Early medieval houses in Ireland: some perspectives from archaeology, early Irish history, and experimental archaeology


Sunday 28th May 2017

Aidan O’Sullivan, Brendan O’Neill and Eileen Reilly

Early medieval houses in Ireland, as elsewhere, were the places where people slept, worked on crafts, prepared and consumed food, gathered together at night, and where a household extended hospitality to kin and neighbours. Early medieval houses and dwellings were key venues for the enactment or performance of social identities of ethnicity, social status, gender, kinship and community. As in most house societies worldwide, these buildings were effectively the places where social identities were created—as children were socialized through routine life, and through watching their elders, learned how one interacted with people of different genders, ages, kin groups and rank.

Ireland has amongst the richest archaeological and historical evidence in Europe for understanding early medieval houses. We have excellent archaeological evidence for house architecture, in terms of their building form, sizes, constructional materials and in a general sense, their spatial organization, although as we shall see there are great gaps in knowledge. Archaeological excavations have uncovered evidence in the form of postholes, wall slots, fireplaces, stone walls, and very occasionally wooden materials. This physical evidence for house shape and size, for construction materials, floors, hearths, storage and domestic occupation can be used to begin to relate house form to status, function and use.

 What we also have in Ireland is very good contemporary documentary and literary evidence for early medieval houses and their uses, which can be used by us to imagine what these houses might have been like. Early Irish laws, narrative literature, and hagiographies, provide a range of general and anecdotal detail about house forms and activities within houses. Early Irish laws from the seventh to eighth centuries provide a significant account of early medieval houses, arguably more realistic than the literary sources as they deal with status and property and what people would be expected to own and what fines are due for damaging their property. The early eighth-century law text Críth Gablach provides a remarkably detailed discussion of the size of houses, their construction details, and the types of tools and domestic equipment used within them. A significant theme in the early Irish laws is the careful ordering of objects within dwellings, with a predictable emphasis on social status and to a lesser extent gender as organising principles. It is clear in any case that people were expected as a given to know where to sit, move, and work, using such fixtures and features as doorways, hearths, and seating arrangements, to orientate their movements around houses.

The early medieval narrative literature, particularly the echtrae (adventure tales) and imm rama (voyage tales), provides occasional vivid descriptions of houses. There is little or no archaeological evidence for the more fantastic of these structures, we may assume that they are imaginary or metaphorical houses, symbolising various things, clearly owing more to the demands of moralising and story-telling than to any real-life dwellings. Nonetheless, these stories give a strong sense that people were concerned with appropriate social behaviour and actions within a house and so also provide intriguing insights into contemporary social norms and early medieval mentalités relating to houses. So, for example, some of these tales describe remarkable houses with multiple doorways. Doorways, being literally the location of thresholds, are often symbolically significant in the tales. In the ninth-century Imm ram curaig Máele Dúin (‘The voyage of Máel Dúin’s boat’) the hero finds a house by the seashore, with one door facing the sea and one facing the land. In Togail Bruidne Da Derga, a house is described as having seven doors, with a shutter to block the wind from whichever direction it blows. These mysterious houses with their cauldrons of food, fine textiles, and silver and gold brooches hanging on walls are also often venues for various social encounters, where heroes eat sumptuous feasts or meet with sexually predatory women. In the ninth-century tale Tochmarc Becfola a man and woman first eat a magical meal and then lie chastely together in a fine house with both cubicles and beds (amra an teg hí-sin itir irscartal dergudha) which implies that they were perceived social and practical differences between cubicles and beds, which of course begs the question, how were they distinguished? It is not something we can see in the archaeological evidence, but does it mean that some roundhouses effectively had small ‘rooms’ within them?

However, neither the archaeological or the documentary evidence (as tantilising as the latter can be) give us a sense of what these houses looked like, their physical appearance, their use in a day-to-day sense, or how they would have performed in terms of light, smoke, heat and other practical matters. There are literally no standing early medieval houses today that give us a sense of these things.

One option then is to build one, using the best archaeological and historical evidence, and using architectural principles, ethnological sources, and some interpretative leaps to fill in missing gaps in the evidence. This is where experimental archaeology comes in, as the reconstruction or more accurately the construction of replica buildings is increasingly used around the world as a way of both thinking through the evidence, but also as a means of testing hypotheses or asking questions of the original evidence. Experimental archaeology can be defined as the reconstruction of past buildings, technologies, environmental contexts, and objects, so as to create a better understanding of the character and role of material culture in people’s lives in the past.

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In 2012, UCD School of Archaeology established a Centre for Experimental Archaeology and Material Culture on its campus, one of the only dedicated university facilities of its type in the world. It, and its associated research offices, laboratories, seminar rooms and equipment, are used for research, teaching and public outreach, and are currently home for a range of Postdoctoral Fellows, PhD scholars and students enrolled in UCD’s MSc in Experimental Archaeology and Material Culture. A range of projects are investigating the transformation of various materials in the past, including stone, flint, bronze, iron, textiles and wood, and features created during, for example, iron-smelting, can be compared with features found on archaeologically excavated sites. Experimental archaeology can also be used in a transformative teaching and learning approach, that encourages students to learn through all their senses (including for example, touch, sight, smell, hearing, heat/cold, etc). Students can also design, implement and analyse the results of their own experimental archaeology projects, providing them with experience and skills in project design, problem-solving, creativity, resourcefulness, intrinsic motivation, and time management. Our students identify their own research project, read the archaeological literature, define a problem/question, think practically about their methodology, get and prepare their raw materials, make or do something, and analyse and interpret their results in the context of wider archaeological knowledge. They often find out new things about the past.

With regards to houses and buildings, experimental archaeological projects have typically investigated a number of aspects of their construction, form and use. The can investigate the architectural and technological aspects of building, asking how did people build houses, what raw materials, technologies and skills did they need and use. Once built, they can explore how the might have performed in terms of light, warmth, heat, smoke, in different seasons and weather conditions. They can also explore the sensory or experiential aspects of buildings, as in what it would be like to inhabit and move around structures, and how their spaces were spatially organized using physical settings, such as hearths, beds and other features. Long-term experiments can investigate the temporal and chronological aspects of houses, posing such questions as how long it takes to build them, how do they deteriorate across time, how long they last, and why and how do they collapse, and what is the likely impact of their collapse and abandonment on the archaeological record?

The Early Medieval and Viking Houses Project is an ongoing research programme situated at the UCD Centre for Experimental Archaeology and Material Culture, focused on the reconstruction and interpretation of an early medieval roundhouse, dated to c.AD 700, and of a Viking Dublin house, dated to c.AD 1000. The first construction is complete, the second is currently in progress. The early medieval roundhouse at UCD is based on a house uncovered at the early medieval rath at Deer Park Farms, Co. Antrim, a site excavated by Chris Lynn and Jacqueline McDowell in the 1980s, and recently sumptuously published as a well-researched and illustrated monograph. The site was located at the top of an Antrim glen.

It was occupied between c.AD 650 and AD 1000, and built up into a mound over time as people brought in clay and gravel to cope with waterlogging at the base of a slope. Consequently at the lowest levels of the rath, in Phase 6A, conditions of preservation were excellent due to the anaerobic, waterlogged nature of the soils. Of the houses at these lowest levels, not only the postholes, but the vertical posts and their horizontal woven wattles survived, along with a wide range of other organic remains. The houses were circular structures, 6-8m in diameter, and were built of double post-and-wattle walls, with an inner and outer wall, with the spaces between them filled with insulating, organic material such as grasses, mosses and bracken. There were no internal roof supports of vertical timbers, so the walls were the only structural feature upon which a roof could be constructed. The house doors were framed with upright oak jambs and lintels, and may have been remarkably small (not more than 1.2m in height). Beds were constructed of wattle, and were layered with poles, branches and organic materials. The early medieval roundhouse chosen for reconstruction at UCD was Structure Epsilon, one of the smaller buildings at 5.3m external diameter.

Reconstructing the early medieval house firstly required careful review by the project team of the environmental evidence to ascertain precisely what building materials would be required. The houses at Deer Park Farms were built almost entirely of hazel, with oak used for door frames. Heather, bracken and moss were abundant in the wall fills, and grass sods may have been used as scraw in the roofs, and also as filling materials in the beds. The floors and bedding areas also had heather, bracken, brushwood, leaves, bark, dry flax stems, a ‘hay-like’ vegetation (i.e. dry grass) that had been cut from wet and dry meadows (the latter source being particularly used in the beds), with rushes and weeds caught up in this material. The insect evidence was also important for reconstructing habitats and from that, a better understanding of living conditions and materials used in the house. There were beetles and insects associated with decaying ‘hay-like’ vegetation, particularly in the bedding areas. There were also some beetles typically found in heather/moorland, especially in the cavity walls, the middens around the site, and on the ground. These might indicate the importation of heather into the site from the neighbouring uplands.

What was then required was some decisions about what architectural form the reconstructed house should take. In general, roundhouse reconstructions in archaeological open air museums, in heritage parks, and in experimental archaeology projects all tend to be quite similar in design; round buildings, with pitched, conical roofs. This is despite the fact that it is a form generally unknown in the European vernacular house tradition. In designing the early medieval reconstruction at UCD, the team decided to move away from this type, and to construct a domical (rather than a conical) structure, not unlike the early medieval clochain found in the west of Ireland. Ethnographic analogies were also sought across the world, particularly for domical houses built of light materials, with no internal roof supports. The Sarakatsani nomadic goat-herders in northern Greece build circular houses with steep domical roofs, constructed of narrow branches and thatched with grass and straw. The Wichita First Nations in Kansas/Oklahoma also built domical houses of a ribbed frame of branches, with no distinction between roof and wall. In architectural terminology, these are termed “undifferentiated structures” (i.e. there is no differentiation between wall and roof, the wall curves up and over into a roof continuously, before curving the far side down into the wall). These buildings have the advantage of being immensely strong in all meridians, despite their light materials.

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Building the early medieval roundhouse at UCD commenced with the digging of 50cm deep postholes to set the vertical oak door frames into, and the completion of the door ope. Once the door was in place, the construction of the wall could commence with the setting out of a circle of closely spaced hazel stakes, using a rope of known length tied to a central temporary post, and simply walking it around. This circle of stakes measured c.4.8m in diameter. Horizontal hazel wattles were then woven in and around these stakes to create a low, ankle-high fence, effectively the foundation of the house. Further verticals could then be placed and hammered into interstices in the wattles, to create a second row of uprights. The weaving of the house wall then started, using the distinctive weaving technique known from Deer Park Farms, which effectively is a type of braid with three wattles weaving around each other, and the verticals, to create an immensely strong, rope-like weave. As the inner and outer walls were raised up, heather, bracken (collected from the Wicklow mountains) and grasses were stuffed into the insulation space. As the wattle walls reached head height, the verticals were brought curving inwards with ropes, so the whole structure started to curve inwards into a dome. Further verticals inserted into the weave continued the structure up and in, until it was finally brought together at the top. The house, now a completed wattled dome, was then thatched with c.1.5tonnes of ling heather (Calluna vulgaris) cropped from a raised bog in Co. Roscommon, in keeping with the insect evidence for upland vegetation and heather at Deer Park Farms. This was stitched with hempen rope to wattle using a 19th century box stitch, by a professional thatcher.

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In total, the raw materials used to build the house included c.250 vertical hazel posts, c.1,600 horizontal hazel rods, 4 oak timbers for the door frame, 4 oak planks for the door itself, and the insulation in the cavity being made of c.20 bags of bracken, along with heather fronds, sticks, moss, grass, and weeds from around the site. Brendan O’Neill, who built the house, took about 30 days to construct it, and the thatching took 9 days work. These estimates of raw materials and time are not provided with any sense that we can meaningfully replicate the tasks of experienced workers, but Brendan O’Neill suspects that experienced early medieval house builders, if they had the raw materials ready and to hand, could have probably built a roundhouse in 10-15 days.


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The early medieval roundhouse at UCD is currently being investigated in terms of living conditions and environment. Specifically, a range of instruments including thermocouples, carbon sensors, luxmeters, humidity and wind velocity sensors, and infrared cameras are used to test temperature, smoke pollution, light levels, dampness and draughts and heat-loss from the walls and roof. It is often thought that these houses would be dark, damp and smoky, with high levels of carbon monoxide, particulate matter, benzene and nitrogen dioxide coming from wood fires. Preliminary results of testing of the UCD house while fires are lit suggest that carbon levels are actually quite low even when fires are lit, and are not much higher than 550ppm (and so well within EU health and safety levels which are set at 1,500ppm). It is apparent that the smoke drifts out through the roof and thus dispels it quickly.

Screen Shot 2017-05-28 at 12.53.16Thermal assessments during winter and summer suggest that a 10-15 degree Celsius difference between inside and outside the house can be quickly achieved with a fire, though it is striking how much physical labour and time is required to keep wood chopped and a fire alight. On the other hand, once the fire goes out, temperatures plummet inside the house quickly, and within 30-40 minutes there is little difference between internal and external temperatures. It is possible of course that the UCD house is losing heat too fast, and that better wall insulation and a thicker thatch would retain more hear (though it would also retain more smoke).

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Light levels inside the house are gloomy. It is obviously brighter at the door, especially in the mornings with the rising sun flooding its light into the house. However, light is also provided by the centrally placed hearth. One of the striking things about the rectangular bed is the way it introduces corners into a circular structure, and also creates a brighter and darker part of the house on either side. The back of the house, behind the bed is perpetually in darkness, and could only have been used for storage. The human experience of the house’s spaces is also being assessed.

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All visitors on the surprising feeling of the distinctive space within the building, and emotionally all people enjoy the fire when lit in the central hearth. This fireplace provides the key hub for any social interactions, as people sit around it on low stools, chatting or falling silent looking into the flickering flames. The house is also an important teaching tool for archaeology students, and is frequently used for cooking stews and baking breads in our replicated early medieval souterrain ware pottery – but that’s another story.

In conclusion, reconstructing an early medieval roundhouse provides us with a range of tools for understanding architecture and living conditions in the past. Through engaging with the historical texts and the archaeological data, in a practical, embodied sense we can gain insights into them, but also become aware of new questions that can be asked of them. We can think about practical building technologies and strategies, the choice and use of materials (and the importance of coppiced hazel), as well as the time and labour invested in their construction. Indeed, on that point, we can think about the ease and rapidity with which these houses can be built, and we don’t know as yet how long these buildings might have lasted, but we suspect that they may have been replaced inside ten years. We can begin to investigate the realities and experience of living conditions inside an early medieval building, in terms of light, heat, smoke and dampness, and to think about social life around the fire, about its vital heat for personal warmth and cooking, about how light acts dynamically inside the house and enables and creates a constraint on human activity. The UCD experimental archaeological reconstruction also offers us at least a glimpse of what daily life might have been like inside an early medieval roundhouse, over a thousand years ago.


This paper is the text of the Robert Farrell Memorial Lecture, delivered by Aidan O’Sullivan, at the International Congress of Medievalists at Kalamazoo, Michigan, on Thursday May 12th, 2016, for the American Society for Irish Medieval Studies.

The lecture was based on the co-authors’ collaborative research project, entitled “The Early Medieval and Viking Houses Project” at UCD Centre for Experimental Archaeology, which was funded by UCD Research Seed Funding Scheme.

O’Sullivan, A., McCormick, F., Kerr, T.R. and Harney, L. (2014) Early medieval Ireland, AD 400—1100: The evidence from archaeological excavations. Royal Irish Academy, Dublin.



The National Museum of Ireland and the proposed takeover of some of its facilities by Seanad Éireann. How did this come about, and what are the implications?


Two little boys looking at Viking swords in the National Museum of Ireland’s “Viking Age Ireland” exhibition, Kildare Street (photo: Aidan O’Sullivan)

Aidan O’Sullivan

UCD School of Archaeology

Saturday, 29 October, 2016

The proposed move of Seanad Éireann into the National Museum of Ireland (NMI) in Kildare Street, Dublin, has been a subject of increasing public concern this last week.

However, the story actually goes back to earlier this year, if not beyond.

We can begin the story, for the moment anyway, on June 17, 2016, when the Dept of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs website announced that Minister Heather Humphreys had appointed a new board to the National Museum of Ireland (NMI), to be chaired by Catherine Heaney.

The new NMI Board included a range of people with different professional backgrounds, from the PR industry, museums’ sector, business and academia. Almost two years previously, Minister Humphreys had been embroiled in a political controversy about Board appointments, and the policy decision to appoint Board members to state bodies after due applications, and on their professional merits, without any questions of political connections, was generally widely welcomed.

It now seems likely that amongst the very first tasks that the newly appointed NMI Board was faced with, was to consider a request to relinquish some of the facilities of the National Museum of Ireland to the Oireachtas. We can see this because less than a month after the Board’s appointment,  Minister Humphreys stated in a response in the Dail on July 12, 2016,to questions raised by Sinn Fein’s Denise Mitchell and Sinn Fein’s Peadar Tóibínthat:

“My Department is liaising with the OPW and the National Museum of Ireland regarding a request by the Oireachtas to use some space in the National Museum premises on Kildare Street on a temporary basis while essential works are being carried out to the Seanad Chamber in Leinster House. This request is being considered by the Board of the National Museum. With regard to any potential inconvenience for the Museum in terms of its lecture programme/education and outreach services, my Department has assured the Museum that it will take all necessary steps, in conjunction with the OPW, to ensure that these services can be continued with the minimum of disruption.”

It is a story that had been rumoured for months in Irish archaeology, and it was occasionally reported upon by some journalists, including Justine McCarthy and Aaron Rogan for The Times (behind paywalls). On July 16, Sarah Bardon wrote a news piece for the Irish Times reporting that the Minister of State Sean Canney, with responsibility for the Office of Public Works (OPW) had questioned a plan to temporarily move the Seanad to the National Museum in Dublin at a cost of €1.7 million, saying “we cannot spend that kind of money.” He said that alternative sites should be examined to accommodate the Upper House. Minister Canney said “To spend €1.7 million to relocate 60 people for two years is an extraordinary large sum of money….we have to consider whether this is value for money and if there are other options“.

Dr Michael Ryan, formerly President of the Royal Irish Academy and former Director of the National Museum of Ireland wrote a letter to the Irish Times for July 28, 2016 that summarised the potential harm that would be done.

“…History does not encourage those who care about the national collections to hope that this time the museum, strapped for staff, money, space and administrative esteem as it is, will be spared…. In the 1960s the much-loved fossil hall was taken and demolished to provide a Dáil restaurant, and the geology collections disappeared from public view and haven’t been seen since. A little later a substantial room was taken to provide a temporary Dáil bar while security considerations in the 1970s caused the last (staff) link between Kildare Street and the Natural History Museum to be closed.

The ceramics room which is being eyed as a home for the Senate is the last space available to the museum for its public lectures, outreach programmes etc. These will cease if the Senate moves in. In order to bring the Senate into the building, new entrances between Leinster House and the appropriated gallery will have to be created and there is no guarantee that other space will not be taken. There are no public lifts and so mobility-impaired visitors cannot reach the first floor. Is this embarrassing lack compatible with open, public debate in our Senate? Important as the Senate is, there are other possible venues and choosing the most suitable of these, would spare the National Museum another humiliating and damaging intervention

Nonetheless, it seems that a decision was reached by September 2016 at least. Justine McCarthy writing for The Times reported on October 2, 2016, that “Catherine Heaney, the NMI’s chairwoman, wrote last week to Heather Humphreys, the minister for arts, saying the Seanad may use the ceramics room in its Kildare Street premises.”

However, Aaron Rogan reported in The Times on October 6, 2016, that there were strong concerns amongst the staff of the National Museum of Ireland about the proposed move. He reported:

“The Houses of the Oireachtas will pay €1.7 million to link the museum to Leinster House and make the ceramics room suitable for the Seanad. Sources in the museum claim that the investment will not benefit the exhibition space and will instead mean three rooms will be used primarily for Oireachtas business in future. In order to use the wing, which currently houses the Japanese room, Chinese room and ceramics room, a walkway from Leinster House will be built and a lift installed, as well as soundproofing and voting equipment. Staff were told that the move would be temporary at a meeting on Monday, but one source questioned why the Oireachtas would spend so much to link the buildings if it was not for some form of permanent access. “There may be an agreement that the Seanad will leave after two years but the fear is that once that much money has been spent on the room the government will then want to keep it for something else such as an extra committee room. It would be a waste to spend €1.7 million on something temporary,” the source said. The source said some staff feared the entire building could be taken for Oireachtas use in the future and the museum space moved to Collins Barracks.”

Aaron Rogan also reported in this article of October 6, 2016 that “Catherine Heaney, the newly appointed chairwoman of the National Museum of Ireland (NMI), wrote last week to Heather Humphreys, the arts minister, to say that the Seanad could use the ceramics room at its Kildare Street premises. Neither side would say what demands the NMI had made or what concessions were granted in return.”

The actions of the NMI Board Chair and the Board members in their acquiescence to this request has been a subject of discussion amongst many archaeologists this week. It is something that will no doubt deserve further, deeper investigation by others as to how, and why, the NMI Board made this decision. No doubt there were questions of funding and resources to be considered. It will be interesting anyway to hear what pressures the NMI Board-and indeed NMI staff-were put under throughout this process.

In any case, as is now well-known (but was far less well-known until the former Director of the NMI, Dr Pat Wallace did us all a service by speaking about it publicly on RTE’s Morning Ireland radio programme), it quickly became clear that planning had been underway for some time to have some of the National Museum of Ireland’s spaces taken over for use by Seanad Éireann, as the latter’s debating chamber is refurbished.

As readers of this occasional blog will know, or readers of my OpinionPiece in the Irish Times last Monday 24 October 2016 will know, I am strongly of the view that  Seanad Éireann is an integral part of our democracy.  The Irish people voted for its retention in a referendum—indeed, I voted for it myself. But I and many others think that the proposed move of Seanad Éireann into the National Museum of Ireland will be very damaging.

There have been various reports about what the intervention would entail, including the provision of a lift for the Senators, and the establishment of a walkway, atrium, meeting room and fire escape.

An Taisce came out in opposition to the temporary relocation of Seanad Éireann to the National Museum, pointing out that it represents a change of use for the museum, and so requires planning permission. The growing public concern could be seen in letters to the Irish Times throughout the week after the story became more publicly well-known, such as here and here. As many commentators stated, not least former Senator John A. Murphy here, there were sensible, less expensive and more politically appropriate solutions within Leinster House.

The Board of the Institute of Archaeologists of Ireland wrote a letter to the Irish Times opposing the plan here.

Matt Seaver representing the Archaeological branch of Unite Union wrote a letter here

The growing resistance to the move could also be seen in a number of petitions seeking a rethink, including a respectful plea to the Minister and organised by Queens University Belfast PhD scholar Rena Maguire here on change.org, and the most recent and active petition being that one organised by the Irish Arts Review which can found-and signed-here.

Most recently, in an editorial on Tuesday November 1, 2016, The Irish Times termed the move an atrocious decision and stated that “Alternative accommodation can be found for Seanad debates within Leinster House, even if some disruption may be caused to the work of TDs and joint committees. In the past, individual senators prompted social progress by challenging bureaucracy and political ignorance. In return, the Irish people decided the Seanad is still worth keeping. Members of that chamber can now display the public’s faith in them by reversing this deeply misguided decision.”

So, let us say it again.

As important as the Seanad is, the National Museum of Ireland is one of our premier cultural heritage institutions, the place where the deepest and oldest memories of the people of Ireland are kept. People have been on this island for at least 10,000 years, since the first hunter-gatherers landed on our shores at c.7,800 BC—and perhaps earlier. Through the subsequent thousands of years, the peoples of this island built and lived in houses, managed animals and crops, made and used things, and buried their loved ones in their graves in the landscapes around them. Down through the centuries, peoples, ideas, things and animals were brought from other lands, and similarly the peoples of this island went out into the world. The objects and materials held and displayed in the National Museum of Ireland help us remember where we came from, and how we have been part of the wider world.

The responsibilities of the staff of the National Museum of Ireland include the care, management and protection of our archaeological and material culture heritage, and as importantly the communication of knowledge about this heritage to the widest possible audience, both in Ireland and to people all over the world. Thousands of people come through the Museum every year, from all over the world.

Its exhibition, conference, and educational spaces are where we teach our children about our ancient past, as can be seen by the throngs of school children and students that move though them every day.

I am now a Professor of Archaeology, but many years ago my father used to take me around its exhibitions. He was studying Archaeology at UCD at the time and amongst my earliest memories are a little stack of Late Mesolithic chert Bann flakes, from what was thought then to be amongst our earliest archaeological evidence. It was my Dad’s opinion that everything in the National Museum of Ireland actually belonged to us, the Irish people. He was right: our archaeological legislation is amongst the best in Europe. The objects in the National Museum of Ireland are indeed ours, held in trust for us by the state.

