Digging into the past reveals Cork settled much earlier than thought

Wooden floors uncovered by excavation work on South Main Street suggests urban planning arrived in Cork earlier than we thought, writes Niall Murray.

One of a sequence of house floors dating from 1070 to 1120. Picture: Maurice F. Hurley

While political rows rumbled last year about the lack of building work on a site crucial to Cork’s future development, experts were busy taking advantage of the chance to shine a light on 1,000 years of the city’s past.

What the archaeologists found on the old Beamish & Crawford brewery site will help add detail to the the city’s history and its people.

From the lives of early Viking settlers on the marshy islands in the late 11th century, to the glass, brewing and other uses of the last two centuries, archaeologists have found evidence of many little-known aspects.

Probably the most notable of these from a historic point of view was the unearthing of what is now Cork’s earliest known formal urban layout.

The dog-leg angle found by archaeologists is visible just below and left of centre of this 1690 map of Cork City. Picture: Corkpastandpresent.ie

A few metres behind the railings and palm trees that line the more northerly end of the 3.5-acre site’s South Main Street, they revealed the floors of a row of houses that once lined the earliest town of Cork’s main thoroughfare.

This part of the site is in line to be developed for student accommodation as part of BAM’s overall plans to develop an events centre and other mixed commercial elements. It got planning permission in 2010 for the wider project, but funding uncertainties and plans for changes to the mix of uses have seen little construction work, although moves on the student accommodation zone has started in recent weeks.

The requirement for deeper excavations for a basement car park in that area of the site meant the archaeologists got a rare opportunity to dig to some of the deepest layers.

There was already an understanding from testing for the site owners in 2010 that this was likely to be the most archaeologically valuable portion of the brewery plot. Because archaeology below most other areas had been damaged by cellars and basements associated with industrial use, the street-fronting area’s occupation by houses until the mid-20th century meant there was a much better chance of evidence of Cork’s earliest citizens surviving there.

This stone door lintel with the words God Save flanking a Tudor rose, is from the second half of the 16th century and was found above the ground where 11th-century Cork homes previously stood. Picture: Maurice F. Hurley

The resulting focus on that stretch of ground did not disappoint, beginning with foundations of stone houses, most of them dated to the 18th century but some from the 1600s.

“Those houses were effectively the type, or similar to them, that still front that side of South Main Street,” said lead archaeologist on the project, Maurice Hurley.

Those existing properties face the modern Bishop Lucey Park and, alongside it, Christchurch which is now part of the Triskel Arts Venue.

Mr Hurley speculates that some of the 15th and 16th-century church architecture used in their foundations, such as parts of arches, could come from the rubble of a predecessor Anglo-Norman church at the same location.

“We know there was a Gothic church that was demolished before the existing Christchurch was built in the 1720s,” he said.

It was below the foundations of those stone houses that some of the real highlights emerged during last year’s excavations of the Beamish & Crawford site.

Below at least five levels of houses built over several centuries on the same plots, the team found the floors of 19 wooden houses from the earliest period of Cork being inhabited as a town.

Crucially, the scientifically proven dating evidence from timber in one of them places that first phase of construction to the 1070s.

This is 30 years older than previous evidence-based dating of other homes excavated inside the boundary of the medieval walled city.

During digs between 2003 and 2005, for example, on the old Sir Henry’s and car park sites closer to the River Lee’s south channel, houses were dated from pottery and a door jamb timber to the early decades of the 1100s.

What can be conclusively stated now is that houses fronted the street — with which the wider South Main Street now lines up nearly 950 years later — in a formalised urban layout as early as 1070.

Survey of the Cork city wall in progress. Picture: Maurice F. Hurley

But while this could be as much as a decade earlier than the oldest positively-dated dwelling in a formally laid-out Waterford for 1080, this does not mean Cork’s urban settlement was earlier.

“In Waterford, there are two levels of houses that predated that level, but for which no date was obtainable. It looks like the sequence of occupation was beginning 25 to 30 years earlier in Waterford,” Mr Hurley said.

“It’s a particularly ‘chicken and egg’ situation in terms of our overall understanding. But I believe formalised urban layout in Waterford is slightly earlier,” he said.

With undated but clearly earlier evidence of street-fronting formal layout, he says Waterford can relax about any suggestions of Cork claiming an older urban heritage.

These dates are all still after the Vikings had arrived and plundered the south coast to begin what we now know as the Hiberno-Norse period.

But, Mr Hurley explains, the concept of formalised urban layouts is a later phenomenon.

“We’re told in the old annals that the Vikings arrived and plundered Cork. But those first people were making a fortification, they were not coming and founding a town right away,” he said.

The late 11th-century homes exposed at South Main Street were simple one-room single-storey dwellings, whose thatch roofs were supported on four posts inside the structure, somewhat like the legs of a table.

