Lost Infancy: Medieval Archaeology in Ireland. (Special Section)

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Medieval archaeology in Ireland has been described twice in the last 30 years as `in its infancy', by Delaney (1977: 46) and by Barry (1987: 1). Neither was strictly correct. Ireland played a full part in the general English interest in medieval castles and churches around 1900, with Champneys, Orpen and Westropp in particular listing and describing them and relating to their historical and European context. In Ulster the medieval period had occupied a central place in archaeological research and excavation, remarkable within Europe and unique within the British Isles, from 1950 (Jope 1966).

Delaney and Barry were referring to the Republic of Ireland and to information and method. The application of scientific excavation, the expansion of archaeological research away from the buildings of the aristocracy into urban and rural settlement and economy, was new to the study of medieval Ireland a generation ago. Neither professional archaeologists (other than in Ulster), nor the amateurs of the County Archaeological societies who had contributed so much in England and elsewhere were active in Ireland. There could be none of the confidence in the essentially medieval nature of the fabric of the countryside or urban past which could be shown elsewhere in Europe. Ireland still had to identify and gather the material for the study, making excavation crucial; Barry's book was concerned mostly with listing what we then knew of medieval archaeology through excavation. The advances made since his time are well summed up by O'Keeffe (2000), where he is now able to move on from simple description to use the archaeological evidence for the period in explanation and debate, the onset of maturity. Neither, however, challenges the uniquely Irish convention of beginning the `medieval' period with the seizure of land in Leinster by English lords after 1167-8, a political event, akin to 1066 in England, which need have no impact on the archaeological record over the island as a whole.

The best examples of the new commitment are seen in excavating the large medieval towns, such as Waterford. Here an area of c. 20% of the core city was excavated in the six years before 1992, yet the results were fully published in 1997 (Hurley et al. 1997). The report gave us a whole series of plans of the area through successive periods. As is to be expected there was a wealth of artefactual evidence from a site with substantial organic preservation. The example of Waterford is matched by the flow of monographs on sites excavated in the 1990s in Dublin, leaving behind the great area excavations of the High Street/Wood Quay sites. In Cork, the same approach of monographs of the individual areas has also attacked the problem of the backlog, much smaller than in Dublin. All these adopt a similar approach and standard, as is to be expected of a system where developer-funding and state control result in the imposition of minimum standards, which concentrate on describing the main structural sequence and the artefacts found.

These considerable achievements in publishing the urban excavations should not obscure problems with analysis and coverage. The structural and stratigraphic descriptions concentrate on a sequence of plans of the site. Sections and associations are down-played, with no pit groups, for example, being listed. This spills into the description of the artefacts and environmental contexts, treated in separate essays. In all sites there is a tendency to jump from the early 14th to the 16th centuries; the 200 years after the Black Death get little attention; it may even be implied that large areas of these cities were abandoned. The other problem with coverage is where the excavations took place; overwhelmingly on the larger towns in the east or southeast of the island, where the developers are active and open to pressure. The extent of the spread of small markets is a key indicator of the impact of the new economy of 12th-century Europe, yet the smaller towns and the towns away from the main areas of English settlement in the 13th century have been relatively neglected. …