Les, who’s the other half of our production company, Evergreen Media, and is the series producer.

As always, our research led us to places that offered surprise after surprise — sights that delighted the eye and in this series, for the first time, sounds that haven’t been heard for thousands of years. I’m often asked about favourites among the stories we tell but this time round there are so many I’m not sure where to start.

For example, the series opens up with some ‘new’ archaeology that’s turned up just a few miles from the centre of Belfast, on Divis Mountain, where thousands of people walk each year and are mostly totally unaware that a ‘pile of stones’ is actually an important historical site that may change archaeological thinking.

And who’d have thought that the earliest settlement site ever located in the island of Ireland is now just a field near the mouth of the River Bann, surrounded by a housing estate? In fact the Bann has produced a lot of wonderful archaeological material, including the famous Bann Disc. There seems to be some doubts about the purpose this was made for but it’s instantly recognisable as it was used as the logo for the Ulster Museum.

Other watery fields have produced some extraordinary finds. In 1896 on the banks of Lough Foyle the use of a new American plough, which digs down 15 inches rather than the Irish plough’s usual six inches, produced a treasure beyond price.

It’s called the Broighter Hoard, after the townland where it was found, and it’s a collection of stunning gold jewellery and an exquisitely crafted golden boat, which literally took my breath away when we filmed it at the National Museum in Dublin. There’s a fascinating court case associated with it too.

I was similarly thrilled when we visited two truly beautiful burial sites in Fermanagh. I’ve always liked soaking in the atmosphere at these places and I thought the portal tomb at Kilrooskagh overlooking Lough Macnean was pretty amazing with its massive capstone providing a dramatic outline on a marshy hillside, but when I saw our second tomb at Clyhannagh, just a few miles away I certainly wasn’t prepared for the stunning beauty of this 5000-year-old site.

It’s perfectly placed in a landscape still littered with huge glacial boulders that seems to have hardly changed over the millennia. As you can tell, I really liked this one!

And then, what can I say about the amazing ancient music we’re going to bring to our viewers? To me, this really is a treat not to be missed — magnificently fashioned horns, all found in water settings and all, almost certainly, put there as ritual offerings to gods of rivers and lakes.

There was the bronze horn found at Loughnashade, near Navan in Armagh, or the wooden one found on the banks of the River Erne, near Enniskillen, or the two found at Drumbest in Co Antrim or ... well, you get the picture.

I thought they were wonderful in themselves, just as exhibits in a glass case, until I heard what they sounded like. And that was all thanks to an amazing man from Galway named Simon O’Dwyer, who has had the horns reconstructed exactly as they were and trained himself to play them.

You’ll also probably want to know more about the love-nests of Lough Neagh, the smugglers of Rathlin Island, the holy wells of Limavady, Downpatrick and Belcoo, the bloody history of Enniskillen, ancient trackways, Viking raids, and I found it moving to visit Blockhouse Island at the entrance to Carlingford Lough where there is the ruin of an Elizabethan fort that’s being claimed by the sea and there’s now little hope of saving.

But I was very cheered by the work I witnessed at other sites. It’s great to see communities rolling up their sleeves and getting down to clearing away vegetation, re-pointing walls with lime mortar made exactly to traditional standards and bringing their local heritage back to life.

It’s happening at Ram’s Island on Lough Neagh, Keenaghan Abbey at Tievealough, Fermanagh, on Chapel Island, Mountsandel and along the Newry Canal to name but a few hives of activity.

And thinking about sites that may need saving brings us to our final story of the series as we take to the air for a review of another series of marine marvels — very important to me, as a sailor, of course — and that’s our light-houses.

As modern navigational aids become ever more accurate, these traditional warning beacons may well become redundant, and then what?

Even today, these masterpieces of engineering often don't get the attention they deserve. Many are listed buildings, and when we show you Hawlbowline Light, you’ll understand why!

To sum up, making this series has had a profound effect on me. When I think about those stone-age hands that quarried massive rocks to create Kilrooskagh portal tomb, and the master metal-smiths who produced the superb Broighter Hoard, and music makers who crafted the resounding Loughnashade trumpet I am in awe of their skills.

And then I think of those more modern engineers at Hawlbowline, who were building a practical marine marker but took the time and trouble to make its grab handles in the shape of sea creatures.

What a crying shame it would be if the evidence of our skills was lost as a legacy for future generations.

Something else that also strikes me is how we look after our heritage in the financially challenging times that lie ahead.

Up to now the responsibility for protecting these monuments has been with the Northern Ireland Environment Agency along with archaeologists at the University of Ulster and Queen’s University. But with government cuts looming, this shared role cannot be taken for granted any longer.

Our cultural heritage draws in tourists and has the potential to generate income, so surely other government departments should also accept some of the burden? This is something that we as a society will have to address in the months ahead.

In the meantime, for those who have been with us on our previous series — yes, Flub the Old English sheepdog is still travelling with me — and don't worry, she has her own life-jacket for boat trips.

Hidden Heritage starts tonight, UTV 8pm. Viewers with stories can contact and follow the links to Hidden Heritage

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