2003:1053 - BALLYDAVIS, Laois

NMI Burial Excavation Records

County: Laois Site name: BALLYDAVIS

Sites and Monuments Record No.: SMR 13:26(02) Licence number: 03E0151

Author: Grace Fegan, for Valerie J. Keeley Ltd, Brehon House, Castlecomer, Co. Kilkenny.

Site type: Prehistoric complex

ITM: E 650504m, N 700736m

Latitude, Longitude (decimal degrees): 53.054878, -7.246653

Rescue excavations were conducted at Ballydavis, Co. Laois, on behalf of Kildare County Council NRDO, between February and July of 2003. This site was investigated due to its proposed disturbance by the Ballydavis interchange, as associated with the M7 Heath–Mayfield Motorway Scheme. The site is marked on the first-edition (1841) OS map. This showed a rectangular mound measuring approximately 27m north-west/south-east and, directly to the south, a semicircular enclosure or hollow with a radius of c. 15m. Prior to excavation, the site had no surface expression, as a consequence of ploughing.

In February 2003, 100 linear metres of trial-trenches were excavated on the site and evidence for large-scale circular enclosures and related features was recovered. Following the results of the testing, full excavation of the site began in March.

The site consisted of the remains of a complex of burial monuments and ceremonial structures thought to date from the Late Bronze Age through to the Iron Age (c. 500 BC to AD 400). During this time the prominent hilltop was encircled by a large oval ditch measuring over 100m in diameter. Within the portion of this enclosure affected by the roadworks, three smaller circular ditches were discovered.

One of these enclosures encircled an east–west-aligned grave with the well-preserved skeletal remains of an adult male. Measuring just over 18.5m in external diameter, this northernmost enclosure was defined by a flat-bottomed ditch measuring 0.6m in depth with an entrance to the east-south-east. In the fill of the ditch, at the southernmost terminal, a decorated bone pin was recovered. Directly west of the entrance and to either side of it were two large stone-lined post-holes and between these two features was a large, shallow hearth.

Further west again from these features was an east–west-aligned grave containing the extended remains of an individual with no apparent grave goods. The grave-cut measured 0.6m deep and had a stone lining concentrated around the head and shoulders. Upon initial examination by an osteoarchaeologist, the remains appear to be those of a male aged under or around 25 years.

Directly north-west of the grave-cut was a shallow post-hole, with some evidence for ramping on the northern side of the cut. This feature is positioned in the exact centre of the enclosure. A series of narrow, curving slot-trenches was apparent, concentrated in the south-western quadrant of the enclosure. Although discontinuous, they, in association with a number of stake-holes, appear to form two distinct circular structures or possibly a single figure-of-eight structure.

A number of other features were also excavated within the area enclosed by the ditch. These turned out to be various small pits and post-holes, some of which contained metal slag. No evidence for any associated bank was uncovered during the excavations. However, the ditch’s proximity to the large external ditch would make it unlikely (if contemporary) for there to have been an external bank. It is more likely that there had been an internal bank or mound that was removed by later agricultural practices.

Another of these enclosures had at its centre a deep pit that contained the disarticulated remains of an adult female. This enclosure was located south of that previously discussed. It was defined by a complete ditch measuring 12.3m in external diameter. The ditch was generally quite shallow but was extremely so in its eastern extent, being less than 0.1m deep. Central to the enclosure was an oval pit aligned roughly east–west and measuring 3m in length and 2.1m in width. This pit contained, as well as various animal bones, the disarticulated remains of a single female, aged over 25. With the human bones were found three ferrous artefacts, which, due to heavy corrosion, were not immediately identifiable. A broken polished stone artefact was also recovered from amongst the remains; it appears to be the point of a small arrowhead. Immediately north of the burial pit was a deep, vertical-sided post-hole. Arcs of curving slot-trenches, similar to those excavated in the northernmost enclosure, were also present within this enclosure, seemingly representing a structure concentric to the ditch itself and surrounding the burial pit.

The enclosing ditch was filled by two distinct layers, possibly representing a recut. Within the western quadrant of the ditch and within the upper layer, a number of high-status artefacts were recovered: a copper alloy rod-bow fibula with silver inlay, a large ferrous needle, a copper alloy heavy bead or spacer, a coiled length of thick copper alloy wire, a broken composite piece made up of two copper alloy sheets fastened together by three rivets, and a barbed and tanged arrowhead made of burnt/heated flint.