The National Museum of Ireland is our Museum.

It is now becoming clear to everybody that the impact of the proposed move is drastic. It will require the complete take-over and alteration of at least three large rooms (Japanese Room, Ceramics Room, Chinese Room), essentially the entire upper wing of the Museum. It may or may not involve the construction of a lift, which would be of minimal benefit to the Museum itself. It is also now rumoured that there will be further intervention into at least two or three further rooms on the opposite wing (the current Viking AVC room, as well as the NMI Boardroom and NMI Director’s Office), and generally a complete disruption of the work of the Museum’s staff and their work.

It has been politically spun that this is all a “financial investment” into the Museum, and that payments to the Museum are a recompense for the disruption.

This is all nonsense of course. If the state actually wished to invest in the NMI, then it could do what was done at the National Museet, the National Museum of Denmark, at Copenhagen. It could do what was done at the Museo Arqueológico Nacional, the National Archaeological Museum, in Madrid, Spain, where a genuine financial investment led to a wonderful redesign of an ancient building that must be a pride of Spain. Watch the video here and imagine what our National Museum of Ireland in Kildare Street might be if it was genuinely supported. Instead, we can only suspect that the NMI staff find all this cynical spinning and all the uncertainty to be demoralizing, and if they are disillusioned about the state’s lack of support for their work, you can see why.

So, it would be good if we could hear a bit less about how all this is an “investment” in the Museum.

Everybody understands what is going on.

The works are intended to provide only for the Seanad and every other intervention is a direct consequence of this. The financial cost of this proposed move of the Seanad into the National Museum of Ireland remains unknown. Will it be €1.5million, €1.7 million, or €2 million – or will it creep upwards as the work progresses? Is this a justifiable expenditure of public money for a temporary move of the Seanad into the museum, when other cheaper options could be available?

Finally, nobody in Irish archaeology that I have spoken to believes this to be a “temporary move”. The Seanad might return to their chambers in two or three(?) years, but do we seriously think the Oireachtas will leave its walkway, lift, atrium, and brand-spanking new, technically well-equipped rooms in the NMI? Is it not more likely that in about a year we will start hearing talk of the exorbitant financial waste that would be entailed if the Oireachtas left this excellent new facility only a year after it had spent a large amount of public money on it?

The National Museum of Ireland, where our ancient material and cultural heritage is kept, has been beggared by ruinous financial under-investment and budget cuts. We know that the proposed move will have at least a damaging, if not a destructive, effect on the educational capacities of the Museum. It certainly involves a complete loss of flexible space for children and School groups. It will harm its ability to host conferences and seminars for the public. It will entirely remove any capacity it might have to offer temporary exhibitions, workshops and other activities. As importantly, it will continue to disrupt and demoralise its staff, hard-working, conscientious and passionate individuals who have dedicated their working lives to caring for and communicating our cultural heritage to Ireland and the world.

There is no need for this to happen.

As I have written before, many of us believe that this expensive and damaging intervention will be harmful in the short-term and long-term to the National Museum of Ireland’s duties, responsibilities and obligations, its staff and their resources, and the public’s use of its own institution’s exhibitions, conference, and educational spaces.

It is our National Museum of Ireland after all. It is time to call stop on this proposed move and to think again.

And perhaps it is also beyond time to start a serious public debate about what a proper investment in the National Museum of Ireland’s Archaeological facility in Kildare Street would actually look like?

(This blog post will be updated as more information becomes available)

Aidan O’Sullivan’s contact details are here

The National Museum of Ireland and the proposed taking by Seanad Éireann of its facilities


Aidan O’Sullivan,

UCD School of Archaeology

Thursday 20th October 2016


The National Museum of Ireland in Kildare Street, Dublin, is one of our premier cultural heritage institutions. It is the treasurehouse of our national archaeological collections amongst other things. It is the place where we keep the things that can be used to tell the story of our 10,000 years on this island.

The National Museum of Ireland’s and its staff’s responsibilities are enormous; including the curation, management and protection of our archaeological and material culture heritage, and the communication of knowledge about this heritage to the widest possible audience, both in Ireland and to people all over the world. It is also a place for the education of our children about our ancient past, as can be seen the throngs of school children and students that move though it every day.

It was recently reported on Tuesday 18th October 2016, in a radio interview on RTE radio’s Morning Ireland with the former Director of the National Museum of Ireland, Dr Pat Wallace, that it is proposed that the National Museum of Ireland will have some of its exhibition, conference, and education spaces taken over to be used by Seanad Éireann, as the latter’s debating chamber is refurbished over the coming years.

These plans to move the Seanad had been rumoured periodically, and reported on in the media before.

Earlier this year, in July 2016, the growing concerns were noted, such as in Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin‘s statement in the Seanad on 12 July 2016. Furthermore, similarly serious concerns were expressed about the huge cost (then estimated at €1.7 million) involved in moving the Seanad, 60 people, for 2 years by Seán Canney, Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works – see his statement here.

In response to the growing concerns, Dr Michael Ryan (former Director of the Chester Beatty Library, and former President of the Royal Irish Academy) sent a letter in the Irish Times for 28 July 2016, that you can read here, that highlighted the key problems. John Mulcahy’s editorial in the Irish Arts Review here stated similar concerns. But there was not a lot of more information publicly available.

In the last few days, in response to the interview with Dr Pat Wallace, there have been numerous articles and letters in various newspapers and websites (such as here, in the Irish Times, Journal.ie, the Irish ExaminerEvening Echo), and on social media. Several people have written letters to the Irish Times, which you can read here and also here protesting the move, and there is even now an online petition started seeking changes in the plans. The story has also started to generate news in international media, for example see here.

There are a few questions that need to be asked.

1) What is the financial cost of this proposed move of the Seanad into the National Musueum of Ireland?

Will it be €1.7 million, or €2 million – or more, after extra architectural and technical works are added on? Is this a justifiable expenditure of public money for a temporary move of the Seanad into the museum, when other cheaper options could be available (see below)?

2) How much space will be taken from the National Museum of Ireland?

Will it be more than one room; will it be two, will it actually be three rooms? While it has be widely reported that the move is to the ‘Ceramics Room’, in fact it seems that there is an intention to take the ‘Japanese Room’ (the room above the current Museum Cafe) to provide an entrance or atrium for Senators so that they do not have to move through the public; the ‘Ceramics Room’ (the large space currently used by NMI for its conferences, seminars, temporary exhibitions, public outreach and educational activities for adult and children), and the ‘Chinese Room’ (where NMI Dept of Antiquities staff currently have their offices for their day to day work). So that’s three rooms, not one. This will obviously also entail a disruption of NMI staff as they move to offices elsewhere, and presumably this will entail further loss of public exhibition spaces elsewhere in the NMI.

3) Indeed, why is the National Museum of Ireland and its facilities being used to sort out problems of space in the Oireachtas?

It is important to state that Seanad Éireann as part of our Oireachtas is an important part of our democracy, its retention was voted for by the Irish people in a referendum, and it is clearly the case that Senators serve their country patriotically and well. There is no need to imply that their work is not valuable and important.

But are there seriously no alternative spaces in Leinster House that could be used? Would a more pragmatic and cost-effective solution not be both less expensive and less destructive of the National Museum of Ireland’s capacities? There is the Dáil chamber itself; with proper scheduling could the Seanad not meet when the Dail Chamber is empty? Are there not other large rooms in Leinster House, such as the Committee Room 1 that could be used (apparently it is roughly the same size as the Seanad chamber, already has TV cameras, sound and recording equipment)? Finally, are there no alternative spaces in Dublin city centre-one could easily list off Dublin city centre conference facilities, Dublin Castle, Dublin City Council’s chambers, etc? In any case, this is a problem for the Oireachtas, why should our National Museum of Ireland be the solution to a lack of space in government buildings?

4) Is this move going to involve the physical intervention into, and alteration of, despite planning regulations, of a protected 19th century structure?

There have been some comments that this work is an “investment” in the National Museum of Ireland’s facilities, and also some reports of payments to the Museum.

After several years of serious budgetary cuts and ruinous financial under-investment, any such payment to the NMI can only be a fraction of what it needs, and cannot begin to replace what they’ve lost in recent years, and the staff that they have lost. Setting that aside, are the physical and technical alterations of the museum building and its rooms actually useful for the National Museum of Ireland in the future, or not? Does the NMI really need a political debating chamber, with its bangs and whistles, or does the NMI need actual investment suitable for a 21st century museum at the heart of the city? Will the Seanad’s debating facilities be removed when it leaves, if it ever does (and there are dark suspicions that this move may yet prove to be permanent)?

If they are to be removed in a few years, are these alterations not a massive waste of public money? €1.7 million? €2 million? More? If it is actually intended to not return the spaces to the National Museum of Ireland, as is suspected by many, then talk of this move being temporary is disingenuous, and represents a confiscation of our premier cultural heritage institution’s scarce facilities. If this development cannot be stopped, then can we see the written guarantees, the publicly made promises, that the Seanad will indeed depart the National Museum of Ireland in two years time? Without them, any talk of ‘temporary move’ has to be regarded as untrustworthy.

Amongst the alterations, it is apparently proposed that there be a lift installed, something which the NMI has rightly sought for decades, for people visiting with mobility issues, for parents with small children in buggies, for the staff moving materials, etc, but now suddenly when Seanad requires it, a lift can indeed be installed.

Where will this lift be exactly and what is it intended to access – will it go to the basement of the museum where much of its collections are held? Will it merely provide access to the upper floor and the NMI’s Ceramics Room for Senators and staff from Leinster House? Will this lift be usable by the general public visiting the NMI for the next few years, or only for users of the Seanad? Those of us familiar with the museum know that movement from the Ceramics Room into the rest of the upper floor requires the use of a short flight of steps, and further access from there to the Medieval Ireland exhibition and the Egyptian exhibition also requires more steps. It seems that this lift has no benefit for the museum or the public…

5) Finally, what will be the impact of this extremely expensive and damaging intervention on the National Museum of Ireland’s duties, responsibilities and obligations, its staff and their resources, and the public’s use of its own institution’s exhibitions, conference, and educational spaces – often used for children’s events?

This is our National Museum of Ireland.

It holds our national archaeological collections.

It is a place for us to communicate our cultural heritage to the rest of the world, and to our children.

It needs our support, now more than ever.

(This blog post will be updated as information becomes available)

Hurling and Camogie – searching for the early medieval origins of Ireland’s ancient games


Tipperary vs Kilkenny, National League Hurling Final, May 2014 (Photo: James Crombie, Irish Mirror)

Aidan O’Sullivan,

UCD School of Archaeology

Friday 2 September 2016


Ireland’s famous sports of hurling and camogie are stick-and-ball games played respectively by men and women, mostly on this island but increasingly abroad. The games are administered by the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) and the Camogie Association. Two teams of fifteen players each, oppose each other on a  large, rectangular pitch with goals at either end. The games, when played at the top level, and you can watch a fantastic  2013 All-Ireland Hurling Final with Clare vs Cork game on YouTube here, require players with a high degree of personal skill and physical coordination, as well as speed, agility, quickness of thought and action, and no little courage under a dropping ball with sticks flailing.


Dublin vs Tipperary camogie (photo: http://www.camogie.ie)

Hurling and camogie are games that inspire great passion and affection, and down through the years, its followers have tended to argue that hurling (I will use that name from now on, but what lies below applies to camogie also) is a game of immense antiquity, with roots deep in Irish prehistory. In reality, the modern sport of hurling was largely codified in the late 19th century, and has indeed itself evolved through the 20th century, and even in this decade, in terms of rules, equipment and tactics. However, we also have definite evidence for the playing of several different stick and ball games in the early medieval period (i.e. AD 400-1100, the later Middle Ages and then up to the modern period, and the challenge is to understand what these games might have been like.

In exploring the earliest evidence for hurling in Ireland, we have a limited range of sources. There are increasingly hints from archaeology, for both the character of the stick and ball, but our best evidence comes from early Irish historical sources and particularly early Irish laws dated to the 7th/8th century and early Irish narrative literature or sagas, dated to across the medieval period. These legal and literary sources give us our best sense of the equipment used, the stick and the ball, the playing areas (known in Old Irish as the faitche or cluichemag), as well as the game’s strategies, players, teams, and the injuries suffered both by participants and spectators.

