Glendalough Valley Archaeological Project Newsletters

We’re delighted to be able to release the first in a series of newsletters outlining the results of our archaeological fieldwork in Glendalough. Newsletter One reviews the results of the excavation and post excavation analysis of the charcoal production sites we excavated in 2009. Newsletter Two offers an overview of the excavations on the main lawns at Glendalough – we haven’t completed all the specialist work yet, so we reserve the right to change our mind about many aspects of this! More newsletters to follow on geophysics and updates on the ongoing analysis of materials.

Please do give feedback on these newsletters – this is a new initiative and we look forward to your comments.

GVAP_Newsletter 1-Charcoal

GVAP_Newsletter 2-Excavations


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Post-excavation processes

Fieldwork gets all the glamour in archaeology, but the more time consuming part of any project is the varied work carried out in the lab and the office. Part of this is preparation, but the larger part is post-excavation work. This varies in kind – from the simple challenges of making sure that tools are dry and clean and putting kit away in its proper locations, through to the production of various reports.

A pile of fieldwork equipment on Monday morning

We’ve some of the students helping us this week: they have been working on finds processing and entering data into our registers. Following advice from our conservator, most of the finds have now been washed or laid out to dry. This has given me the chance to get quick shots of some of them to illustrate the talk I’m giving tonight at the Visitors Centre. It can also offer a chance to develop some typological observations. The pint glass we removed from the bottom of the cross base was of a type in use until about the 1970s, and the ‘horse shoe’ is much more likely that of a donkey.

Finds washing


Finds laid out to dry

Donkey shoe

Broken pint glass from bottom of cross base. Note the writing on bottom of glass ‘Imperial Pint’. This is not medieval!


Kim and Neil are working on their respective trench archives: double checking paper records and drawings to make sure everything tallies. Once we have this locked down we can then start producing matrices showing the relationships of different contexts and then a narrative structure to report these relationships within. We have already selected key photographs and will shortly scan our field drawings. For a final report these will need to be digitised and tidied up, but for a stratigraphic report a clean field drawing is acceptable.


We’re off to the visitor centre tonight to give a report on the findings of our fieldwork. As part of our promotion of this talk I was interviewed on East Coast FM on Sunday morning – being described as working in the School of Architecture. Sigh….

ditches, horseshoes and turf

Last days are always high paced. No matter how you plan, time runs against you. Today was no exception and I’m delighted to report that we managed to finish almost exactly on time: thanks to everyone’s hard work.

lifting now please


Tempers can fray when time pressure is on, and many of us will look back with amusement at Conor and Helen’s ‘which direction was I cleaning in’ discussion, but good humour (mainly) prevailed.

Trench Five with simulataneous excavation, drawing, context recording and backfilling. All calm now…


The backfilling occupied most of the students, most of the time, whilst the more experienced staff worked away at recording, section drawing and final bits of excavation. The backfilling threw up one surprise – we ran out of soil. We were working with the NPWS’ normal landscape gardener, David Ward, and following his advice about compacting what we put back in the trenches. It seems that the wet conditions have turned the soil into sludge, and therefore it ran out before we could finalise backfilling the area immediately around the cairn. We’ve fenced off the area, and will talk to NPWS on Monday about how to progress.

You would never guess where Trench Six was.


On more archaeological themes, we finally finished Trench 5, and were delighted to find a very post-medieval horseshoe at the base of the cross base. This helps us demonstrate that the entire monument is recent. This doesn’t mean that the cross itself is not an important early medieval feature, nor that it is has necessarily moved very far, but this cross base is clearly a recent creation. This implies that the path that points at it is also,  as we had suspected, ecent.

Prepping for the final Trench Five photographs.

Trench Seven threw up a welcome surprise. Here it became clear that rather than digging into layers of a bank we were digging into ditch fills. Underneath the caher, and its bank, is a large ditch, which may be partially filled by collapse from a nearby bank. In a small trench, and with limited time, we were not able to fully identify the extent of the ditch, nor clarify whether we found the base of it. However, we recovered no artefacts from the ditch. Given the frequency of recent finds in most features we excavate, this may (and I stress may) indicate an early date. We have a charcoal rich soil near the base of the ditch, and if we can raise finances, will try and get a C14 date.

Ditch fills in Trench Seven. Note the lack of relationship between ditch and the bank visible on the surface.

