2002:1408 - The Deserted Village, Slievemore, Achill Island, Mayo

County: Mayo Site name: The Deserted Village, Slievemore, Achill Island

Sites and Monuments Record No.: SMR 41:8(02), 42:109(14) Licence number: 91E0047

Author: Theresa McDonald, Achill Archaeological Field School, Dooagh, Achill Folklife Centre, Achill Island, Co. Mayo.

Site type: Multi-phase landscape

ITM: E 468568m, N 803482m

Latitude, Longitude (decimal degrees): 53.963907, -10.003037

This report presents a synopsis of the results of the excavations at Slievemore Deserted Village, Achill Island, Co. Mayo, over twelve weeks in June, July and August 2002. Two main areas were selected for investigation: House #36, Cuttings A–F; and the Monks’ Garden, Cuttings A to H, and Trench 4 east of the Monks’ Garden, containing lazy-beds (cultivation ridges), where geophysical investigations indicated a number of anomalies that warranted investigation. Both sites are in Tuar, the west village of the settlement known as the Deserted Village at Slievemore.
The vernacular architecture and the ceramic artefacts recovered during the excavations suggest that House #36 was constructed in around AD 1720–50 and deserted in the immediate post-Famine period, around 1860.
The souterrain represents much earlier settlement in this area, with a radiocarbon date of AD 650±80 obtained from burnt ling heather (Calluna vulgaris) at the southern end of the souterrain passageway, suggesting activity at Slievemore during the early medieval period (AD 500–1100).
Excavations at House #36 revealed a large subrectangular pit (c. 3m by 2m) and smaller pits ranging in size from c. 1.3m by 0.6m to 0.8m by 0.5m in Cutting C, a number of the smaller pits being cut into the larger pit and all seemingly backfilled at different times. Apart from some residual slag adhering to the rim of one of the smaller pits and a piece of haematite at the base of another, there was no evidence of the purpose and usage of these pits. The location of the pits, close to a stream, may suggest smithy or forge activity, pre-dating the construction of House #36. A shallow stone-lined drain south of the north-eastern group of pits was cut into by the manure pit wall associated with House #36, but the relationship between the pits and this drain has yet to be established. The drain, roughly U-shaped, was truncated by the later manure pit and seemed to have enclosed the area of the pits. Two sets of activity were therefore identified in Cutting C: the construction of the house, garden and manure pit, which date to c. AD 1720, and earlier but as yet undated activity related to the digging and backfilling of the pits. Although it is possible that the pit activity is contemporary with the construction of the house, the truncation of the stone-lined drainage channel by the manure pit wall suggests, on stratigraphical grounds, that the pits and drainage channel pre-date the house and the construction of the manure pit.
The pits are enigmatic, as the deposits in them suggest continuous and similar activity, possibly related to forge or smithy processes. A number of horseshoes were found in the largest of the north-eastern group of pits. Similarly, the deposits or backfill surrounding the pits was clearly stratified, with an organic soil deposit interspersed with sand, the latter suggesting either a hiatus in the activity being carried out or an attempt to dry the site by spreading sea sand. The substantial nature of the sandy deposit suggests that it was unlikely to have been wind blown, although this hypothesis cannot be entirely ruled out owing to the strength of the winter gales on Achill. The acquisition of the sandy deposit would have been labour-intensive, assuming the use of horse-and-cart transport during the 18th and 19th centuries from the nearest source (Keel Beach), c. 3.2km away. Analysis of the north-eastern pit deposits is continuing.
The pits in the south-east area of Cutting C were smaller, c. 0.8m in diameter, almost forming a figure-of-eight in outline, and enclosed by a partially collapsed stone wall that curved from the south-west to the north-east, continuing under the eastern baulk. There was no evidence of the black organic deposit seen in the north-eastern pits, nor was there evidence of iron slag. However, these pits were only partially excavated, and investigation will continue in 2003.
Evidence of pre-house activity was also noted in the adjoining garden, Cutting B, notably the house foundation trenches that were cut into pre-existing lazy-bed cultivation ridges, as well as a series of pre-house drainage channels underlying the lazy-beds and running at right angles to them. West of House #36 the remains of a pre-house, north–south-aligned stone boundary wall, covered with redeposited natural soil, was excavated, and west of this wall (Cutting F) a section of the original west–east village pathway was discovered.
Analysis of the excavations to date suggests a considerable amount of activity pre-dating the construction of House #36. In the absence of conclusive artefactual evidence to provide absolute dates for this activity, detailed analysis of the stratigraphic layers in the various cuttings is in progress.
In Cutting F, west of House #36, the metalled surface of the village pathway was uncovered, the southern edge demarcated by large stones, similar to those found at the section in the Monks’ Garden, suggesting that it is part of the same village pathway.
Excavations at the Monks’ Garden revealed a large section of the original metalled west–east village pathway, which crosses over the roof of the souterrain chamber and extends north-east toward the west wall of House #25. Evidence of a major conflagration in Cutting D, immediately south of the souterrain passage entrance, may represent contemporaneous activity or subsequent kiln activity after the souterrain had gone out of use.
In the newly opened Trench 4, east of the Monks’ Garden, a north-east/south-west alignment of four large boulders (the largest measuring 0.85m by 0.45m by 0.25m) truncated the lazy-bed cultivation ridges, which must have made even spade cultivation extremely difficult, to say the least. This set of lazy-beds is wider than normal and may originally have been used for oats or rye crops as opposed to potatoes. Numerous small to medium-sized (55–2.5mm) stone inclusions found in the topsoil were unusual but not surprising, as similar deposits were noted in Cutting B, the garden of House #36.
The stratigraphic and artefactual evidence, together with a 14C date of AD 650, suggest activity in the west village of Tuar from the 7th century to 1900 and beyond, if the seasonal transhumance reoccupation in the early 20th century is taken into consideration. Slievemore is renowned as the place where the practice of transhumance was last recorded in Ireland, continuing here until the 1940s (Graham 1953).
Early medieval settlement at Slievemore was preceded by megalithic tombs of the court and portal variety in the Neolithic, a group of hut sites and associated field systems in the Bronze Age, and two cahers and the remains of a church and graveyard dedicated to St Colmán in the Iron Age/early medieval period. The site at Slievemore therefore represents a multi-phase landscape providing ample opportunity for archaeological, anthropological and historical studies.
An EDM/total station survey of coaxial prehistoric field systems north of the Deserted Village began this year and will continue in 2003 and 2004. These field systems and associated hut sites of probable Bronze Age date will be mapped, and their relationships to other prehistoric remains on the mountain will be assessed and analysed.
A study of the features in the 84 extant houses, including locational preference and orientation, size and type of house structure and access to gardens and mountain commonage, is nearing completion. These data will shortly be entered into a database for analysis. It is anticipated that this study will produce details of social and economic factors, as well as information on the hierarchical stratification, if any, operating in the villages in the pre-Famine period.

Reference
Graham, J. 1953 Transhumance in Ireland. The Advancement of Science 10 (37), 749.