A number of scholars have previously looked at the history of hurling, notably Liam O’Caithnia, Art O Maolfabhail and Seamus King. All of them provide particularly good and important studies of the development of hurling in the 17th-19th centuries, but perhaps – and this is not meant as a criticism – they tend to present very simplistic views of hurling in the medieval period. Most importantly, they tended to conflate and combine descriptions of possibly quite different games from different source, make them into one, and claim that this was “hurling”.

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Image: Aidan O’Sullivan, from original books)

Probably the most important recent scholarly work then has been Angela Gleason’s, who completed a PhD in the Dept. of History TCD in 2002, entitled “Entertainment in early Ireland” (and I’m delighted to acknowledge Dr Gleason for allowing me to read her thesis in 2009). One of the key points that Dr Gleeson makes is that all modern historical studies of hurling have tended to be heavily influenced by the GAA’s origins and development in the cultural and political nationalist movements of the late 19th century and 20th century. She has argued that historians of the GAA in attempting to identify the origins of hurling in the games of antiquity, may have bundled together potentially quite different games and presented them as one single game. The early medieval historical evidence might suggest that in fact people played quite a range of field sports and games, each of them with their own equipment, strategies and participants, some of which might have been like hurling, whilst others may have been quite different.

One of the problems in reconstructing the games as they were played is that the audiences of early medieval storytellers and writers would have been quite familiar with the games, so they would not have felt the need to explain the rules, tactics and complexities of the game. Thus phrases are used in the early medieval texts which we might struggle to understand, not having that easy familiarity all our lives.

Indeed, imagine if a person today, entirely unfamiliar with modern hurling, read in a  newspaper that “Joe Canning got the sliotar at the edge of the square, and stuck in the roof of the net”. Their reaction might be: “What’s a sliotar? What was the square? Why did he put in roof of the net, and how does one do that anyway?!” In the same sense, we are trying to reconstruct an ancient game from short pieces of text, intended for people who knew more than we do.

On the other hand, there is little doubt that when you read these texts, they do present a general sense of games that are not unlike hurling or camogie, or indeed games that were certainly like the games that were being played in Ireland the 18th and 19th centuries. Indeed, the earliest reference to a game known as hurling is found in a statute issued in Kilkenny in 1367, in the reign of Edward III, which outlaws horlinge, deeming it a distraction and diversion from military pursuits such as archery. The text reads

“Also, whereas a land, which is at war, requires that every person do render himself able to defend himself, it is ordained, and established, that the commons of the said land of Ireland, who are in the different marches at war, do not, henceforth, use the plays which men call horlings, with great sticks and a ball upon the ground, from which great evils and maims have arisen, to the weakening, of the defence of the said land, and other plays which men call coiting; but that they do apply and accustom themselves to use and draw bows, and throw lances, and other gentlemanlike games, whereby the Irish enemies may be the better checked by the liege people and commons of these parts; and if any do or practise the contrary, and of this be attainted, they shall be taken and imprisoned, and fined at the will of our lord the king.” (source CELT The Corpus of Electronic Texts, published by UCC)

Horlinge then in the 14th century then was a native, Irish game played with great sticks and a ball on the ground. Now, this is important, because in recent years we have confirmed archaeological evidence from the 15th century and before that, for sticks and for balls that would fit this description. In other words, we have definite historical and archaeological evidence for a type of game, known as hurling/horlinge, in the late medieval period. The evidence also fits well with what we know of earlier games, before the 10th century. On balance then, I think that the early medieval stick and ball games described in the sources are indeed ancestral to modern hurling, albeit different in many ways, and the experience of both playing and watching them would not be entirely strange to a modern observer, and certainly not strange to someone playing the game of hurling in the 18th or 19th century in parts of the country.

The description of stick-and-ball games in the Táin Bó Cuailgne

This can all be well-illustrated by a consideration of the most famous and most often quoted source about early medieval hurling; the Táin Bó Cuailgne and particularly the boyhood deeds of the hero Cú Chulainn (originally known in boyhood as Setanta). Although more recent, popular versions are available, the scholarly work is that of Cecile O’Rahilly who published academic editions/translations of both recensions, including her Táin Bó Cúalnge from the Book of Leinster (1967) and Táin Bó Cúailnge Recension 1 (1976), as well as an edition of the later Stowe Version (1984), a variant version of recension 2 in more modern language, with a few extra passages (see here for a discussion of versions and translations). In any case, descriptions of early medieval field sports, some of which are very like hurling, are found in two main versions of the Táin (and again, I am indebted to Angela Gleason for her previous analysis of the texts, with my own occasional comment).

  • The earliest and simplest descriptions (in Old Irish) are found in the Leabhar na hUidre (the Book of the Dun Cow, hereafter LU) dated to the early 12th century.
  • Slightly later, and more embellished descriptions (composed in middle Irish, but based on old Irish) are found in the late 12th century manuscript, Lebor Laignech (the Book of Leinster, hereafter LL)

The well-known section known as the boyhood deeds of Cú Chulainn begins by describing how one day, Cú Chulainn sets out on a journey to the playing-field at Emain Macha, the royal site of Ulster. He takes with him his wooden shield, his toy javelin, his playing stick and his ball.The text begins:

…the little lad asked his mother if he might go to play to the playing-field at Emain..

The boy went forth and took his playthings. He took his hurley-stick of bronze and his silver ball; he took his little javelin for casting and his toy spear with its end sharpened by fire, and he began to shorten the journey (by playing) with them, He would strike the ball with the stick and drive it a long way from him. Then with a second stroke he would throw his stick so that he might drive it a distance no less than the first. He would throw his javelin and he would cast his spear and would make a playful rush after them. Then he would catch his hurley-stick and his ball and his javelin and before the end of his spear had reached the ground he would catch its tip aloft in the air (From O’Rahilly, C. 1967 Táin Cúalnge from the Book of Leinster, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies Táin LL, trans. 158-59).

The different texts deal with the equipment using different phrases:

Leabhar na hUidhre version (early 12th cent.) “He went off then with his wooden shield and his toy javelin, his hurley and his ball (a lorg áne 7 a liat[h]ráit)

Lebor Laignech version (late 12th cent) “He took his hurley-stick of bronze and his silver ball (Gebid a chammán crédunma 7 a líathroit n-argide); he took his little javelin for casting and his toy spear with its end sharpened by fire.

We can see straight away that there are several important words in the various recensions of the Táin texts; lorg áne means literally ‘driving-stick’ and is used in LU (but O’Rahilly translates it as ‘hurley’), while LL uses the term ‘cammán créduma (which O’Rahilly translates as ‘bronze hurley’, following the modern Irish word cammán, which means literally ‘little bent thing’). The texts go on. On his way to Emain (in LL), Cú Chulainn amuses himself by striking the ball with his cammán so that it flies a great distance. He then throws his cammán after it, once again striking the ball and driving it a distance equal to the first. He completes the trick by throwing his javelin after it, catching all of them before they strike the ground.

So, here we get a clear description of the use of a stick (lorg áne or cammán) to hit a ball (liathróit) and interestingly, the stick is used to hit the ball up into the air rather than simply along the ground.

When he reaches the playing-field at Emain, Cú Chulainn attempts to join a game being played by boys. In both LU and LL, he does not seek a bond of protection (a legal exemption from liability for injuries given and received). He joins the game and shows great skill, scoring a goal. However, his attempts to join the game are resisted. The other boys throw their balls at him, along with their hurling-clubs

LL They cast their thrice fifty hurley-sticks (trí coíctu cammán) at the boy’s head. He lifted up his single plaything stick (óenluirg n-ánuisa) and warded off the thrice fifty sticks. Then they cast the thrice fifty balls at the little boy.

The use of another word, óenluirg n-ánuisa is interesting, and may simply be the use of different words to provide variety, but Angela Gleason has suggested that this may indicate that being of different status (an unfostered youth, unlike the boys) he had a different stick.

 Cú Chulainn uses his lorg áne in other activities, mostly violent, elsewhere in the Táin. In one episode from LU, he meets a man carrying his brother on his back, but refuses to help him and the man attacks him. LU “Wherepon Cú Chulainn rose to his feet, and striking off his opponent’s head with his hurley, began to drive (imáin) the head like a ball before him across the plain’.

However, the picture gets a little more complex when we realise that in another part of the Táin, there is a description of the boys gathered on Conchobar’s playing field at Emain, to play cluchi puill (‘hole game’).

“Conchobar went to the playing field (arin faidchi) and saw something that astonished him; thrice fifty boys at one end of the field and a single boy at the other end, and the single boy winning victory in taking the goal and in hurling (‘immána’, driving) from the thrice fifty youths. When they played the hole-game.. and when it was their turn to cast the ball and his to defend, he would catch the thrice fifty ball outside the hole and none would go past him into the hole. When it was their turn to keep goal and his to hurl, he would put the thrice fifty balls unerringly into the hole” Táin Cúalnge

There is possibly an implication here that the ‘hole game’ is different than other field-sports. Cú Chulainn defends a ‘goal’, each boy appears to use his own ball. Angela Gleason suggests that the existence of a distinct game known as the ‘hole-game’ is also implied by the law-tract Bretha Éitgid describing injuries sustained during it. The terms used are balls (liathroide), sticks (lorg), holes (poll) and pis (long). A difficult to understand passage goes as follows;

“Immune is he who strikes the ball with his stick from the driving hole to the grifid-pit (place?), or from the grifid-pit to the place of division, or [in striking it] from the hole in which it is until it reaches the place in which it is.” Bretha Éitgid, trans. A.B. Gleason 2002, Recreation in early Ireland, PhD thesis, Trinity College Dublin p. 271

It is all very impenetrable, but this and other passages from an Old Irish law tract known as Mellbretha, suggests the existence of a playing field with separate places, boundaries and divisions, and that a ball is driven from one place to another, and defended. On the other hand, its possible that the same place and equipment were used for the ‘hole game’ as the previous ones, much like say boys and girls might play penalties today, and use a number of different balls, as one boy or girl defends the goal. It is in principle the same sport, but is a different type of contest.

In any case, the Táin gives us a strong sense of a stick and ball game, the equipment used, possibly the tactics, the means of scoring and the venue, which we turn to now.

Where were the games played?

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The early medieval sources give us a strong sense of where field-games were played and most often use the terms ‘faithche’ (green) or cluichemag (sports field), and this is particularly so in the Táin.

“He went on to the place of assembly in Emain where the youths were. There were thrice fifty youths lead by Follomain mac Conchobuir at their games on the green of Emain. The little boy went on to the playing field (faithche) in their midst and caught the ball between his two legs when they cast it nor did he let it go higher than the top of his knee no go lower than his ankle, and he pressed it and held it close between his two legs, and not one of the youths managed to get a grasp or a stroke or a blow or a shot at it. And he carried the ball away from them over the goal.” From O’Rahilly, C. 1967 Táin Cúalnge from the Book of Leinster, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies Táin LL, trans. 158-59

In the Táin, there is a clear sense that the game is played in a specific space close to the king’s household at Emain. The Book of Leinster version uses the words faithche (‘green’) and cluichemag (‘sports field’) to describe the place where Cu Chulainn and the boys of Emain play.

In the Middle Irish Tóruigheacht Dhiarmada agu Ghráinne, the king of Ireland holds a contest of ‘driving (iomáin churmórtuis) during a fair (áonaigh) on the green at Tara. The use of the word ‘driving’ is interesting obviously, as well as the fact of a competition, and a venue.

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In early medieval Ireland, we know that the space close to the royal residence was known as the faitche or ‘green’ and was used as a location for fairs, assemblies and also sporting events. The green was probably a fairly large area and in some sources is defined as the four fields adjacent to a chief residence and in others as the land as far as a bell might be heard – all very vague definitions, but definitely implying that a green was a space close to the residence. There is even a sense in the historical sources that such greens had to be maintained in good order by the king. In the old Irish law tract, Cetharslicht Athgabála, there was a requirement for greens to be maintained “in the time of the games” (cartad oenaigh .i.. in aimsir cluithi)….a bit like the Croke Park groundsmen maintaining their pitch

Other early Irish legal sources all stipulate that a green or faithche was a place where people could play field-games (cluithi) and horseracing (graithfne) and that they would be legally immune from fines for damage to property if this was what they were doing. For example, Angela Gleason notes in her PhD that a passage in the law tract, Bretha Éitgid states that anyone who causes damage or injury from striking a ball on the green of the chief-enclosure (faiche primcathrach) is exempt from fines as such open spaces are free. However, if small boys caused destruction by driving balls (imain na liathroiti) outside the green (secharfaiche), they – or their parents or foster-parents – would have to pay compensation. The law tract, Bretha Éitgid also defines various legal liabilities if the ball lands outside the green; including considerations for the retrieval of the ball; permission to enter private property; permission to open any fence or gap to retrieve a ball and care to secure such a barrier upon leaving. So, a strong sense that the playing-field was bounded in some way.

