2003:1226 - Site 121, Balriggan 1, Balriggan, Louth

NMI Burial Excavation Records

County: Louth Site name: Site 121, Balriggan 1, Balriggan

Sites and Monuments Record No.: N/A Licence number: 02E1325

Author: Shane Delaney, Irish Archaeological Consultancy Ltd, 8 Dungar Terrace, Dún Laoghaire, Co. Dublin.

Site type: Early medieval enclosures

ITM: E 703585m, N 810734m

Latitude, Longitude (decimal degrees): 54.035374, -6.418690

The excavation of the 2.3ha site in the townland of Balriggan, c. 2km north-west of Dundalk, was carried out in advance of the construction of the 8.5km M1 Dundalk Western Bypass (main Chainage 17100-25600). The excavation was undertaken on behalf of Louth County Council and the National Roads Authority. The previously unknown site had been discovered at route Chainage 23570-23.860 (directly to the west of the R177 Armagh road) during a testing programme undertaken in March 2002 by Fintan Walsh (Excavations 2002, No. 1294, 02E0370). Resolution excavations were completed between August 2002 and May 2003 with an average of 35 staff.

The main focus of the site (a double-ditched enclosure) is situated on well-drained ground made up of glacially mixed gravels and is located at c. 13-15m OD. To the west of this main area is a knoll, upon which was cut an enclosing ditch on its eastern side. This knoll also comprises glacial mixed gravels and is steeply sloped at the south and the north. The entire site is overlooked by Fort Hill (excavated by David Bayley, Excavations 2002, No. 1329, 02E01326), a solitary drumlin rising to a high point of 36m OD which shows no evidence for any occupation or use that is contemporary with the Balriggan 1 site. Topsoil over the site generally varied from 0.2 to 0.4m but was up to 1.2m downslope to the south of the western knoll. The topsoil to the east of the main site was very peaty and overlay water-disturbed gravel.

The main focus of the site occupies a very gentle knoll on low-lying ground, surrounded (in a general sense) on all sides by higher terrain. The knoll is immediately flanked on the north-west and south-east by lower, boggy land. A stream feeds the wetland to the north-west, while the wetland to the south appears to have developed around a (now canalised) spring. The north-western wetland is L-shaped, measuring c. 190m by 40m east-west and a similar area north-south. The south-eastern wetland shows evidence for measuring c. 120m by 40m north-south. The main focus of the site was located at the ‘pinch point’, where the two wetland areas are closest together. This appears to be a deliberate, controlling use of the landscape for settlement and enclosure purposes.

Evidence for prehistoric activity was identified through stray finds. These include a saddle quern, a flint end scraper and potsherds. It is likely that the whole site occupation dates, via several phases of use and disuse, from the early medieval period. Later activity is seen in the forms of landscaping and drainage works.

Enclosing ditch
The first phase was the main, internal, enclosure ditch, C14, which measured c. 2m wide by 1m deep and defined a rough ‘C’ shape (open to the east) c. 49m in diameter north-south (internal dimensions). A curving ditch, C351, located to the east of the open side of the C-shaped ditch may represent the remains of the eastern section of this enclosure. This shallow ditch had a sequence of raised lips/mini-causeways/partitions along its length. The interpretation of these ‘partitions’ has yet to be addressed. Similar compartments, however, have been noted from the eastern side of the enclosing ditch, C9, on the western knoll. The spaces between the ends of ditch C14 and ditch C351 may have formed possible access points into the central enclosure. Externally, on the south-western side of C14, the ditch appears to have been approached by a similarly positioned droveway. It is possible that the original enclosure ditch was causewayed on this side but that a later recut has removed any such evidence.

In Phase 2, C14 was recut. This recut ditch, C3, is not causewayed and is mostly dug along the line of the original enclosing ditch, C14 (represented by the remains of a shallow gully); it is up to 4m wide by 1.4m deep. The fills of C3 contained over 136 sherds of bucket-shaped coarse pottery (souterrain ware), occasional iron fragments (including slag), two copper alloy stick pins, hammerstones and a fragment of quern stone, all of which appear to be of early medieval date. There was a notable absence of animal bones from the ditch fill; animal remains were almost always limited to teeth. However, considering that elsewhere on-site human bone had decayed almost completely, it is suggested that ground conditions had not allowed animal bone to survive.

External ditch
An outer enclosing ditch, C7, U-shaped and measuring 3-4m wide by up to 1.3m deep, was dug c. 20m from the western side of the inner enclosure, C3. It is possible that this may have been cut along the line of an earlier ditch, as it cuts the parallel gullies associated with the entrance feature. This ditch runs to the north-west and becomes ill-defined, eventually ending at the edge of a former wetland, its end possibly defined by a standing pool of water. The ditch appears to have silted naturally. The fills produced few finds. However, the disarticulated remains of a small animal, possibly a dog, were located in the redeposited trample layer from the basal fill of the cut (this may be from the post-medieval period, as this section of the ditch seems to have possibly been used later for cattle-watering access).

Droveway and entrance
A droveway passed through the western outer ditch, C7 (and presumably bank), to access the inner enclosure C3. What may prove to be the earliest activity in this area are three roughly parallel gullies in the area of the entrance through ditch C7. The opposing termini of C7 cut two of the parallel gullies, and the third appears to adjoin two curvilinear gullies, C77 and C78, to the east. Two post-holes were also excavated between the termini of C7. These may form part of an entrance feature/gate.

D-shaped enclosure
Two curvilinear features, C77 and C78, to the south of the droveway, form what may have been a D-shaped stock enclosure, with a probable entrance to the south-east. Both the parallel droveway gullies and D-shaped enclosure were filled with homogenous sterile silt (probably colluvial in origin) and appear to have gone out of use for the subsequent phases. The D-shaped enclosure is cut by the recut ditch, C3.

The north-western gully/trench of droveway C21 was 15m long, 0.6m wide and 0.4-0.6m deep. It was cut by post-hole C65 at one end and a substantial pit, C240, at the other. This pit had a smaller pit, C241, cut into its top fill, the lower fill of which yielded around 100 sherds of souterrain ware.

Archaeological features were located to the north-west and south-east of the enclosed droveway. The most recent activity here is a probable metalled surface, C23, to the east of the droveway, the excavation of which produced eight sherds of souterrain ware. This probable surface sealed a series of shallow, narrow, linear features of varying depths and widths, the filling of which appears to have taken place in a single episode. These features also produced several sherds of souterrain ware. It is suggested that these relate to a limited or restricted tillage activity.

Partition ditches to the north-west of the droveway
To the north-west of the droveway, between the outer ditch C7 and inner ditch C3/14, two phases of a partition ditch were excavated (C749, 750, 804, 972). Both phases of the ditch stop c. 1.5m short of C7, possibly reflecting the presence of a bank there. The effect was to create a roughly square paddock/field, 15m by 15m. Finds from the fill of these ditch cuts included a fragment of a lignite bracelet and souterrain ware.

Inner enclosure: internal features
There is no clear evidence for any ‘domestic’ buildings with hearths within the main enclosure. The centre and highest point of the enclosure is an area where, apart from a large double pit with fire-reddened clay and charcoal, C824 and C832, there are no archaeological features at all. The absence of post-holes or structural gullies in this area could relate to another method of building, perhaps with stone or timber sill beams, evidence for which has been completely truncated.

Two substantial post-hole structures were uncovered on the western side of the enclosure. The first was solidly built of nine posts, C487, C642, C831, C393, C394, C848, C478, C392 and C856 (three rows of three), forming a rectangle c. 5m by 4m. The second structure was of four posts, forming a square approximately 2.4m by 2.2m. The spacing between post-holes in both the structures was similar, generally c. 1.5m, and all post-holes were generally 0.4m wide and up to 0.5m deep. The fills consisted of silt with few inclusions or charcoal, suggesting the deliberate removal of the posts. No function is apparent for these structures.

Cemetery
The south-western area was occupied by a small cemetery, measuring c. 15m by 15m, of east-west-aligned graves (heads to the west). Approximately 47 grave-cuts have been identified, some with stone lining. Although the burials are generally arranged in rows, there is no discernible phasing of rows, with graves cutting graves. Bone preservation was characteristically very poor, often with only teeth or tooth enamel remaining within the graves. Where possible, it was noted that all the burials were supine with the heads to the west. Generally no finds were recovered from the graves, but one grave fill contained a sherd of souterrain ware. The cemetery population comprised juveniles and adults. It is suggested that the cemetery is early medieval in date, possibly containing an extended family from all phases on the site.

‘Industrial area’
The north-east zone was used for ‘industrial’ activities. Evidence for activity was seen by six large trough-like pits, one with corner post-holes indicating a lining and an extensive ‘black’ spread, C16/17, containing frequent charcoal and burnt stone (generally reddened and heat-shattered sandstone). Finds included iron slag and sherds of souterrain ware. It was noted that the ‘industrial’ area was located on the north-eastern side of the enclosure, which is effectively downwind from the rest of the site.

