The delicate task of excavating an Early Bronze Age urn burial

By TII Senior Archaeologist James Eogan

The discovery of a prehistoric urn burial is a comparatively rare event in the course of excavations on proposed road schemes. Their careful excavation and recording provides the opportunity to examine the funerary rites of our ancestors and to come close to investigating a single defined event: the burial of a member of the community. When feasible, particularly well-preserved urns are lifted intact. This is a nerve-racking process that takes many hours to ensure that the delicate pottery vessel and its contents are excavated with the maximum care.

In early 2014, in the townland of Quarry in north County Wexford, a small Early Bronze Age cemetery, approximately 3,750 years old, was discovered by archaeologists from TVAS (Ireland) Ltd working on behalf of Wexford County Council and TII. The site was found in the course of test excavations in farmland being acquired for the construction of a new section of the M11 Dublin–Wexford road.

The site was located on a level area overlooking a stream that might have been a marsh in the Early Bronze Age. The cemetery comprised a cluster of pits filled with charcoal-enriched soil. Dr Denise Keating, who specialises in examining ancient human bones, was able to confirm that cremated bone in some of the pits was human. The archaeologists identified a number of post-holes close to some of the pits, perhaps indicating that the location of graves within the cemetery may have been marked by upright timber posts, in the same way that headstones are erected to mark graves in a modern graveyard.

During the initial archaeological assessment it was discovered that pottery urns had been placed upside down in two of the pits. Following consultation with relevant experts, a plan was drawn up for the excavation and lifting of the fragile pottery vessels by Excavation Director Edel Ruttle and the team from TVAS (Ireland) Ltd. A video by Keith Currams (see below) documents the excavation and successful lifting of one of the urn burials. Both urns and their contents were subsequently excavated and conserved in the laboratory by conservator Susannah Kelly and will be subject to further specialist examination during the post-excavation phase of this project. The conservation process is explained in a second video by Keith Currams.

(Originally posted 4 September 2014; updated 11 February 2016)

Urn Burial Excavation on the M11 in County WexfordConservation of prehistoric urns from the M11 in County Wexford