There is even a sense that spectators gathered in particular areas to watch the game on the playing-field, much as in the Táin where it says the Conchobar spends a third of his day watching the drivings (immánae) of the boys on the green. Indeed, there are even legal passages that discuss circumstances where spectators might be compensation for injuries received while watching a game.

The descriptions of games at Tara and Emain Macha certainly indicate that part of the spaces around them were used for games, but we can also identify other archaeological sites in Ireland where we can see hints that a royal stronghold or fort had a green or faitche beside it. For example, on Lough Derravaragh, Co. Westmeath, there is a likely royal crannog and ringfort at Coolure Demesne. UCD School of Archaeology’s investigations have dated this crannog to the between the 5th and the 9th century AD, and a range of finds indicate that it was a high-status site, possibly that of the Uí Fiachrach Cuile Fobair, a minor local dynasty in Mide. The local townland may preserve in its outline the estate associated with the royal residences and would certainly provide a suitable space for a green or playing field.

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An early medieval royal landscape at Coolure Demesne, Co. Westmeath, with likely royal residences at the crannog and ringfort on the adjacent land. The space to the east of the dwellings would make an ideal faithche or cluiche mag (Image Aidan O’Sullivan, UCD School of Archaeology)

Similarly, in Co. Westmeath, we have the known early medieval royal residences of the kings of Clann Cholmáin, one of the most important groups of the Southern Uí Néill, and ultimately holders of the kingship of Tara. At their royal crannog of Cro-inis, and their royal fort at Dún na Sciath, there is an interesting exclusion zone to the north, where there is a complete absence of any early medieval settlement enclosures.  Screen shot 2016-09-02 at 12.10.14

It is also incidentally, a level, grassy sward that again would make an idea playing field. Although we have no way of proving it, it is likely that this space was the location for games, horse racing and public assemblies associated with the king during the early medieval period.

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Photos (top) and map (above) showing the early medieval royal residences, Dun na Sciath and Cro-inis, of the kings of Clann Cholmain, of Mide, on the west shore of Lough Ennell, Co. Westmeath. An expanse of grassland to the north of the royal complex would be highly suitable for the extent of a faithche. (Colour photo and map, Aidan O’Sullivan; black and white photo in 1969: Cambridge University Committee for Aerial Photography).

What were the playing sticks – the lorg ané and cammáin – like in early medieval Ireland?

So, what were these playing sticks like, and did they bear any resemblance to the hurleys that we know from more recent times? Well, we can see today that hurleys are both regional in style, and that they have changed profoundly even within the 20th century, so its likely that lorg áne – the driving stick – and cammáin – little bent thing – in early medieval Ireland were probably variable. There are regional styles in Wexford, Kilkenny, Galway and elsewhere today, so why not in the past?

We have for example, the very recent O’Connor style hurley, initially used by Cork hurlers but now increasingly by most county teams, with its pronounced heel, which is very much about the modern style of game which is largely played from the hand and thus emphasises the ‘sweet spot’ in the middle of the bas, for striking the ball from the hand.

Cork v Wexford - All-Ireland Senior Camogie Championship Final

Katriona Mackey, Cork, in action against Noeleen Lambert, Wexford. All-Ireland Senior Camogie Championship Final, Cork v Wexford, Croke Park, Dublin, Sept. 2012. You can see two slightly different styles of hurley here, the one to the right used by the Cork camogie player displays the pronounced heel that is increasingly popular, the Wexford player’s is more like the traditional Wexford style  (Photo Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE)

Moving backwards to the 1950s, for example, we can see that hurleys used in Clare by my father, shown in the photograph of the Clare hurling team were quite different again – with sticks that were principally for ground hurling.


My father, John O’Sullivan (back row, second from right) on the Clare senior hurling team in the mid-1950s. In the foreground you can see his team mates’ hurleys, which with their narrow bas are of course designed largely for ground hurling and are very different from the stick used today. (Photo: O’Sullivan family).

Moving back further in time, we can see in this image of the hurley used by the Kilkenny player Lory Meagher, traditionally seen as one the game’s greatest players. His hurley is of course very narrow in the bas, as befitted the game at the time in the 1920s and 1930s. Indeed, you can watch the game as it was played, mostly on the ground, in 1921 during the Dublin v Limerick All-Ireland Hurling Final in this British Pathé newsreel here


Lory Meagher (to the left) prior to the All-Ireland Final against Cork in September 1931

Moving backwards again to c. 1900, we can see in this image of a hurley found at Michael Cusack’s house at Carron and currently held in Clare County Museum, that sticks consistently had a long, narrow boss.


Michael Cusack’s hurley, Carron, Co. Clare (Clare County Museum)


Going back further in time, the National Museum of Ireland’s Folk Life Collection also has a collection of hurleys, some of which might well be early in date although most probably date to the 19th century. These vary in style, There are also various depictions used by Art O’Maolfabhail, going back through 1840s to 1805 – which might or might not be accurate drawings – of hurley sticks in the 19th century.

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Hurleys from the late 19th century and early 20th century. To the left, one Patrick Kenrick, Fethard, c.1900, from a photograph held by the National Library of Ireland, to the right, an image used in his book by Art O’Maolfabhail from the National Museum of Ireland’s Folklife Collection, showing a range of hurleys from different parts of the country.

At this point, we might also mention Art O’Maolfabhail opinion that there was originally a northern ‘winter hurling’ and a Leinster ‘summer hurling’, with the GAA largely adopting the latter on its formation in 1886.

We can push this discussion of the development of hurling sticks by mentioning the very earliest artistic depiction we have of a stick, which is on a late medieval grave slab found at Clonca, on the Inisowen peninsula, Co. Donegal. This grave slab was made, probably in Ireland, for one Mánas mac Mhoireasdain of Iona, in a west Scottish style. It depicts a late medieval – 15th century – sword, as well as a long, thin playing-stick with a curved end and a ball beside the tip. The iconography of the slab would be intended to portray his masculine strengths and his cultural background – and it has often been seen as a depiction of a stick like that used for ground play, as in modern shinty.

Screen shot 2016-09-02 at 13.18.14

Finally, most importantly, the earliest archaeological evidence of an actual stick that we have is a hurley made of alder-wood, found in a bog at Derries, near Edenderry, Co. Offaly and held in the Folklife Collection of the National Museum of Ireland (F:1981.160).

Derries Hurley_NMI

Hurley found in a bog at Derries, near Edenderry, Co. Offaly, and radiocarbon dated to the 15th-17th century AD (Photo: National Museum of Ireland Folklife Collection, with thanks to Clodagh Doyle).

This was also a stick with a narrow bas or playing end, measuring 94.5cm in length with a maximum width of 6.5cm. It has been radiocarbon dated to345+/- 24 BP, which would be calibrated to 2 sigma c.AD 1467-1635. In other words, a date somewhere from the late 15th to early 17th century (with my thanks to Eamonn P. Kelly and the National Museum of Ireland for the c14 dates). The National Museum of Ireland, in collaboration with the GAA Croke Park Museum, have a nice video about the hurley and an account of the hair hurling balls here with commentary by Clodagh Doyle, and the Director of the NMI Raghnall O’Floinn.

But, what were the early medieval lorg ané and cammán like?

Moving backwards in time again, back a thousand years ago; What was the lorg áne (driving stick) or cammáin (little bent thing) like in early medieval Ireland? The sources give some hints. In the Táin, the stick was clearly used to propel a ball across a field, and potentially to lift and strike it into the air – which would certainly imply a broad boss. It is most likely that these sticks were made of wood, possibly even ash or alder which was often used for spearshafts and handles.Otherwise, the sources tend to focus on what else might be on a stick.

A Middle Irish (i.e. 11th/12th century) commentary on the law tract Cáin Iarraith lists the playthings that a boy should have on fosterage. The son of a king should have a cammán ornamented with silver, while the son of a lord is expected to have a cammán ornamented with bronze. As Angela Gleason has translated below, we can see that typical concern of the early medieval Irish to match high social status with material culture. The commentary on the law tract Cáin Iarraith states:

…7 airget aru faighnibh 7 credumu aru cumanaibh, 7 sdan aru faignighib o sin imach 7 umhu aru cumanaibh.

…and silver upon their (sons of a king) scabbards and bronze upon their playing sticks, and tin upon their (sons of a lord) scabbards in the same way and copper upon their playing-sticks. (CIH 1759.17-18, trans. Angela B. Gleason 2002 Entertainment in early Ireland PhD thesis, Trinity College Dublin).

We have no idea what precisely this ‘ornamented’ means – these could be bands to strengthen the cammán, but they could also be decoration on the handle. Law tracts and saint’s lives commonly rank objects according to class and it is impossible to say if these are accurate descriptions. They may be fantastic items, not really found in real life.

Angela Gleason also notes that in a Middle Irish tale from the Book of Leinster, one character named Crimthann receives a stipend of fifty bronze playing sticks and balls (cammán creduma co lliathroitib credumaib). Clearly though, the ownership of a cammán was expected of boys of status. That the cammán was an item of personal property can also be seen in a fragment from an Old Irish law tract known as Mellbretha (“sports judgements”?), which describes field-games and liabilities for injuries, based on age and presumably status.

“If a boy finds or takes a cammán or lúbóc that is not his own; if he is later found with it, there is no retribution; i.e. he simply gives it back and there is no further penalty (“if it be a lúbóc or cammán which is found or taken and they are found there with him, that which is taken stands as retribution”.

In another old Irish law tract, Cetharslicht Athgabála, it is stated that children’s playthings should not be distrained – these being “playing sticks and balls (camana 7 liathroiti), and Lúbóca, or cats…” Angela Gleason has argued that the reference to an object known as a lúbóc – and the fact that this is in juxtaposition with cammán – indicates that there is possibly another ball game to be considered. A lúbóc would appear to be a circle or ring through which a ball might be played, a hoop of some description. There is other evidence to suggest that it simply is another game, not related to the ‘driving game’.

We have some further evidence for what these lorg áne and cammán looked like. There is intriguing evidence for the depiction of ‘driving sticks’ on early medieval high crosses at Kells, Co. Meath and Monasterboice, Co. Louth – a fact that was first noted by Art O Maolfabhail in 1973. Early medieval high crosses were large decorated, ornate stone crosses located at key locations in early monasteries and may have been a way of illustrating stories and events from the bible to a largely illiterate population.

Screen shot 2016-09-02 at 14.12.35

The scene of David slaying the lion depicts David as a shepherd killing a lion with his bare hands. On the early medieval Kells Market cross, Co. Meath and on the early medieval west cross at Monasterboice, Co. Louth there is a carving of a curved object associated with a circular object – and these is often interpreted as a shepherd’s crook or a sling with a sling stone. However, slings were not typical weapons in early medieval Ireland, or at least they are not commonly mentioned, and we may be looking here at a ‘driving stick and ball’.

Now why would David be holding a driving stick and ball?

Well, it is intriguing that about the same time as these early medieval high crosses were being erected and used in monasteries, the saga of the Táin Bó Cuailgne was being written down. In the boyhood deeds of Cú Chulainn, there is a well-known incident where the boy Setanta gains his new name Cu Chulainn by killing a ferocious beast. In this episode, Setanta is travelling late to a feast, following on from the king Conchobar, as he had been playing on the fields at Emain. In both versions of the tale, he passes the time on his journey using his playthings, and in LL, he is again using his hurley and ball. When he arrives at the fort, he finds that a fierce hound is about to attack him. In both LL and LU, he throws the ball down through the hounds throat before picking him up with his bare hands and smashing him against a pillar stone, i.e. it is not stated that he used his hurley.

It is possible that people in early medieval Ireland would have been thus familiar with a motif where a hero kills a fierce beast – and more familiar with the Cú Chulainn episode than a biblical one – and so the artists depicts a camán and liathroit, rather than a shepards crook or sling. It is admittedly, tenuous: but it’s a possibility (and see Dr Andrew Halpin’s comment below, arguing that they are indeed slings).

