The historic path

Some families may claim to have landed in Wexford with the Normans, but few really can trace their ancestors back more than a few generations.

Now, a wealth of new information on thousands of years of civilisation in North Wexford has been uncovered by a project which is also bringing other benefits to the present generation.

The Gorey bypass, which is intricately linked with terms such as 'long-awaited' and 'badly needed' is set to start taking shape in the coming months. However, the new 'Gateway' to the South-East' has also proved to be a 'gateway' to the past, as a team of archaeologists have discovered this summer.
Valerie J. Keeley archaeologists were set with the ambitious task of uncovering, exploring and recording over 50 sites of archeological interest which were uncovered after an exploratory trench was dug along the 23km route earlier this year.

Working alongside the National Roads Authority's at Tramore House in Waterford, and Wexford County Council, the archaeologists have been hard at work for the past twelve weeks digging the dirt on Wexford's history.

Archaeologists are in great demand these days, with an unprecedented number of major road projects underway across the country. You'll find it hard to get a county where there isn't someone on their hands and knees in a hole in the ground beavering away with a pick (mattock) and a trowel.

Such is the demand for professionally qualified archaeologists that experts have been brought in from other countries in the digs. On the North Wexford digs, you'll find sixteen different nationalities among the 145 strong crew, though 70 per cent of those involved are Irish.

With mainly good weather so far this summer, work has progressed well on the project, which if expected to last sixteen weeks on site, before they retire to the labs and offices to study their finds, analyse, and piece together their findings into a coherent narratives which will be published for posterity. The project is overseen by Project Archaeologist, James Eogan and Assistant Project Archaeologist, Bernice Kelly.

At the moment, it's pretty much a large jigsaw puzzle which spans across thousands of years. Some pieces will be harder than others to fit, but it is hoped that when complete, a fairly coherent picture of local history can be built up from the clues left behind by those that lived off the land in the past.
When this paper decided to visit some of the digs to see how things were progressing, we picked one of the wettest days of the summer. Rainy days are perfect for catching up on paperwork, and logging the finds so far, but the staff were only too happy to trudge through the mud with us to show us what they've found so far.

For lovers of programmes such as Time Team, this is Tony and Co. on a larger scale. They've done the geophysics, the testing, and the trenches, and have produced some fascinating finds. With the entire extent of our archaeology terminology out of the way, we'll leave the rest to the experts.

Site Director Liam McKinstry explains that the site at Moneylawn Lower near Clough had uncovered the north eastern portion of a double ditched ring enclosure with an east facing entrance. This is literally a large semi-circular trench that would have represented the outer line of an enclosure measuring 60m in diameter. It's probable that an embankment was built up either inside, or outside the ditch, on which possibly a fence was placed, keeping everything in, and everyone out.

There is also evidence of an entrance to the enclosure, and postholes have been found indicating there was a structure at the entrance. There is also an inner ditch which approximately 30m in diameter.
Two possible circular structures were also located to the south and south east of the enclosure, which could be houses.

'Around the structures a number of circular pits were identified which contained substantial amounts of prehistoric pottery and flint tools,' explains Liam. 'These pits may have possibly been used as cremation burials, but the bone decayed away leaving only grave goods. A number of other finds have also been retrieved from the site, such as a large whet stone, used for sharpening knives, recovered from the enclosure ditch'.

'This artefact possibly dates to the early medieval period. A small polished stone axe was recovered from a possible prehistoric cooking site south of the enclosure. No definite date is known as of yet for the various structures and pits within the site as work is still ongoing, but it is highly likely that much of the site is of prehistoric date'.

Over at Raheenagurren West, site director Thaddeus Breen and his team have uncovered evidence of settlements dating from the Bronze Age (2,400 - 500 BC), and the Iron Age (500 BC to AD 450) to the Early Medieval Period (AD 450 to 1150). From the bronze age, there are traces of ancient farming, with tacks of plough furrows preserved in the subsoil. Near these furrows, they have also found early Bronze Age pottery of a type which archaeologists call Beaker pottery (2400 - 2000 BC), decorated with engraved lines.

Also near the furrows, there are traces of a building - the holes where the upright posts would have stood have been found.

Also found were five fulachta fiadh - these are spreads of burnt stone and charcoal which were used for heating water in a pit dug into the ground, possibly for cooking.

Oval pits filled with burnt stones dating back to the Iron Age were also found. 'We are not sure what they were for,' explains Thaddeus. 'Possibly another cooking method. In one of these pits a single blue glass bead was found'.

Three corn-drying kilns from the early medieval periods were also uncovered. Found in these were charred remains of oats and part of a quern - a pair of stones for grinding corn into flour by hand. 'It's all a question of putting the clues together and finding the most likely interpretation of them,' says Thaddeus. 'What it shows is that this area was occupied for a very long time.'

John Lehane, site director at Moneycross Upper, is uncovering with his team, the cobbled court yard of a farmhouse, that might have been lived in for around 100 years up until the start of the 20th century. Across the road, Holger Schweitzer and his team have found a bronze age fulachta fiadh, which is a burnt mound alongside a trough. The trough would have been filled with water, and heated stones were thrown in to heat it. In this particular case, wooden lining was found in the trough, which is rare.

Holger is also looking at the impression of an Anglo Norman long house which would have housed livestock and people. 'This could be associated with the land take by the Anglo Normans,' he says.
The teams have just a few more weeks to finish their work. It has been deemed a successful and bountiful dig. A lot has been learned, and based on the quantity of material uncovered, they still have a lot of work to do, explaining everything they have found. While this work goes on in offices and labs, the road works will move in and the next phase in the history of this particular stretch of North Wexford land will begin.

Courtesy of Fintan Lambe and the Wexford People
August 2005