A smaller ringed ditch pre-dated this enclosure, its eastern extent cut through by the larger ditch. The entire enclosure was not investigated, as it extended west beyond the limit of excavation; it would seem to have encircled the summit of the hilltop at Ballydavis. The original excavation of the later ditch would have removed any feature central to this enclosure. A cremation deposit was uncovered on the base of this ditch in its northern quadrant. No cut was visible for the deposit of burnt bone.

Various post- and stake-holes were also excavated in and around the ditched enclosures. These can be seen to form discrete groups and clusters, which are thought to represent the remains of structures. One such group, located immediately south of the southernmost enclosure, was roughly orientated north-west/south-east. This concentration of pits and post-holes produced a considerable amount of burnt and organic material. The features in the western extent of this area seemed to be recut into heat-affected and redeposited natural material. Finds recovered from these features included a polished and bored animal claw or fang and a piece of a composite glass bracelet. A field boundary bank ran parallel to and directly south of these features, beneath which was a grave orientated roughly east–west and containing the extended remains of an individual. A possible stone pendant was recovered from the upper grave layer.

South of the northernmost enclosure and east of the two smaller enclosures was an east–west grave-cut, shallow and considerably disturbed and containing the skeletal remains of what would appear to be an adult. Approximately 2.5m south of this grave was a shallow pit containing the crouched skeletal remains of a child aged 6–7 years, lying on its right-hand side and facing south-south-east. A number of post-holes were concentrated around these two features and may represent an associated structure.

The large enclosing ditch had a maximum depth of 1.4m and width of 4m. The entire ditch was excavated by hand and a significant amount of prehistoric pottery was discovered. The pottery sherds appear to represent vessels dating to the Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age period.

With an entrance to the south-south-east, this large enclosing ditch was subrectangular in plan. Its northern extent was removed by the construction of the present Portlaoise to Portarlington road and the considerable ground disturbances associated with the disposal and burning of modern refuse in the north-western portion of the site. The western extent of this ditch remains unexcavated, as it extends beyond the road-take. No cropmarks or above-ground evidence for the enclosure, or any other archaeological features, are visible in the adjoining field. At the time of writing, this land was under pasture and in private ownership.

Evidence for the location of a corresponding bank seems to point towards it having been located outside the existing ditch. The morphology of later features, such as field boundaries, that cut through the ditch seems to back this up. The proximity of the northernmost enclosure to the V-shaped ditch also seems to negate the possibility of an internal bank.

One layer within the ditch was identified as representing major activity. Dense with organic and burnt material, this layer continued largely the entire length of the eastern arm of the ditch and produced large sherds of prehistoric pottery. Cut into this layer at widely spaced intervals were three hearths, containing large amounts of charcoal.

In the southern half of the site the naturally deposited soil changed completely. Rather than compact gravelly clay, it became very soft and easily eroded loose sand. As the V-shaped ditch moved into this area, its morphology changed. The fills of the ditch became more sterile and uniform, being composed almost exclusively of sand. The sides of the ditch became virtually impossible to discern from the surrounding natural. As was evident during excavation, the sides were extremely unstable and would have been prone to repeated collapse. While the lower half of the cut survived due to being cut into the lower gravelly clay, the upper half would have been in a state of constant flux.

The remains of a post-built structure, thought to be a house, were excavated in the north-eastern part of the site, outside the large enclosing ditch. The structure was defined by a circular pattern of fifteen post-holes measuring 9m in diameter. Except for one as yet unidentified ferrous object, no other finds were recovered from the fills of these post-holes, but a large pit directly west of this structure produced a considerable amount of burnt seeds and grains. There was a noticeable absence of any central hearth or habitation layer within the area enclosed by the post-holes; however, this portion of the site has been considerably disturbed by agricultural practices and it is quite possible that original features or deposits were removed through lateral truncation. A number of other small pits and post-holes were excavated in the areas south and north of this structure, but these cannot as yet be identified as forming any obvious patterns.

Features, including a pit containing almost exclusively burnt antler, a furnace and a series of shallow hearths, were also excavated in the very southern extent of the site. These features are thought to be connected with the complex excavated by Valerie J. Keeley for the Portlaoise Bypass (Excavations 1995, No. 173, 95E0111), immediately outside the southern extent of the present site.