Internship Blog Series – Off the Beaten Track in Dublin

In the fourth of our internship series of blogs Kelsey Gamble talks about Dublin again, but this time the benefits of leaving the beaten track!

Taking a trip off the beaten path…or my DART trip on the coast

The DART, or Dublin Area Rapid Transit, is an electronic railway system that runs along the eastern coast of Ireland.  It follows a path along the Irish Sea from Howth and Malahide, County Dublin to Greystones, County Wicklow.  With the purchase of a single inexpensive ticket, I was given free reign to hop on and off the railway for the whole day.  The scenery alone would have made the purchase of that ticket money well spent.  Good weather allowed us a grand total of two stops, before returning to Dublin city center.

First Stop – Blackrock Village: Following the advice of a random travel blog, I’d discovered only the night before, we got off the train at a small coastal village only 20 minutes from the city.  In a lot of ways Blackrock kind of reminded me of summers back home in New Jersey.  As a little kid I’d go to the shore, to Atlantic City or Ocean City, for most of my summer.  Granted, Blackrock has a much quainter relaxed feel to it compared to the places I’d usually be, it was so nice! While in the village, we happened upon a cute, quirky little antiques/miscellaneous market, with all kinds of little shops. The entrance to the market was very nondescript, just a little sign above the entrance to alleyway that eventually opened up into a slightly larger alleyway lined on both sides by little shops.  As small as the market seemed it was definitely very well known, as it was filled with people browsing. We definitely spent way too much time in the book shop hidden at the back of the market, but there were so many good books!

Second Stop – Dún Laoghaire: Our next stop, a few minutes south of Blackrock via the railway, was the coastal city of Dún Laoghaire.  Though we were entering another coastal town along the Irish Sea, it was a vastly different place from little Blackrock Village.  The street was bustling with people, locals and tourists alike.  Walking south from the DART station, we headed toward Dún Laoghaire Harbour.  That harbour offered some of the most absolutely stunning views of the day’s trip.  Coincidentally, there was some kind of festival happening in People’s Park, so we wandered on over to see what all the commotion was about.  Unfortunately, this is about where our good luck ran out and the unpredictability of Irish weather caught up.  While checking out the various food vendors and entertainment set up around the park, some dark clouds rolled in and brought a quite heavy downpour of rain with it.  We cut our losses and headed back to the DART station figuring we’d get dinner in the city and then head back to base. The lesson from the day though was with a little intrepid exploration and by leaving the beaten track there is a great cultural experience to be had!

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Internship Blog Series – All About Dublin

In the third of our internship series of blogs Kelsey Gamble talks about the wider cultural immersion that comes with committing to a study abroad program like an internship. Specifically this week Kelsey looks at Dublin, where nearly all our students arrive and depart from.

All About Dublin – Kelsey Gamble

Thinking about Ireland, as an international traveler some of the first pictures that come to mind are of rolling green hills for miles or quant pastoral lands with sheep happily munching on grass.  While this is scenery I observed frequently in Ireland, it is by no means the only one available.  From the beautiful lakes in Co. Wicklow to the bustling streets of Dublin,  Ireland boasts a wide range of scenic options for every traveler.  Dublin in particular because of its ‘big city’ status offers so much, and definitely cannot all be seen in a single day.  As a fan of history, archaeology, and museums it follows that my Saturday day trips into Dublin were definitively academic in nature.  Though to be fair, as an avid food lover, picking where to get my meals and snacks was definitely a high priority as well.

Places to See

Saint Patrick’s Cathedral: Saint Patrick’s Cathedral is a grand sight to behold, regardless of your religious affiliation.  The architecture and memorials on display are absolutely stunning.  One of the memorials, a four tiered masterpiece depicting 4 generations of the same family, may be of interest to science enthusiasts as it memorializes Robert Boyle, the “father of modern chemistry.”  Another well known individual buried and memorialized within Saint Patrick’s Cathedral is the author and poet Jonathan Swift – a writer whose works many of read as course requirements in High School.

Trinity College Dublin: The campus of Trinity College, “the Harvard of Ireland,” while beautiful in its own right , is perhaps best known for the Book of Kells.  While the time you get to see the book is relatively short, the experience is still well worth the trip.  Before entering the room with the books laid out, you pass through an exhibition which outlines the history and importance of the book.  For those interested in how things are made and not just why, the exhibit gives a detailed explanation on the creation of a medieval manuscript.  The tour ends with a journey through the beautiful ‘Long Room’ of the Old Library, where busts of notable scholars can be seen flanking the aisles of books.

National Botanic Gardens: For those interested in herbology and nature the National Botanic gardens, are an absolutely gorgeous, must see attraction.  Even for a history buff like myself, there was an exhibit about Viking gardens.  A replica Viking building stands within a small gated yard, surrounded by some of the most commonly used/grown plants at that time.  Well placed informative boards describe both the plants and their common uses for Viking homesteads. Overall the National Botanic Gardens is an amazing sight, especially on a nice sunny day.

