1991:036 - Francis St./Cornmarket/Back Lane, Dublin, Dublin

NMI Burial Excavation Records

County: Dublin Site name: Francis St./Cornmarket/Back Lane, Dublin

Sites and Monuments Record No.: N/A Licence number: 91E0004

Author: Andrew Halpin, c/o Dublin Corporation, Exchange Buildings, Dublin 2.

Site type: Urban medieval

ITM: E 714875m, N 733903m

Latitude, Longitude (decimal degrees): 53.342873, -6.274870

In November 1991 the writer conducted an archaeological site assessment on behalf of Dublin Corporation on two adjacent sites bounded by Back Lane, High St./Cornmarket and Francis St., Dublin; the sites are separated by Lamb Alley, which runs immediately outside (i.e. west of) the line of the town wall.

1. High St./Back Lane

This site was within the walled medieval town of Dublin and should contain foundations of the town wall and two mural towers on its south-west boundary. It is thought that this part of the town was first laid our in the 11th century, but that an earlier (6th-9th century) Gaelic settlement, Áth Cliath, may have been located here. However, it has been suggested that the Back Lane area was only sporadically occupied between the 10th and 14th centuries and that much of the south side of Back Lane was undeveloped in the early 17th century. The site is part of a block backing off Back Lane (a relatively minor street, of uncertain dare) onto the town wall; the most important part of this block, fronting onto High Street/ Cornmarket, is now excluded from the site because of road widening. Thus while occupation material of the 11th and later centuries was expected (with the possibility of earlier material related to the Gaelic settlement) it was thought that the site might be of limited archaeological importance.In the event, however, the results of the assessment showed that substantial deposits of archaeological material (probably over 2m in average depth) survive right along the Back Lane frontage and for at least 15m across the sire. This material seems to contain stratified sequences of structures of the 11th to later 13th/14th-century date; parts of stave-built and wattle structures, presumably houses, were found associated with local and imported pottery of later 13th or 14th-century date.

Much of the south-west part of the site seems to contain large, dumped deposits of boulder clay interspersed with layers of organic material. These may relate to various phases of town defenses, either very early medieval or post-medieval. The features exposed could represent either a fosse or a bank: a cur or slope in undisturbed boulder clay filled with a series of clay-based layers and organic material. Large layers of redeposited boulder clay above this may have been part of an earthen backing piled up against the town wall. The possible indications of a fosse at the base of the section are potentially of great interest as a possible town defence predating the stone wall, but because they could not be satisfactorily examined under the circumstances their significance is as yet uncertain.

It was anticipated that the foundations of the town wall would be encountered on the south-west boundary but no trace was found, even though the trench was excavated to a depth of c. 3.8m into apparently undisturbed boulder clay. The absence of any trace of the town wall is an enigma; modern disturbance does not seem to be deep enough to have removed it and the alternative, that the wall is further west in Lamb Alley, would be difficult to explain. Nevertheless, enough has been uncovered to establish this site as one of great archaeological importance.

2. Cornmarket/Francis St

This site, just outside the town wall, was expected to contain along its eastern boundary part of the external fosse of the town wall, the site of which is largely occupied by Lamb Alley itself. Further archaeological material derived from the medieval suburban settlement was expected along Francis St., which is thought to have been laid out in the 13th century. The precise nature of medieval settlement along Francis St is uncertain, however. Much of the southern part of the present site may have been occupied in the medieval period by the town's fair green, known to have been located immediately outside (i.e. west of) the fosse of the town wall. A medieval street, Bertram's Court, was probably located in the northwest corner of the present site near the fair green. It has been suggested that Bertram's Court disappeared in the 15th century.The results of the assessment indicate that, in terms of the survival of archaeological material, the site may be seen as falling into three distinct zones:

1. The outer (west) edge of the fosse of the town wall was noted c. 16m from the north-east boundary of the site, c. 29m west of the presumed line of the town wall. Even allowing for an uncut berm between the wall and the inner (east) edge of the fosse, the fosse must be at least 20m-25m wide and is at least 6m deep (below the present ground level). Clearly the fosse occupies a considerable portion of the eastern part of the site, approximately one-third of the total area. The fosse appears to be covered by c. 2.5m-3.5m of modern cellarage and fill, and filled with up to c. 3m of archaeological fill of 13th- to 17th-century date.

2. In the north-western part of the site there seems to be c. 0.7in of stratified habitation deposits of 13th- and possibly 14th-century date under c. 2.4m of modern cellarage. This structural material may be confined to a narrow strip (c. 6in) immediately east of Francis St frontage, with less complex stratigraphy further east. Whether this material relates to medieval Francis St or to the supposed Bertram's Court is not clear.

3. In the south-west part of the site there was no evidence of structural or habitation deposits. The only archaeology noted was pit/fosse features, probably of 13th-century date, exposed in both trenches dug in this area. Their function is not known, but some connection with the fair green thought to have been located in this area is possible.