What was the early medieval liathróit like?

The early medieval historical sources also give evidence for the character of the ball used in the games. The modern sliotar or hurling ball is of course made of leather and cork. In the 19th century, hurling balls were often made of wood (cnag), the roots of furze/whin bushes, leather, horse or cow hair and woven straw and were often used as betrothal gifts from young women to young men, or as part of Mayday festivities (see the National Museum of Ireland’s website here. The Lavally ball illustrated below was made of felted cows hair, covered by a network of fine cord of plaited long tail hairs of horse.  These balls were often deposited in bogs, occasionally situated at depths indicating at least some antiquity, possibly from the late medieval period – but now we have definite evidence through the National Museum of Ireland’s work, of early examples of ‘hurling ball’. The National Museum of Ireland’s radiocarbon dating has placed several balls back to the 12th/13th century AD.


Hair hurling balls held in the Folklife Collection of the National Museum of Ireland; from left, clockwise: Tomageehy, Co. Kerry, Tooreen, Co. Kerry, Lavally, Co. Sligo. The Tooreen ball has been c14 dated to AD 1514-1647 (Photo: National Museum of Ireland, sourced at their website here

The early medieval historical sources can be a bit graphic, if fantastical, in their descriptions of hurling balls. Some of the sources claim that balls were created out of the brains of enemies. In the Middle Irish Aided Conchobuir, it is stated that “At that time it was a custom with the men of Ulster to take the brains out of the head of every warrior who they slew in single combat, and to mix lime with them so that they were made into hard balls. And whenever they were in contention or at comparison of trophies, these were brought to them, so that they had them in their hands.” There are similar mentions of balls made of brains in other sagas too, as well as the Táin. They may of course be entirely fantastic.

 To conclude – what about players, teams and strategies?

So much for sticks, balls and playing grounds, what of the nature of these games; how were they played; what was their goal, how were they organised in terms of teams and rules? Well, we have real problems in reconstructing these, because the sources are vague, they often only hold snippets of information, and they amay be as Angela Gleason has argued, be referring to potentially different field games. The term immáin simply means ‘driving’. Is this hurling? It is intriguing though that today we might say that a corner-back in a hurling match might get the ball and “drive it down the field”, so perhaps we should be cautious about being too literal about words (you will also hear the shouts of “drive it!”, “pull on it”, “timber him!”..ok, I only heard the last phrase in north Tipperary in the 1980s, but how would we understand phases like this if we did not know the game?). So, the terms lorg áne and cammáin may literally mean ‘driving stick’ and ‘little bent thing’. Are these hurleys in the modern sense, almost certainly not, as we have already shown the development of hurleys across time – but it is not unlikely that early medieval sticks looked much like the later medieval ones from Clonca and Derries.

The saga-literature implies that the game known as immáin (‘driving’) or áon líathróti (‘ball-driving’) was played on a green. In some sources (Tóruigheachta Diarmait agus Ghrainne) a game could go for days. In the Táin, Cu Chulainn catches the ball between his shins, and despite the tackles of the other boys, carries it ‘across the goal’ (dar brúch mbáire). It sounds like the first goal ends the game. The game as presented in the saga lierature is played mostly by young boys with a ball and playing-stick. The sagas of course are representing an ideal, heroic, military society – so Cú Chulainn is a hero able to beat 150 boys at a game. During fairs and festivals, it was played by men. For example, in Tóruigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne, a game is being played at the feast of Tara. Diarmaid steps in, grabs the nearest cammán and scores three goals.

There are occasional references to otherworldly people playing games. The most famous is in the Middle Irish Cath Maige Tuiread (‘the Battle of Moytura’), when Rad and 27 others challenge the Tuatha dé Danann to a game of immáin and the match ends when most of the players suffer broken arms and legs. Ordinary people undoubtedly played games too. In other sources, such as Tochmarc Étaine, there is a description of 150 youths playing games, and interestingly, there are also references to 150 girls on a playing field.

The quality of the skills of some of these players is shown in the Táin, has already been mentioned. A medieval Irish saga, Cath Finntrága, dating to the 14th century, also describes how a foreigner displays great skill in keeping the ball aloft. In this passage, the foreigner takes his caman and ball, hit the ball up the beach, chases after and catches it and then comes up and down the beach with it on his foot, knee or shoulder without letting it fall on the sand.

“Thereupon the foreigner doffed his battle-dress and donned a splendid elegant dress and took a club and ball (do gabh caman 7 liathroíd) and beat the ball (ro bhuail an liathrod) from the west of the strand to the east, and he caught it in his right hand before it descended, and he put it on his foot the second time and he sprang in his rushing from the west of the strand to the east, and he threw the ball from one foot onto the other, without touching it with his hand, and without its touching the ground, and he put it on his knee the third time and ran to the other end of the strand and then put it from one knee on to the other, without throwing it on the ground. The he threw it on his shoulder and made a rush like the March wind from one end of the strand to the other, without touching it with the hand, and without throwing it on the ground, and he challenged all the fiann to perform that trick.” Meyer, K. 1885, Cath Finntraga 21.

Undoubtedly, a modern referee would have blown the whistle, for carrying the ball more than the three steps…in a tough Junior Hurling match, he might have got himself sorted out for playing ‘fancy-Dan hurling’ (my father, John O’Sullivan, a talented Killaloe Smith O’Brien’s and Clare hurler in the 1950s, told me once of a game where as half-back he came out with the ball, skilfully tipped it over an opponent’s head and soloed down the field before striking it. It immediately came straight back over his head: whereupon his brother-in-law (who played in a more, eh, traditional 1950s Clare style) Tommy O’Brien playing at full-back, came out and buried the opposing forward, before shouting out at my Dad “You and your fancy-Dan hurling!”).

Are the hurling or camogie that we see today like the games of early medieval Ireland that are described in the texts? They are not of course: both are codified, modern sports organised by major, sophisticated sporting organisations, and the games have evolved even in our own time in keeping with greater levels of fitness, a flightier ball, and arguably increased skill levels (we regularly see feats in hurling or camogie matches today that we would have rarely seen 20-30 years ago).

However, it is undoubtedly the case that hurling and camogie can trace their ancestry in the games played in the near and distant past. In conclusion, every year, in September, we see the modern heroes of the games of hurling and camogie run out onto the cluiche mag of Croke Park, for the All-Ireland Hurling or Camogie Championship finals. The two teams play not with balls made of brains, or use bronze hurleys and silver balls, but they are games to look forward to all the same.


The Clare vs Cork All-Ireland Hurling Final of 2013, played out in Croke Park in front of 82,000 people. Hurling and Camogie are amongst the world’s greatest field-sports and are part of Ireland’s cultural heritage (Photo: Aidan O’Sullivan).

Update: 10th September 2016.

This blog post has been slightly updated on 10th September 2016, firstly with a changed title to represent the role of camogie in our national games, especially with the All-Ireland Camogie Final to be played on Sunday 11th September 2016. Secondly, Clodagh Doyle of the National Museum of Ireland kindly recently sent me a copy of her fascinating and important paper reporting on the scientific analyses and radiocarbon dating of Ireland’s earliest hair hurling balls. A DOI link is provided in the ‘Further reading’ section below. It can also be downloaded here

Acknowledgements and Further reading

My thanks to Dr Angela Gleason for permission several years ago to read and cite her PhD thesis on Entertainment in early Ireland. My thanks also to the GAA’s Croke Park Museum for inviting me to give a lecture entitled ‘Cú Chulainn to Canning – Evolution of Hurling from Warrior to Hero!’ in Croke Park, 26th March 2009, from which the above text is taken. My grateful thanks also to Clodagh Doyle, Curator of Folklife Collections, National Museum of Ireland, for information on hair hurling balls and the Derries hurley.

Clodagh Doyle (2016) Hair Hurling Balls: Review, Research and Scientific Investigations, Folk Life, 54:1, 3-31, DOI: 10.1080/04308778.2016.1159789

Gleason, A.B. (2002) Entertainment in early Ireland. PhD thesis, Trinity College Dublin

Lucas, A.T. (1975) ‘Hair hurling ball from Lavally, Co. Sligo’. Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society 81, 13–14.

O’Sullivan, A. (1998) ‘Warriors, legends and heroes – the archaeology of hurling’ Archaeology Ireland 45 :32-34

Author: Aidan O’Sullivan is a Professor of Archaeology at UCD School of Archaeology, University College Dublin. His academic research interests focus on early medieval Ireland and beyond, experimental archaeology and wetland archaeology.  He inherited from his Clare father a life-long love of hurling. His main claims to fame are that he won Dublin Colleges hurling medals with Gormanston, Junior Hurling Championships with Valleymount, and U-21 County medals with Kiltegan, and played U-14, U-16, and U-18 for Wicklow (but you might have got a run that day too…). His young sons currently play for Kevins Hurling and Camogie Club in Dublin 8, an inner city club who are currently seeking to establish a cluiche mag in Dublin 8, a district with 11 schools, 2,500 children and not a single playing pitch for any sports.  You can read more about Prof Aidan O’Sullivan at his UCD webpage here He can be contacted at aidan.osullivan@ucd.ie






Postcard from the past, at the turn of the year…

"Rhefert Church, Glendalough, Co Wicklow"

“Rhefert Church, Glendalough, Co Wicklow”

Aidan O’Sullivan

UCD School of Archaeology

Some months ago now, I bought an old postcard on eBay (it was very cheap – £3.99) of Reefert church (misspelled “Rhefert”) , at the Upper Lake at Glendalough, Co. Wicklow. Although it is a place that I am fond of, having visited it hundreds of times before, I was intrigued because the postcard clearly showed the church in relatively open country, and before its enclosure within oak and hazel woods.

Intriguingly, when I opened the envelope from the eBay seller, I discovered the postcard was posted in 14 December, 1926, to The Rev Charles Plummer, at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. This of course can only be the famous medievalist who is best known in our part of the world for editing the 2 volume Vitae Sanctorum Hiberniae, whose work made a range of medieval Irish hagiographies available to the reader. See here for a brief biography of Plummer.

The sender, then unknown to me, of the postcard wrote

“Dublin 14.Xii.26

The carols arrived all right, just after I had despatched a post card to you. I am very glad to have them & so are the other recipients. Best wishes for the season.

M. Joynt”

M. Joynt's message to Charles Plummer, before Christmas 1926

M. Joynt’s message to Charles Plummer, before Christmas 1926

At that stage, I couldn’t figure out the author’s name, but when I posted it on the Early Medieval and Viking Age (EMVARG) Facebook page here, a better-informed colleague Dr Emer Purcell suggested that it was Maud Joynt, a contributor to the Dictionary of the Irish Language published by the Royal Irish Academy and the key work on the origins and character of Old and Middle Irish, (and also a signatory, I see here, of a letter in October 1922 protesting about changes to article 3 of the Draft Constitution “Relating to the Rights of Women as Citizens; Extracts from Clauses in Constitutions of European States Relating to Women’s Rights”). Strangely, but perhaps unsurprisingly (being a woman), there’s not a whole lot about her on the internet.

Maud Anna Evans Joynt was a significant early Irish scholar, who as well as contributing to the DIL, edited various Irish texts including Feis Tighe Chonáin and  Tromdámh Guaire as well as Echtra Mac Echdach Mugredóin. Dr Sharon Douglas-Greene suggested that the correspondence related to Plummer sending Joynt some “new music for church congregation/choir”, which seems likely.

There’s not much more to it than that, except I find it fascinating as an artefact from the past (a material email), and as well as giving me a glimpse of Reefert as it was c.1900, I’m also imagining Dublin just before Christmas, a few years after the war of independence, and two medieval scholars corresponding over something that they had chatted about, presumably during a visit to Dublin by Charles Plummer. I’m also intrigued as to how such an ephemeral item survived Plummer’s death, only a year later in 1927?

The postcard itself was published by William Lawrence, Dublin, and is clearly one of the Lawrence Collection, which the National Library of Ireland describes here which this website tells me was used to produce postcards from the 1890s onwards, and that “after 1902 when one side could be devoted to a picture, and you could send a message, his postcard business took off”. At this point, I should probably make some cliched comment about the ephemerality of emails and how mine will not survive a century like Maud Joynt’s postcard, written before Christmas 1926…

But finally, Happy Christmas and a Peaceful and Prosperous New Year to everyone…

Aidan O’Sullivan

Magic and superstition in early medieval Ireland – some thoughts

Aidan O’Sullivan

People’s lives in early medieval houses would have been bound around by customary practice, by social norms and conventions, by religious beliefs (such as the thin layer of belief provided by Christianity), but also by superstitions and even a belief in the magical properties of objects. This is hardly remarkable. Some early medieval Christian religious beliefs and practices essentially saw objects as having personality and power and an ability to shape people’s lives – one need only think of saint’s relics and their power.