Glasnevin Cemetery and Museum: Adjacent to the National Botanic Garden is Glasnevin Cemetery, Ireland’s first non denominational cemetery.  Roaming about a cemetery may seem like a strange way to spend a holiday, but for an archaeologist (especially one trained in funerary culture like I am) it is a glimpse into a society’s thoughts and feelings on different types of people.  The sites also contains a museum, which covers everything from the how and why the burial grounds were opened to an exhibition on freedom fighters who fought for Irish independence – quite a few of whom are buried at Glasnevin.

Must Have Food

Throughout my adventures in Dublin there was one snack that was without a doubt the absolute best. Butlers Café has the most delicious hot chocolate! Drinking a cup of butlers hot chocolate is a little like drinking a melted chocolate bar but in the best way possible.  It doesn’t hurt that with every purchase of hot chocolate you get a free chocolate truffle.  When it can be found a  €2 bag of salted caramel filled dark chocolates is one of the absolute best flavours, in my opinion anyway!

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Internship Blog Series – How Will Interning Help Your Career!

In the second of our internship series of blogs Kelsey Gamble asks how will interning help your career?

Interning and Your Career – Kelsey Gamble

If there’s one thing I’ve realised in my path to a career in archaeology, experience is worth its weight in gold!  My intention in choosing to intern was to get hands on experience I could use to help me apply for employment with commercial archaeology firms back in the US.  In only three weeks as an intern with the IAFS I had already experienced many facets of working at an archaeological site, from general excavation to recordation and registration of features and artefacts.  While these experiences are not new due to my status as a returning alum of the IAFS, the scope of my responsibilities were far greater.  I worked ‘one on one’ with an archaeological supervisor in excavating a single discreet area, or cutting, on site and got to assist in teaching first time field school students general excavation techniques and procedures.

Through this one on one mentorship dynamic I learnt more than just how to perform and teach archaeological skills –  I started to think about archaeology in a more comprehensive way.  Archaeology is more than just dig here, trowel there, neat finds!  In the field, all the features on site are recorded in detail as separate and distinct events, but they are all still a part of a bigger picture.  Working alongside my supervisor I began to interpret the evidence uncovered.  For example, a wall is more than an organised pile of stone; it is a complex series of choices made by human agency to serve a purpose.  That purpose could be constructing a wall, arch or something else entirely. Alternatively, it could be the systematic destruction of a wall when quarrying for reusable construction materials, where every bit taken and left behind represents a deliberate choice.

The more I was exposed to and learnt about archaeology at the Irish Archaeological Field School, the more definite I was that this was the right path for me.  There’s just one hiccup, but it’s positive not negative!  The overall academic atmosphere encompassing the field school has inspired me to rethink my immediate plans to join the commercial sector of archaeology.  This internship has helped me realise, the farther removed I become from academia, the more I long for the excitement and the intellectual challenge of research.  So, with my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees already complete, I’ve begun searching for PhD programs beginning for the 2018/2019 academic year.  In the interim the gap year will give me time to apply for programs and funding at a more relaxed pace.

The ultimate endgame for me in my search for a career in archaeology would be a research position at a University or Museum working with an archaeological osteology collection.  My path to this end is ever changing and not always clear, but I am excited nevertheless.

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Internship Blog Series – ‘Cultural Differences’

In the spring we are launching our first dual location internship with Learn International. Our first brave intern will be excavating at Ferrycarrig and then undertaking desktop archaeological work, contributing to ongoing research projects, in our Midland office. To celebrate we will be publishing a series of blogs from our fantastic ex-intern Kelsey Gamble on what an intern might expect. If you are thinking of undertaking a professional placement in Heritage, that is highly supported and supervised, perhaps this blog will help you make that decision…

Cultural Difference – Kelsey Gamble

Interning abroad may seem a bit scary at first, daunting even.  There are so many unknowns and so many new things to deal with, from the more obvious differences in currency, time, and weather to the subtler intricacies of living in a new cultural environment – like colloquial language, which happens a lot in Ireland!  In this blog I will be covering the most common differences that I have had to deal with as an American intern in Ireland.

Currency Differences

Being in a new country has made me re-evaluate how I think about money.  The currency used in the Republic of Ireland is the Euro.  At the current exchange rate, a single United States Dollar (USD) is equal to 0.86 Euro, meaning every Euro I spend is really 1.16 USD.  In the end, it’s not an overly large margin but it does mean that every time I pay for something the number I see displayed on the till and the amount that is deducted from my bank account are not the same.  A little mental, but frequent checks to online banking maintain my budget just fine.

Time Differences

One of the few drawbacks to interning abroad is the time change.  Being five hours ahead of friends and family back home makes communication a little disjointed at times.  To combat this time difference, it’s a simple matter to set-up weekly skype or video chat dates with those friends and family back home.

Weather Differences

This is the big one! Irish weather is unexpectedly and notoriously unpredictable.  Interning at an archaeology field school means working outdoors in all kinds of weather conditions.  Warm and sunny can change to a cold windy rain at the drop of a hat.  Waterproof trousers and a coat are always on standby in my backpack safely tucked away, alongside extra layers if it gets cold.  Alongside various layers of clothing I also keep a bottle of sunscreen on hand.  Due to the hole in the ozone layer UV radiation in Ireland is a larger concern than in the US.  For example, though the weather when I was on site in the summer normally maxed at 25 C (77F), the UV index was so high it only took 25 minutes of unprotected exposure to the sun to cause sunburn.  One spot of sunburn is a painful enough reminder to be ever vigilant in reapplying sunscreen.

