Some Recent Archaeological Finds from Clare Museum

Clare Association Yearbook, 2008

By Edel Greene

Since 2002, 36 archaeological artefacts that could have been lost, stolen or consigned to the store-rooms of the National Museum in Dublin have been kept and displayed in their county of origin. In February 2002, Clare Museum became one of eleven designated museums in the country. Its designated status means that the museum has statutory powers under the National Cultural Institutions Act 1997 making it legally entitled to retain objects on behalf of the State. In the past archaeological objects found in Clare were sent to the National Museum, and unless they were of national importance were consigned a number and stored away in obscurity. All that has changed however and now objects found in Clare stay in the county. Through Clare Museum’s inhouse temporary exhibitions and its website the people of Clare can see and learn more about their archaeological heritage as it comes to light.

All archaeological objects found, with no known owner, belong to the State. The finder of an archaeological object must report the find to the National Museum of Ireland or to Clare Museum. It is advised that the finder should leave the object where it was found unless it appears to be in danger of destruction or theft. Designated museums also provide advice or information on any aspect of our archaeological heritage, particularly in relation to archaeological objects. Curators of Designated Museums are empowered to act on behalf of the Director of the National Museum of Ireland to ensure that objects discovered are investigated, reported and preserved as State property. Clare Museum reports all archaeological finds to the National Museum, provides conservation where necessary, and contributes to and actively pursues research regarding all archaeological finds acquired. All objects remain State property and are registered with Clare Museum.

The archaeological artefacts claimed for the State by the museum range in date from the Neolithic to the Medieval period. The circumstances in which the objects were found shows that the material culture of the past is often closer then we think. Something most of the findspots have in common is their association with agricultural or construction work. Naturally, when the earth is disturbed artefacts hidden beneath the soil for centuries or millennia often come to the surface. Other finds are less easy to explain, some process occurs that brings the past to the surface and all it takes is a canny eye to spot what most of us could easily miss.

Whether well visited sites or more obscure monuments, a walk around ancient or historical ruins can often result in chance finds. The Delaney Collection is a group of 26 artefacts ranging in date from the Neolithic to the Early Christian period. Claimed for the state by the museum in 2003, the artefacts were found in the townland of Doolin, parish of Killilagh, barony of Corcomroe, by archaeologist Shane Delaney while walking in the area during the summer of 2000. All the artefacts were found on the surface of disturbed ground caused by the removal of field walls and the subsequent mounding of the wall rubble. The area where the artefacts were found is marked as an archaeological complex (SMR CL008-057). This complex encompasses a number of enclosures, a cashel and possible ancient field systems. The topsoil depth is very shallow and protruding limestone bedrock is a major feature of the topography. The depth of disturbed soil was no more than a couple of centimetres in general.

A ground stone axe, a polished green stone axe, 4 patinated tertiary flint flakes and a secondary struck chert flake were located in the corner of a field concentrated in an area of approximately 5m x 5m. In the scar of one of the removed field walls a hammerstone, an elongated regular pebble or possible ard share and a hone stone were found, while another hammerstone was found on a field path.

Neolithic settlement and activity in the Doolin area is already well known from the axe production site at Fisherstreet and the court-tomb at Teergonean. The stone axes and flint and chert artefacts probably date to this period also (4000 to c. 2000 BC). Stone axes are one of the most common archaeological finds in Ireland and their use extended from the Mesolithic into the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age. Stone axes are however considered a characteristic artefact of the Neolithic period, a time when they took on a new importance as tools for clearing forests to make land available for pasture and cultivation. Despite, or perhaps because, of their important functional role stone axes appear to have held a symbolic significance for Neolithic people. They have been found as grave goods with burials or in hoards, such as the c. 900 examples found in the River Shannon near an important fording point at Killaloe. The highly polished green stone axe, the only green stone axe ever found in the county, was more than likely of ceremonial or symbolic rather than utilitarian significance to those who possessed it. This axe along with five others acquired by the museum been sent to the Irish Stone Axe Project in the School of Archaeology, UCD, Dublin.

The Irish Stone Axe Project (ISAP) was set up in 1990 and arose out of the realisation of the potential of stone axe studies in understanding many different aspects of earlier Irish prehistory, including human knowledge and exploitation of the geological environment. The basic aim of the the project is to establish a database of Irish stone axes incorporating contextual, morphological and petrological information on all known stone axes. One of the most important aspects of stone axe studies is the identification of the different rock types that were utilised in their manufacture, and the locating of potential sources for them (ISAP website). The stone axes will be returned to Clare Museum in late 2007 or early 2008 along with details of the ISAP’s findings. This information will be passed on to the public via the museum website or through temporary exhibition.

