Heather King describes the recent excavation in the new graveyard at Clonmacnoise, Co. Offaly.
Following the discovery of the first recorded ogham stone from Co.Offaly while digging a grave in the New Graveyard at Clonmacnoise in 1990 (see Archaeology Ireland, Winter 1991, Vol.5 No.4, 10 -11) funds were made available by the Office of Public Works for a limited excavation. The area had long been known to be rich in archaeological remains and grave openings had continuously revealed archaeological deposits of between 1.3m-2.7m throughout the graveyard. The results of the 1990 excavations have initiated a programme of investigation which is on-going with the kind permission of Offaly County Council.
The new graveyard is located to the east of the monastic enclosure on an esker ridge (the Eiscer Riada) which runs east - west through the monastic complex. The ground slopes markedly from the top of the esker on the south to the Clonmacnoise Callows and the Shannon on the north. The graveyard is bisected by the Pilgrim's Road which runs from the monastery eastwards to the Nun's Chapel. It is almost completely filled with graves apart from an area in the north-west corner where the excavations have been taking place. Four cuttings have been opened to date and these are located immediately inside the western perimeter wall and close to the grave in which the ogham stone was discovered.
The earliest evidence of occupation on the site are a series of postholes in the natural sandy soil of the esker ridge. Some of these would have held posts of 15-20cm in diameter while others are stake holes of between 5 -12cm. These suggest that post and wattle houses were the earliest features on the site. Above this, approximately one-third of a round house was discovered in the form of a wall, a hearth and a clay floor. The wall of the house was represented by stone foundations three courses in height and built of boulders ranging in size from c. 20cm in diameter to 70cm. It was better faced externally than internally. There was no evidence for posts within the wall, the stone foundation may have supported a sod wall. Adjacent to the wall on the west (internally) there was a compact layer of yellow/brown clay c. 25cm deep, into which a stone-lined hearth was set. To the east of the wall (externally) the stratigraphy was of layers of gravel and sand which may represent a path or a gravelled surface immediately outside the house. The ogham stone which initiated this campaign of investigation was found lying flat on the ground immediately outside the east wall of the house and as it bears evidence of having been re-used as a sharpening stone it is possible that the inhabitants of the round house were making practical use of the stone.
Cut through the floor of the house and elsewhere on the site a number of pits have been excavated in which large quantities of animal bone, fish bones, seeds and nuts have been found. The precise function of one particularly large pit shaft has yet to be determined. It was built by digging a pit 3m wide at the mouth and 2.6m deep.
Timber planks were placed at the base of the shaft and these may have formed base plates for timber uprights. The timber-lined pit 1.34m in width was then braced with large stones and the area between the edge of the rectangular pit and the outer one was backfilled. It may have functioned as a well as there was very little domestic refuse in it. A number of iron objects found at the bottom could suggest that they had been dropped in by accident.
Two corn-drying kilns built side by side were located to the south of the house. Both were almost circular in shape and were set above a deep pile of stones. Only the oven end of both kilns survived as the 'well-shaft' was cut through them and removed all evidence for the furnace end.
The ovens were oriented to the west with the furnace to the east. One kiln was built by giving the underlying stones a saucer or pudding-bowl shape and setting one large flat stone as the base for the oven and two uprights to form the passage of the flue. This was then plastered with a thick layer of yellow daub which subsequently became reddened where it was in direct contact with heat. This may have been used on a few occasions before the second kiln was built. The floor of this kiln had twelve stake-holes running in a circle below the rim and these may represent evidence of supports for a cover or a mat or tray for holding corn.
Other industrial activity in the area includes iron, bronze, gold and antler working. Iron objects would have been an essential requirement for any early medieval community and while the furnaces and smithing hearths have not been located to date iron-working is attested by large quantities of iron slag and furnace bottoms. The finished products of the smith include knives and dress pins for ever day use and tools for the other craft workers such as gouges, punches, chisels and nails. Many finished bronze objects have been recovered but the manufacturing debris is also present in the form of crucibles for melting the copper alloy, slag, tuyere fragments together with unfinished and cut-off pieces of bronze. Gold-working was also carried on nearby as a single crucible fragment has been found with a bead of gold still adhering to the inner surface. Antler-working is evident from the number of cut and sawn pieces of antler tine and partly finished objects such as plates for bone combs and handles for knives.
Over eight hundred objects have been recovered. The majority of these are of iron but worked bone and antler, bronze, glass and jet items have also been found. Among the iron objects are several knives; one with traces of a bone handle, a disc-headed pin, a spiral-ringed loop-headed pin, nails, rivets, staples and an escutcheon. Bronze finds include strap-tags, tweezers, decorated stick pins, loop-headed pins and mounts. The most unusual piece is a mount with animal head. A baluster-shaped section links the mount to the head which has a projecting snout. There is a circular perforation from the back of the head through the snout which has two rows of serrations representing teeth. The eyes and kidney-shaped ears are filled with red enamel. Bone and antler objects include a decorated pin, a knife handle, a trial piece with carved head and interlace pattern, mounts, combs and a large number of small bone points (20mm in average length). Jet or lignite bracelet fragments, blue and green glass beads, a fragment of a blue glass bracelet with white inlay and E ware were also found. Two Hiberno-Norse coins dating to the period AD 1020-60 were found this season in a disturbed context.
Shortly after the excavation began this year a fragment of a cross slab was found in a wall of the farm buildings which are located immediately south-east of the modern enclosure. This piece is just one of a large number of cross slabs that were broken up and re-used in the construction of buildings and walls in the area. Clonmacnoise has the largest collection of cross-slabs in the country but one wonders how many more are still awaiting discovery as, in addition to their re-use in construction, there was a custom of incorporating fragments of cross slabs in the back-fill of graves until relatively modern times.
The features uncovered during the excavation to date indicate domestic and industrial activity in this part of the monastic enclosure at Clonmacnoise while the majority of finds would suggest a date in the second half of the first millennium AD. Very little evidence has appeared for any intensive occupation in the post-l000 period apart from the Hiberno-Norse coins and some stick pins. The thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, when the nearby castle was occupied, are represented by a few shreds of medieval pottery and a bronze stirrup-shaped finger ring. There is no material, as yet, from the later medieval period. It would seem that the site of the 'city' of Clonmacnoise was forgotten and that the area was given over to agriculture. Now, as we uncover the houses, pathways and workshops of this great monastic site we can see how the ridge and furrow cultivation amid plough-cut furrows of the eighteenth to twentieth centuries have cut through the fragile remains of the seventh, eight and ninth centuries. Much more tragic, however, is the fact that the full story of the 'city' of Clonmacnoise can never he known because of a decision in the 1950s to allow the area to be turned into a modern graveyard without any archaeological investigation.