We’ve entered a golden age of new archaeological discoveries, with three times the usual number reported to the Archaeological Survey of Ireland (ASI) in 2019 alone.
It’s a case of using the newest technology to sustain the past.
Up to last year, about 500 new sites would typically be reported annually, often found through development-led excavation or accidental discovery.
But numbers rocketed to 1,500 last year, because of what Michael McDonagh, chief archaeologist in the National Monument Service (NMS), calls “a real growth in citizen archaeologists”.
They are members of the public who don’t work in the field as archaeologists, but who are developing a real talent for spotting new sites.
The explosion in interest is down to a few factors, says McDonagh. “The very dry summer of 2018 revealed extraordinary archaeological sites in the Boyne Valley, close to Newgrange Passage Tomb. These discoveries got global attention, and raised awareness of the potential for new discoveries.”
In addition, he says, the greater use of drones, as well as free access to increasingly high-resolution satellite photography, has led to many people “now enjoying scouring those images to discover new sites”.
When flying his drone, satellite, communications and electronic engineer Matthew Kelly always has in the back of his mind the possibility of discovering new archaeological sites.
In the summer of 2018, using a drone-mounted camera, he found a concentration of eight ring-ditches in Dundalk — most likely representing barrows (burial sites).
And during the lockdown, at home in Lahinch, he has discovered a cliff-edge fort, a sub-circular enclosure, while flying a drone.
“I went to check it out on the Ordnance Survey map, expecting to see it, but it wasn’t there. I doubted did I find anything at all, it’s very unusual to find a new fort, especially in Lahinch, which is a well-populated area.”
But Kelly had discovered something new, and his find is scheduled for inclusion in the NMS’s next revision of the Record of Monuments and Places.
Ireland has 155,000 known archaeological sites and monuments (https://webgis.archaeology.ie/historicenvironment/).
The vast majority are on privately-held farmland.
McDonagh says it’s important to acknowledge the role of farmers in managing and caring for these.
“Farmers are the custodians of our monuments, of a lot of our heritage. For thousands of years, they’ve stewarded it well,” he says, adding that Ireland is quite unique for the high level of preservation of our archaeological heritage.
With the emphasis on family farms and smaller fields, our landscape hasn’t been ravaged by intensive agriculture — nor by warfare — unlike many other countries where much heritage has been obliterated.
Farmers are at the frontline of archaeological heritage preservation and, says McDonagh, they will notice subtle changes in the surface level of fields that may indicate previously unknown monuments. He cites the example of a farmer in North Dublin who — from his tractor — noticed a change in the colour of the vegetation, a wonderful example of a cropmark, says McDonagh.
Cropmarks are traces of a monument that no longer appear at the surface, but may still be visible in the form of differential crop growth.
The 2018 summer drought created the right conditions for the land to yield up some of its secrets, but aerial images taken in winter can also reveal a lot, says Rob O’Hara, post-doctoral researcher with Teagasc/VistaMilk, and director of Balbriggan-based archaeological company Archer Heritage Planning Ltd.
“Sites with very low earthworks that still exist above ground will show up better in winter images, when the low sun casts long shadows. The trained eye can pick them up.”
But these sightings can be very ephemeral. “What you can see in one image, you may not see in another, because perhaps it was taken from a different vantage point or at a different time.”
O’Hara says the main category of monument found in Ireland is the ‘enclosure’— an enclosed site that can be of any age from prehistory to the medieval period.
People would be most familiar with circular ringforts, which were early medieval farms. “It’s not possible to exactly date these sites without further investigation. Often, excavation will show they’ve more than one period of settlement, and different uses.”
The next category, ‘barrows’, were prehistoric burial sites.
“These can take several forms, but a bank or ditch enclosing a central mound is the classic form.
Then, there are medieval settlements, dating from the 11th to 17th centuries. “These can be quite large, over several hectares, with individual elements and an association with a church and/or a mill.
“They can be made up of field systems, enclosures, house foundations, roadways and other features.
“For whatever reason, they were abandoned, maybe because of war, famine, or changing climate.”
O’Hara says new discoveries demonstrate there’s an abundance of unrecorded archaeological sites out there, hiding in plain sight, and that the public can have a huge role in bringing these sites to the attention of the authorities.
“Finding these sites is the first step in giving them the full protection of our archaeological legislation. Hopefully, it protects them from accidental damage. These new discoveries are reshaping our understanding of past landscapes, how and where our ancestors lived.
“In some cases, we’re finding very rare sites never before seen in Ireland.
“And we’re finding sites where previously there may not have been any recorded monuments.”
Citing the greatest risks to archaeological sites on farms — drainage operations, hedge/scrub clearance or deep ploughing — O’Hara acknowledges that sites can be difficult to detect at ground level.
And of course every cropmark or earthwork isn’t archaeological or even man-made.
He recommends farmers check the https://webgis.archaeology.ie/historicenvironment/ online database for archaeological sites on their land.
“Records are updated regularly, and there may be sites recorded on your property that weren’t there a few years ago.”
Teagasc, in association with NMS, have a guide to good farming practice and archaeology for different farming systems here.
It outlines different management practices that farmers can use to safeguard archaeological sites on their land, and it outlines their legal responsibilities for monument protection.
The NMS credits anyone who reports new archaeological discoveries.
McDonagh says people derive a “real primal joy” from finding something for the first time.
“Our natural landscapes have the echoes of these ancient sites. This archaeological heritage is at the very heart of our identity as a nation, and this is what attracts a lot of people to it.”
Archaeology can help us learn from history, to build a sustainable future, by looking at what worked in the past, and adapting it for the future.
Ancient methods were often simple, low in cost, depended on local materials, and they certainly didn’t require fossil fuels — just what is needed now for sustainability in many parts of the world.
The wealth of new sites being identified on Irish farmland, with the help of satellite imagery, drones, and changing weather, can reveal much about ancient technologies.
Sites like the series of ring-ditches found in North-East Kildare, referred to the NMS in November 2018, with at least nine barrows surviving as ring-ditches in a cropped field.
Such circular burial monuments often contained a central cremation pit.
The detail quality in imagery is such that you can make out these central pits in some of the barrows.
Brú na Bóinne 2018 discoveries include identification of a massive 150m plus diameter timber henges, ceremonial enclosures, on the River Boyne flood plain in the shadow of the Newgrange Passage Tomb.
Michael McDonagh, chief archaeologist at NMS, says these have added a whole new layer of exploration in that special world heritage landscape.
“These discoveries are fundamentally altering our understanding of that period of prehistory, raising questions of population size, ritual, social hierarchy, and communication.”
Many new sites are being identified as part of an ongoing Teagasc/Science Foundation Ireland VistaMilk project, in which a Spatial Analysis Unit has been examining photographic archives from Ordnance Survey Ireland taken 15-30 years ago, as well as more recent Google Earth images from the last decade.
They’ve identified over a dozen ‘new’ archaeological sites: