2014:026 - Tlachtga, The Hill of Ward, Meath

County: Meath Site name: Tlachtga, The Hill of Ward

Sites and Monuments Record No.: ME030-001--- Licence number: E004474

Author: Caitríona Moore

Site type: Hilltop enclosure, prehistoric/early medieval

ITM: E 673526m, N 764566m

Latitude, Longitude (decimal degrees): 53.625747, -6.888374

A research excavation was carried over three weeks in May and June 2014 at Tlachtga, The Hill of Ward, Co. Meath. The excavation was jointly funded by the Royal Irish Academy, The Office of Public Works and Meath County Council. The project was led by Dr Stephen Davis of the School of Archaeology, University College Dublin and the excavation was directed by Caitríona Moore.
The Hill of Ward is topped by a quadrivallate ringfort known as Tlachtga (ME030-001—) which measures c. 150 m in diameter. Geophysical survey and Lidar data in the vicinity of the site have identified several previously unrecorded monuments, amongst which are a very large tri- or quadrivallate enclosure underlying the present upstanding monument, and a small enclosure to the south, partially overlapping the present monument. The programme of excavation focused on establishing chronological control on these features and investigating a small section of the outermost embankment of the upstanding monument, with the principal aim of understanding the sequence of construction at the site. Three trenches and three test pits were excavated.
Trench 1 measured 12.2m x 3m and was located at the northern edge of the upstanding monument, over the outermost bank and ditch and part of an outer ditch which was identified through geophysical survey. Following exposure and planning of the archaeological features, Trench 1 was half-sectioned lengthwise and the western half was excavated. Subsequently, due to time constraints, the remaining in situ deposits were half-sectioned crosswise and the southern half were excavated. This resulted in c. 75% of the archaeological deposits in Trench 1 being excavated.
Within Trench 1 was exposed a small section of a bank measuring 1.08m in height and built with two quite sterile layers of compact sandy silt containing small to medium sized stones. The basal layer lay directly on the underlying bedrock and appeared to be redeposited subsoil, most likely produced during the initial excavation of the outer ditch. At the highest point of the bank was a clear concentration of stones.
Internal to the bank was a shallow, rock-cut ditch 0.74m deep and cut into the bedrock with vertical sides and a sharp break of slope at the base which consisted of naturally stepped and sloping layers of bedrock. This was filled with three quite sterile deposits of silt and clay containing small stones. A fox tooth from the basal fill has been radiocarbon dated to the 5th century AD. External to the bank and cut into subsoil was a very wide shallow ditch with gradual sides and a flat base. It measured 2.9m wide at the base expanding to 5.9m at the top and was a maximum of 0.56m deep. This ditch contained a single fill of sandy silt containing small stones. Occurring at different levels within the fill were four charcoal lenses which varied in size from 0.9m x 0.53m to 0.23m x 0.13m. All were very shallow ranging from 0.04-0.06m in depth. The subsoil into which the ditch was cut comprised compact yellow/brown clayey silt with inclusions of grit and decayed stone and occasional iron pan. Trench 1 was the only trench where this kind of subsoil was encountered. Finds from Trench 1 included a coin (from topsoil), pieces of worked and possibly worked chert and flint and a piece of sandstone which has a series of four parallel grooves picked into its surface. This decoration is reminiscent of megalithic art and there is a strong possibility that this stone is part of a larger object (Dr Muiris O'Sullivan, pers. comm.)
Trench 2 measured 10m x 3m and was located to the north-west of the upstanding monument. It was positioned to investigate the innermost ditch of the earlier trivallate enclosure of which there are no visible surface remains. Following removal of the sod and topsoil limestone bedrock was exposed at the north-west and south-east ends of the trench. A central ditch was identified by a compact, stony fill and was excavated by half-section with the western half excavated first followed by the eastern half. The ditch measured 0.75–0.85m wide at the base expanding to a maximum of 3.4m at the top and was 0.76– 1.13m in depth. It was rock-cut and approximately U-shaped, the south-east edge was stepped while the north-west was almost vertical. The base of the ditch was flat bedrock with some cracking.
At the interface between the bedrock and the primary ditch fill was a deposit of naturally occurring silty clay which formed as a result of the decaying bedrock below it. Overlying it was a secondary fill of loose clay/silt with occasional small stones. This was probably the result of sedimentation of the ditch while it was open. Above this was a fill of compact coarse silty clay containing a large amount of stone/fragments of redeposited bedrock, frequent animal bone and occasional charcoal flecks. This deposit was a maximum of 1.11m deep and represents the final phase of activity in the ditch. A piece of cattle bone from this fill has been radiocarbon dated to the 4th century BC. Finds from Trench 2 comprised a fragment of a bone pin from the final ditch fill, and four objects, a small metal disc, a clay pipe stem, a possible chert flake and a piece of worked flint, from topsoil.
Trench 3 measured 8m x 3m and was located to the south of the upstanding monument. It was positioned to investigate the ditch of a small (c. 30m in diameter) circular enclosure of which there are no visible surface remains. At the south-west end of the trench was a shallow linear feature containing a sterile fill of moderately compact brown silty clay. Quite ephemeral in nature this may be the remains of a relatively modern agricultural feature. Close to it were three post-holes filled with deposits of clay, stones and charcoal. Hazel charcoal from one of these has been dated to between the 12th and 10th centuries BC.

