Archaeology - Doctoral Theses

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    An isotopic examination of mobility and female identity in early medieval Ireland
    (University College Cork, 2023) Daly, Niamh; O Donnabhain, Barra; Irish Research Council; Fulbright Commission in Ireland
    The purpose of this research is to enhance the visibility and understanding of female activities in Early Medieval Ireland, thus, bridging a gap in the historical narrative. It is hypothesised that residential mobility patterns at an individual level will enable us to differentiate between cultural ideologies (as expressed through historical sources) and the lived experience of individual agents in early medieval Ireland (c.400-1200AD). Stable carbon (δ13C), and oxygen (δ18O) and radiogenic strontium (Sr87/Sr86) isotopic analysis was undertaken on human enamel sampled from (n=33 individuals (26 adult females/7 adult males) from four early medieval cemeteries from Co. Galway in the west of Ireland and two early medieval cemeteries from Co. Kildare in the east of Ireland. This research identified individuals from both regions who may not have been ‘local’ to the regions under study, based on the creation of unique Sr87/Sr86 baseline datasets from archaeological faunal and modern vegetation on which to compare the data to. Thus, demonstrating that the isotopic analysis of human remains sampled from two different regions in Ireland can further our understanding of residential mobility patterns in early medieval Ireland. Ultimately, this study aimed to increase the visibility of the female narrative in this period of Irish history.
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    Land use and society during the Middle Bronze Age in South-East Ireland: an integrated examination of the character, landscape setting and chronology of the archaeological and paleoenvironmental record from c.1600–1150 BC
    (University College Cork, 2023) Spillane, Ben; Becker, Katharina; Irish Research Council
    The Middle Bronze Age was one of the least understood periods of Irish later prehistory being characterised through a series of poorly understood metalwork assemblages. The predominance of single metalwork finds and their isolation from a recognisable domestic or funerary record led some to view the period as an ill-defined interlude between the intricacy of Early Bronze Age mortuary practices, and the technological mastery and abundance of Late Bronze Age metalwork. This limited view of the Middle Bronze Age changed dramatically during the ‘Celtic Tiger’, a boom period of infrastructural development from 1995 to 2007. Extensive excavation of hitherto un-surveyed landscapes as part of large-scale linear development schemes led to the discovery of hundreds of archaeological features dating to the period. The application of wide-scale scientific dating has helped to change how the Irish Middle Bronze Age is viewed. Recent studies of Settlements, Fulacht Fiadh, Hillforts and Palaeoenvironments that incorporated this new information suggest that the period saw a significant rise in human activity across Ireland. This included expansions in lowland settlement, forest clearance and a rise in agricultural landscapes. The period also saw the beginning of a widespread Hillfort tradition that intensified into the Late Bronze Age suggestive of shifts in societal organisation and power structures. These studies have been instrumental in improving the knowledge of these individual aspects of Middle Bronze Age record. However, there has not yet been an investigation that includes all elements of the archaeological record with the purpose of incorporating them into an integrated model of human activity. Accordingly, this thesis involves an integrated landscape-scale investigation of all elements of the Middle Bronze Age archaeological and paleoenvironmental record in SouthEast Ireland. The collection of absolutely dated sites from the region has resulted in a database of 320 sites, 622 radiocarbon dated features representing 473 archaeological complexes. A regional chronology of this dataset will be established through Bayesian chronological modelling. Location analysis through GIS will establish the spatial patterning of the sites. The production of LiDAR imagery taken from existing datasets will help compensate for distribution bias created by linear development schemes. Finally, the integration of high-resolution, well-dated paleoenvironmental sequences will contextualise the archaeological developments through an understanding the evolution of the physical landscape during the mid-second millennium BC. This thesis allows for the creation of finegrained models of human land-use, forming the basis for an understanding of the fundamental economic, societal and environmental developments during this formative period.