Rather more tricky to identify are the beliefs and practices that people had in their daily lives, that seem to be distinct from early church doctrine. In the past, I have explored the ways in which the abandonment of houses seems to be marked by the deposition of domestic objects, such as rotary quernstones, wooden troughs and plough implements, in pits or wall slots (O’Sullivan and Kenny 2008, 9). These types of objects, used in the production and preparation of food, may have been practically and metaphorically associated with the household itself. DSCF3833

At Deer Park Farms, an oak trough (with a wooden shoe last inside it) seems to have been deliberately left behind on the floor of the smaller house (Structure Zeta) of a figure-of-eight house. This wooden trough—which early Irish literary sources would imply was a woman’s property and used for kneading dough or presenting food—was apparently over 150 years older than the house and must have been one of its cherished antiques so its deposition could hardly be accidental (Lynn and McDowell 2011, 130). One could envisage that upon the death of a grandmother, the trough was finally abandoned within a house that had also come to the end of its life.

Quernstones were used for preparing bread and cereals (an important aspect of the early medieval diet). In early Irish sources, food preparation was a woman’s task, so it is possible that these objects were associated with a grandmother or mother. At Leacanabuaile, broken rotary querns were placed in the walls of the Phase I round-house that was then subsequently replaced by a Phase II rectangular house. At Dressogagh, two figure-of-eight round-houses were placed on top of two earlier figure-of-eight round-houses, and the walls pulled down and rebuilt and the broken portions of a rotary quernstone were placed within the wall slots of House 1, before its replacement by House II. At the early medieval unenclosed settlement at ‘The Spectacles’, Co. Limerick, a broken quernstone was deposited on top of the paving, directly in front of the door of a round-house (Ó Ríordáin 1949, 106). At Rinnaraw, Co. Donegal, broken quernstones were left on the floor beside the door, while one fragment was also placed in the doorway threshold (Comber 2006, Fig. 24). At Drumaroad, Co. Down, two broken quernstones were deposited just south of the house doorway, alongside the paving (Waterman 1956, 86). At Ballyvourney, Co. Cork, a broken quernstone fragment was deposited in a pit within the floor of a round-house used by a metalworker, while other broken quernstones and an iron spear-head were left at the base of a drain outside its doorway (O’Kelly 1952, 25, 31-2).

Pl. 7.5 Early medieval houses Structure Zeta and western side of Structure x, from south. From here we can see the collapsed wattle wall of Structure Zeta to the left, and the bedding area (C1291) at the bottom right, inside Structure X.

Early medieval houses at Deer Park Farms.

Broken and smashed quernstones are also known from Lisnagun Ring fort, Co. Cork; Lagore Crannog, Co. Meath; Carraig Aille I and II, Co. Limerick; and in recent excavations at Derrinsallagh 3, Co. Laois, among numerous settlement sites (O’Sullivan and Kenny 2008, 10). In anthropological terms, deliberate or structured deposits often mark key events in the life of a house—or the people within it (e.g. the abandonment of the house or the death of a key household figure). In early medieval Ireland, we might imagine that when a house itself was being abandoned or rebuilt at the end of its life, it may have been a cultural practice to deliberately ‘kill’ the household’s quern and leave it behind in the ruins.

Neolithic stone axes, flint arrow-heads, scrapers and general flint debitage are also common finds from early medieval settlements and houses. In many cases, this could simply represent residual evidence, or the use of flint as strike-a-lights, and we should be wary about ascribing significance to one flint object, while ignoring the large number of flint debitage.


In other cases, distinctive objects are found, and often in discrete occupation horizons suggesting actual use in the early Middle Ages. A flint scraper and a chert arrowhead was recovered from a house floor on Sroove crannog, Co. Sligo (Fredengren 2002, 231, Fig. 60), end-scrapers and a leaf-shaped arrowhead were found in occupation layers from Lough Faughan crannog, Co. Down (Collins 1955, 69-70) and at

Leacanabuaile, Co. Kerry, a prehistoric stone axe was found inside a house (Ó Ríordáin and Foy 1941, 95).

At Deer Park Farms, as many as eighteen stone axes, a stone adze and a chisel were recovered from the early medieval settlement layers, mostly associated with house occupation deposits. One axe came from collapsed roofing material (McDowell 2011, 253-55), suggesting that it was suspended in some way from the roof timbers or perhaps was wedged into the thatch itself. It is likely that many of these objects were discovered accidentally during ploughing in the early medieval period and brought into houses as charms or ‘magical’ items to protect the house from fire or disaster.


It is most unlikely that stone axes and arrow-heads were seen as ‘antiquities’ or objects associated with the past (a category recognition that only comes with the development of 18th century antiquarianism), but as thunderbolts or fairy darts that were often felt to have had talismanic or protective powers – as was the case across modern Europe (Carelli 1997). Flint arrow-heads were also seen in modern Irish folklore as ‘witch-stones’ having magical properties that could protect cattle, milk and butter. Estyn Evans, (1957, 300–3), noted that in recent times cattle that were not thriving were reckoned to have been ‘elf-shot’: a cow-doctor called to a stable would surreptitiously carry a few flint arrow-heads to whip out of the animal’s body at the strategic moment so as to ‘cure’ them. Calves could also be cured of various ailments such as the ‘coup’ by boiling a flint arrowhead in milk and feeding it to them. Kelly (1997, 174–5) notes that later medieval Irish manuscripts refer to the bewitching of cattle (mille ba), which may have been caused by elf-shot (urchar millte), so it seems likely that prehistoric flint arrow-heads found in early medieval dwellings represent evidence for magic and superstition.

A few weeks, I was in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford and went to visit an object that has been intriguing me for the last year, since first I saw it. It’s in the charms and amulets section, and it’s an Early Bronze Age flint tanged arrowhead, with a tag that says it was collected in Antrim, where it had been used to cure cattle at about 1890 or so by heating a bucket of milk with the arrowhead in it, and then feeding the milk to them…Jope, in 1952 writing about porcellanite axes in Ulster writes about how he had to persuade one household to take the axe away, as they were most anxious about the fate of their house with it gone….

Anyway, these are musings for the moment – I have much more to do to develop the subject, not least look at the archaeological data more closely, but I’ve been threatening to write a paper about “Magic in Early Medieval Ireland’…this will get me started.

Aidan O’Sullivan

UCD School of Archaeology

 Some bibliographical references

Carelli, P. (1997) ‘Thunder and lightning, magical miracles. On the popular myth of thunderbolts and the presence of Stone Age artefacts in medieval deposits’, in H. Andersson, P. Carelli and L. Ersgård (eds), Visions of the past: trends and traditions in Swedish medieval archaeology (Lund, 1997), 393–417.

Comber, M. 2006 Tom Fanning’s excavations at Rinnaraw cashel, Portnablagh, Co. Donegal. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 106C, 67-124.

Collins, A. E. P. 1955 Excavations in Lough Faughan (Falcon) Crannog, Co Down, 1951-2. Ulster Journal of Archaeology 18, 45-81.

Evans, E. 1957, Irish folkways (London).

Fredengren, C. 2002a Crannogs: a study of people’s interaction with lakes, with particular reference to Lough Gara in the north-west of Ireland. Bray. Wordwell.

Kelly, F. 1997 Early Irish farming: a study based mainly on the law-texts of the 7th and 8th centuries A.D. Dublin. Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

Lynn, C.J. and McDowell, J.A. 2011 Deer Park Farms: The excavation of a Raised Rath in the Glenarm Valley, Co. Antrim. The Stationery Office, Northern Ireland Environment Agency. Norwich and Belfast.

O’Kelly, M. J. 1952 St Gobnet’s House, Ballyvourney, Co. Cork, Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society 57, 18-40.

Ó Ríordáin, S. P. 1949a Lough Gur excavations: Carrig Aille and the ‘Spectacles’. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 52C, 39-111.

Ó Ríordáin, S. P. and Foy, J. B. 1941 The excavation of Leacanabuile Stone Fort, near Cahirciveen, Co. Kerry. Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society 46, 85-99

O’Sullivan, A. 2008 Early medieval houses in Ireland: social identity and dwelling places. Peritia 20, 226-56.

O’Sullivan, A. and Kenny, N. 2008. A matter of life and death. Archaeology Ireland, 22(4), 8–11.

O’Sullivan, A. and Nicholl, T. 2010 Early medieval settlement enclosures in Ireland: dwellings, daily life and social identity. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 111C, 59-90.

Waterman, D. M. 1956a The excavation of a house and Souterrain at White Fort, Drumaroad, Co. Down. Ulster Journal of Archaeology 19, 73-86.

The Faddan More Psalter – the materiality of texts in early medieval Ireland

Aidan O’Sullivan

It was one of the most astonishing Irish archaeological discoveries of modern times.

On a hot summer’s day in July 2006, a man working a mechanical excavator on a raised bog in Faddan More, Co. Tipperary uncovered – and saved until museum staff could reach it – a late-eighth century psalter, or book of psalms, that had been buried there centuries before. Perhaps amongst the most significant things about the Faddan More Psalter is not so much the text itself (which appears to be fairly conventional; would that it were a lost early Irish law tract or saint’s Life), but the materiality of the book itself.

Faddan More Psalter, shortly after its discovery (Image: National Museum of Ireland)

The National Museum of Ireland’s staff of conservators, under the direction of Anthony Read, working with John Gillis who was seconded from TCD Library for the project, through an extraordinary feat of conservation and analysis (see Read 2011, below), have revealed that it was originally made of sixty sheets of calf vellum (produced through careful livestock management) gathered into five gatherings (or quires). Scientific analyses have revealed that it was inscribed with black-dark inks made of oak galls and decorated of pigments like orpiment, lamp black, red and white lead.

Cover of the Faddan More Psalter (Image: National Museum of Ireland).

John Gillis (Photo Alan Betson, The Irish Times)

A folio from the Faddan More Psalter (Image: National Museum of Ireland)

It was carried in a larger leather book cover, stiffened with papyrus, that had been manufactured for some other book, and this object itself evokes the humid heat of the Nile Delta, where warble flies buzzed around the ears of Coptic cattle. Emphasising the extraordinary character of the book’s very survival is the fact that in many cases, it was the inky letters themselves on the pages that preserved the vellum, whereas the rest of the pages were destroyed. Finally, the book and its cover were thrust down into a bog pool, together with a pig-skin bag and covered with a piece of white-haired calf hide.

It will probably always be a mystery to us why this book was hidden in a midlands bog; was it someone fleeing danger; carrying, hiding and ultimately losing a religious book? Or was it someone making an offering to the Lord, as is suggested by the deposition of other ecclesiastical treasures in watery places; seeking some redemption or placation, seeking protection from the dreary, wet climate of the Irish midlands in the eighth or ninth centuries AD?

Anyway, the Faddan More Psalter is now on exhibition in the National Museum of Ireland on Kildare Street, in the refurbished ‘An tSeodlann/The Treasury’. Overall the exhibition attempts to portray the achievements of artists, metalworkers and ecclesiastics from the late Iron Age through the ‘Golden Age’ of early medieval Ireland. It’s very professionally done and hopefully will attract plenty of international visitors, who will be fascinated, we hope, with this aspect of Ireland’s cultural heritage.

I’ve visited it several times now, initially on the first day of public access and subsequently with students and on other occasions on my own. You travel to the Faddan More Psalter by firstly entering through an arch into ‘An tSeodlann/The Treasury’ (where it is good to see some old friends back on display; the Broighter Hoard looks particularly well and you can now view the boat clearly from all sides).

The Faddan More room though, is really a new and very exciting exhibition about the advent of literacy in early Ireland, with the Psalter placed in the context of early writing, with a bilingual (i.e. with ogham and Roman lettering) ogham-inscribed pillar from Killeen Cormac, Co. Kildare (possible the site known as Cell Fine Cormaic, where according to the Vita Tripartita, one of the earliest missionaries to Ireland, Palladius, left his writing tablet, books and relics of SS Peter and Paul), bookshrines (including the Lough Kinale bookshrine), replica manuscripts, and a review of early medieval writing technologies (such as the Springmount bog, Ballyhutherland, Co. Antrim wax tablets, on which are written the Vulgate texts of Psalms 30-32).