That is probably as much as general tiredness allows for tonight. I would like to end with a quick note of thanks. Firstly to the NPWS and OPW for their support, without which none of this would have been possible. Also thanks to my colleagues on the project; the staff, post-docs, Phd students, MA students and, of course, all of the students. We hope that these students have learnt something about the nature of archaeology as a field subject, and that they might have even enjoyed the process….





Butts and Bullauns

What a very chaotic day. It started badly when my car broke down, leaving me stranded. Luckily, a part of my brain suddenly realised that the School tour of the excavations today left from my home town, so I could still get to site, albeit 90 minutes late. There’s a lot to report, and I’m very short of time tonight, so shall cut to the highlights…

School party visiting the excavation. This picture makes things look very calm.

As I mentioned yesterday, we had a big school party out today and a TV crew out making a pilot for a possible series. Work also continued apace on the trenches and we even managed time to fit in a meeting with the OPW’s Chief Architect Ana Dolan to discuss how we were going to reinstate the cairn.

Bernard and Dolores are under close observation whilst section drawing

Interviewing whilst work continues apace

Our most exciting find came from the cross base, where we continued to remove layers mixed with post-medieval material. Kim and Niamh removed a large stone from the cairn, underneath which were two cigarette filters and a bullaun stone. Clearly this part of the cairn is not of great antiquity but the bullaun is very exciting. Bullauns are a feature of early medieval Christian sites, they are rocks with notable hollows in them: very varied in overall size and shape. There has been a lot of speculation as to their purpose – as fonts for purification rituals, through grinding of grain and a possible use in processing metal ores. They certainly seem to have an association with pilgrimage, and sometimes seem to mark the edges of sacred areas. Our bullaun is obviously not in its original location, but, if we assume that it hasn’t moved very far, it is to our knowledge the first from the Upper Lake area. This is an important find.


Bullaun in situ in the cairn

Two weeks ago we planned to have everything finished this evening, and to have only back filling to go. It is fair to say that we still have a lot of excavation to do tomorrow, regardless of the heroic efforts of everyone today. Emotional messages of thanks are normally for the last day, but I would like to stress that all members of staff have been hugely impressed by the students this year: who have been really enthusiastic, engaged and hard working. One of my colleagues has just emailed me asking me to say how impressed he was with everyone today. That’s never happened before!



cairns and ceramics

Today was a lot of fun, My eldest daughter, Sadhbh, was on-site for most of the day (she has made her own post in this blog), and in the afternoon some of her friends came out as well. They got to see what all of the trenches and interview one of the students to see what it was like to be an archaeologist.

Sadhbh, in customised vis-vest…


Mary fields questions from the visitors

Showing visitors the prehistoric ceramic.

Most of the action was on Trench Five today. We finalised the recording on Trench Six, and made more progress on backfilling – a rather squelchy task in some places. Neil worked away on Trench Seven, but we still can’t say much more about the bank at present.

The joys of backfilling. Note how deeply Liam is sinking!


Trench Five threw up some really nice things today. Firstly, removing the superficial layer of stones indicated a very formal cairn structure – with large slabby boulders (mainly of mica schist) laid in overlapping layers. They show really nicely in the photograph. This is clearly a formal cairn capping. Later in the day we removed these, and found post-medieval materials (glass etc). It seems that this aspect, at least, of the cairn is comparatively recent.

The cross base, showing formal surface to right.


The ‘furrow’ running towards the cairn that I discussed yesterday, turned out to be a slightly broader linear feature, with a very subtle fill. We still don’t understand the relationship between this and the cairn, but we did recover some prehistoric pottery from the fill of the feature today. This rather unassuming piece is probably Neolithic pottery, and may be nearly 5500-6000 years old. It is our first piece of solid evidence for prehistoric activity in four years at Glendalough – and as a prehistorian I’m delighted! This doesn’t necessarily mean that the feature is prehistoric: it could have fallen into it at any time. But it is interesting that there were no finds of a more recent date from this feature.

Prehistoric ceramic – hoorah!

There is a huge amount to do tomorrow – our last proper day of digging before backfilling. Most importantly we’ve got to balance digging the remaining parts of key features, as well as doing a lot of recording – especially drawing sections which can be time consuming. And we’ve got a TV crew visiting tomorrow as well as a party of 36 12-year olds from Wicklow Educate Together National School. It could be some day… Please be dry!




A very fun day

My name is Sadhbh and I am 8 tomorrow. Today I was working on my Daddy’s excavation. When I went into where they were digging we found a little tiny frog! We put the frog in a red basin and set it free in the grass.

My friend Froggy

Carrying Froggy to a new home

Then I did some trowelling. This was fun but my hands got very dirty! The soil changed three different colours – grey, yellowy-orange and a tiny spot of pink. I was working with Elizabeth and Helena who were very nice to me. We talked about archaeology and Helena said I was better than Elizabeth at digging!

Me trowelling with Elizabeth and Helena


Then I did a drawing of one the trenches (where we found the frog). I liked doing the drawing, which was of an old path. I had to draw a special dot-dash pattern line to show that it was the edge of the trench and use a normal line for the stones.


Then we went to a very squelchy, muddy place. We had to jump over two streams to get there! My daddy’s friend Steve was putting a pole into the ground which came out with a cylinder of mud in it from long ago. He wanted to find old beetles or old pollen to find out about the landscape. I thought it was very funny when he wrapped it up in cling film – that wouldn’t be a very good birthday present!


Steve getting ready to show us old mud

I loved being an archaeologist. It was really fun. Thankyou to everyone for being nice to me.






Round Towers and Ring Pulls

We got loads done today: progress on all trenches, coring and geophysics, and the first of the school parties out with us. Thanks to everyone involved.

Our geophysics is carried out in collaboration with Ian Elliott, who runs his own archaeological geophysical consultancy. Today we were working in the ‘Pattern Bank’ immediately adjacent to the main monastic complex. The photograph shows the students doing earth resistance survey (or ‘res’), which looks at the variation in the soil’s resistance to an electrical current. Ian will also be doing magnetometry (‘mag’) which looks at variations in magnetic response (not quite the same as a metal detector). It is remarkable that no geophysics has taken place around the monastic enclosure at Glendalough before. Our results are important for decisions about how to manage this landscape.

Geophysics at Glendalough

I was rather busy today, so didn’t get to see the coring team but Steve was delighted that they had got to 9m deep, and Christina was very excited to have a piece of late glacial lake mud wrapped up in cling film as a souvenir. The sequences in the long cores are very complex, showing changes from lake to peat to erosive deposits. They will repay very detailed mapping and laboratory investigation as we attempt to unpick the history of this landscape.

Trench Five (Kim’s Trench) was very interesting. Having finished lots of planning, we were able to carefully and delicately start removing tumble from the cross base.

Excavation is a delicate and careful process. And just in case any of the relevant authorities are monitoring this – this photograph was staged! You can tell – Kim isn’t wearing a hard hat.

This seems to show that a more formal cairn sits atop an earthern mound. We look forward to exploring this in more detail tomorrow. A probable plough furrow/narrow ditch runs up towards the cairn and it is hard to see how it can stop before it: at present it seems likely that this furrow runs under the cairn, which would provide powerful relative dating evidence. We excavated features exactly like this in 2011, and they are post-medieval in date.


Furrow or narrow ditch, running in (and probably under) the cross base, Trench Five.


Trench Six (Neil’s Trench) was completed today. Several amorphous, complex features were present beneath the cultivated gravel. Our colleague Helen Lewis is an expert in soils and the archaeology of agricultural landscapes and believes that we have evidence of a phase of open furrow cultivation as well as cross-ploughing. These have left the ambiguous features seen in the photo below. All plans and formal photography was completed, which means that we have to double check some of our records tomorrow, but we’re basically done. Some students even got to sample the joys of backfilling…

The amophorous features are to the right of the scored line (and the left of the puddle).


The completion of Trench Six meant that we could open Trench Seven (Neil’s new trench).


Clearing topsoil from Trench Seven

I was particularly pleased about this because I got to spend the lunch time doing a mid-excavation plan of the trench.Planning stones is a part of archaeological fieldwork I love, and I get very little chance to do it nowadays.

The field drawing of Tr 7 plan

Trench Seven examines the low earth and stone bank that surrounds the caher, and seeks to establish the relationship between this bank and the drystone wall and look at what the bank is built of and on. Finds from the upper layers are dominated by very modern material.

Neil was delighted to give these a finds number.


Our initial observations indicate that the caher is built directly on the stones of the bank – with no intervening soil deposit. This may indicate that the bank was landscaped, or scarped, to provide a flat surface to construct the caher on.

Visitor numbers were good today – the weather helped. There is so much interest in what we’re doing, and Thomas and Mark play an invaluable role in helping us manage these visitors. It is always interesting to gain a sense of people’s perspective on the landscape and the past, and talking about what we’re doing and why is a very good way of doing this.


