by Colm Moloney
It is common practice for planners to attach conditions to Planning Permission for housing developments where there is potential to uncover archaeology. In a lot of situations, such conditions require ‘archaeological monitoring’ to be undertaken during groundworks associated with the construction of houses and associated infrastructure.
In 2006, Rubicon Heritage undertook archaeological monitoring for a 30-unit housing scheme in Moneygall, County Offaly. The investigation resulted in the identification of human activity covering approximately 1,100 years from the 6th century AD to the 17th century. Central to this activity was what is referred to as a cemetery settlement. The following blog explores the development of this intriguing site!
Origins (6th century ad)
The earliest archaeology identified on the site dated to the 6th century and consisted of a series of ditches believed to represent field boundaries. This is likely to represent the division of the local area into fields, presumably used for managing or enclosing livestock. At the beginning of the 7th century, a large oval enclosure with a diameter of just over 100m was established at the site and the field system became redundant. The enclosure was defined by a large ditch 2.5m wide and 1m deep. This would originally have had an internal bank, possibly with a timber palisade on top.
The earliest feature identified inside the enclosure was located in the southeast of the main enclosure, initially focused on a small, east-west aligned rectangular enclosure. This was defined by a ditch and measured 14m by 12m, with an entrance on the west side.
Unfortunately, this was heavily disturbed by later archaeological activity, making interpretation very difficult, although no evidence of either a timber or stone structure was identified. However, what is clear is that this location at the southeast of the main enclosure became the focus of a cemetery which was used for over 1,000 years.
the cemetery settlement (7th / 8th century ad)
A total of 41 articulated burials and a further 10 dis-articulated burials were excavated during the investigations. The earliest burials were contemporary with the small rectangular enclosure and dated to the first half of the 7th century. These consisted of a group of 13 skeletons, which varied between east to west aligned graves and, more unusually, north to south aligned graves.
While the initial phase of burial was developing at the southeast of the site, a very different form of activity was initiated at the north end. Here, evidence was identified for settlement, agricultural activity, and also light industry in the form of metal working. A ‘four-poster’ or elevated platform is believed to represent an elevated grain store, the elevated position both keeping the grain dry and providing some protection from rodents. A ‘six-poster’ structure was also identified, again interpreted as a grain store. Environmental analysis confirmed that hulled barley and oats were being stored at the site.
Also associated with this group of features was a ring-ditch enclosing an oval area measuring 5m by 3.5m, possibly representing the foundations of a small structure or shelter. A large assemblage of quern stones, 22 in total, again confirmed that cereal was being processed into flour on site. A horseshoe and worked antler provided evidence for some of the other activity occurring on the site at this time.
The initial settlement activity in the north of the enclosed area gave way to industrial activity in the later medieval period, with a focus on metal-working. A number of small penannular features were excavated, which were defined by small ditches. All of the ditches of these features were filled with large quantities of slag, a waste product of iron-working. A hearth was also identified, which had residues consistent with copper-working, indicating that both iron and copper were being worked by the people who occupied the enclosure.
The earliest burials were interred within the small rectangular space defined at the south of the main enclosure; a possible indication of a ritual significance for this area of the site. These burials were of two alignments: east to west with the head to the west, and (less typically) in the later examples, north to south with the head to the north. The ratio of female to male in the sample recovered of the interred population was 2:1, which would not support the concept of a monastic settlement.
The cemetery continued in use throughout the medieval period, with a gradual expansion towards the east. Towards the end of the medieval period, evidence for occupation / settlement at the site disappeared, but the cemetery continued to be used up to the 16th / 17th century, with a radiocarbon date of CAL AD 1539-1635 achieved from one of the later burials. It would appear likely that inhumations dating to this later period relate to individuals excluded from burials in established Christian cemeteries. Post-medieval linear features, probably related to agricultural activity, extend across the burial site, suggesting that it ceased to be used for burial from sometime around the 17th century.
The Moneygall site appears to fall into the category of settlement cemeteries identified in recent years, notably as a result of the national road building programme. The dichotomy apparent in these sites between domestic / industrial zones for the living and cemeteries for the dead is striking.
The small rectangular enclosure identified at the south of the enclosure is intriguing: It may be a coincidence that the earliest burials appear to focus on this location, but it may also serve as an indication that this location was significant to the local inhabitants at this time. The enclosing trench did not appear suitable to serve as a foundation for either a timber or stone structure, and no structural evidence was preserved within the enclosed space. The possibility that the enclosed space defined a ritually significant area, possibly a form of shrine could explain the later focus of burial on this location.
The archaeological monitoring undertaken at Moneygall identified extensive and significant archaeological remains. Due to the excellent working relationship between Rubicon and the house builder, the archaeology was programmed efficiently within the development programme, which ensured there was adequate time for the archaeological recording and no delay to the development progress. However, it is worth noting that best practice in this case would be to undertake the archaeological works in advance of the commencement of construction works in order to minimise risk of delay to the developer. Rubicon Heritage staff have extensive experience of planning programmes of archaeological work on construction projects and minimising risks of delays through planned and controlled mitigation strategies.
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