Some of the ‘pages’ of the Faddan More Psalter itself will be periodically exhibited in the middle of the room (in a clever touch, you can view the ‘pages’ from both sides). You can also see the leather book cover or satchel on its own. There is plenty of other material too; including a short video (based on the excellent TV programme, which can be purchased as a DVD – which I’ve already used in undergraduate lectures); as well as a poster style display explaining the context and circumstances of the find and its conservation.

Perhaps, just perhaps, the architectural scale of the exhibition panels somewhat overwhelms the impact of the much smaller Psalter pages and its cover. I sat for a moment on one of the benches (always a nice touch to have places to sit down in museums…) and watched some visitors for a few minutes. Several people walked around the exhibition paying little regard to the Faddan More Psalter itself in the centre of the room and several stood reading the posters with their backs to the book cover and exhibited vellum pages. It seemed, well, wrong, somehow..it made the cover seem small, fragile..vulnerable. But of course, it is vulnerable, so I presume the large poster stand acts to protect the psalter pages further from light.

It is a fantastic exhibition though and an excellent addition to the National Museum of Ireland’s displays on early medieval Ireland. If you want to gain a sense of the power of the book, and the word, in the transformation of Ireland during the early Middle Ages, go and see it. There are also a range of publications to go with the exhibition. These are well-written, brilliantly illustrated and will undoubtedly travel the world themselves.

Read, A. 2011 The Faddan More Psalter: Discovery, Conservation and Investigation. National Museum of Ireland. Dublin

Deer Park Farms early medieval rath is published! Part I

The Deer Park Farms early medieval farmstead is published, it's a big one - even if this is an espresso cup for scale!

Deer Park Farms. The Excavation of a Raised Rath in the Glenarm Valley, Co. Antrim. By C.J. Lynn & J.A. McDowell and contributors (2011): 660 pages, 205 Figures, 35 Plates, 117 Tables; The Stationary Office: Northern Ireland Environment Agency

A thousand years ago, generations of an early medieval (or Early Christian) community living at a place known today as Deer Park Farms, near Glenarm in the Antrim Glens, built, occupied and ultimately abandoned an early Irish rath, ringfort or settlement enclosure. They inhabited this farmstead between the seventh and the tenth centuries AD, building up layers of occupation and leaving behind them physical traces from hundreds of years of peoples’ lives, daily work, economy and material culture.

Between 1984 and 1987, the Deer Park Farms raised rath was entirely excavated by Chris Lynn (then of the Historic Monuments Branch of the Dept. of the Environment) and his team, in advance of local farm improvements. Digging down through the raised rath, to its lowest, waterlogged levels, they uncovered startlingly well-preserved post-and-wattle houses, beds, occupation floors, crafts debris and artefacts and palaeoecological evidence for diet, economy and environment. It is without doubt, amongst the most important Irish archaeological excavations of modern times – and its scientific publication has been eagerly awaited by many.

Indeed, this publication on the Deer Park Farms excavations looks set to shape a generation of academic debate and popular ideas about early medieval Irish society – and we will be reading and utilising this book for years to come. In this first post, I’m just going to quickly sketch out the character and contents of the book, later I’ll return for a more detailed critique and review (I have been given an advance copy to review; this is just a first comment).

Firstly, this is a book lover’s gem – it is handsomely and lavishly produced by The Stationary Office (TSO), with an attractive dust-jacket and cover and it is stuffed full of excellent images; maps, plans and sections – abundantly using colour thoughout and the drawings are clear and well-done.

There is abundant colour throughout: This is Pl. 7.5 Early medieval houses Structure Zeta and western side of Structure x, from south. From here we can see the collapsed wattle wall of Structure Zeta to the left, and the bedding area (C1291) at the bottom right, inside Structure X.

Indeed, in keeping with recent publications on Strangford Lough and the Nendrum early medieval tidal mill, the Deer Park Farms monograph has a huge amount of colour and black-and-white plates (see above). It is also physically a thumper of a book – weighing it at 6 lbs, 10 oz, a respectable size for a new-born baby! In terms of its contents, of more later, we have it all here, from  detailed site descriptions, to analysis of all phases of occupation, to comprehensive artefact studies and incredibly detailed – and innovative – palaeoecological studies.

The book’s contents page lists (and I’ll give them to you here) will give you a sense of the book; Firstly, we have the introductory materials: Chapter 1: Introduction (Lynn and McDowell); Chapter 2: Regional and Archaeological Setting (K. Neill); Chapter 3: The province of Ulster in the early Middle Ages (Charles-Edwards); Chapter 4: Placenames (Muhr);

We then move on to the description of the site excavation: Chapter 5: Pre-rath features (McDowell & Lynn); Chapter 6: Rath Period Phases 2-5 (McDowell & Lynn); Chapter 7: Rath period, Phase 6 (McDowell & Lynn); Chapter 8: Raised rath period, phases 7-9 (McDowell & Lynn); Chapter 9: Raised Rath periods, phases 10-13 (McDowell & Lynn); Chapter 10: The souterrain period and later activity (McDowell & Lynn); Chapter 11: Deer Park Farms (Hurl) and Chapter 12: An analysis of the radiocarbon dates (Warner).

A quick photo (never good for line images) of the site plan of phase 6b features. But even this plan can be used to explore early medieval concepts of space and privacy. Look at the way the entrance ramp leads straight to the house doorway, architecture to guide movement and access.

We then move to chapters on crafts and technology; Chapter 13: Objects of flint, stone and polished stone (Moore & McDowell); Chapter 14: Objects of Bone, Copper Alloy, Lignite and Decorated pieces (Hurl et al); Chapter 15: Iron objects (Lynn & McDowell); Chapter 16: Metallography of iron (M. Hall); Chapter 17: The Pottery (Crothers et al); Chapter 18: Objects of Glass and Amber (Lynn & McDowell); Chapter 19: Metalworking residues (Bayley); Chapter 20: The textiles (Wincott Heckett); Chapter 21: The Leather objects (M.E. Neill); Chapter 22: The wooden artefacts (Earwood); Chapter 23: Structural Timbers (Earwood); Chapter 24: Wicker weaving techniques used at Deer Park Farms (Hurl);

Then, we have a series of chapters that explore key aspects of the site’s environment and economy: Chapter 25: The use of woodland in the houses (M. Neill); Chapter 26: The animal bones (McCormick and Murray); Chapter 27: The condition of Deer Park Farms hair and potential for stable isotope investigation (A.S. Wilson); Chapter 28: Environment, Activity and Living Conditions (Kenward, Hall, Allison & Carrott); Chapter 29: Pollen analysis (D.A. Weir); Chapter 30: Dendrochronology (Baillie & Brown).

Finally, Chris Lynn and Jacqueline McDowell return to the fray to offer us some summative and reflective chapters, placing the site in its historical, cultural and social contexts: Chapter 31: The evolution of the mound (Lynn & McDowell); Chapter 32: Literary and archaeological contexts  (Lynn & McDowell); Chapter 33: Reconstruction of an 8th-century house based on evidence from Deer Park Farms (Lynn); Chapter 34: Críth Gablach and the status of the rath occupants  (Lynn & McDowell) and Chapter 35: Retrospect  (Lynn & McDowell). We also have an extensive bibliography, an index of the contents and a fold-out of a cross-section of the entire raised rath and enclosing ditches, all in colour and annotated.

For many of us in Irish archaeology, the Deer Park Farms early medieval rath has long been a subject of fascination and interest. I remember (many years ago) returning home one evening from UCD, where I was a First Year Archaeology undergraduate student, and watching a brief TV programme, on UTV, about the excavations. For years afterwards, I read everything I could about the site or attended Chris Lynn’s lectures – not least because of its waterlogged wood. Latterly, as a Archaeology lecturer at University College Dublin, I have used the Deer Park Farms in countless lectures and academic papers (well, not countless) to illustrate how early medieval people might have understood and organised their dwellings. Indeed, I could see myself using this book next year to prepare 5-6 lectures or seminar/workshops about early medieval Ireland!

Finally, while we were working on our reports on early medieval settlement and dwellings for the INSTAR-funded Early Medieval Archaeology Project (EMAP), we were well aware that this was going to be a key publication for our understanding of early medieval settlement archaeology.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that this is a key publication for our understanding not only of Northern Ireland’s history and cultural heritage, but also that of the entire island, these islands, and indeed of  lives and practices of people in early medieval Europe, c.AD 600-1000. It is also a testament to the significance of Irish archaeology in international terms and of the skills and patience and persistence of its authors – all credit to them.We will return to the Deer Park Farms early medieval raised rath excavations publication again…there is much to say.

View of the partly-excavated entrance way (C1259) into the rath, kept clean the authors tell us, as might be expected of the paved entrance or airdrochat described in early Irish sources. This book provides us with unique access (see what I did there?) into an early medieval settlement of the 7th to 10th centuries AD.

EMAP’s work and reports

Our Early Medieval Archaeology Project (EMAP) reports for 2010 have now gone online on our emap.ie website as high-quality, printable pdfs. You can download these, print them out, keep them as digital files on your computer and use them in any way you want, through a citation of them as sources would be appreciated!

The project’s reports for 2010 include an EMAP Project Report providing a summary of the project’s achievements in 2008-2010; a two volume report on Early Medieval Dwellings and Settlements in Ireland, AD 400-1100, including a volume 1 with text and interpretation and a volume 2 with a gazetteer of site descriptions. We also have prepared A Bibliography of Early Medieval Archaeologyin Ireland, which can be regarded as the most complete bibliography ever compiled of the subject – hopefully its a resource that scholars will find useful.
Rob O’Hara’s MA thesis, which was supported by INSTAR Heritage Council funding to EMAP, is also now available here. It provides Rob’s thoughtful and stimulating study of a late Iron Age/early medieval transition burial ground at Collierstown, Co. Meath. Undoubtedly, Rob will be publishing this in further detail again, but this volume provides his current thoughts on the site and its wider contexts.
We have also submitted a text of a book – Early Medieval Ireland: Archaeological Excavations 1930-2009 for consideration to be a publication to the Royal Irish Academy. As a courtesy to the publishers, we are not making this text publicly available, but you can look at an earlier draft of this text here.
We will be returning to the subject of EMAP and its activities shortly, but this post at least let’s people know what we were up to in 2010!

Welcome to the EMAP Blog

Welcome to the EMAP Blog,

The Early Medieval Archaeology Project (EMAP) is a collaborative research project, funded by INSTAR and the Heritage Council. The Early Medieval Archaeology Project (EMAP) is a North/South; Archaeological Industry/University collaborative research project involving UCD School of Archaeology (University College Dublin); School of Geography, Archaeology and Palaeoecology (Queen’s University, Belfast), and several commercial archaeological sector companies such as CRDS, ACS, Archer Heritage Ltd, Irish Archaeological Consultancy and Margaret Gowen & Co. Ltd. EMAP was established in 2008 with Heritage Council funding and has received INSTAR funding in 2008, 2009 and 2010.

It is well-known that the pace, scale and intensity of archaeological excavations in Ireland betweenc. 1992 – 2008 has transformed the way we view past Irish societies. Early medieval archaeology in Ireland has probably benefited most from this ‘Celtic Tiger’ boom in discovery and data gathering. The need to transform this grey literature ‘data into knowledge’ and the ‘publication crisis’ in Ireland have also been established by various professional and academic institutional policy reviews. Unfortunately the recent global economic crisis has now made these matters significantly worse – i.e. much remains to be published and synthesised at a time when Irish archaeology faces unprecedented challenges. EMAP aims to play a role in identifying, collating, interpreting and disseminating this massive volume of early medieval archaeological data and in furthering research agendas in early medieval archaeological scholarship.

EMAP’s key aims and objectives can be summarised as follows –

  • To investigate and analyse the history, character and results of early medieval archaeological excavations in Ireland.
  • To publish a series of books, peer-reviewed papers and to make available a website with an online database of early medieval sites to help transform unpublished ‘data into knowledge’.
  • To establish and promote collaborative research and graduate training links between the university and commercial archaeological sector.
Inspired by Jonathan Jarrett’s terrific blog A Corner of Tenth Century Europe, we have moved our EMAP Blog to WordPress and hope to make it a more interesting and engaging blog. More anon.