When this main living space became inadequate, workspaces or extra accommodation for extended family were added in smaller buildings to the rear.

The archaeologists uncovered the small paved yard around which such smaller buildings would have been added to one of the houses.

Mr Hurley and fellow archaeologist Alan Hawkes will outline the findings from the excavations in a free public lecture at the monthly winter lecture for the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society in the Crawford Art Gallery next week. As a former city archaeologist whose work on other medieval Cork excavations has been published in the society’s journal, he said it was the appropriate place to present details of the latest insights into medieval Cork.

Just as he did on previous excavations of the old town and city, Mr Hurley and his team uncovered more parts of the walls that were a vital part of the city’s defence from the late 1100s until after the 1690 Siege of Cork.

While nothing really new about their construction was learned, the work confirmed an unusual kink in the line of the western wall, near where the river turns south for a short distance at Clarke’s Bridge.

“The wall is running north-south, and then suddenly changes angle, as shown in many historic maps,” Mr Hurley said.

But rather than being the result of repairs after any breach or other damage, he said this section was very well built with finely-cut stone that suggests the use of a master mason. While the inside of the wall was in remarkable condition, the outer face was removed, either by drainage work in the 1980s, or possibly in damage from some earlier period.

Some aspects of the historic heritage of the site will be reflected in the proposed development of the large city-centre plot.

While the developers BAM have come in for criticism recently over a proposed reduction in the heritage space to feature in the middle section of the site, Mr Hurley said the firm provided every facility required for his excavations without question.

With those supports, whatever eventually gets built on the old Beamish & Crawford brewery grounds has given the first chance to uncover what lies beneath from South Main Street all the way back to the western city wall.

- Maurice Hurley and Alan Hawkes will give a lecture on the excavations to the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society. The free public event takes place in Crawford Art Gallery at 8pm on Wednesday, February 7. www.corkhist.ie

Cork’s oldest church emerges from beneath brewery

Almost within the shadow of Cork’s St Fin Barre’s Cathedral, archaeologists last summer found what are probably the oldest remains of a church in Cork, writes Niall Murray.

The foundations of St Laurence’s Church being excavated last year, with the 1600s Elizabeth Fort and the 1879 St Fin Barre’s Cathedral in the background. Picture: Maurice F Hurley

The survival of remains of St Laurence’s Church was quite a miracle in the view of lead archaeologist Maurice Hurley, referring to damage below ground on the site by various drainage schemes.

His excavation team faced the further challenge that the church was not in the area suggested by annotation to a 19th-century map of the Beamish & Crawford brewery, which stood on the same location until its demolition recently.

But they still managed to unearth significant parts of the foundation below that of a 19th-century malthouse, as well as other medieval stone walls and a paved laneway in the same area near the River Lee’s south channel.

Questions remain, however, about the possibility of a predecessor church that may have been the private chapel of Cork’s last Viking ruler.

Cork historian Henry Jefferies has suggested the site was originally that of a church dedicated to St Nicholas, used as a private chapel by the last local leader of the late Hiberno-Norse period when the Irish and Viking families had inter-married.

The clear evidence from the archaeology last summer was that the stone church the project found was built in the 13th century. This makes it an Anglo-Norman construction, built some decades after the occupation of the city by forces who killed local leader Gilbert Mac Turgar in an 1173 sea battle near Youghal and captured the city in 1177.

“The Hiberno-Norse were weakened, and I do think what we found may be later than that,” Mr Hurley said.

Dating evidence is difficult when the only archaeology is stonework. But pieces of pottery from south-west France found in the mortar of the church have been dated to the 13th century, ruling out the possibility of it being from the late viking period of Cork’s history.

Although the western wall does not survive, it would have measured around 34ft x 14ft, its size suggesting it too was a private church.

“There were no burials here, it wasn’t a public place that had a parish priest, so maybe a private chapel throughout the entire period of its use,” Mr Hurley said.

This belief is strengthened by the absence of any known records of a parish of either St Laurence or St Nicholas in the medieval city.

Of particular interest, however, is the dedication to St Nicholas of a church constructed not far outside the old city’s southern boundary, just off where Cove Street stands today near lower Barrack Street.

“It’s likely that when the Hiberno-Norse people were expelled that they took this dedication to St Nicholas with them,” he said.

With no proof from the excavation that what was found was the first church on the site, it can not be ruled out that a St Nicholas church once also stood there when Cork was dominated by Vikings and their descendants.

Dig reveals the glass factory that dominated the skyline of 19th-century Cork

The story of how cut-glass was made by one of Cork’s three manufacturers over 200 years ago will be clearer thanks to recent excavations, writes Niall Murray.

The 18th-century foundations of the Cork Glass Company under excavation. Picture: Maurice F Hurley

The team that worked on the northern end of the Beamish brewery site dug down to the stone foundation of a cone-shaped furnace that dominated the south of the city’s skyline for nearly 150 years.

