Imagining archaeology through art

By TII archaeologists Mary Deevy, Noel Dunne & James Eogan

TII Archaeology & Heritage commissioned a series of reconstruction drawings in late 2013 for inclusion in a number of forthcoming publications. The following images were created by artists J G O’Donoghue and Dave Pollock working closely with archaeologists who have specialist expertise in each of the subjects illustrated. The interpretations presented in these drawings are based on archaeological evidence uncovered on TII-funded road schemes and described in technical excavation reports. An emphasis on being faithful to the excavated evidence was important, however, the archaeological record is often tantalisingly incomplete. It was necessary therefore to be creative and imagine the aspects that were not clear from the evidence discovered at each site. This ‘imagining’ was grounded in current theories and independent research as to what might have been possible in Ireland during the various periods under investigation. National and international parallels were researched and explored in order to fill in these gaps. Nonetheless, in the end the artists and specialists had to combine their skills and knowledge to choose which details to use to tell a story of a point in time in the life of a person, object or place.

Clowanstown, Co. Meath

It is approximately 5000 BC. A man clad in clothing made of fish skin checks the catch in the woven basketry fish-trap that he’s just lifted from the base of the lake. He sits on a simple walkway to which the baskets are tethered. The walkway also acts as a mooring for his dugout canoe, although today his daughter has drifted off in it, distracted while playing with her miniature toy version of the boat. Their settlement is visible in the distance on the opposite side of the lake.

 
This image was inspired by the discovery of four wooden fish-traps embedded in peat, on the edge of what would have been a small lake in the Mesolithic period (Middle Stone Age). In addition to these highly important artefacts was the discovery of a possible miniature dugout canoe, perhaps a child’s toy. A number of posts pushed deep into the lakebed were found nearby and these have been interpreted as a walkway or mooring. There were few large mammals in Ireland at the time other than wolves, bears and boar. People lived by hunting boar and birds and by gathering wild plants, fruit and nuts; however, fishing would have been a crucial activity. Cultures with a similar reliance on fish, including the Hezhe in China, Ainu in Japan and others in Alaska, have a long tradition of making clothing from fish skins, which make for very soft, comfortable, warm, waterproof and durable garments.
 
The site was discovered at Clowanstown, Co. Meath, during archaeological investigations in advance of the construction of the M3 Clonee–North of Kells Motorway Scheme. Matt Mossop directed the excavation on behalf of Archaeological Consultancy Services Ltd. Dr Graeme Warren of the UCD School of Archaeology analysed the chipped stone artefacts from the site and kindly provided specialist advice to the artist J G O’Donoghue.
 
For further information about the Clowanstown fish-traps see Issue 2Issue 4 and Issue 8 ofSeanda magazine. Read about the Clowanstown fish-traps as featured in Fintan O'Toole's A History of Ireland in 100 Objects.

Edercloon, Co. Longford

Three thousand years ago a Late Bronze Age community constructed a wooden trackway in a bog. They laid roundwoods, brushwood and twigs onto the bog surface and secured them in place with long wooden pegs or stakes. Every few metres they deposited wooden objects within the trackway. One of these objects was part of a finely worked, but unfinished, alder block wheel. Another was a twisted and carved hazel rod, like the one at the top of the staff held by the priestess overseeing the deposition in this scene.

This image was inspired by one of a complex of wooden trackways or toghers (from the Irish tóchar) discovered in reclaimed bogland that would have been open raised bog during prehistory. We do not know why they built this trackway—it wasn’t constructed to merely cross this difficult wet terrain, but rather to access the bog itself, but for what purpose? The artefacts and their function within the trackway are also intriguing. They could be interpreted simply as waste wood helping to add bulk to the trackway foundation except that there are clear patterns in the way they were deposited, suggesting it was a deliberate and highly structured act.
 
The site was discovered at Edercloon, Co. Longford, during archaeological investigations in advance of the construction of the N4 Dromod–Roosky Bypass in counties Longford and Leitrim. Caitríona Moore directed the excavation on behalf of CRDS Ltd and kindly provided specialist advice to the artist J G O’Donoghue. The excavation results will be published in the TII Heritage series in the near future.
 
For further information about the Edercloon discoveries see Issue 2 and Issue 4 of Seanda magazine.

Raystown, Co. Meath

It is the early medieval period, some 1,500 years ago; an elderly woman is being buried in a simple earthen grave within the enclosed cemetery at the centre of her settlement. She is laid close to her ancestors, so close her grave disturbs an earlier burial whose bones are carefully gathered and placed on and beside her body.

