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Excavations

EXCAVATIONS AND SURFACE ARTEFACT COLLECTIONS

Opportunities for members of the public to take part in archaeological excavations in Northern Ireland have traditionally been few and far between as this work had traditionally been the remit of professional archaeologists and academics. In recent years, however, more enlightened organisations such as the National Trust and the Belfast Hills Landscape Partnership have realised the benefits of involving interested amateurs and local community groups in this work. It has been found that involvement in archaeological excavation and survey has promoted an enhanced sense of ownership, knowledge and enjoyment of the historic environment. Members of the Ulster Archaeological Society (UAS) have enthusiastically embraced these new opportunities and this page gives a short summary of the activities they have recently been involved in. They have also added value to the archaeological resource through publication of reports on the society website and in archaeological publications.

 

2008/2009: EXCAVATIONS AT CASTLE WARD, COUNTY DOWN

 

Archaeological excavations were undertaken in 2008 and 2009 on behalf of the National Trust, Environment Agency: Built Heritage (NIEA) and the Centre for Archaeological Fieldwork, Queen’s University (CAF) within the grounds of the Castle Ward estate, Strangford, County Down. The first season, between 21 June 2008 and 11 July 2008, uncovered some structural remains of the mansion house and confirmed its existence in this area. The second season, from 10 to 28 June 2009 revealed the foundations of much of the southern part of the mansion. Several phases of construction were identified, including the main building, east and west wings and extensions. The northern walls were not located due to the depth of stony material that had been applied to this part of the hill in order to landscape the site after demolition of the mansion house. The instability of this material rendered further excavation unsafe during the project. However, an unexpected discovery was a brick-built arch and passageway, below ground level, to the east of the site. This has been interpreted as an entrance for servants, but the relationship between these features and the main building was not established due to time constraints. The excavations of 2008 and 2009 were programmed to coincide with archaeology days organised by NIEA and made extensive use of volunteer labour, particularly members of the UAS, supervised by professional archaeologists. The excavations attracted widespread media coverage and visits from local schools, community groups and the Young Archaeologists Club. The excavations demonstrated that with supervision, volunteer archaeologists were capable of carrying out excavation and recording to a high standard.

 

2010: EXCAVATIONS AT BISHOP’S PALACE (WEST YARD), COUNTY LONDONDERRY

 

An excavation was undertaken by the National Trust at the West Yard of Bishop’s Palace, former residence of Bishop Hervey at Downhill. The building was listed in 1977 because it is of significant architectural and historic interest.  The west yard formed part of the extensive ruins of the mansion house, set dramatically on the coast amidst a stunning landscape.  A series of excavations at the site were undertaken by the National Trust between 2009 and 2012 to record the function of the East and West Yards and to open public access to this part of the site.  Twenty volunteers, including several members of the UAS, took part in 2010, when the focus of this second season of excavation was the West Yard.  Their work was supported by professional archaeologists. They found that the West Yard was strongly associated with the maintenance of the house, as it contained a fuel store and one of the buildings was most likely a carpenter’s workshop.  A doorway was also found, leading to the main stables and coach house.  The excavation also revealed the remains of the domestic gas plant and many interesting architectural and historic items were recovered from the area of the gas holder. Included in these were a Bronze Age decorated pot, known as an Irish Bowl and a marble bust of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, dated to the mid-second century AD.

 

2011: EXCAVATION AT BALLYAGHAGAN CASHEL, COUNTY ANTRIM

 

The 2011 excavations at Ballaghagan were part of a wider project undertaken by the Belfast Hills Landscape Partnership, in association with the NIEA, Belfast City Council and CAF. The project was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the NIEA and Belfast City Council. The aim of the project was to provide local people with an opportunity to participate in an archaeological excavation and in doing so, encourage greater awareness of the archaeological resource in the Belfast Hills area. The primary monument at this site was a medieval cashel, but it was found to be unusual as the remains of a vernacular house were also present, partially covering the enclosure wall at the north-west. A range of interesting artefacts were recovered, including parts of a tyg, or loving cup and an inscribed stone, thought to be used to ward off witchcraft. Analysis of the artefacts and radiocarbon samples pointed to a mid-seventeenth century date for the vernacular house.  Other monuments present in the area include a Neolithic settlement site, a findspot of flint flakes and other unrecorded monuments, such as two enclosures and an embanked drainage ditch.

 

2012 SURFACE ARTEFACT COLLECTION AT BALLYGARVAN, COUNTY DOWN

 

A possible Bronze Age flat cemetery was observed from the air in March 2010 and following discussions with the landowner and archaeological inspectors from NIEA, the area was investigated by a surface artefact collection. This took place on Saturday 21 April 2012 and 25 members of the UAS took part. The survey area was marked out in 10m by 10m grid squares and the group made their way across the grid, collecting and recording artefacts as they went along. Each grid square was allocated its own unique number in order to associate any finds with it. The finds from the collection were processed on 4 August 2012 and a number of interesting items were recovered, although there was little to positively identify the nature of the site. No prehistoric pottery was recovered, but several burnt flints were found, suggestive of cremation activity in the area. Perhaps the most significant items recovered were a Mesolithic stone pebble tool and flint flake, confirming human activity in the area from around 5,000 BC. The pebble tool was the first such artefact to be recovered from the Strangford Lough area.

