Unearthing the mystery of what lies beneath the ancient Mound of Down
One of Northern Ireland’s most mysterious ancient monuments is to finally give up its secrets.
Excavations have begun at the Mound of Down, a massive earthwork verging the Quoile marshes on the outskirts of Downpatrick.
The distinctive monument is larger than four football pitches, with a massive bank and ditch encircling what was once a drumlin island in the marshes — an area of more than three acres. Within the enclosure lies a second earthwork, a U-shaped mound inside another enclosing ditch, 55 metres in diameter.
The 12.5-metre high inner mound commands spectacular views of the surrounding countryside, across the Quoile marshes to Inch Abbey and as far as Down Cathedral.
The site is also known as Dundalethglas, meaning the English Mount, and Rathkeltair. ‘Dun’, later anglicised as ‘Down’, means fortification and may be the site that gave the county its name.
The Mound has never been excavated by archaeologists but the earthwork is thought to be a pre-Norman fortification, most likely a royal stronghold of the Dál Fiatach, the clan that ruled this part of Co Down in the first millennium AD.
John de Courcy, the Anglo-Norman knight who led the Norman advance into Ulster, won his first battle in Ulster near the Mound in 1177. He may have planned to use the site as a stronghold and it is possible the smaller earthwork is the remains of an Anglo-Norman castle. However, it is an unusual shape and if it were a castle, it appears it was never finished or was later damaged.
Just north of the Mound lies Inch Abbey, a Cistercian abbey founded by de Courcy in 1180.
Following his conquest, de Courcy gave the Church substantial lands, regranting holdings it had owned before he arrived and sponsoring new churches and monasteries.
The present Church of Ireland cathedral, near the reputed grave of Saints Patrick, Brigid and Colmcille, is the successor to a Benedictine Abbey founded under de Courcy’s patronage on the site of an ancient monastery.
Environment Minister Alex Attwood said the Mound of Down is one of our most important and impressive ancient monuments, yet little is known of its origins or use.
“One theory is that it was a royal stronghold that was taken over by John de Courcy, the Anglo-Norman knight who led the Norman invasion of Ulster, soon after his victory in the area in 1177,” he said.
“I am hopeful that the Mound will soon begin to give up its secrets and that excavation of the site will reveal why and when it was built.
“A geophysical survey — familiar to anyone who watches Channel 4’s Time Team programme — has already helped to define the excavation trenches.
“A monument of such antiquity and importance deserves to be better known. To help prepare for the excavation, a lot of the vegetation which had covered the site and hidden it from view has been removed. This has opened up tremendous views from the summit of the Mound and made it more accessible to visitors.
“Further work in 2012 will improve the pathways and new information panels will outline the area’s amazing archaeology and natural heritage attractions.”
The Northern Ireland Environment Agency is working with Down District Council to link the Mound with paths to Down Cathedral, Inch Abbey and the Quoile riverside path leading to Jane’s Shore, the Quoile Pondage and Quoile Castle.
The excavation will provide an excellent opportunity to get local schoolchildren involved in archaeology, Mr Attwood said.
“Students from several local primary schools will have a unique opportunity to see an important dig at close quarters and will be able to get involved in a real excavation. After being briefed in the Down County Museum, the students will be able to work — under supervision — in their own trenches. Volunteers from the local branch of the Young Archaeologists Club will also be involved.”
Dr John O’Keeffe, Principal Archaeologist with NIEA, explained: “The Mound of Down project is an excellent example of how we aim to work with other heritage bodies, such as councils and universities, as well as local communities, to promote our built heritage.
“We particularly welcome the chance to work with local schools and interest groups in a practical and enjoyable way.”
Names: Mound of Down; Dundalethglas, ‘the English Mount’; Rathkeltair
Type: Motte and Bailey
Appearance: Oval earthwork surrounded by massive bank and ditch, with circular mound rising from the interior of the platform, probably an unfinished motte.
Use: Oval enclosure thought to be an earlier site, possibly a hill fort reused as a bailey by the Normans.