Multi-period site: early medieval settlement and medieval grange
The site, situated in the Boyne Valley and within the Archaeological Ensemble of the Bend of the Boyne UNESCO World Heritage Site, was uncovered in the course of an infrastructural project to construct a wastewater treatment plant. The excavation revealed a significant multi-period site. Prehistoric activity at the site was suggested by recovered lithics. A number of features of indeterminate date were recorded and it is hoped that radiometric dating will clarify the antiquity of a number of these.
A series of early medieval features identified at the site included ditches and gullies, a series of post-holes and an associated metalled surface and a souterrain. These features were concentrated in the northern part of the site, and it is assumed that the main focus of the settlement lies on the crest of the hill, beyond the limit of these excavations.
An outer ditch is likely to represent an external boundary for the settlement and bone from this feature was dated to cal ad 660–860 (2 sigma). A second ditch, located at the north of the site, is likely to represent an internal boundary. A sherd of Bi amphora (Ian Doyle, pers. comm.), which originated in Greece, was recovered from the base of the ditch, suggesting a 5th–7th-century ad date for the boundary, and animal bone from the same deposit has been AMS dated to cal ad 600–675 (2 sigma).
A series of post-holes in the north-west of the site have been interpreted as fencing or yard divisions demarcating a natural depression on the north-west of the slope. This natural depression was metalled and probably functioned as a stock enclosure. Subsequent to this phase of settlement, the metalled depression filled with silt deposits washed downslope. Fragments of bone and copper-alloy pins were recovered from these silts.
A network of shallow gullies was excavated across the site; these have been interpreted as drains and/or boundaries. Material from two of these gullies has been dated at this stage and appears to be broadly contemporary, mid-6th to mid-7th centuries cal ad.
At a subsequent phase of occupation, a souterrain was constructed at the north-west of the site. The drystone-built, north–south-orientated, wedge-shaped gallery was undifferentiated from the passage and measured 9.3m long, was 2.78m at its narrowest (north end) and 4.1m at its widest (south). The base of the souterrain lay 1.75m below the current ground level. It is clear that the remainder of this structure lies beyond the limit of excavation and the passage and entrance are likely to lie further north on the terrace.
Substantial boulders were cut for the souterrain foundations and four courses of walling were built over these. Two large quern- (or small mill-) stones were used in the wall construction. The remnants of the upper levels were slightly corbelled. The lintels were likely to have been robbed out in the later medieval period. A deposit of coarse gravelly sand was used as packing material for the walls and a fragment of a bone distaff was recovered from this deposit, indicating textile processing at the site. Deposits of charcoal-rich clay and a layer of metalling at the base of the gallery were interpreted as occupation levels and it is hoped to date this material.
A medieval settlement (provisionally dated to the 13th–14th century on the basis of recovered pottery sherds) was indicated by the presence of a substantial stone gate, associated ditches, gullies and pits and a number of industrial features, including a cereal-drying kiln and a lime-slaking pit. These remains have been interpreted as a Cistercian grange or farmstead, associated with Mellifont Abbey. Very few granges have been archaeologically investigated in Ireland and therefore this represents an important site both in a regional and national sense. Significant quantities of medieval pottery and animal bone were uncovered. Soil samples have revealed large quantities of charred cereal and plant remains.
The most impressive later medieval features uncovered on the site were the foundations of a stone-built gate. The gate is assumed to have defined and defended the entrance to a substantial settlement. The gate structure was composed of two L-shaped walls, aligned parallel to each other and orientated north-north-east/south-south-west. The long axes of the L-shaped walls formed the gate passage, while the short axes represented the exterior gate façade. The intervening passageway measured 3m wide. The walls measured between 3.15m and 5.5m in length and 1.3m to 2.1m wide and a maximum depth of 1.5m was recorded. A maximum of three courses survived over rubble foundations. The front walls were composed of cut stone (a piece of a quernstone was used in the construction of one of the facades, flat side facing out) and faced south-west.
Associated ditches which terminated at the west and east sides of the gate were initially assumed to be contemporary with the gate; however, animal bone from the western ditch has been radiocarbon dated to 660–860 cal ad and is likely to have been the external boundary to the early medieval settlement. This suggests the later medieval settlement was deliberately sited to make use of existing boundaries. Evidence for an enclosing bank was suggested by a slump deposit overlying the top fill of this ditch. Tip lines suggest the bank would have lain on the inside of the ditch and the slump contained a large quantity of medieval pottery sherds. The ditches were relatively shallow (1.1m maximum depth) and were not recut to any great depth, suggesting defence was not a primary concern, and the grand entrance was probably a physical expression of status, wealth and power.
Industrial features included a dumbbell-shaped kiln and lime-slaking pit in the north-west of the site, a possible furnace and a number of hearths located at the north-east of the site. These features suggest that semi-industrial activity such as cereal processing and lime production for use in agricultural, building, semi-industrial and domestic contexts (flax processing, tanning, etc.), all took place behind the gate. The nucleus of the grange is likely to lie north of the limit of excavation, on the terrace (as with the early medieval settlement).
Artefacts recovered from the later medieval levels included a large volume of medieval pottery sherds, metal knives, fragments of copper-alloy stick-pins, a spindle whorl and bone handles. Large volumes of animal bone were recovered from all levels and bulk samples were taken where appropriate. It is hoped that specialist analysis will yield a good comparative study of early and later medieval economy, diet and industry.
Post-medieval activity at the site was represented by the stone foundations of a possible farm structure and an associated field system. Post-excavation analysis of artefacts, industrial residues, plant assemblage and animal bone is currently being carried out and will add greatly to our understanding of the site.
The site has been entered into the Sites and Monuments Record for County Meath as ME020–067001 and ME020–067002.
Mandy Stephens, CRDS Ltd, Unit 4a, Dundrum Business Park, Dublin 14.
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