The actual activity represented here is, as yet, not totally clear (awaiting specialist analysis). The pits were not in the lowest area of the site and the impression is that heating water was not their primary function. In addition, no furnaces were found in the immediate vicinity and slag was in minimum quantities. It is suggested that a small-scale industry, perhaps forging/iron tool-making and repair work, was being undertaken. Evidence for on-site metallurgical activities was also apparent through trial-trenching to the north of the main enclosure, where a suspected iron ore-roasting oven, C1222, was uncovered. The structure was poorly preserved but contained a bowl for the fire/heat source and very large quantities of iron slag (c. 150kg). It is probable that this relates to a primary activity associated with the internal industrial activity. The removal of spread C16/C17 revealed an irregular pattern of post-holes/stake-holes, along with a suspected partitioning ditch, C48, indicating a possible windbreak from the east.

Field boundary features
To the west of outer ditch C7 are the remnants of a number of field divisions (C58, 59, 1264, 1282). These appear to respect the western enclosure, abutting its curving ditch. The ditches appear to have demarcated a rectilinear pattern of small ‘fields’ and have silted naturally. A spindle whorl of early medieval type was recovered from the fill of what appears to be the latest in the sequence of cuts there (C1264).

Western enclosure
The main area of the western enclosure, C9, is ovoid, measuring c. 45m north-south by 57m. The enclosure had an entrance to the west, just to the south of the highest point on the knoll. This enclosure actually circles the area of maximum visibility exposed to the main, eastern enclosure. This would suggest that occupants of the main enclosure could keep watch on occupants (presumably stock) of the western enclosure. The eastern side of the western enclosure incorporates a number of mini-causewayed partitions of unexcavated natural geology running across its profile at irregular intervals. Explanations for the function of these blocks are not as yet satisfactory (ideas range from some form of water management to a series of ‘stepping stones’ to enable people to cross the ditch while ensuring that stock could not). No features of archaeological significance were revealed from the centre of the enclosure and it is suggested that it may have been used as a stock corral.

Corn-drying kiln
To the south (outside) of the ‘western enclosure’ was a corn-drying kiln, C1255. The structure was roughly figure-of-eight with a larger bowl containing a heat source and a slightly smaller bowl containing charcoal-rich fills with carbonised grain.

Charcoal clamps
On the high ground to the west (outside) of the ‘western enclosure’, two circular, shallow and bowl-shaped pits, C1281 and 1292, about 0.5m in diameter and containing almost 100% charcoal fragments, were excavated. These features had signs of in situ burning. It would be reasonable to interpret these features as starter fire pits for charcoal clamps.

Post-medieval period
There were no features or finds recovered from any of the excavations that could be dated to the medieval period. The site was abandoned during or towards the end of the early medieval period. The next identifiable phase appears to have been landscaping, perhaps in the 17th-18th century and probably associated with Fort Hill House, which was previously a ‘parsonage’. This landscaping, which resulted in the total disappearance of the main enclosure earthworks prior to 1835, caused widespread truncation of the site. The ditches of the internal enclosure, C3, appear to comprise dumped-in materials which may have resulted from the deliberate levelling of bank material.

Prior to this landscaping, it seems clear that the earthworks from the main enclosure were still apparent in the landscape. The outer ditch, C7, appears, at least to its northern limit, to have been partly used as a cattle-watering hole. The inner ditch, C3, and the remnant of the earlier ditch, C14, were subject to limited drainage works. These works took the form of a stone-lined structure, C246, measuring c. 13m by 4m within the excavation area, which appears to have been the terminus of a drain (it cuts through the terminals of ditches C3 and C14). This stone structure was well built with large rocks and boulders and the floor was loosely slabbed. It filled gradually with organic remains. The top fill appears to have been a deliberate backfill and the drainage was subsequently reworked and extended further to the north in the form of a long curving ditch, C52.

Of particular interest is the drainage ditch, which appears to succeed the drainage operations above. This ditch, C64, has a series of ‘unnecessary’ bends in the middle of it. It appears to deliberately avoid curvilinear ditch C54 (west of it) to the east of the main enclosure. It is quite possible that the drainage ditch was partly dug along the line of an earlier northern section of the outer enclosure ditch (perhaps contemporary with C7, the western external ditch), and this accounts for the irregularity in the later ditch line. These irregularities are illustrated on the 1835 survey.

The easternmost ditch on-site, C28, illustrated on the 1938-9 OS revision, subsequently replaced the irregularly curved ditch C64. A further massive ditch, C5, also illustrated on the 1938-9 revision, was dug north to south across the site at Chainage 23.680.