In the same field approximately 10 metres east of a cashel (CL008-050702) a tertiary flint scraper, broken bone/antler comb and ceramic fragment were found. Both antler and bone provided an easily worked and readily available raw material for the manufacture of various household items throughout history and prehistory. Antler however was preferred for the manufacture of combs as it is tougher and more pliable. The comb found at Doolin was composed of a number of separate plates held together with iron rivets and decorated with simple dot-and-circle motifs, a popular form of decoration in Ireland throughout the early medieval period, c. 500 AD to c. 1100 AD (Edwards, 2000). Cashels are stone built circular enclosures which would have contained a stone or wooden house in its interior. As these monuments are generally considered to date from the early medieval period, it is possible that the bone/antler comb is associated with settlement or craft activities at the cashel.

In February 1999, while visiting the medieval church site at Kilmacreehy, local historican Sean Spellissy found what he thought to be a quern stone near the shoreline. When Jim Higgins, Galway City Heritage Officer, visisted the site he confirmed the find as a saddle or saddle back quern stone. Saddle querns were used during the Neolithic and Bronze Ages in Ireland and consist of a usually rectangular shaped stone with a concave upper surface on which grain was ground using a rubbing stone. The discovery of a saddle quern usually points to prehistoric occupation nearby, as these heavy and cumbersome objects were not easily transported. Saddle querns are common finds on Neolithic and Bronze Age settlements and several examples from Clare are on display at Clare Museum.

In 2004 a visitor to the scenic ruins of Corcomroe Abbey discovered a small bell on the ground surface in a field directly north of the abbey. This field was originally part of the monastic enclosure which is located in the townland of Abbey West, parish of Abbey, barony of Corcomroe. Composed of bronze or brass plated iron the bell measures c. 40mm high and has a maximum width of 27mm. An oval shaped handle contains a similarly shaped perforation for suspension. The Cistercian abbey at Corcomroe was founded in 1194 by either Donal Mor O’Brien, king of Limerick, or his son, Donough Cairbreach. The abbey was dedicated to the Virgin Mary and was known in Latin as ‘Sancta Maria de Petra Fertili’, or St. Mary of the Fertile Rock. In the past bells were hung on domestic animals to keep track of their movements. The proximity of the find to Corcomroe Abbey may be significant in that the Cistercian Order are known for their agricultural labours. As each Cistercian community was designed to be self-sufficient it is likely that the monks at Corcomroe used the surrounding lands to keep animals like sheep, goat and cattle to provide the community with food and clothing. The harness bell may also have been hung from a horse harness, a common practice in the past.

While the finds described above were all found during leisure activities, those remaining to be described are all associated with hard work. In 2003 while digging a drain on heavy soil in Knockroe townland, parish of Clooney, barony of Corcomroe, a farmer was quick to spot a saddle quern accompanied by a rubbing stone within the excavated area. The saddle quern, 62cm long and 31cm wide, is sub-rectangular in shape, the surface flat with a pronounced dip occuring c. 10cm from one long end producing a concave surface which continues to the other end. The rubbing stone found at Knockroe is a large heavy sea stone, c. 40.5 cm long, c. 17cm wide and c. 15.2 cm in depth. The Knockroe find was unusual in that both the saddle and the rubbing stone were found.

After reporting the finds to the curator at Clare Museum an inspection was made of the find and the find spot. Although there were little of significance to be discerned from the now completed area of the drain, PJ alerted the curator and myself to the presence of an unusual stone about a quarter of a kilometre away in another field. Here he presented to us a previously unrecorded bullaun stone, with two artificial basins on its surface. The bullaun stone which is diamond or lozenge shaped had been set vertically into the ground close to the field boundary. Bullaun stones like saddle querns are often considered to have been used for grinding, and they are often found in close proximity to settlement sites such as ringforts. However, bullaun stones also have a tendancy to occur at ritual or religious sites and like the stone axes described above probably held both a utilitarian and ritual significance to people in the past. Many bullauns occur close to megalithic monuments, in Clare a number are associated with wedge tombs which date to the end of the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age. Another common location for bullauns is at early church sites and holy wells, and an unusual bullaun set in a conglomerate boulder is associated with the inauguration site at Magh Adhair near the village of Quin. The presence of the bullaun and the saddle quern at Knockroe suggest the presence of prehistoric settlement and ritual in this now isolated hillside location.

While undertaking field drainage on boggy land using a mechancial digger at Knockliscrane (Knockloskeraun) townland, parish of Kilmurry-Ibrickane in the barony of Ibrickane, a landowner brought a bronze looped and socketed axehead to the surface. Measuring 6.5cm in length and 5.2 cm wide the axehead was in poor condition, the socket end was broken and only one partial loop remains. The axehead is currently undergoing conservation work which will help to remove the buildup of acretions and to stabilise the object to prevent any further degeneration of its fabric. The first bronze axeheads in Ireland (and Europe) were flat axes mounted onto a wooden haft. Socketed and looped axes such as this one represented a technological advance during the late Bronze Age. Securing the haft within a socket on the axe rather than mounting the axe onto the wooden haft provided a more secure fix and made the tool more effective for use. Leather thongs placed through the loops also served to hold the axehead in place.