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    Animals and the economy of medieval Ireland: a zooarchaeological analysis of the faunal remains from Caherconnell Cashel, Co. Clare
    (University College Cork, 2023) Nic Cnáimhín, Róisín; O'Brien, William; Royal Irish Academy; Queen's University
    Animals were central to the economy of early (400–1100 AD) and late (1100–1550 AD) medieval Ireland, and were particularly vital to the food economy, farming practices, and social status of a settlement and its occupants. With the Anglo-Normans dominating the archaeology of the later period, there is a significant gap of knowledge surrounding Gaelic sites of this period, which ultimately raises the question as to the influence of the former on the economy of those settlements. This research aims to gain a better understanding of the agricultural economy of Gaelic sites during these periods through the zooarchaeological analysis of the animal bone assemblage from Caherconnell Cashel, a drystone ringfort located in the Burren, County Clare. Recent excavations recovered a large assemblage, with an estimated 40,830 recordable bones, that displays a high level of preservation. Excavations at Caherconnell also yielded evidence of multiple phases of high-status activity, domestic structures, various artefacts, assemblages of other bio-environmental remains, and contextual and dating information. This project is part of a major inter-disciplinary study of Caherconnell, involving a collaboration with University of Galway with excavations directed by Dr Michelle Comber of the Caherconnell Archaeology Field School. The central research question of this zooarchaeological study is to gain a better understanding of the agricultural economy of rural medieval Gaelic Ireland with a focus on Caherconnell Cashel in north-west Clare. The aims of this analysis have a focus on the role of animal husbandry, hunting, and fishing at medieval Gaelic settlements in western Ireland; identifying changes in livestock farming between the early and late medieval periods to assess potential impacts associated with the arrival of the Anglo-Normans; and detecting any status implications of different animal species at Gaelic medieval settlements. The Caherconnell assemblage provides evidence of a self-sufficient producer-consumer mixed farming economy throughout the early and late medieval periods. The three main domesticates, cattle, sheep, and pig, appear to be bred and slaughtered on-site or nearby, with cattle dominating the assemblage, followed by sheep and then pig. The sites economy shows an emphasis on dairying with the particular dominance of cows, as well as the production of beef, lamb/mutton, and pork, and other products such as wool. The remaining domesticates, horse, dog, cat, and domestic fowl, would have played various roles including working animals, pets, and the production of food stuffs. Hunting, fowling, fishing, and bone working were among the activities undertaken at Caherconnell. The results of this analysis follow the previously established trends from other early medieval sites in Ireland and due to Caherconnell being situated in a landscape controlled by Gaelic lords in the west of Ireland, it is not surprising that this pattern continued into the later period with the site appearing to be unaffected by the arrival of the Anglo-Normans and the overall continuation of native tradition at Caherconnell.
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    The archaeology of coastal shell middens in Ireland
    (University College Cork, 2023) Howle Outlaw, Carolyn E.; O'Brien, William; Royal Irish Academy; University College Cork
    Coastal shell middens are an important archaeological resource, with the potential to shed light on many different aspects of human interaction with coastal environments over time. These deposits of discarded shells, charcoal, and other cultural material can be found at various locations along the c.7500km or so of the Irish coastline. They have a long chronology from the Mesolithic through to early modern times, along with a considerable degree of variability in terms of site function, settlement context, and environmental setting. The study of these sites in Ireland has largely focused on the pre-farming (Mesolithic) period as part of a consideration of coastal foraging economies. Current evidence points to a long tradition of utilising coastal resources, which after c.4000 BC was integrated to varying degrees with agricultural activity through changing cultural practices evident elsewhere in the archaeological record. The principal aim of this study is to understand the changing role that coastal resources played through time in Ireland. Research methods include a review of published and archived sources on shell midden archaeology in Ireland and field survey. The data collected is statistically analysed with a view of understanding relevant changes in artefactual, ecofactual, and structural remains through time. Interpretations are based upon the archaeological data, relevant theories of interpretation, and ethnographical accounts of the use of molluscs and their deposition. The final analysis examines broad trends through time in relation to the use of coastal resources by humans in Ireland. Other questions addressed include the contribution to diet and nutrition made by coastal resources and their use as economic goods. The liminal character of the coastal zone, historical references to religious and folk beliefs concerning the coast, and inclusions of ritual deposits such as burials are examined as separate from but interwoven with the economic value of the shells.
