Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Another fascinating Dun Ailinne night

Dr Susan Johnston, George Washington University; Hugh Crawford, President of the Kildare Archaeological Society; Nessa Dunlea, Kilcullen Heritage Centre; and Kildare Heritage Officer Bridget Loughlin.
It was journeys back in time, writes Brian Byrne. Several of them. One to eight years ago, another to some five decades past, the others to a couple of thousand years further down in Kilcullen’s history.

Last night’s presentation on the current archaeological excavations at Dun Ailinne was much more than what could have potentially been a simple, maybe even dry academic discourse.

Well, actually, it could never have been anything like that, as anyone who has met Dr Susan Johnston of the Anthropology Department of George Washington University will know. It was always going to be a warm, fun, occasionally irreverent, fascinating and perfectly understandable by any layman discussion on events and lives and edifices of millennia past.

It was also emotional for anyone who knew the late Professor Bernard Wailes, who conducted the original excavations on Dun Ailinne. The evening opened with a video clip from a similar presentation he gave in the Town Hall in 2008 during the dedication weekend of the Dun Ailinne Interpretive Park. When, from the screen of eight years ago, he asked a direct question to Susan Johnston, who had been there on the night, it must have been an intensely electric moment for her. She knew him as she grew up and did her own studies, and through the early 2000s she edited his final report on the original excavations.

She had a little time to recover while a second clip was shown, featuring the spine-tingling musical piece commissioned by KCA from Liam O’Flynn and sponsored by Dr Tony O’Reilly. For those who had heard it debuted live in 2008, this brought us right back into the very special zone which the hill spreads around Kilcullen and its hinterland.

Susan then outlined the known history of what was a special place even in the Neolithic and Bronze ages back to 3000BC. “Certainly, people have looked up at this hill for thousands of years and figured they should be doing something here.” She recapped on the work of Professor Wailes — ‘tonight was the first time I heard his voice since he passed’ — and explained what had been discovered between 1968-1974. After that she outlined the results of the magnetometric surveys undertaken between 2006-2008. These indicated a much larger perimeter to the site than had been found in the first excavations. Enough to warrant seeking funds for further investigation.

“But money is hard to come by for archaeology today,” she said, contrasting the situation with Professor Wailes’s time … ‘then they could stay in good hotels in Naas’. After several unsuccessful applications, she managed to get enough money for this summer’s work, partly as an ‘educational’ excavation in association with the Irish Archaeological Field School. Many of the School’s students, who are predominantly from the US and Canada, were in Kilcullen last night.

Since the beginning of June, test excavations have been carried out to try and answer some specific questions raised by the magnetometers. One related to the much larger perimeter enclosure, and the excavations have confirmed both its existence and a direct relationship to an entrance road discovered in the first ‘digs’.

There’s also indication of another ‘gap’ or opening in that perimeter, facing northwest towards The Curragh, which itself has many ancient burial barrows. The current work has confirmed that there is indeed a gap, but nothing has been recovered to indicate why it’s there.

A third point of interest is what is known locally as ‘St John’s Well’, which showed up as a large ‘anomaly’ in the magnetron surveys. “There are later references to it as having a ‘rag tree’, so it may have had a spiritual significance. But when we excavated it, all we found were an early 20th century cart spring and a ploughshare.”

Overall, the recovery of significant artefacts has been much less than the more rich discoveries during the first excavations, which included the only full Iron Age sword ever found in an excavated site in Ireland. “So far we have found lots of animal bones, a handful of flint flakes, and one little bit of metal.” But Susan emphasised that the funds and the limited experience of the students involved in the dig means only small areas are actually being investigated. “There aren’t a lot of artefacts, but we are beginning to get a sense of what was going on in this larger area.”

The overall importance of Dun Ailinne, in the context of the other ‘royal’ sites which include Navan Fort, Tara, and Rathcroghan — ‘and maybe a fourth site in Munster, perhaps Cashel’ — is significant. “The term ‘royal’ is possibly not the best. They were more likely to be powerful tribal chiefs than kings, but they were starting to create entities which would become much more powerful organisations in the Middle Ages. People were thinking of themselves in larger groups, and having ceremonies that bind people together. Eventually these became Leinster, Connaught, and so on.”

The meeting concluded with opportunities for questions, which raised issues such as how many people and how long it might have taken to build the enclosures on Dun Ailinne. Dr Johnston has a paper coming out in the near future which looks at that and similar matters. “It was an enormous undertaking. It’s amazing how much labour must have gone into building this thing. I think they were people who were investing something in it for themselves. Something like building a cathedral. Hundreds of people at least, and it all had to be organised.”

She said the current activity on Dun Ailinne is still very much a work in progress, and that there’s more to be discovered. “There’s a lot up there to investigate. I think I could spend the rest of my life excavating Dun Ailinne, in fact I’d be quite happy to do so. You have no idea how much fun it is to work here. I love it, I love Kilcullen, and hopefully we'll be back next year.”

The Diary's coverage of all things Dun Ailinne over the last decade or so can be read here.