 

2013: EXCAVATION AT DIVIS BARN, COUNTY ANTRIM

 

An excavation was undertaken at Divis Barn, within the National Trust Divis and Black Mountain property in May 2013, to investigate flint scatters in advance of an extension to a car park. The site lies near to the Warden’s Base, also known as Divis Barn and was not previously recorded on the Northern Ireland Sites and Monuments Record. The excavations were part of a wider project undertaken by the Belfast Hills Partnership, in association with the National Trust, the NIEA and CAF. The project was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the NIEA. In addition to investigating the nature and extent of the flint scatters, it was decide to provide local people with a further opportunity to participate in an archaeological excavation in the Belfast Hills area. This turned out to be a very wise decision, as in addition to quantities of worked flint, the remains of a previously unrecorded vernacular house were also discovered. In 1833 the area was first mapped by the Ordnance Survey and no building was recorded here, suggesting that by that time, no visible trace of it remained. The presence of possible seventeenth-century ceramics seemed to suggest occupation from this time.

 

2014: SURFACE ARTEFACT COLLECTION: BALLYTAYLOR, COUNTY ANTRIM

 

 In October 2013, a ploughing competition was held at farmland at Ballytaylor townland, close to Bushfoot Strand, near Portballintrae in County Antrim. Following the end of the competition, the site was visited by an Archaeological Inspector from NIEA and it was observed that quantities of flint and possible prehistoric pottery had been brought to the surface by the ploughing. The UAS was contacted to see if there was an interest in carrying out a surface artefact collection and this was readily agreed to. As word spread, the Downpatrick Young Archaeologists Club also expressed an interest in taking part. Arrangements were made with the landowners to carry out the project before the proposed planting of a potato crop and as a result, 40 enthusiasts of all ages descended on the site on Saturday 8 March 2014. The finds from the event were catalogued and a number of interesting items were observed. A total of 3,614 flint flakes were recovered, most showing signs of manufacture rather than thermal damage. 213 pottery fragments were recovered, including 16 that were probably prehistoric.  A small number (20) of glass fragments and a possible sandstone whetstone were also recovered, along with six clay pipe fragments. A surface chart was created of the prehistoric flint and pottery recovered and it suggested a concentration of artefacts at the southern part of the grid area, perhaps indicating the presence in this area of a prehistoric habitation site. Geophysical survey in this area in the future may confirm the presence of sub-surface features to help identify the exact location.  

 

2017 DIVIS CASHEL AND BURIAL CAIRN, COUNTY ANTRIM  

 

An archaeological excavation was carried out between 12 and 23 June 2017 at two sites at the National Trust Divis and Black Mountain property. The sites investigated were a stone enclosure, known as Divis Cashel and one of at least seven circular features thought to be a prehistoric settlement cluster. This work was undertaken as part of a wider project, organised by the Belfast Hills Landscape Partnership in conjunction with the National Trust, the UAS and CAF, sponsored by the Big Lottery Fund. The project attracted significant media attention, including BBC Radio Ulster and several newspaper articles. 593 members of the public, ranging from school groups to local people took part in the excavations, with a further 100 people participating in organised tours of the site. The number of casual visitors to the site was estimated to be around 250. The main effort was at Divis Cashel, thought to date from the medieval period and the other site investigated was at one of the prehistoric huts. From preliminary findings, it would appear that the cashel is more likely to be a prehistoric enclosure, later re-used during the Victorian period and possibly including a forge. The hut site was found instead to be a burial cairn of probable Bronze Age date and the remaining six ‘hut sites’ are likely to be burial cairns as well, adding to the previous total of nine already identified in the National Trust property. By any standard, the 2017 Divis excavations were therefore not only a great success as a community outreach exercise, but also as a research project and have significantly added to the archaeological record of the area.

 

2018: CASTLE WARD, COUNTY DOWN

 

The National Trust carried out small-scale excavations at Castle Ward between 22 and 25 August 2018. The excavation crew was composed entirely of members of the UAS Survey Group, who excavated two trenches in the area of the Yew Terraces, investigating the possible presence of two sets of steps to allow access to the three levels of terraces there. Four other trenches were excavated in the area around the site of the Queen Anne period mansion house, to investigate the pattern of formal paths in this area. The purpose of these excavations was to enable the National Trust to reinstate some of these lost features to enhance understanding of this important late seventeenth and early eighteenth landscape. The Survey Group also carried out a measured survey of the excavation trenches and a geophysical (earth resistance) survey of part of the Yew Terrace