Visitors at Trench Five


A very very silly wet rainy day

The description is courtesy of my eldest daughter, Sadhbh.

The problem with writing about archaeology and the weather is that describing one day as ‘wet’ or even ‘very wet’ or, perhaps, ‘oh my god it is wetter than I have ever experienced before’, runs the risk of leaving you without any room to move when it gets wetter. Anyway, this morning was really, really wet. It was raining heavily when I arrived in the car park at 8am, and it basically didn’t stop till lunch time. This is the kind of wet that soaks through waterproofs and all the clothes you have on underneath. Really quite unpleasant. And of course, you then have the extra challenge of getting home and having to find somewhere to dry all of your survey gear and clothing. Putting on wet clothes in the morning is not nice.

Photographs of rain never work, but the rivers show something of the extent of the rain, having burst their banks in many locations.

River Glenealo in flood.


So, what does a training excavation do when it is rained off? We’re very grateful to the Glendalough Visitor Centre for providing access for our students, and giving them a chance to look at their displays. We then hid in the Glendalough Hotel before venturing out into the rain for a tour of the main monastic complex. As a Mesolithic specialist, touring parties of students around major ecclesiastical monastic complexes is not necessarily within my comfort zone, and I can only apologise to the students for all the questions to which I had to answer ‘I don’t know’.

Hiding in the hotel. Cian still has the brigth trousers on.


The rain stopped, and we got onto site at 1.30. Neil’s trench was mainly underwater – hence the bucketing line in the photograph. By the end of the day here we had been able to trace some of the possible features in plan, and we’ll pursue these further tomorrow. Cleaning and planning continued in Kim’s trench.

Seriously. How many years of training do you need to be an archaeologist?


My colleague Dr Steve Davis is with us this week, showing the students palaeoenvironmental sampling. This involves using a corer to extract samples from the wet, boggy landscape near the up-stream end of the lower lake. There are organic sediments going 13m deep here, before you get to late glacial deposits. These contain a wealth of palaeoenvironmental evidence – but getting the cores in and out is hard, muddy work.

Coring is hard work…

Knives, harps and pegs

Firstly, two catch ups from yesterday: the view along the path to the cross base, and a sadly out of focus shot of the medieval pottery.

path leading to cross base


Our piece of medieval ceramics – somewhat out of focus (sorry)

Despite awful weather forecasts, site was workable until about 3.30, when we had to give up. We made loads of progress on planning in Trench 5, which will free up space for further excavation on Monday. Katie did really well to spot not just the wooden handle of a knife, but also the highly corroded and fragile blade. This was lifted as a block, and we’ll get Susannah, our conservator, to have a look at it. The process was a valuable opportunity to show everyone how to deal with fragile finds, and most of the students seemed to want to record the process. Perhaps they are thinking of their learning journals that have to be submitted in a couple of weeks.

Katie finds a knife. Wooden handle to left, corroded blade to right.

The knife proves popular with local photographers

Block lifting the knife

Neil’s trench threw up a couple of surprises. As discussed yesterday, the ‘cultivated’ gravels gave way to clean gravel, seemingly deposited by water. This gave way to clay, and we assume these sequences are natural. However, in removing the gravel we discovered a possible feature in the section of the trench, which may be a ditch/pit. This will mean that we have to expand the trench on Monday to explore this feature further. Earlier in the day Dolores found a nice clay pipe bowl with a harp on it whilst finally removing the cultivated gravel.

Clay pipe bowl with harp motif


This afternoon I worked on context recording with half of the students. In part this involves explaining why describing a soil as ‘brown mud with big stones in it’ isn’t appropriate, but ‘yellowish brown (10YR3/4) silty sand with c15% inclusions of sub-rounded pebbles (c. 5-10cm in max dimension) of local lithology’ is. We run this exercise every year – working through the standard soil descriptions, including the use of Munsell charts as standard colour references. It’s a really valuable learning opportunity for the students, although in an ideal world, one done in slightly better weather conditions.


Brown or yellowish brown? The joys of standard colour descriptions.


debating the finer points of the site matrix

It’s been a really productive week, in very varied weather, and we’re grateful to our students for their  excellent attitude and high quality of work. We hope they have learnt something, perhaps even about archaeology. It must have been a good week – we even managed to get Neil smiling. Just don’t ask what he and Mark are doing with pliers and a peg.


Mark and Neil share a moment.

PS: before any pedant goes to check, 10YR3/4 may not be yellowish brown. I don’t have a Munsell in front of me as I write this…