In 1978 during land clearance on his farm at Caheraphuca townland, Inchicronan parish, barony of Bunratty Upper, a farmer unearthed two broken stone axes and another stone tool, possibly a pestle-like implement. The objects were acquired by the museum in 2004. During the summer of 2007 construction work on a new housing estate near St. Flannan’s College, in the townland of Clonroadmore, parish of Drumcliff, and barony of Islands led to the recovery of a complete polished stone axe. These axes are currently being analysed by the Irish Stone Axe Project in UCD, Dublin (see above).

While advances in archaeology have brought the past closer to us in many ways, sometimes we are reminded of how much we still have to learn when faced with an artefact much less readily identifiable than the stone axe. In 2005 while herding cattle in a field in Leana townland, Killinaboy parish, barony of Inchiquin, farmer Michael O’Grady found an oval stone in close proximity to two fuliachta fiadh. Dating from the Bronze and Iron Ages, fulachta fiadh or ‘burnt mounds’ are one of the most numerous field monuments in Ireland. They are visible as low horseshoe shaped or cresentic grass-covered mounds which beneath the surface consist of a sunken wooden or stone trough surrounded by a mound of fire-heated and cracked stones. While it is agreed that their primary function was for heating water their specific purpose remains uncertain. The most popular theory regarding their use is that they were ancient cooking places, other possibilities are that they were sites for bathing or for craft and industrial activities such as dyeing, metalworking, tanning, or soap and fat production (Monk 2007). Most recently it has been suggested that they may have been used for brewing ale (Quinn and Moore, 2007).

The stone found near the fulachta fiadh is an flat, oval-shaped sandstone disc referred to as a bi-facial hammerstone, 9.3cm long, 7.9cm wide and 4.1 cm in depth. A roughly circular shallow indentation occurs near the centre of each face. The stone may be associated with activities at the fulacta fiadh. However, similar stone objects have been found on early Neolithic and Mesolithic sites (O’Grady, 2006). The hollows on each face may have served as a means of gripping the stone which was possibly used to crack hazelnuts (ibid.). Hazel is a dominant form of vegetation in the area, and the nuts are a rich source of protein. We know that they were eaten in Neolithic times in the Burren where their charred shells were recovered from a hearth in a late Neolithic house on Roughan Hill (Jones, 2004).

In 2005 Clare County Council’s Field Monument Warden, Michael Lynch found a stone spindle whorl in a trench c. 2.5 metres deep at the site of a road-widening project close to the remains of an enclosure and castle. The find was made in the townland of Commonage, parish of Kilfenora, barony of Corcomroe. Spindle whorls were used for spinning yarn from as early as the Bronze Age and were usually made of clay, bone/antler or stone. Spindle whorls are fundamentally disc shaped objects with a central perforation, the example described here is probably of sandstone and has a plano-convex shape. Cloth was made from wool and linen and spindle whorls are a common find on settlement sites. Each whorl was mounted on a wooden pin or spindle and this was used to draw the raw wool into a thread. The early 8th century Irish law tract the ‘Cáin Lánamna’ or ‘Law of the Couple’ suggests that women were responsible for the combing, spinning and weaving of wool.

All the artefacts described above were found by ordinary people during the course of their working day or while passing time in leisure pursuits. By bringing these objects to the attention of Clare Museum the finders were ensuring that these remnants of the past would be identified, recorded and preserved for posterity, and knowledge and awareness of them brought to the public at large. Many more archaeological artefacts remain to be discovered and reported. Clare Museum relies on the public to bring their finds to the attention of the museum in order to prevent them from being lost or sold illegally. Archaeological objects are not only valueable for the information they provide regarding how objects were made and used in the past. Their geographic context also helps us to build up a picture of settlement and human activity in our area in the past. When objects are removed from their context much valuable information is lost.

By being mindful of the layers of the past upon which we trod, farm and build we can all help to better preserve and record our archaeological heritage. Clare Museum will continue to acquire and care for archaeological artefacts found in the county and to make them accessible to the public through temporary exhibitions and the museum website where all objects acquired by the museum can be viewed under the Recent Acquisitions section.

Edwards, Nancy. 2000. The Archaeology of Early Medieval Ireland. Routledge, London.
Jones, Carleton. 2004. The Burren and the Aran Islands, Exploring the Archaeology. The Collins Press, Cork.
Monk, Mick. 2007. A Greasy Subject, Archaeology Ireland, Vol. 21, No. 1, Spring, 22-24.
O’Grady, Michael. 2006. Killinaboy Stone. The Other Clare, Vol. 30, Shannon Archaeological and Historical Society.
Quinn, Billy and Moore, Declan. 2007. Ale, brewing and fulachta fiadh, Archaeology Ireland, Vol. 21, No. 3, Spring, 8-11.

Clare Museum: Clare Museum
Irish Stone Axe Project: UCD School of Archaeology

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