Celtic Connections and Crannogs

This three year, AHRC funded project ‘Celtic Connections and Crannogs’ is being led by Dr Nicki Whitehouse here at Plymouth University, with Dr Kim Davies as PDRA.

Collaborators include researchers at the University of Southampton (Professor Tony Brown (PI), Professor Pete Langdon and Dr Maarten van Hardenbroek), Newcastle (Dr Andrew Henderson and Dr Helen Mackay) and Queen’s University Belfast (Dr Finbar McCormick and Dr Emily Murray). The AOC Archaeology Group is also involved through Dr Graeme Cavers (Head of Survey at AOC) and Dr Anne Crone (Project Manager at AOC).

Project background

Crannogs are island dwellings that are typically located in lakes and mires and have a distribution centred around the Irish Sea, having mostly a ‘Celtic’ distribution across the north of Ireland and Scotland. However, being surrounded by water or wetlands, and rarely in the path of development, they are rarely excavated although many are under threat from drainage, erosion, eutrophication and natural decay (Barber and Crone 1993; Lillie et al. 2008). The recent discovery of a crannog (Drumclay, Co. Fermanagh) with near-perfect preservation of cultural artefacts in the path of road construction in Enniskillen and another superbly preserved wetland village in Dumfries and Galloway (Black Loch of Myrton) offer rare glimpses of their archaeological potential and unique opportunities for this project over the next three years.

There are around 1500 known sites in Ireland and 400 in Scotland (but only one in Wales and none in England). Many were constructed during the Iron Age, ca. 2500 years ago and used up until the Medieval Period, but some examples are even earlier, being dated to the Bronze Age and even a few are known from the Neolithic. As a settlement type, therefore, they have a very long history. Improvements in crannog chronology each side of the Irish Sea will have important implications for understanding the stimuli for crannog construction since correlation may relate to common environmental factors in this region, especially under the unstable climatic conditions of the later prehistory and the sixth century.

Objectives

The project sets out to re-examine crannogs as both a cultural and environmental phenomenon that link Iron Age and Medieval communities of SW Scotland and N Ireland. We still know relatively little concerning their role in society – were they long-lived or restricted to a short period of use, permanent (year-round) settlements, seasonally occupied or ‘boltholes’? Were they functional (storage, craft manufacture) and/or ritual sites or did they have a defensive/protective function for the elite?


The recovery of several high status Christian artefacts has also raised questions around the role of crannogs in the spread of Christianity through the Celtic world, in a region with almost (but not total) apparent isolation from Roman Britain and the rest of the Roman Empire, to the south and east.

To answer these questions and explore the cultural significance of these Celtic communities, we need to understand the chronology, longevity, intensity of use, form, function, material culture and environmental context of these sites. This project aims to derive this information from the crannogs themselves through archaeological excavation but also by tracing the signal of the crannogs in the surrounding lake sediments through palaeoenvironmental techniques. It is clear that longevity & intensity are key variables but since only a few crannogs have been and will ever be excavated we need additional estimates from unexcavated crannogs. This will be achieved in this study by linking with an on-going project on wiggle-matching timbers from Scottish crannogs (AOC/SUERC) & by estimating longevity of use from cores as per O'Brien et al (2005).

Here at Plymouth University, the team will focus on palaeoentomological proxies. These include Coleoptera (beetles) and ectoparasites (fleas, lice) which will provide insights into crannog function (food storage, human/animal waste, living conditions) and Chironomids (non-biting midges) which will provide an understanding of the local environmental conditions and human activity (Ruiz et al., 2006) across the period of crannog construction, use and abandonment.

Case study regions

This project will use excavation material and cores from a number of crannogs across northern Ireland and SW Scotland. So far, fieldwork has been completed on 7 crannogs from Northern Ireland (including Roughan Lough, Lough Na Crannagh and Lough Enaugh) and at the Black Loch of Myrton in SW Scotland. Analyses on the various proxies and archaeological sites are ongoing.