This image is inspired by the discovery of a large cemetery-settlement on a ridge surrounded by the tributaries of the Broad Meadow River, which were used to power up to eight watermills on this site throughout the early middle ages. We do not know what this woman died of, but she appears to have lived to a relatively ripe old age. Analysis of her bones did not reveal evidence of any particular trauma other than the usual signs of wear and tear (mild arthritis and osteoporosis) associated with advanced age and a physically demanding working life.
 
The site was discovered at Raystown, Co. Meath, during pre-construction archaeological investigations on the N2 Finglas–Ashbourne road scheme in counties Dublin and Meath. Matthew Seaver directed the excavation on behalf of CRDS Ltd and kindly provided specialist advice to the artist J G O’Donoghue. The excavation results will be published in the TII Heritage series in the near future.

Ballynapark, Co. Wicklow

About 1,200 years ago a beautifully decorated and valuable bronze ladle ended up in a bog. Was it discarded because it was damaged? Was it lost or was it hidden with the intention of subsequent retrieval? Or could it have been a votive offering? The ladle was not whole, but sufficient remains survived to facilitate this reconstruction drawing. Embellishment was provided by the silvery domed terminal, wooden inserts (possibly of yew) along the handle and around the terminal and, strikingly, the opposing human heads at either end of the handle.

 
Probably the best known parallel is the eighth-century Derrynaflan wine strainer-ladle from County Tipperary. The object type is regarded as an Irish development, which ultimately owes its origin back to Late Roman domestic tableware in Britain and the Continent. Ladles undoubtedly became revered high-status secular and ecclesiastical objects in early medieval Ireland—an importance further borne out by their assimilation into Viking cultural contexts from Ireland to Scandinavia.
 
The ladle was discovered at Ballynapark, Co. Wicklow, during archaeological investigations for the N11 Rathnew to Arklow Road Improvement Scheme. Goorik Dehane directed the excavation on behalf of Irish Archaeological Consultancy Ltd. Dr Michael Ryan, Dr Paul Mullarkey, Mary Cahill, Raghnall Ó Floinn and Dr Griffin Murray kindly provided their observations on the artefact to TII Archaeologist Noel Dunne, who provided input to the artist Dave Pollock.
 
For further information about the Ballynapark ladle see Issue 8 of Seanda magazine.

Woodstown, Co. Waterford

The first of numerous Viking raids recorded in the Irish annals was in AD 795 on Rathlin Island, but what did these fearsome warriors look like? Using evidence from a grave excavated at the ninth-century Viking settlement site at Woodstown, Co. Waterford, artist J G O’Donoghue has visualised a Viking warrior with advice from Viking expert Dr Stephen Harrison. This is the first time a visualisation has been created of a Viking using evidence from Ireland.
 
As you would expect this warrior is a strong, well-built man, probably aged in his mid-thirties. He is not a thug, however, his eyes betray the intelligence that made the Vikings so successful in indentifying and exploiting opportunities for trade and settlement in the lands to which they ventured in the eighth and ninth centuries. His clothes and belongings indicate his wealth and status, his hair is groomed and his beard trimmed. He wears a woollen cloak. This is fastened at the shoulder with a ringed pin, a native Irish form of dress ornament that Viking men adopted and spread across north-west Europe. His tunic is decorated with tablet-woven bands.
 
The weapons and other belongings deposited in the Woodstown grave were prized possessions and, of course, were the basis of the ‘terror’ that the Vikings spread outside their homelands. However, the weapons also demonstrate the extent of the Viking trading networks and how the Vikings were adept at adopting ‘technology’ from other cultures. Dr Stephen Harrison who has studied the weapons and other grave goods believes that the sword originated in the Carolingian world or was based on a prototype from there. In contrast the spearhead and axehead are of Scandinavian origin. The conical shield boss is different to the hemispherical shield bosses typical in Scandinavia; this design probably reflects Viking contacts with the Anglo-Saxon world. The sword is suspended from a leather belt. The other items suspended from the belt (from left to right) are a knife, a whetstone (made of a type of stone that probably came from Norway) and a small purse. The purse could have contained a set of lead weights that would have been used for trading; the Woodstown site is notable for the large number of Viking lead weights that have been found. This reflects the importance of trading as a significant motivation for the ninth-century Viking raiding and settlement activity in Ireland.
 
A large selection of the artefacts from Woodstown, including all of the weapons, is on permanent display in Waterford Treasures at Reginald’s Tower, Waterford City. For further information about Woodstown see Issue 1 and Issue 2 of Seanda magazine.
 
These drawings, along with a wealth of other reconstruction images commissioned to communicate archaeology through art, are published in Illustrating the Past by Sheelagh Hughes.
 
(Originally posted 30 January 2014; updated 10 February 2016)