Using 3D Lasers in Archaeology: Trim Castle project

3D Digital Scanning at Trim Castle: OPW Archaeology Talk

On Thursday June 30th, the OPW office in Trim will host a presentation on the current 3Dlaser scanning project at the National Monument sites of Trim Castle and the Black Friary, Trim, Co. Meath.

Dr. Rogers and students laser scanning Trim Castle

Dr. Rogers and students laser scanning Trim Castle

Professors Michael “Bodhi” Rogers of Ithaca College and Scott Stull of SUNY Cortland in cooperation with the OPW are conducting a 3D laser scan at these sites, using state-of-the-art scanning equipment.

The presentation will describe the results of this research and its application in advanced interpretation, conservation and preservation at the sites.

Rogers and Scott have collaborated on several projects combining archaeological excavation, geophysical archaeology, and 3D laser scanning including several landmarks in the United States, including Abraham Lincoln’s cottage in Washington D.C. and the Old Fort Johnson National Historic Landmark in Johnstown, New York.

The results will help inform future strategies for investigation, interpretation, and preservation at these sites, including on-line access to the archaeology through imagery generated by the scans, and advanced detailed recording techniques, preserving the site digitally for future generations.

“3D laser scanning is an emerging technology that facilitates digital preservation of standing structures,” said Rogers. “Our scanner pulses 50,000 times per second to take a reading every five millimeters. By moving the scanner around the site, we’ll create a full digital record that can be used to facilitate historic preservation planning, create virtual tours and aid in repairing any future damage to the structure.”

 “Our research at Trim Castle will be the largest historic structure we’ve laser scanned, which will provide us with interesting new challenges,” said Rogers.

Professors Stull and Rogers and the IAFS team will also collaboratively mentor students as they perform geophysical archaeological surveys and archaeological excavations at the Black Friary site.

The presentation will be on the 30th June 2016 at 6pm sharp in the Atrium in the OPW offices, Jonathan Swift Street, Trim, Co. Meath.

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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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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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Article: The Blackfriary Button

We are delighted the the Black Friary is included in the current edition of the
Meath Archaeological & Historical Society journal Ríocht na Midhe:

RnaM 2016 Vol XXVIICongratulations to authors Finola O’Carroll, Dr. Denis Shine, Mark McConnon and Laura Corrway; the article details research carried out on the find in 2014 of a button from the C18th Longford Militia, identified during archaeological excavations at the C13th Blackfriary Dominican Friary site. In this instance, the archaeological and historical evidence gives us a glimpse in to post-medieval activity at the site, and puts the site in  context during the significant social and political events of that time.


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O’Carroll et al. 2016.  The Blackfriary Button. Ríocht na Midhe Vol. XXVIII, 30-35.



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The Blackfriary Button

Since IAFS have been conducting archaeological excavations at the Black Friary we have welcomed over 400 students to site from America, Australia, Canada and Europe, as well as of course from Ireland. Over 170 students visited in 2014 alone; a lot of work was achieved, and due to the area of focus, increasingly high numbers of archaeological finds uncovered.

Throughout the course of all these excavations, literally 1000’s of archaeological artefacts have been recovered, dating primarily to the medieval and post-medieval periods (although we have had an occasional car, plastic bag or concrete block!). Among the most common finds from the site are sherds of medieval pottery (such as locally manufactured 13th century ‘Trim Ware’), post-medieval pottery and building materials (including decorated plaster, stained glass, floor tiles, and numerous stone architectural fragments). However, we have also been lucky enough to find beautiful medieval and later coins, as well as various other metal artefacts (even including a small piece of chain mail)!

As with any excavation though, some finds intrigue the excavator more than others as they seem to have a story to tell. Such is the case for a ‘Longford Militia’ button (Plate 1). This was found during excavations of 18-19th century rubble layers covering the eastern range of buildings on the site (Cutting 6). The button, presumably from the coat of one of the militia men, has a loop on the back to fasten through a button hole. The beauty of finds such as these is the potential to study their provenance in historical records, allowing a compelling story to be told that combines both archaeology and history. For example we know that the Longford Militia, as with all the militias, was founded in 1793 amid concerns for the security of the Irish colony (both internally and externally), when many of the regular Crown forces were engaged in the war with France. Historical sources can also trace the movements of the Longford Militia who, prior to 1857, were dispatched to regional headquarters nationwide (as well as occasionally to England) before being based permanently in County Longford. So might the button pre-date 1857?

Figure 1

Plate 1: The Black Friary Button (photograph by Bairbre Mullee)

The distinctive style of the button helps answer that question; the button 2.1cm in diameter, made of copper, and is stamped with the Prince of Wales’ crest – consisting of three feathers rising through a gold coronet positioned – atop the motto ‘Ich Dien’ (I serve), with the words ‘Longford’ and ‘Militia’ written above and below this crest respectively. The button is identifiable as part of the first series issued by the Longford Militia that dates from 1793, when the militia was originally raised, to 1829 (Glenn Thompson pers. comm. 2014).

However, knowing the age of the button does not tell us how it came to be on the Black Friary site, which could have happened in any number of ways. Nonetheless digging a little deeper into the historical records can lead to unexpected results, and might even tell us how the button ended up at a medieval friary!

In order to explore the movements of the Militia, we have trawled through the holdings of the National Archives of Ireland. The fantastic resource holds a collection of letters detailing the movements of the Longford Militia, who were almost certainly in Trim in 1794. From this, we can form hypotheses as to how the button might have arrived on the site. Such further research is being used to build a more complete picture and will be published in the Meath archaeological and historical journal, Ríocht na Midhe (Shine, O’Carroll, et al. In press).

Many thanks to student archaeologist Aaron McCanty for finding the button, and to and Noel French, Cynthia Simonet and in particular Glenn Thompson for engaging discussions on its antiquity.

Dr. Denis Shine, Co-Director, Blackfriary Archaeology Project.



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