1971:0036 - RATHGALL (td. Rath East), Wicklow

NMI Burial Excavation Records

County: Wicklow Site name: RATHGALL (td. Rath East)

Sites and Monuments Record No.: N/A Licence number:

Author: Mr. B. Raftery, Department of Archaeology, University College Dublin

Site type: Hillfort

Period/Dating: Multi-period

ITM: E 690358m, N 673046m

Latitude, Longitude (decimal degrees): 52.800833, -6.660000

After the completion of three seasons' excavation the entire area of the innermost enclosure of the Rathgall hillfort has been investigated. The stone wall which forms the latter is a late feature on the site, dating to no earlier than Medieval times and possibly later.

Unrelated to this, though running almost concentric with it, a V-sectioned ditch formed a circular enclosure around a large central house, which was also of circular shape. Both house and ditch, of probable Late Bronze Age date, have been completely excavated and an interesting ground plan is revealed closely similar to a house excavated by Bersu in Scotland at a site called Scotstarvit Covert (PSAS 82 (1947–8), 241–263).

All around the outside of the house many pits and postholes were discovered. The latter have not yet been analysed in detail but a number of coherent settings seem recognisable from superficial examination, notably a small grouping of slender postholes forming a 50cm square. The pits vary considerably in size and shape but one, situated a short distance beyond the eastern entrance of the house is especially interesting. It was dug to a carefully excavated funnel shape and was some 1.6m deep. It had been used successibely as storage pits and rubbish dump, and traces of wickerwork lining belonging to the former periods of use were preserved. Many hundreds of coarse potsherds came from this pit.

Somewhat over a hundred clay mould fragments were discovered during 1971 to add to the 600 or 700 pieces from the two previous seasons. Interestingly they were found at some remove from the main workshop area exposed during 1970 in the east (this was not further investigated during 1971) and a secondary focus of bronze working is thus evident on the site.

The fact that the hilltop was such an important bronze working centre makes the additional discovery of an iron smelting complex of some interest. This was situated in the north-west of the enclosure close to the stone wall. It consisted of a shallow, concave-based circular pit almost completely filled with alternating layers of pure charcoal and a sandy, grey material. Large quantities of iron slag were found beside this pit.

The finds from the 1971 excavation consisted overwhelmingly of coarse potsherds (of which there are now over 6,000 preserved) but a small sawlike object of slate is of note. Objects of this type are normally interpreted as having been used for decorating pottery; none of the many sherds from Rathgall, however, has any decoration, which might have been produced by this implement. Nine saddle querns and two stone rubbers from the central enclosure also form an interesting group of objects and might suggest agricultural pursuits on a fairly extensive scale.

The most important find of the season was found in a pit, which had originally been lined with organic material, found close to the centre of the enclosure. Here a small gold, penannular ring of the type referred to as "ring money" came to light.

Test strips outside the fort in a field on the southern slope of the hill revealed evidence of occupation contemporary with the Late Bronze Age settlement on the hilltop. One complete hut site was discovered. It was roughly D-shaped and had maximum internal dimensions of about 2.5m. Many large postholes attest to at least one other structure of quite impressive dimensions though not enough of an area has been opened to ascertain either its size or shape.

Numerous pits, many coarse potsherds, three saddle querns, portion of a chert barbed-and-tanged lancehead, and a small number of clay mould fragments suggest occupation of some considerable intensity on the site. It would appear thaT an open settlement existed here on the gentle southern slopes undoubtedly forming part of the general complex dominated by the wealthy and thriving industrial centre which occupied the crest of the ridge in Late Bronze Age times.

Nothing positive can as yet be said about the great defensive ramparts of the hillfort proper. It is hoped in the next season (1972) to cut at least one section through these with a view to establishing the method of their construction and perhaps their date. Evidence for unequivocal Iron Age occupation on the site is so far limited to a decorated bronze strap tag, a possible ibex-headed pin, and possibly some glass beads and small bronze studs.