Although it was not demolished until 1915, however, the Cork Glass Company which made and exported its wares from the site had ceased operation by 1830.

The cone of the Cork Glass Company’s furnace on Hanover Street dominated the 19th-century skyline of Cork’s south inner city, as seen in William Roe’s 1844 drawing. Picture: Cork Public Museum

Maurice Hurley explained how the project he oversaw exposed around two metres of stone-built foundations for the cone that once stood around 25 metres above the ground. While it was around 14 metres in diameter at its base, it narrowed to just five metres at the top.

The Cork Glass Company was established in 1782, its brewer owners taking advantage of nearby river quays already in use by the city’s numerous brewing and malting operations to land coal.

The recent excavations found how the central furnace was fed with that coal by a mechanised railway line system, and the cinder residue from the process was removed through vaulted passages.

“There were vast amounts of cinder from firing, and huge samples of half-melted bits of glass. They also made vast quantities of bottles, so a lot of what was found is the waste from the process,” Mr Hurley said.

Mr Hurley said this element of the excavation on the Beamish site was very informative and there is potential for a scholar to study and analyse the material and the site reports.

Two Cork Glass Company decanters with moulded target stoppers with another decanter.

Finer examples of the highly-decorated and distinctive decanters made by the Cork Glass Company — or from the Waterloo glass factory that overlooked nearby Clarke’s Bridge at Wandesford Quay — can make thousands in auctions.

The archaeological work on the site will prove highly valuable to those interested in the processes involved in creating those beautifully hand-crafted works.

Artefacts aid knowledge of Viking Cork

The day-to-day life of Viking and early Norman Cork can be better understood from artefacts found last year in different layers of the city’s archaeology, writes Niall Murray.

The 11th-century wooden Viking weaver’s sword found on the Beamish Crawford site. Picture: Maurice F Hurley

Just like the hundreds of finds from the past decade’s digs on the opposite side of South Main Street, the utilitarian items shine a light on how our ancestors lived, cooked, travelled, and their engagement with spirituality and ceremony.

The most visually stimulating is probably the 30cm wooden Viking weaver’s sword, which has already been in the public spotlight. When it was shown to the Norwegian ambassador to Ireland at Cork Public Museum last year, photos that accompanied news reports attracted marvel around the world at the craftsmanship of the carving over 1,000 years ago.

However, more everyday items help paint a picture of the implements used by ordinary citizens of Cork over many centuries of the town’s earliest existence.

Among them are a collection of items found in the lower levels of wooden houses excavated near the frontage of South Main Street, where the earliest known urban layout near the Lee has been discovered.

“There is a great range of spoons, ladles, buckets, horse trappings and other such items, and many of them are decorated with scratches or etchings,” said consultant archaeologist Maurice Hurley.

Among the horse-related items is a wooden harness bow, used to guide reins, from the late 11th or early 12th century.

A harness bow from the late 11th or early 12th century found during South Main Street excavation. Picture: Maurice F Hurley

The sad fate of some of the houses being burned down led to items being charred, but the organic and aerobic conditions have aided their preservation over the intervening centuries.

One of the rarer artefacts to emerge from the soil near South Main Street was a metal spoon, naively but intricately depicting a woman holding up a dog. Mr Hurley said the spoon, made of pewter or copper, is from the 13th century or possibly the late 12th century when Cork had only recently been conquered by Norman invaders.

A 13th-century pewter spoon decorated with the symbolic image of a dog. Picture: Maurice F Hurley

“The only one like it has been found in a town in Poland, this was either a wedding gift or a christening spoon. These spoons would have been personalised for the recipient, and very significant to the owner,” he explained.

Many items of the period had important symbolic meanings, and in this case the dog was probably used as a symbol of fidelity.

Another 13th-century artefact, but not quite so rare, was the pilgrim badge from the shrine at Canterbury to 12th-century martyr St Thomas Becket. This item was made around 100 years before Geoffrey Chaucer penned his famous The Canterbury Tales about pilgrims making their way from London to the same place.

Pilgrim badge from Canterbury, 13th century. Picture: Maurice F Hurley

“This is something somebody brought back to Cork from pilgrimage to Canterbury. It appears to symbolise Becket coming on a boat from France to England,” Mr Hurley said.

Thomas Becket was archbishop of Canterbury when he was killed by knights in 1170 — soon before control of Cork was to pass from Hiberno-Norse to Norman hands.

The English town became a centre of pilgrimage, and badges like this were worn not just as souvenirs but to spare pilgrims from robbery as it denoted they were on a sacred mission.

Such relics are not uncommon in Ireland, as a similar Canterbury pilgrim badge was excavated in Dublin. There are also records of Waterford people travelling to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, pre-dating the modern Irish walkers and cyclists who flock to the destination by around 600 years

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