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.