Belfast Telegraph

Unearthed beneath our feet: Archaeologists make astonishing discoveries in Northern Ireland

Aerial photograph of excavations at Killuney, Co. Armagh
Aerial photograph of excavations at Killuney, Co. Armagh
Ballynagalliagh (C) Historic Environment Division
Tanning Pits, Royal Exchange, Belfast © Gahan and Long
Fig 3 - Turmeel excavation (C) Northern Archaeological Consulting
Fig 5 - Turmeel pottery (C) Northern Archaeological Consulting
Unearthed distribution map v3
Fulacht at Laurel Hill Solar Farm (c) Northern Archaeological Consulting
Glenshane Quarry Reconstructed Timber Circle (c) Northern Archaeological Consulting
artefact from Artresnahan (c) Northern Archaeological Consulting

By Linda Stewart

Revellers in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter probably don’t realise that the area was once home to extensive tanneries — or that the remains of those industries still lie inches beneath their feet.

A series of tanning pits has been found buried beneath Belfast city centre by an archaeology team commissioned by developers embarking on the Royal Exchange development around North Street and Donegall Street.

This was just one of the stunning discoveries detailed in the new Unearthed publication by the Department for Communities’ Historic Environment Division (HED), which charts the most significant archaeological discoveries made in Northern Ireland over a four-year period.

The finds range from a circular Neolithic ritual site featuring timber posts to a Bronze Age roundhouse and an 18th century tanning pit in the heart of Belfast city centre.

Between 2015 and 2018 almost 800 licensed archaeological excavations were carried out across Northern Ireland, most of them as a requirement by planners.

HED senior archaeologist Andrew Gault says: "These excavations have resulted in exciting and important new information about our past, from evidence of the homesteads of some of the first pre-historic farming communities to more recent urban archaeological remains and industrial heritage.

"Anybody who has moved into a new house or driven over a new road, there’s a good chance that archaeologists were working there before it was developed and new sites have been discovered on some of these.

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"There is an overall sense that archaeology is a very rich resource in Northern Ireland and if you go out and investigate any large field you’re likely to find archaeological remains."

Glenshane excavation (c) Northern Archaeological Consulting

The A6 road upgrade has highlighted several treasure troves from the past, for example the rectangular Neolithic house at Turmeel townland dating back to a time almost 6,000 years ago when farming was being introduced to Ireland.

"The house would have been built by a family moving into the area about 6,000 years ago and they built a substantial rectangular house which would have been the first example of this type of structure in the area. They would have been bringing in new ideas about growing crops and animal husbandry that wouldn’t have been seen here before," Mr Gault says.

Other key sites are the ritual timber circles found at Donnydeade during excavations for the Gas to the West scheme, and also at a quarry extension in Claudy.

"There is evidence of these being important places in the local landscape where people were bringing their dead," Mr Gault explains.

At the other end of the scale are the 18th century tanning pits found in Belfast, where animal hides would have been turned into leather.

"Even in the centre of Belfast there are very well preserved archaeological remains only inches below people’s feet and that is going back to the origins of Belfast as a settlement," Mr Gault adds.

"These new discoveries highlight the importance of archaeological mitigation in advance of development, as well as the significant contributions made by developers and archaeologists in unearthing these new archaeological sites for the benefit of all in society."

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