In the end these are relatively small inconveniences that I found cease to be a problem after about two weeks, especially if you immerse yourself in the cultural experience completely.  I was always told it takes about two weeks to break a habit, so it seems apt that at the beginning of my third week in Ireland I felt l had become accustomed to the differences.

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Birr town, Co. Offaly: Archaeology and Heritage

Birr town, Co. Offaly, is one location of a new research project looking at the early medieval monastic landscape and environment of the midlands of Ireland.

Birr (Biorra, in Irish, meaning ‘water cress’) is located in south-west corner of County Offaly, in the very heart of Ireland, a location that provides ready access to a uniquely wide range of natural habitats and culturally important sites, and a convenient springboard to locations further afield. Here, at the confluence of the Camcor and Little Brosna Rivers, Saint Brendan established a famous monastery in the 6th century AD/CE, around which the medieval town later grew.

It is likely that the area of Birr was settled long before ‘Brendan’s’ settlement; discovered during peat milling, the famous Mesolithic site of Lough Boora, excavated in the 1970s, is located only 22km to the north (Ryan 1980, 1981, 1984). The evidence from Lough Boora proved conclusively that Mesolithic man colonised the interior of Ireland; it was previously argued that Mesolithic populations were restricted to coastal and riverine areas. It is intuitive that Mesolithic populations may have exploited the annual summer run of ‘Croneen’ trout on the Rivers Camcor and Brosna in the locality of Birr.

Today however, Birr is best known for its early medieval history and Georgian architecture: the Cáin Adomnáin, a famous legal tract in Brehon Law for the protection of women and children, was enacted at Birr in 697 AD/CE. A celebrated copy of the Four Gospels known as the Book of Birr or Gospels of Macregol, attributed to the scribe MacRegol was made around 800 AD (a facsimile copy of which is on display in Birr Library). Following an interlude of some two centuries of Norman control, the Gaelic O’Carroll dynasty regained control of the area around Birr (a territory known as Ely O’Carroll) in the early 14th century AD/CE.  In 1619, when Ely O’Carroll came under English control, the castle of Birr along with 1,277 acres of land was granted to Sir Laurence Parsons (Earls of Rosse). The present town grew up in the shadow of the castle, surviving two sieges in the turbulent 17th century. Between the mid 18th and early 19th centuries an elegant Georgian perimeter (which makes Birr noteworthy in architectural terms today) developed around the town.

In the 19th century Birr came to occupy an important place in the history of science. In the late 1840s the Third Earl of Rosse completed work on his great reflector telescope, for over 70 years the biggest in the world, through which the spiral nature of galaxies such as Andromeda was first clearly demonstrated. Pioneering work in photography and turbine design was also carried out. Birr Castle is still the home of the Earls of Rosse today. Its demesne landscape, which evolved from the oak parkland of the late medieval castle, is one of the finest in Ireland, ‘a green jewel of world renown’ (Ferioli 2005, Great Gardens of Europe). It has over 120 acres of formal gardens and natural landscape, and a world-renowned plant collection that includes over 40 of Ireland’s listed ‘Champion’ trees, and with the fully restored great telescope of Birr at its centre (Johnson 2012).

With such a diverse heritage, rich history (natural and cultural), community spirit and central geographic location, Birr is ideally situated for study abroad programs.

Contact us for more information on Courses and custom built Faculty Led programmes



Read More:

Johnson O. 2012. Champion Trees of Britain and Ireland: The Tree Register Handbook Royal Botanic Gardens. Surrey.

Ryan, M.  1980  ‘An Early Mesolithic site in the Irish midlands’,  Antiquity 54, 46-47.

Ryan, M.  1981  ‘Ireland’s first inhabitants’,  Ireland Today. No. 987. 13-16.

Ryan, M.  1984  ‘Archaeological Excavations at Lough Boora, Broughal townland, Co. Offaly, 1977’, In M. O’Rourke (ed.) Proceedings of the 7th International Peat Congress, Dublin, June 18-23 1984, Vol. 1. Bord na Mona, Dublin. 407-13.


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More Than Meets the Eye: Geophysics in the Midlands

More Than Meets the Eye: Surveying in the Midlands (Ashely Green and Denis Shine)

If you have been keeping track of our blog post in recent times you will be aware that we have been supporting the PhD research of Ashely Green (University of Bournemouth) in recent years (see Shine et al. 2016). In our last blog we promised to follow up on geophysical surveys Ashely conducted in the midlands of Ireland – we are keeping that promise!

Since December 2016, Ashely has surveyed at three locations in and close to Birr Town, Co. Offaly: Maigh Leana, Saint Brendan’s Church and Graveyard and Roscomroe Church and Graveyard.

