Ireland's Discovery Programme: Progress and Prospects

By Waddell, John | Antiquity, September 1997 | Go to article overview
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Ireland's Discovery Programme: Progress and Prospects


Waddell, John, Antiquity


Imagine a group of British archaeologists being invited by the Prime Minister to spend a large annual sum of money on archaeological research and provided with rooms at 10 Downing Street for that worthy purpose. This was the extraordinary situation which confronted a number of Irish archaeologists in 1991. The then Taoiseach, Mr Charles Haughey, had a keen interest in archaeology and an appreciation of its capacity to fill the ancient gaps in the island story. He was also renowned for an ability to find the occasional unorthodox solution to certain Irish problems and in this instance he launched a new and independent research body with a budget of half a million pounds at the stroke of a pen.

The Discovery Programme, as he named it, was formally initiated on 11 May that year in the Department of the Taoiseach. It was to be managed by the Discovery Programme Panel, a committee of 11 persons appointed by Mr Haughey which initially included six archaeologists. Barry Cunliffe and Jean L'Helgouac'h were invited to join this voluntary Panel in 1992. Apart from expressing a wish that some work might be undertaken at Tara, Mr Haughey made it quite clear that the Panel had complete discretion as to how it might proceed and what it might do. Its aim was simply defined as the enhancement of the understanding of Ireland's past through a major programme of research and archaeological excavation. Here was a remarkable opportunity to organize a concerted programme of problem-oriented research and the scope for fruitful archaeological enquiry was obviously very wide indeed.

Focus and projects

After much deliberation and given the extraordinary dearth of information on many aspects of settlement in virtually every period, the Panel decided that settlement archaeology of later prehistory should be the principal concern of the Programme at this time. The core period was the Later Bronze Age and Iron Age, an era of exceptional change and development in irish prehistory. While a wealth of fine metalwork survived from this long time-span, extending from about 1200 BC to the early centuries of the 1st millennium AD, very little was known about settlement and socio-economic matters and the identification of these aspects of the core period alone was a considerable challenge. However, to a great degree the scarcity of settlement sites in the later prehistoric archaeological record was evidently due to the absence of a concerted programme of research aimed at locating them; there were some clues as to where to look which also offered the prospect of employing a varied methodology. The Panel considered and agreed four discrete projects with a fairly wide geographical spread and the main focus deliberately on part of the south and west of the country [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. Project directors were appointed in late 1991 and early 1992 after public competition; final reports on their five-year projects are now complete or being prepared for publication, with preliminary accounts published from 1993 onwards (see below).

A remarkable concentration of Dowris Phase goldwork and other artefacts in counties Clare, Limerick and Tipperary implied a wealthy and complex late Bronze Age society; a comprehensive regional survey of both artefacts and field monuments could be productive. In this North Munster Project (directed by Dr Eoin Grogan) research has identified a number of distinct patterns in the later prehistoric landscape and, indeed, augmented the numbers of some monument types considerably: 29 hillforts are now known, an increase of about 900% since the project began. Attention has focused on several localities including the Mooghaun region near the Shannon estuary where a large, 12-ha multi-vallate hillfort and a near-by large gold hoard, the 'Great Clare find' of 1854 which contained over 140 objects, have long attracted attention. Detailed field survey has revealed an apparent hierarchy of settlement including large hilltop enclosures over 5 ha in extent, small prominently sited enclosures, and smaller enclosed settlements.

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