Digging up 9,000 years

 

IRISH ARCHEOLOGY:Cois tSiúire: 9000 years of human settlement in the Lower Suir Valley - Archaeological Excavations on the N25 Bypass, edited by James Eogan and Elizabeth Shee Twohig, National Roads Authority, 345pp plus accompanying CD, €25

ONE OF THE ENDURING legacies of the Celtic Tiger is an improved road infrastructure. This is not without controversy, notably in the case of the M3 motorway’s construction and its impact on the Hill of Tara, in Co Meath, and its surrounding landscape. What received far less publicity were the systematic programmes of archaeological assessment and excavation undertaken along road routes, providing an enormous amount of new information about the past. This book presents the results of the investigation of the route of the N25 Waterford city bypass, in the Lower Suir Valley. The route runs to the northeast (in Co Kilkenny) and southwest (in Co Waterford) of the new River Suir bridge, providing an additional crossing with the aim of reducing congestion in the city.

Evidence from 60 excavations on sites identified by archaeological assessment is presented. The challenge of covering, as the subtitle of the book puts it, “9,000 years of human activity” for a diverse readership has been met by placing a lot of the detailed archaeological information on an accompanying CD and by organising the book into three parts.

First, there are summary reports of 30 of the most significant excavations, written by the archaeologists who directed them. Then there are specialists taking a broader view; they consider, in turn, the environmental context of the long-term settlement of the Lower Suir Valley, the importance of the stone objects from the earlier phases of settlement there, the prehistoric pottery assemblages, and the history of Waterford city and its hinterland. In the final part of the book the editors pull together the evidence for early prehistory (8000-2400 BC), later prehistory (2400 BC to AD 400) and early medieval and late medieval activity (AD 400-1540) in the Lower Suir Valley and make their concluding comments.

Most readers will, I suspect, begin with the final chapters and, where they are interested, engage with the detail presented in the earlier parts of the book. This is a challenge continually faced by archaeologists: how to convey both the wealth of new information that has been uncovered and to present a coherent overview that provides both a framework of knowledge and a historical narrative. There often seems to be an assumption of a qualitative difference between document-based history and narratives of the past that rely on the archaeological record. But this, after all, is the stuff of human lives: the objects that people used, the places they lived, how they buried their dead. Things do provide us with a different kind of knowledge of the past, often at a level of personal detail unmatched in the historical record. Through archaeology we can see how people lived and engaged with the world around them. On the other hand, a lot of the surviving evidence is fragmentary and needs to be stitched together.

There was no shortage of extraordinary discoveries on the route of the N25 bypass. Most prominent was a ninth-century Viking settlement at Woodstown (now preserved in situ), upstream from and the forerunner to the Viking town of Waterford.

Just to the southwest of Woodstown, at Killoteran, all the wooden elements of a mill were preserved in a wetland area. Tree-ring dating established that the mill, which had a vertical waterwheel, was built in AD 612-613; it marks the beginning of a milling technology that continued up to the modern period.

Further back in time, at three locations along the route, rectangular buildings that were built between 3715 and 3625 BC were discovered. These mark a very particular lifestyle shared by the earliest farming communities on the island. The sweathouse and associated plunge pool at Rathpatrick, dating to the earlier part of the first millennium BC, also deserve a mention.

The evidence shows, too, just how varied the cultural rules that governed behaviour were in these past societies. At Newrath, on the Kilkenny side of the Suir, there was the poignant evidence of a man who was in his 30s when he died, sometime between 2020 BC and 1773 BC. He was cremated, and his bones carefully gathered from the pyre. Most of them were placed in a containing pot, or cinerary urn, but others were scattered in the stone-lined grave in which the pot was placed and in the mound that covered the grave. His remains were literally mixed with his place of burial.

At the Woodstown Viking site, another burial was found just outside the entrance to the settlement enclosure. Because the soil was acidic, no trace of the body survived, but in the grave were a sword, a spear, an axe and a shield, indicating that here lay a Viking of considerable status who had to be passed by all who entered or left the settlement.

What about the wider question of the narrative of 9,000 years of human lives in the Lower Suir Valley? Some of this is conveyed very evocatively. A new picture of long-term settlement is provided, from the earliest hunter-gatherers to the transformation of the landscape and extensive settlement of the valley in the second millennium BC. The latter happened at a much earlier time than conventional history would currently suggest. Indeed, one of the enigmas of the archaeology encountered on the route was the relative paucity of material dating to the historical period.

Integrating all the archaeological evidence provides us with a basis on which to write a convincing historical account of life in the past. But perhaps, as the editors point out, that is for the future. They and all the contributors have certainly provided a very solid foundation on which to build.