GPR survey, a technique which is still underused in Ireland (Bonsall et al. 2014; Green 2017), was the preferred technique for both surveys. Ground-penetrating radar (GPR) detects slight variations in the subsurface conditions (e.g. geological variations, anthropogenic activity, services) by emitting electromagnetic pulses through the ground from a transmitting antenna. If the emitted signal interacts with changes in the subsurface material, it is reflected back to the ground surface to the receiving antenna and converted to wavelets presented on a monitor held by the surveyor. As such GPR detects changes in the subsurface matrix, whether they are significant archaeological features or variations in geology. The amount of time passed from the emission of the electromagnetic signal to receiving is used to determine the approximate depth of any detected objects. Higher frequency antennas are suitable for detecting near surface objects, while lower frequency antennas have a greater potential penetration depth (up to 20m under certain conditions) but with lower resolution.

St Brendan’s Church was once the medieval parish church for Birr (Biorra) founded in the 6th century. The monastery grew in prosperity due to its central location, making it an ideal location at which to call synods and meetings, and is probably best known as the possible site for enactment of the Law of the Innocents (Cáin Adomnáin) in 697 (the historical significance of the foundation will be the subject of a later blog). The standing church, based on its architectural detail, probably dates to the 14th century, around the time the O’ Carrolls regained control over the ‘Birr region’ from the Anglo-Normans. Later additions, such as the bell tower, most likely date to 17th century (Callaghan and O’Brien 2016). No geophysical surveys had been conducted within the church and graveyard; however, archaeological testing within the town (Tierney 2008) recovered burials indicating the original church precinct extends beyond the graveyard boundary that exists today. There are a number of post-medieval and later headstones and grave slabs surviving within the graveyard, but no indications of the medieval precinct boundary. As such, Ashely conducted a GPR survey of the known graves as well as the areas of the graveyard that should contain graves, but showed no signs of grave markers on the surface, in order to identify any unmarked medieval and post-medieval graves. I was also able to survey two areas outside of the current graveyard boundary to ascertain if there is any indication of the original precinct boundary or medieval burials. One of these, a laneway connected to church lane, contained a ‘feature’ of undetermined type/function (several such features were identified inside the current graveyard). A number of anomalies, interpreted as unmarked graves, were also recorded within the confines of the current graveyard.

Roscomroe Church was originally an Early Christian (Early Medieval) church attributed to St Molua, whom the holy well in the adjacent field is dedicated to (O’Brien and Sweetman 1997). Today, the church remains as the wall footings of a late medieval rectangular church and the west gable (with bellcote) within an irregularly shaped graveyard, the boundary of which is marked by a stone wall.

A high resolution GPR survey of the area was conducted immediately to the north and west of the gable to determine if there are any unmarked medieval graves in this area. While I didn’t interpret any distinct medieval graves manually, this site will play a key role in testing the effectiveness of the automatic feature detection software Ashely is producing as part of her PhD. Of note a sub-rectangular feature, which may be of archaeological significance, was observed during the survey as was a curving feature, which has been tentatively interpreted as a possible enclosing ditch.

While the features encountered at both sites through archaeogeophysics cannot conclusively be classified without follow-up ground-truthing, being able to roughly characterise the material beneath the ground surface allows archaeogeophysicists and archaeologists alike to improve the archaeological record and/or form appropriate excavation strategies – should there be a need to appetite to excavate the site. Further to this, the surveys discussed above form a portion of PhD research Ashely is undertaking at Bournemouth University, which aims to minimise the risk of disturbing archaeological burials where possible or accounting for them prior to excavation.

This work was made possible by the support of the local partners, landowners, the Birr 20/20 group and Offaly County Council. The preparatory and survey works were undertaken between December 2016 and June 2017.

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Digitally Preserving the Past

Digitally Preserving the Past – 3D Scanning at Saint Brendan’s Church, Birr. 

In August students from Ithaca College led by Professor Michael “Bodhi” Rogers, in partnership with the Irish Archaeology Field School/ Irish Heritage School (IHS), conducted 3D laser scans of the site of Saint Brendan’s monastery in Birr. This site continues to occupy an important place in the mindset of the local community as it has been integral to the history of the town, and the location of several key historical events. The surviving church, as it stands today, was probably built in the 13th/14th centuries (with significant modifications in the following centuries). The standing structure is thought to be built on the monastic site founded by St. Brendan in the sixth century.

This monastery has a rich and varied history, and may have been the site of a Synod in 697 AD/CE when the Cáin Adomnáin, human rights legislation protecting women, children and clergymen, was enacted. An illuminated manuscript known as the Gospels of Mac Regol or book of Birr is also thought to have been written at the site at the height of the monastery’s power in the eight to ninth centuries (a facsimile copy of the book is still available to view in Birr Library for all visiting students!).

The Ithaca College team used lasers to scan the medieval church, the surrounding graveyard, and the 17th century bell-tower to create a cutting-edge digital version of the standing architecture. It was in the 17th century that the church changed denominations from Catholic to Protestant – remaining the Church of Ireland place of worship until the current church was built on Oxmantown Mall in the early 19th century.

