1987:50 - COXTOWN EAST, Waterford

NMI Burial Excavation Records

County: Waterford Site name: COXTOWN EAST

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

Author: Dr Marek Zvelebil, University of Sheffield

Site type: Neolithic settlement


ITM: E 666160m, N 608820m

Latitude, Longitude (decimal degrees): 52.227150, -7.031570

This site is part of the Bally Lough Archaeological Project, a collaborative project that began in 1982. 

The site is located to the west of Dunmore East, in the townland of Coxtown East, Parish of Killea, County Waterford. It is a field that has been repeatedly under cultivation and is situated in a shallow basin drained by a small stream. The field slopes from the south-east to the north-west, the total difference in elevation being about 9m. The slope ranges between 10 and 15 degrees. The basin is separated from the coast by a ridge which dips steeply into the sea. In terms of geomorphology, the site is situated within a strip of Old Red Sandstone upland.

The soil towards the bottom of the field, adjacent to the stream, consists of several metres of fine silt which would have been prone to waterlogging without modern drainage. The mid-section and top of the field consists of weathered boulder clay common to the area.

This area (BL 430) was selected for test excavation because surface collection carried out in the field hinted at the presence of a Neolithic and possibly Mesolithic settlement. This was suggested by the high density of surface finds (20 finds per ha), and by core: flake: tool ratio, where a relatively high proportion of secondary and tertiary flakes and of retouched artefacts pointed to domestic activities indicative of a settlement rather than temporary camps or special activity sites. A find of a Neolithic arrowhead in this field and of a late Mesolithic Bann flake in the adjacent area, BL 429, offered some basis for the dating of the finds.

Test excavation was carried out by sinking 1m by 0.5m test pits in a grid pattern 20m apart. In all, 51 test pits were excavated, concentrated in the middle and top part of the field because it was felt that the bottom part would have been flooded in prehistoric times.

The A horizon of the pits extended to a depth of about 0.3m. This was followed by a B horizon about 100-150mm deep. The subsoil was reached at a depth of about 0.40-0.50m. In the lower part of the field, pits were dug to the sterile fine silt level.

In total, 68 lithic artefacts were found. Most of the finds were located in the A horizon or at the interface with the B horizon. The test pits also contained some historic pottery and other recent artefacts. The nature of the lithic assemblage confirmed the impression gained from the surface assemblage. There were only 6 cores as compared to 50 flakes, a situation unusual in our research area, where assemblages are often dominated by poor-quality pebble cores. All five formal tools found in the test pits were scrapers.

Apart from a possible hearth in pit 14, no structural remains or features were recognised in the test pits. This paucity of tangible remains for the existence of structural features such as house floors, hearths, storage/refuse pits, etc. casts doubt on the status of this site as a settlement. Yet the high density of the surface finds and the nature of the assemblage suggests an intensive use of the location.

Pit 14 contained several stones found together which may have been a stone lining of a hearth. Reddish clay in the B horizon shows some evidence for burning, but no charcoal was found. The feature lies within a band of higher density of finds and pit 14 contained 7 artefacts. It may be that we are dealing here with the centre of activity at the site, but further, more extensive excavations around pit 14 are needed to establish the true nature of the stone feature and of patterning around it.

The relative paucity of features and of sub-surface finds at this site, when compared to the surface distribution, suggests that postdepositional disturbance and/or geomorphological processes were at least partly responsible for this pattern. There are at least two possible explanations.

(1) We are dealing with a ploughed-out site. The field has been intensively ploughed for a long period of time. It is possible that most of the features were destroyed or altered beyond recognition by repeated ploughing. The depth of the A horizon and the shallowness of the B horizon lend some support to this view. The small number of sub-surface finds relative to the high density of the surface scatter and their tendency to be located in the A horizon also support this view.

(2)The true location of the site is situated above the field where the finds were collected, on or near the crest of the ridge that separates the BL 430 location from the coast. The finds were washed on to the BL 430 location following deforestation and agricultural activity. At first this seems improbable, because of the relatively mild gradient of the slope and the apparently high geomorphological stability of the BL 430 location. Nevertheless, this explanation cannot be ruled out.

The test excavations at BL 430 point to the need for further geomorphological and archaeological investigations in the vicinity, and for more rigorous geomorphological investigations in the research area as a whole. Further excavations may also be warranted in the central section of BL 430, where concentrations of sub-surface flint artefacts were found.

Surface collection survey
During the 1987 season, systematic fieldwalking of 15 fields took place. The fieldwalking programme was hampered by the late maturation of crops during that summer (and the consequent inability to walk across fields still in crop), and the need to travel to the distant sampling strata located at the margin of our research area. Nevertheless, some 120 stone artefacts were collected from the 15 fields surveyed, in addition to historic and recent pottery and clay pipes. The low density of finds in these locations confirms the general pattern observed during earlier seasons: major sites are located in the core area adjacent to the mouth of Waterford Harbor, while low-density scatters, indicating perhaps temporary camps and incidental use of the landscape, can be found inland and in areas adjacent to the open coastlines.

Geomorphological survey
The geomorphological survey proved to be a very useful part of the 1987 season. It was carried out by Dr Mark Marlin of the Department of Geography, Newcastle University. The survey enabled us to categorise different forms of landscape within our research area, provided a better understanding of geomorphological processes affecting our surface assemblages and the sub-surface testing results, and suggested a framework for further geomorphological and palaeoenvironmental investigations necessary for the reconstruction of the prehistoric landscape.

Dept. of Archaeology and Prehistory, University of Sheffield, Sheffield SJO 2TN