Minimising impact while increasing knowledge at Mullanstown, Co. Louth

By Excavation Director Fintan Walsh of Irish Archaeological Consultancy Ltd

In 1909, while ploughing a low, flat-topped hillock in the townland of Mullanstown, just north of Ardee Town, a farmer unexpectedly came upon human bones. Further investigation at the time revealed as many as 40 skeletons buried in closely adjoining, stone-lined graves, one of which produced a spindle whorl (a disc or spherical object that would have been fitted onto a spindle used in hand-spinning yarn). It was clear at this time that the farmer had discovered part of a large cemetery of possible medieval date. The 1909 volume of the County Louth Archaeological Journal records that the farmer reburied the exposed human remains in a gravel pit on the hillock. This was not the first time that burials were identified here, as earlier gravel digging had previously uncovered four human skeletons in the same area.

Nearly 100 years later, during the early planning stages for the N52 Ardee Bypass, archaeologists had an opportunity to reinvestigate this site (subsequently designated Record of Monuments and Places No. LH014-043). The full extent of the burial ground was not known so it was decided to undertake a geophysical survey of the area. This survey (undertaken by GSB Ltd in 2002) revealed the presence of a large enclosure, approximately 40 m in diameter, on the top of the hillock. The survey also identified a rectangular feature, which was interpreted as the possible remains of a stone building.

The geophysical survey results at Mullanstown and the outline (in black) of the excavation area.

Further investigation through a series of archaeological testing programmes—one in 2002 by Irish Archaeological Consultancy Ltd and the latest in 2012 by Rubicon Heritage Services Ltd—confirmed the presence of burials within the enclosure. Pits with evidence of burning, likely to be traces of industry (e.g. kilns or metal-working), were also identified on the periphery of the cemetery.

Whenever possible, archaeologists aim to preserve sites in situ (i.e. leave the archaeology in the ground untouched). An agreed principle of the Code of Practice that TII operates under is that ‘Every effort must be made to avoid direct impacts on archaeology taking account of road design and safety implications, environmental and other impacts and costs’, with a view to minimising ‘the impact on known archaeological sites or areas of established significant archaeological potential’. Furthermore, national policy, as outlined in Framework and Principles for the Protection of the Archaeological Heritage (published in 1999), requires that ‘There should always be a presumption in favour of avoidance of developmental impacts on the archaeological heritage and preservation in-situ [sic] of archaeological sites and monuments must be presumed to be the preferred option’. If avoidance is unachievable ‘it is essential that the approach of preservation by record be applied, i.e. that appropriate archaeological excavation and recording take place’. With the aid of the results from the geophysical survey and the archaeological testing, the full extent of the cemetery and its enclosure could be accurately determined for the first time and, as a result, informed the preferred route chosen for the proposed new bypass, which was designed to avoid the core of this important burial ground. The features identified on the periphery of the cemetery would be impacted by the preferred route and this provided an opportunity to excavate, and further understand, at least part of the site.

The excavation took place in the summer of 2013 and centred on a number of features identified some 100 m ENE of the cemetery. The site was subsequently designated the name Mullanstown 1. Although what we found—ditches, a kiln and an isolated burial—were less impressive than the cemetery itself, they were important in the sense that they were peripheral, but related, fragments of this burial ground.

The isolated adult female burial at Mullanstown 1 during excavation.

The key find of the excavation was the isolated burial, interpreted as an outlier to the Mullanstown cemetery. This is important as it is the only burial within, or in the vicinity of, this cemetery that has been archaeologically excavated and scientifically dated. This individual proved to be a young adult female and was dated to AD 437–639. This date is entirely consistent with dates obtained from early medieval cemetery-settlement sites in Ireland; the Mullanstown cemetery most likely represents an example of this site type (see below). As a part of the radiocarbon dating process an analysis of the carbon and nitrogen isotope values of the submitted sample (teeth) was also undertaken. These results indicate a mixed diet expected for this period, with a slight maritime focus.

The cereal-drying kiln at Mullanstown 1; note the charcoal-rich soil at the base.

It is not unusual to find kilns and metal-working features in proximity to early medieval cemeteries and an excellent example of a cereal-drying kiln was found here. The kiln was dated to AD 566–649, which is just slightly later than the recorded ‘peak’ in kiln use in Ireland during the sixth century. This peak coincided with an increasingly wet climate that was possibly exacerbated by the effects of two large volcanic eruptions in AD 536 and AD 540.

The kiln’s fire bowl (where the fire was lit to heat the grains), which was characterised by numerous deposits of charcoal and ash, was at its northern end. This was fed by a possible flue comprised of a shallow, irregular gully oriented roughly west–east. Hundreds of charred grains were recovered from samples of the burnt soils from this kiln. Analysis of these proved that this kiln was primarily used to dry barley and, interestingly, it seems that peat may have been used—along with hazel and willow charcoal—as fuel to fire it.

The large drainage ditch, which led to what seemed to be a natural spring.

The ditches recorded at Mullanstown 1 included a large linear drain (dated to AD 442–543), which led to what seemed to be a natural spring at the centre of the excavation site, and a linear ditch (dated to AD 601–662) interpreted as the remnants of a field ditch. Another ditch, curvilinear in plan, was dated to AD 425–550. This ditch, unlike the others, was very regularly cut and formed a near perfect semi-circular shape in plan, which could, at face value, be interpreted as a partial/truncated ring-ditch. (Ring-ditches are small enclosures generally associated with prehistoric burials and many prove to be the remains of ploughed-out earthen burial mounds known as barrows.) Burnt bone was recovered from the fills of this ditch, however, it was all found to be unidentifiable or possible animal bone. The interpretation of this feature therefore remains uncertain.

The curvilinear ditch (possibly a truncated ring-ditch) during excavation.

There was no indication from the excavation or geophysical survey results to suggest that these ditches were part of any enclosure features associated with the cemetery. Some of them were, however, in line with or match linear features identified by the geophysical survey and may simply be remnants of field ditches/drains in the wider landscape of the cemetery.

The results of the geophysical survey and excavation at Mullanstown shed new light on an important cemetery site and provide valuable archaeological data that can be compared with other sites of the period. On the basis of these results, we could suggest that this site may be a cemetery-settlement, many of which have recently been discovered in advance of road construction throughout Ireland. These sites—where burial and settlement went hand-in-hand—provided burial grounds for secular communities in the period preceding the eighth century AD, when the Church finally established full control over burial rites in Ireland.

(Originally posted 1 December 2014; updated 16 February 2016)