Despite the importance of the site very little archaeological work has been conducted there to date. Excavations undertaken in 2008 at Number 28, Main Street, Birr revealed a medieval ditch and two burials, which were interpreted as deriving from the earlier extended burial ground of Saint Brendan’s; the ditch was thought to be a possible boundary of this graveyard. An extensive graveyard survey was also conducted by Stephen Callaghan in the last few years (published with Caimin O’ Brien as a book named ‘Heart and Soul’). In June of this year the IHS also partnered with Ashely Green, a geophysicist from Bournemouth University, to conduct ground scans of the graveyard (blog to follow next week).

As part of this survey location readings were taken every 5 mm of the standing architecture and the surrounding context. The Ithaca team used two Leica 3D laser scanners, which take readings 360 degrees in the horizontal and 270 degrees in the vertical out to 200+ meters; they can record everything but the space below the tripods they sit upon. The resulting data are called a point cloud, and might be best thought of as a 3D photograph. These detailed laser scans provide a digital record that can be used for research, monitoring, or reconstruction in the case of human or natural disasters. The partial collapse of the Bell Tower at Saint Brendans is a real example of why this type of digital preservation is important. The Ithaca team is also hoping to convert the research-grade data to something one can view on their web browser and take a virtual tour. The laser scans also provide the base data to create digital reconstructions of the site so everyone can see the site as it formerly looked.


Ithaca College, through IHS/IAFS, were able to work in the town due to the tremendous support shown by Birr 20/20 group (special mention should go to Frances Kawala) and Amanda Pedlow, the Heritage Officer of Offaly County Council. Professor Rogers and his wife first visited Birr on holidays a decade ago and the town left an immediate impression on them. When Dr. Shine suggested Birr as a location to digitally preserve monastic sites such as St. Brendan’s and Seir Kieran the decision to come to Birr was an easy one. Professor Rogers is excited by the possibility to return to the midlands for the next few summers as ‘there are so many important and interesting sites in and around Birr. The early monastic sites would be fantastic to digitally preserve along with all of the Georgian architecture, and Birr Castle would be amazing to scan due to all of the architectural details.’

Note: As part of this stay in the midlands Prof. Rodgers and his team also completed scans of the monastic site of Seir Kieran. This work will form a future blog – so watch this space

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Excavation, Education and Experience: Archaeology at Ferrycarrig

This year we formalised a really exciting project that has long been in the making, a collaborative approach to research and education with biggest heritage park in Ireland, the Irish National Heritage Park. This project will roll into one our passion for research excellence, discovery, education and training, heritage interpretation and access.

The Irish National Heritage Park (INHP), situated on the Slaney river estuary, County Wexford, is an open-air museum which recreates the key stages in Ireland’s past. 

The park contains 35 acres (14 hectares) of outdoor museum situated within natural forestry and wet woodlands, with exhibits and activities representing 9000 years of Irish History. The exhibits feature interpretations and replicas of the site types and monuments that define Irish prehistory and history. Live action experimental archaeology and living history provides visitors and students with unprecedented access to the experience and theory that informs archaeological practice.


In the earliest stages of the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland (C12 AD/CE), the advancing Norman troops built a large fortification on the prominent headland at Ferrycarrig, overlooking this strategic access point on the Slaney Estuary. The impressive structure would have comprised a wooden castle set on top of a large man-made mound with a bank and external ditch, sited on a natural promontory overlooking the River Slaney and Wexford town.  Nowadays, the large mound, bank and ditch are all that remain above the ground of this hugely important fortification, but archaeological excavations undertake in the 1980’s showed that substantial evidence from this troubled time is preserved below the ground. In the 19th century a war memorial, the design referencing the early Irish church round tower form, was constructed on top of this castle site, to commemorate those local soldiers who died in the Crimean War. The Irish Archaeology Field School will focus research investigations, and university anthropology and archaeology programmes on this site.


The wider project, through provision of different ‘experiences’: the project will bring our cultural heritage to life by facilitating visitors engaging in the process of archaeological excavation, thereby witnessing discovery in action.  From the cornerstone of the excavation, a range of educational and practical experiences will be developed in the ‘Anglo-Norman’ section of the park that cater for the needs and interests of all ages, from young children, to the young at heart.  The location of the excavation site in the IHNP park facilitates access for the ‘non-student’, allowing the visitor to immerse themselves in the archaeology, with unprecedented access to the research excavations and experiential learning.


The IHNP is part of the ExARC network, the ICOM Affiliated Organisation representing open air museums, ancient technologies research, and the scientific research value of testing archaeological hypotheses through experimental archaeology. The park is host to one of the longest running experimental archaeology sites in the world, a prehistoric site type known as a fulacht fiadh, or burnt mound, currently interpreted as a cooking pit. The park has been experimenting with cooking techniques and feeding student and visitors for 30 years.

This wealth of knowledge and expertise informs a rich and accessible programme of experience for students and visitors alike, with programmes varying from demonstrations to immersive long-stay and overnight experiences.