Towards the north-east end of Trench 3 was a rock-cut ditch which measured 3.05m wide and 0.8m deep. The ditch was excavated in half-section with the south-west half excavated first, followed by the remaining north-east half. The upper edge was steep and the sides were vertical but asymmetrical and the outer or north-west side was shorter than the opposite inner side. The break of slope at the base was sharp and the base, which sloped downwards north-west/south-east, was stepped due to the fractured nature of the bedrock. The primary fill of the ditch was moderately compact silty clay with frequent inclusions of stone and a moderate amount of well-preserved animal bone. Several large pieces of cattle bone were also seemingly placed at intervals at the base of the fill directly on bedrock. One of these has been radiocarbon dated to the 5th century AD.

Above this was a secondary fill of compact silty clay with occasional stones, poorly preserved animal bone and a thin lens of charcoal measuring 0.4m x 0.3m. Along both sides of the ditch were several small deposits, only evident in section, which appear to be the result of silting-up episodes. In the north-east corner of the exposed section of ditch was a juvenile burial. This lay in a small deposit of silty clay and was covered with several medium to large flat stones. Adjacent to the lower part of the skeleton were a number of upright smaller stones. The burial was orientated along the width of the ditch (north-east/south-west) with the head and torso resting directly on the bedrock and the pelvis and legs on the clay fill. It seems likely that the clay fill was intentionally used to cover the burial before the larger stones were put in place. Examination has indicated that the remains are those of a child of 3-5 months old and the remains have been radiocarbon dated to the 5th century AD.

Overlying the bedrock to the south-east of the ditch was a deposit of compact clay which appeared to be a natural clay wash related to the degradation of the underlying bedrock. Occasional flecks of charcoal and the recovery of a piece of possibly worked chert suggests that this deposit was somewhat mixed with cultural material. Finds from Trench 3 included pieces of worked chert, possibly worked chert and flint and a possible hammerstone.

Test Pit 1, located east of Trench 3 exposed a shallow linear feature with sterile clay fill which produced a piece of worked flint and a piece of quartz. Like the linear feature exposed within Trench 3 this may be a relatively modern agricultural feature. Test Pit 2 in the centre of the upstanding monument uncovered part of what may be a large pit the upper fill of which appeared to be redeposited topsoil, stone and abundant amounts of animal bone. Beneath these were stratified hearth deposits consisting of layers of burnt clay, charcoal and the remains of an in situ burnt timber (oak) and post. A fragment of the timber has been dated to between the 11th and 13th centuries AD. Finds from Test Pit 2 included a piece of polished bone, possibly worked flint and chert, a fragment of a possible rubbing stone and an unidentified metal object from topsoil. The base of the archaeological deposits in Test Pit 2 was not reached due to the depth of the material and issues of health and safety. Test Pit 3 to the north of Trench 1 contained no features of archaeological significance. At the time of writing post-excavation work and research is still ongoing.

UCD School of Archaeology, Dublin