Friday, July 15, 2016

Dun Ailinne — what we found this time

On July 1, 2016, a group of archaeology students from several universities in the US finished four weeks of excavation on Knockaulin in Co. Kildare, an archaeological site on private land, writes archaeologist Susan Johnston. Although it is now used to graze cattle and so provide for a family’s livelihood, it was known in antiquity as Dún Ailinne, and was an important ritual center during the Iron Age of Leinster, between about 600 BC and AD 400.

Thanks to the kind permission of the Thompson family, who own the land but allowed the archaeologists to have access, we were able to gain new information about the site, following up on geophysical work carried out between 2006 and 2008 and expanding on the archaeology that was done there by Bernard Wailes in the 1960s and 1970s. Now that our work is over, the cattle are back and can go about their business of being cattle again, rather than spectators to archaeological excavation.

We had several questions that we wanted to answer that were raised by the geophysical survey. One was to understand what looked like an enclosure ditch circling the summit of the hill. What was it like and so how might it have been built? Several places where we dug allowed us to do that. While the students were sometimes disappointed at the overall lack of artifacts (we mostly found charcoal, animal bone, and a handful of waste flint flakes), the ability to see the ditch itself was valuable and we now have a better understanding of what it might have looked like. The enclosure was dug and posts were put into it, at least at its entrance (where we were digging). The material that was dug out, as well as pieces animal bones (probably rubbish from meals or maybe feasting), was then used to fill in around the posts. Later, some of those posts were burned in place and the remains pulled out, leaving behind reddened earth and large pieces of charcoal. Whether this was done for practical reasons, because they were going to build a new structure, or for symbolic reasons, or both, we don’t yet know.

Our second question had to do with what appeared to be a gap in this enclosure. Was it a gap or was there simply not enough material in the ground to be detected in the geophysics? It turns out that it really was a gap — the places where we dug to check this had absolutely nothing in them. It might not be possible to know for sure why there was a gap — was it important to the people who built the enclosure that this part be left open? It faces the Curragh, so maybe it was important to be able to see that landscape. Or did they change their mind? We know they went on to build another timber structure, so maybe they decided not to finish this one. Either way, the gap is definitely there, and it would be interesting, if we were to do further archaeology on the hill, to find out exactly how big it was.

Finally, we were interested in something called St John’s Well, which is located on the north side of the hill. Some written descriptions from the late 19th and early 20th centuries suggest that it was at one time considered a holy well, so we were interested to see if there was any evidence that it was used that way. However, we found little to suggest it had been a holy well in recent centuries. All we recovered were some pieces of farm implements and, most telling of all, two tires from a child’s toy truck! So if the well was used as a holy well, any evidence of that is long gone.

Despite the overall lack of artifacts, the students learned a lot about how to dig features and use them to understand what happened in the past. They also learned about the pros and cons of archaeology in Ireland — you never know what you are going to find, you can learn a lot from careful excavation, and you never know what the weather is going to bring! Despite rain, wind, and even hail, though, they kept at it and we thank them too for their efforts.

Knockaulin is on private land and so not open to the public or even to archaeologists without permission. Archaeology isn’t just about the past, it can disrupt people’s lives in the present too, and so we are grateful to the Thompson family for allowing us to do our work. Their relationship with archaeology is now in its third generation and we like to think that Bernard Wailes, who was our mentor and our friend, would be pleased that it has carried on.

Thanks also to the community in Kilcullen who have such an interest in the local heritage and have always made us feel so welcome! We appreciate everyone’s efforts on our behalf.