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Unearthing the past at the ballyclan dig

At an archaeological dig at Ballyclan, outside Crumlin, in early October, I had the opportunity to speak with Cormac McSparron the field work director.

I asked him if one of the "little folk" suddenly appeared offering him a chance to spend a day revisiting the past, or perhaps to venture to one in the future, what would he chose! His reply was almost without hesitation and he replied: "The past". After a pause for thought he added : "But which period, that's the question?"

Somewhere between 500 to 900 AD might be a good start for Cormac. Returning to that period may well provide him with all the answers he needs and would greatly assist the team of archaeologists from the Centre of Archaeological Fieldwork at Queen's University who were conducting an excavation of a ring-fort in the corner of a field in Ballyclan.

This ring-fort is one of just six known monuments in the town land of Ballyclan recorded in the Northern Ireland Sites and Monuments Database, which is maintained by the Environment and Heritage Service.

Prior to the archaeological team moving onto the site, the untrained eye may have noticed a low rise in that corner of the field with a dip running round the central mound. Other clues to the existence of a ring fort could be found on the first Ordnance Survey maps in the early 1830's.

Unfortunately the fairies never appeared to grant Cormac any wishes, so it was down to some hard graft.

The excavation at Ballyclan began in the summer and archaeology students were able to get some hands-on -experience and training in archaeology techniques. A team from the CAF returned in October to complete the excavation.

The ring-fort is approximately 30 metres in diameter. It has been estimated by a well-known expert, Dr Matthew Stout, that there are in excess of 40 000 of these monuments in Ireland. Ring-forts tend to be regarded by archaeologists as a defended farmstead rather than a fort.

The archaeologists had put a 4 metre wide trench across a section of a ditch originally surrounded the ring-fort. During construction the ditch had been cut into the ground and the material removed had been cast up on the inside of the ditch that had been intended to be the centre of the fort.

Cormac informed me that the V-shaped ditch was expected to be between two and two and a half metres deep. Unusually the sides appeared to have been packed with stones which had been pressed down onto the subsoil surface.

Cormac added: "This is strange because these ditches are generally assumed to have at least some residual defensive capacity, and yet these stones are being faced, which would actually give you a foothold."

One of the theories put forward by Cormac to explain this was that the monument may well have started off as a defensive structure but had been restructured during a later period.

This is just one of the many secrets of the past that the archaeologists will attempt to unlock in order to give us a greater understanding of how people in Early Christian times lived.

To the right of the trench there were clumps of nettles which have taken root and were growing in a semi-circular format and appeared to be growing directly over the area of the of the ditch feature. Cormac explained that the presence of nettles suggested a high phosphate content, normally the result of waste material. This may be an indication of the entrance to the ring-fort normally in the form of a causeway rather than a bridge.

The causeway would have made an excellent place for the original occupants of the hill-fort to empty the contents of their pails or waste at this point leading to a build up of phosphates. The bottom of the ditches tend to be better than the banks for finding material for dating the monument.

A geophysical survey carried out before the start of the excavation unexpectantly showed up large areas of high electrical resistance in the centre of the site. A trench was opened on the top of the site and a flat stone surface was discovered. It covered most of the interior area. Cormac pointed out a series of walls which were revealed after careful excavation. One of the finds from this part of the excavation that I was shown was a piece of Souterain pottery which is believed to be from the period 800 - 900AD.

The d�cor on the this pot had been crafted by a simple pinching process assisting the experts in dating the pottery. It is highly likely the pottery was locally produced.

The archaeologists on the site took a series of soil samples from every half metre within the excavated area. These samples will be subject to phosphate and macrofossil analysis.

It is intended that the results will assist in determining the function of each area within the excavation area. This will assist the archaeologists in determining how it was utilised by those who once occupied the site. The development of technologies and their application in the field of archaeology has greatly enhanced the knowledge and opened up new avenues of exploration, creating new research strategies and providing new challenges to the archaeologist.

Satellite technology and aerial photography are regularly giving up the secrets of the past by showing up previously undiscovered antiquities to the modern day archaeologist. An initial report on the work at this site is expected to be ready in the summer of 2007 with a comprehensive report to follow after this.

I was interested in photographing the archaeologists work prior to leaving that day and I was armed with my digital camera into which I had placed new batteries the previous evening. For some strange reason the camera seized and I was unable to capture any images of the site.

In days gone by there was a belief that any interference with the ring-forts would tempt fate and the superstitious went to all lengths to avoid them.

Perhaps the "little people" were trying to tell me something after all!

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