The Age of Discovery

Collectively, in collaboration with IHNP park technologists, and with archaeologists and anthropologists from academic and technical disciplines, we aim to provide a new unique student experience, and give visitors to the park a unique insight into the process of archaeology (from buried find to museum display) in an engaging, up-close manner, through archaeological training, archaeological tours, open air museums, volunteer experiences and interpretive displays.

Exciting times!


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Of pots and layers: what stratigraphy and pottery can tell us

At the Black Friary, our pottery story tells us that the site was in use from the medieval period through to the early post- medieval period, and into the eighteenth century.Here, Black Friary Director and PI, Finola O’Carroll tells us how:

What is stratigraphy, and why is it important?

One of the most fundamental things that I try to teach students is to figure out how a site formed, and how can we make sense of the mounds of stone and earth that we’re confronted with and then tell its story? It’s a truism that archaeological sites are made up of deposits, laid down over time, which can then be excavated from the newest to the oldest. Theoretically, these can then be used to reconstruct the site and interpret it – how it looked and what functions it served. While these ideas were borrowed from geological laws relating to the formation of sedimentary deposits, this was not enough to explain and interpret the complexities of the average archaeological site. In 1973 Edward C. Harris developed a system now called the Harris Matrix (Harris 1975), which is a really useful tool used to depict the succession through time of archaeological contexts. Using this the sequence of depositions and surfaces on an archaeological site, otherwise called a ‘stratigraphic sequence’, can be drawn and makes understanding, analysing and interpreting the site easier and quicker. He developed this as part of his work on the really complex urban excavations at Winchester, England.

Harris believed that ‘the stratigraphic sequences of archaeological sites are made by the analysis of the interfaces between strata, not from a study of the soil composition of the strata. Without a stratigraphic sequence, the cultural remains of the strata cannot be contrasted except in a general ‘typological context’ (Harris 1979, 112).

Traditionally, excavators who worked in the first part of the 20th century such as Sir Mortimer Wheeler or Dame Kathleen Kenyon used a grid system to excavate which involved leaving baulks at regular intervals. A site would be divided up like a chess board, typically into 4m x 4m and 5m x 5m squares with baulks 0.5. wide between. The vertical faces on each side would be the reference point to analyse the stratigraphy. However, archaeological sites frequently contain many small deposits and features such as pits, which will not be represented in the vertical section faces at each baulk. This was the problem Harris was working on, and what his system was designed to cope with. Using his system each layer or feature is recognized, individually excavated and recorded descriptively and spatially before moving on to the next feature. In this way a matrix, or stratigraphic sequence can be built up, even though the deposits may not necessarily overlie each other directly. This practice was codified into the Single Context System as developed by the Museum of London Archaeological Service (MOLAS), which was designed to rapidly capture information onsite while digging, allowing for detailed analysis and interpretation post-excavations (see Spence 1993).

How do we use this method at the Black Friary?

At the Black Friary we use a slightly modified version of this system; understanding how to recognise features, and how to record a simple matrix which details the relationship of the feature to its immediate neighbours (on top of, beneath, beside or equal to) are fundamental lessons that students learn while digging. Integrating this information into the analysis of the artefacts and environmental material from each feature allows us to understand the events which trace an arc in time from the building, use-life, changes through enlargement or contraction of the friary, change of use post-reformation and dissolution, up to and beyond the time it was reduced to rubble by quarrying.

For those of you who’ve been following our progress, or have dug with us, you’ll understand the importance we attach to figuring out the stratigraphy and then analysing the artefacts found in each layer. We know, for example, that the rubble layers, almost always the upper layers over much of the footprint of the friary buildings, formed because of the quarrying of the site in the middle of the eighteenth century, (O’Carroll 2014). So, it follows that anything beneath those layers is earlier. We also know that the friary was built in the 13th century, so the earliest features should belong to that period. But figuring out what happens in between can sometimes be a little trickier.

How do we apply it?

View of east baulk of Cutting 7: cut F763 is visible to right, stone dump F765 is on the left, midden layers in the centre with F703 on top

Last summer (2016 season), excavations in Cutting 7 were extended to explore the north side of the north range; the deposits found suggested that a midden or rubbish pile had formed behind the north range in a series of very clear layers.  As a lot of animal bone was included it suggested that waste from kitchens formed the bulk of the pile. At the north end of the midden, where the wall should be, is a robber trench formed by the quarrymen digging down through the layers to extract the stone from the wall. That then filled up with loose soil in the area, in the place where the wall once was.

We recorded all these layers as they were excavated, by giving them unique numbers and by photographing, drawing and taking levels and co-ordinates under the supervision of Ian Kinch. All our feature, find and sample numbers incorporate the number of the cutting in which they were excavated. An interface is clearly shown here by the robber cut dug through the later deposits when the wall was taken down. This cut is visible as a clear disjunction between two sets of deposits to the right of the section face . In this stratigraphic sequence the deposits contained within the cut will be later than those in the midden, even where the midden layers are higher.

The features in the middle of the cutting can also be integrated with those in the section. The remains of two walls running N/S  have been cut by the robber trench, so we know they pre-date that event. But what is their relationship to the midden layers? The lowest exposed layer occurs on both sides of the narrower (eastern) wall. Other layers overlie this, some on to one side or the other, and some overlie the wall itself.