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    Perceptions of ringforts in pre-modern Ireland
    (University College Cork, 2019-10-04) O'Riordan, Edward; Sheehan, John
    Ringforts are among the most numerous and definitely the most visible archaeological monument on the Irish landscape. The majority of these monuments were built during the latter half of the first millennium AD and most had ceased to serve as habitation sites by the twelfth century. Nevertheless, communities across Ireland would have remained very aware of the presence of these monuments. Several centuries later, much land, particularly in the east of the country was appropriated by the Anglo-Normans and they too seemed to have viewed ringforts as important, albeit different, types of monuments. The goal of this thesis has been to investigate the question of how ringforts were perceived in pre-modern Ireland. To do so, this initial question was broken down into three others, namely how attitudes and beliefs towards ringforts developed, how these attitudes influenced behaviour towards these monuments and what effect, if any, these had on the survival of ringforts in particular areas. Seeking to demonstrate how attitudes and beliefs towards ringforts originated and later developed, involved an initial division of Irish society in two broad groups, one group being indigenous and the other group comprising newcomers. The former group was then further sub-divided into those that comprised the learned classes of society and the popular class. An examination of evidence for how ringforts were perceived within the two Irish groups was then undertaken and it was shown that a correct knowledge of ringforts, particularly concerning their origin but also of their function, was available within the Gaelic manuscript tradition. Evidence was also provided to demonstrate how this information may have been disseminated into the wider community. It has also been shown how the decline in fortune of the learned Gaelic class, and the disappearance of many manuscripts, meant that this knowledge faded from the grasp of the general population. This decline in understanding then paved the way for the emergence of another, mythological, association of ringforts. The initial development of this association was facilitated by the presence of underground chambers in many ringforts. These were initially constructed as refuges and storerooms, but over time the perception of these changed as their association with an underground living mythological race developed. Perceptions of this race itself changed over time, particularly as a result of a serious decline in the Gaelic language, and this attributed qualities to this group that it did not originally possess. The association in traditional belief between this group and ringforts supposedly served to protect these monuments from destruction. Aside from these Gaelic interpretations, an equally influential perception developed within the worldview of the newcomers to the country. This attributed a completely different origin and function to ringforts. Over time this perception developed the status of orthodoxy and proved extremely difficult to dislodge from its position. However, attempts were sometimes made by the remaining Gaelic antiquarians to present to a wider audience the knowledge concerning the indigenous origin of ringforts. However, it was only towards the end of the 18th century that this information began to achieve prominence, and from this date it grew in importance and eventually displaced the theory that ringforts were of foreign origin and had a predominately military function. Did these differing attitudes have an effect on ringfort survival? An examination of 19th and 20th century maps, from study areas in Co. Cork, showed that some level of destruction occurred between these two periods. In this context the word ‘destruction’ is used in a general sense, while remaining cognisant that an important archaeological element remained underground. Earlier estate maps are available for these study areas and a comparative study of all the available cartographic sources indicated a severe rate of decline in ringfort numbers from the beginning of the 18th century to the present day. Additional examination of photographic images from recent aerial surveys showed, in some cases, that the levelling of ringforts began even prior to the compilation of the first maps in 1717. This comparative study highlighted the apparent contradiction between the important position of ringforts for each of the local communities and the high level of ringfort destruction. It also allowed for the period of most risk to ringforts in these study areas to be identified. A study of the practical developments in each of these two baronies that was likely to have most affected ringforts in each of these study areas was then undertaken. The study suggested that the development of commercial tillage farming from the later part of the 18th century posed the greatest risk to ringforts in the east Cork barony. In the second study area, of mid-Cork, the proximity to an urban area seems to have negatively affected ringforts in the region. This study also highlighted that the levelling of ringforts continued throughout the period under examination and this facilitated the conclusion that the desire to maximise profits drove a doctrine of ‘Improvement’ and it was this economic factor that posed the greatest overall risk to ringforts in these two baronies. An attempt was then made to corroborate these results through seeking to apply them to areas throughout the country where other farming practices were noted for the same period. Initially, it was decided to focus on two baronies in Co. Kildare, as these had a long history of arable farming and, furthermore, were located near the main urban centre of the country, Dublin. In this situation, the application of the hypothesis developed in Co. Cork should show an increased rate of decline in both these areas, if the theory held true. Indeed, these were the results that were obtained, with one barony, Kilcullen, providing evidence, in maps and aerial images, for the total destruction of ringforts there. It was then decided to test this hypothesis in areas where different farming activity was noted. Castlereagh barony in Co. Roscommon, noted for cattle fattening, and Ibrickan barony in Co. Clare, an area of small, mixed farms, were chosen and the results conformed to what would be expected if the notion that arable farming posed the greatest risk to ringfort survival was accurate. Therefore, the answers to the questions posed at the beginning of this thesis may be summarised in this manner: ringforts occupied an important position in the world views of the communities that encountered them, fulfilling a variety of social and political roles. However, economic factors seem to have been accorded greater importance and this resulted in ringforts being removed from the Irish landscape in large numbers.