1995:226 - 'The Deserted Village', Slievemore (Toir), Achill Island, Mayo

County: Mayo Site name: 'The Deserted Village', Slievemore (Toir), Achill Island

Sites and Monuments Record No.: SMR 42:14-03 Licence number: 91E0047

Author: Theresa McDonald, Achill Archaeological Summer School, St O'Hara's Hill, Tullamore, Co. Offaly.

Site type: Multi-phase landscape

ITM: E 462981m, N 807512m

Latitude, Longitude (decimal degrees): 53.998649, -10.089930

A fifth season of survey and excavation was conducted at the Deserted Village, Slievemore, over a period of six weeks from 17 July to26 August 1995. The survey and excavation were sponsored by the Achill Archaeological Summer School and Mayo County Council.

The house and associated field systems survey in ‘Toir’, was completed. A number of haggards and part of a togher located in the valley bottom south of the present roadway were also surveyed. The detail of the house survey has revealed at least two phases of settlement, one of 19th-century date and one pre-dating this, the exact period of which remains to be determined.Field systems in the form of early, unenclosed lazy-beds (ridge and furrow), cultivation ridges and later strip fields conform with the hypothesis of multi-period house construction. Meandering through the two historic field systems, but commencing at an elevation of c. 800-900 feet OD, are prehistoric field walls and associated hut platforms of probable Neolithic or Bronze Age date.

The survey revealed the core of a settlement pre-dating the present 18th/19th-century village, where a small group of houses are set at right angles to the old roadway, divided by a street plan on a north-south axis, while houses of later date, located to the east and west, are aligned north-south parallel to each other, with their long axis running downhill. Occupying a prominent position close to the core of the original upstanding village is a most unusual garden (the Monk’s Garden), enclosed by a drystone wall which appears to have been constructed in two phases; the raison d’etre behind the narrowing of the garden wall at a point joining an earlier and a later construction phase appears to be the presence of a souterrain immediately north-east of this garden wall. The clear avoidance of the souterrain in both the early and late occupation phases would seem to indicate prior knowledge of its presence; in addition there is an obvious avoidance of this garden to the east and to the west by both the 19th-century settlement and the preceding one. In the context of the period, the deliberate avoidance of the Monk’s Garden is remarkable; the lazy-bed cultivation ridges in the southern section are a monument to the desperation for food felt by the inhabitants, and their fortitude in resisting the temptation to demolish the souterrain and cultivate the northern section of the garden strongly indicates an existing taboo directly relating to this structure.

Cutting A
Excavation of the terrace/platform that extends south of the southern gable of House #36 showed that material here was composed of a variety of soils and gravels brought in from elsewhere to provide the level platform upon which the house was constructed.

Cutting B
The trench (F14) was extended 0.5m to expose the stonework of the north-east corner of House #36. Immediately to the north was an extension of the black organic layer seen in the north-south profile, adjoining it a red oxidised layer and underneath both a sandy layer c. 1m in depth, originally thought to be the ‘natural’, but deepening of this trench uncovered a layer of flat stones, on top of which lay a fragment of decayed wood. Further excavation will be conducted in this area in 1996.Excavation in the stony layer of Cutting B produced fragments of coloured glass, white china and fragments of red brick, together with a number of white quartz pieces, some of which appeared to have been worked. In F17, immediately east of F14 at the interface of a disturbed iron pan, a c. 0.5m- deep dark organic layer, generally conceded to pre-date House #36, were found fragments of an unknown red/orange/black painted siliceous material, possibly glass (E. Bourke, pers. comm.) which still awaits positive identification.

The stratigraphy in Cutting B revealed a deep, c. 0.5m, black organic layer (possibly a lazy-bed), seemingly pre-dating House #36, in which were found traces of carbonate, possibly derived from the addition of seaweed or comminuted shell fragments to the soil, a plaggen soil. An endeavour will be made to obtain a date for this cultivation deposit in 1996.

Cutting C
The sod layer was removed from the so-called manure pit, located immediately east of the doorway of House #36; oval in shape, this stone-lined structure measures c. 2.4m north-south by 1.5m east-west, internal diameter, with a narrow entrance close to the south-west corner. In the north-east corner, where the structure curves to the west towards the doorway of House #36, a second row of larger stones curves in the opposite direction, and while the area to the east remains unexcavated it would appear that the latter alignment may represent a small circular structure, contemporary with or later than the so-called manure pit. The location, size and shape of the manure pit could conceivably represent an earlier structure. The sandy soil in it exhibited clear evidence of intense leaching which, if applied to the area as a whole, would have been detrimental to sustained agriculture in Slievemore. However, there is a marked contrast between the soil here and the obviously fertile soil in Cutting B, pre-dating House #36, indicating degradation of the soil over time.A detailed survey of the remains in the old graveyard in Slievemore that probably date to the early medieval period will be a priority in 1996.

A ministerial task force was set up in April 1995 to carry out a feasibility study on the Deserted Village, and a report of their findings has just been published. There is acknowledgement of the archaeological importance of the area and a strong recommendation for preservation of all the sites and monuments in Slievemore.

The survey and excavation in Toir will be published as a monograph in 1996. A survey in Toir Reabhach, the adjoining village, will commence in the summer of 1996.