View looking north of walls F752 (left), F756 (right)

By using the Harris matrix, we can understand the sequence in which layers were deposited, cuts were made, and walls were built, even when they don’t directly overlie each other but occupy different areas within the cutting. When we have completed the excavations, we should know the exact relationship of the walls to these deposits.

What happens when we match the artefacts to the stratigraphic sequence?

We know that the sequence in the section face through the midden isn’t the whole story, but by looking at the pottery from layers in the section, we can see if the stratigraphic sequence is matched by a pottery sequence. Just by separating the pottery into medieval and post-medieval types from features F758, F755, F750 and F703, taken in order from the lowest to the highest will give us an idea of the pottery relates to the stratigraphy.

  • Feature 758 (F758 is the lowest midden layer. F758 is directly below F755, which in turn is directly below F750. The robber cut F763 and the fill of the trench formed by the cut, which is F753, cut these three features. All are capped by F703, which we can date to the destruction of the site in the 1750s.
  • F758, the lowest layer, contained a lot of pottery, 101 sherds in total. It was predominantly medieval in date, with 96 sherds of medieval pottery to only 5 sherds of post-medieval pottery.
  • The next layer, F755 contained a large percentage of medieval pottery, 28 sherds versus 3 sherds of post-medieval pottery were recovered.
  • F750 is being interpreted the upper layer of the midden deposit. Unlike the first two features, F750 has slightly more post-medieval pottery than medieval pottery, 16 sherds of medieval pottery were found as against 21 sherds of post-medieval pot. This is interesting as it shows the progression from medieval use to post- medieval use.
  • F703 is a destruction layer and made up of rubble collapse of the north range of the friary from the time of the destruction of the site in the 1750s. Here, medieval pottery again is dominant, with 37 sherds to 20 sherds of post-medieval pottery.

If we were to date the layers just on the cultural material contained within them, we would have to argue that all the layers are post-medieval or later in date, as all contain post-medieval pottery:

Table 1

By understanding the stratigraphic relationships, we know that F703 is much later than F758. We can explain the high proportion of medieval pottery in the latest layer by the fact that we know that earlier layers were dug through to access the wall to dismantle it. This would have meant that earlier deposits were mixed with the later material. The presence of the few post-medieval sherds in the lowest excavated layer may be a result of later contamination, possibly from the feature F765, the stone dump north of the midden. So, we see a change from mainly medieval pottery to late medieval/early post-medieval pottery (below, top left – bottom right), and a mix of medieval and post-medieval pottery dating in the layer associated with quarrying .

Most of the post-medieval pottery comes from the top two features. This pottery tells us that the site was in use from the medieval period through to the early post- medieval period and the pottery sequence, including clay pipes, seems to go right up to the eighteenth century and the time when it was quarried.


References and Further Reading:

  • Harris, E. C. 1975. The stratigraphic sequence: a question of time. World Archaeology 7 (1): 109-21.
  • Harris, E. C., Marley R. Brown and Gregory J. Brown, (eds) 1993. Practices of Archaeological Stratigraphy. Academic Press
  • O’Carroll, F. 20 11. ‘Interim Report, Archaeological Research Excavations at the Black Friary, Trim, (Unpublished report submitted to the National Monuments Service).
  • O’Carroll, F. 2014. ‘Interim Report, Archaeological Research Excavations at the Black Friary, Trim, (Unpublished report submitted to the National Monuments Service).
  • O’ Carroll, F., Shine, D., Mandal, M., Scott, R. and Mullee, B. 2016. Interim Report, Black Friary Archaeological and Community Report . (Unpublished report submitted to the National Monuments Service)
  • O’ Carroll, F., Shine, D., Mandal, M., Scott, R. and Mullee, B. 2017. Interim Report, Black Friary Archaeological and Community Report . (Unpublished report submitted to the National Monuments Service)
  • Spence, C. 1993. ‘Recording the archaeology of London: the development and implementation of the DUA recording system’ in Harris, E.C. et al (eds), Practices of Archaeological Stratigraphy. Academic Press.
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Rock and Role of the Geoarchaeologist

IAFS Director Dr Stephen Mandal describes the role of the geologist in archaeological research at the Blackfriary.

As a geoarchaeologist one of my main research interests is in the use of stone in the archaeological record as a source for making tools and other material objects, and as a building material.  The Black friary was made from rock and understanding the building materials used – where they were sourced, how they were used, and why they were chosen – is an important part of the story of the friary.

The main building stone used in the friary was limestone, which is not surprising given it is the underlying bedrock of the area:  this limestone was formed in layers, laid down over 300 million years ago, during the Carboniferous Period, at a time when time Ireland was submerged under a shallow tropical sea.  Each horizontal layer (bed) is roughly 10-30cm thick and much later folding and faulting of this bedrock has given vertical joints and fractures.  This combination of depositional layering and post-depositional fracturing provided the medieval architects and builders with perfect, locally abundant, blocks to build the friary and the other medieval structures in the town, such as the castle and the yellow steeple.

The curtain wall of Trim castle; the wall was built on top of the limestone bedrock, from which the stone was sourced for the building of the castle.

During the first season of excavations at the Blackfriary in 2010, it was discovered that limestone was not the only building material used.  There were at least three other types of stone used; slate as roof tiles, red / yellow sandstone in decorative architectural pieces and an unusual and highly distinctive limestone used in the cloister columns and arches.  It is the latter that is the focus of this post.


The main building stones of the Blackfriary: 1. Limestone; 2. Sandstone; 3. Slate; 4. Purbeck

When the friary was systematically dismantled in the 1700s to reuse the stone to service a building boom in the town, the builders clearly encountered, but appear to have not valued, the decorative stone of the cloister arcade.  Beautifully ground and polished architectural fragments of an obviously different limestone was either ignored or, in places, used to provide a flat surface for the carting away of the ‘useful’ limestone building blocks.

Visiting the site early in that first season, Kevin O’Brien (architectural heritage expert with the Office of Public Works) suggested that these architectural fragments might be imported stone, Purbeck Limestone, from quarries in Dorset on the south coast of England.

My role in this rock story was to verify this identification, and the purpose of this blog post is to describe that process.  Whilst this stone is visually distinctive – it is a variety of colours from green to red and comprises 90-95% small shelly fossils in a very fine grained matrix, consistent with Purbeck Limestone – to confirm a source requires a more detailed examination.  This required the taking of samples to make thin slivers of the rock to view under a microscope.

To take a sample of an architectural fragment clearly requires damaging it, and to do this requires permission from the National Museum of Ireland.  A representative sample of small broken pieces of the material were chosen and a ‘Licence to Alter’ was applied for.  The application included details of the methodology to be used to take the sample and examine it, the research objective, and a justification for the damage caused.  The license was issued (Licence no. 5811), and the samples were taken to the Geological Laboratories in Trinity College Dublin for preparation.  A diamond tipped saw was used to take a small portion from each of the samples and these were fixed to a glass slide and ground down to a specified exact thickness of 30 µm, producing what geologists call ‘thin-sections’.

One of the nice by-products of the process was that the unused portions of the samples were left with highly polished surfaces, allowing us to envisage how magnificent the stone would have looked when the friary was built.

Purbeck samples, after cutting.

The thin-sections were viewed under a special type of microscope – a polarising light microscope; one of the most important tools of a petrologist (a type of geologist who specialises in the identification, interpretation and origin of stone).  This microscope differs from a standard microscope in that the light source is below the thin-section so the petrologist views the sliver of rock with the light shining through it, and the viewing plate rotates.  Importantly, the microscope allows the user to polarise the light waves; an invaluable aid in identifying the minerals that make up the rock, as different minerals behave in different ways when they are rotated through polarised and crossed polarised light.

Under the microscope, it was immediately apparent that the shell types, their alteration, and the fine crystalline matrix in which they sit are all consistent with this being Purbeck Limestone.

I am working with Dr Patrick Wyse Jackson of the School of Geology, Trinity College Dublin to record the thin-sections and compare with Purbeck source materials.  The results of this work will be published in due course, but what is now clear is that the use of important Purbeck Limestone provides an interesting piece of evidence as to how wealthy this friary was (or more accurately, its patrons were).

Further Reading on Geoarchaeology and Petrology in Archaeology :

Books / contributions to books
  • Mandal, S., O’Keeffe E. and Cooney, G.,  2016. Polished stone axeheads from Irish caves. In Dowd, M. (ed). Underground Archaeology: Studies on Human Bones and Artefacts from Ireland’s Caves.  Oxbow Press ISBN 978-1-78570-351-5. Ch 5. 103-109.
  • Mandal, S., 2005.  Petrographical assessment of stone finds from the Mound of the Hostages.  Published as Appendix in Tara, The Mound of The Hostages by Muiris O’Sullivan, 2005.  Wordwell: Wicklow.
  • Mandal, S., 1999. Petrological identifications of selected artefacts. In Woodman, P.C., Anderson, E. and Finlay, N., 1999. Excavations at Ferriter’s Cove, 1983-95: Last forages, first farmers in the Dingle Peninsula, 201-2. Dublin: Wordwell.
  • Cooney, G. and Mandal, S., 1998. The Irish Stone Axe Project: First Monograph. Dublin: Wordwell.
Peer reviewed journals
  • Cooney, G. and Mandal, S., 2000. The Irish Stone Axe Project: Sources for Stone Axes in Ireland.  Krystalinikum XXVI, 45-55.  Germany.
  • Mandal, S., 1997. Striking the Balance: The Roles of Petrography and Geochemistry in Stone Axe Studies in Ireland. Archaeometry  39 (2), 289-308.
  • Mandal, S., Cooney, G., Meighan, I. and Jamison, D., 1997. Using Geochemistry to Interpret Porcellanite Stone Axe Production in Ireland. Journal of Archaeological Science 24, 757-63.
Magazine articles
  • Mandal, S., 1996. Irish Stone Axes – rock and role of the petrologist. Archaeology Ireland 38, 32-35.
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