2003:1264 - Marshes Upper, Dundalk, Louth

NMI Burial Excavation Records

County: Louth Site name: Marshes Upper, Dundalk

Sites and Monuments Record No.: N/A Licence number: 03E1109 ext.; 03E1509

Author: William O. Frazer, Margaret Gowen & Co. Ltd, 2 Killiney View, Albert Road Lower, Glenageary, Co. Dublin.

Site type: Possible prehistoric

ITM: E 705470m, N 805646m

Latitude, Longitude (decimal degrees): 53.989291, -6.391696

Monitoring in a townland near the coast well known for its Early Christian archaeology, in advance of the construction of a Nursing School building at Dundalk Institute of Technology, identified the full extent of archaeology initially discovered during testing.

Excavation 03E1509
Excavation of the c. 25m by 20m site in September 2003 revealed a main (provisionally contemporary) phase of prehistoric activity consisting of a number of fire-pits filled with burnt-mound material, a natural depression whose base and lip were metalled along one side, several post- and stake-holes, and a number of irregular pits and spreads containing sediment. In all, 56 lithics were found in the various features. Spatially, the main portion of the site (two fire-pits, post-holes, stake-holes, pits, natural depression/trough) was centrally located, with two fire-pits some 5-10m to the south-west and other remains some 5-10m to the north-east. All of the fire-pits exhibited evidence for in situ oxidation. Most of the finds came from the grey silt clay sediment deposits.

In terms of interpretation, the Phase 1 site is something of an enigma: a group of four fire-pits, one with two probable stake-holes nearby, perhaps representing a windbreak or some kind of spit apparatus. The largest fire-pit is flanked by a shallow pit, three probable stake-holes and three slightly more substantial post-holes. Again, these stake- and post-holes may be the remains of a windbreak or other fire-related apparatus. Dates for these features await the return of radiocarbon data.

Lithics analysed by Conor Brady may point to a Neolithic origin for the site, although a number of the finds appear to be curated and may not provide a genuine date. The assemblage indicates that the production (indicated by 17.8% of the assemblage) and the use of tools (25%, including a leaf-shaped arrowhead, a convex scraper, a scraper and other retouched tools), as well as the discard of waste material, occurred on the site. Much of the assemblage was expedient in nature, with evidence for the use of the bipolar reduction technique, and exploited small, poor quality and curated raw material.

The substantial amount of fire-cracked stone indicates deliberate heating of stone in all four fire-pits, but no fulacht fiadh trough survives, unless the natural water-retaining depression or 'pond' nearby (6.15m by 3.3m by 0.45m deep) served as a makeshift trough. The metalling along one end of the pond included fire-cracked stone in its make-up, although no evidence survived of lining or any other structure in the pond. Also the absence of (dumped) fire-cracked stone recovered from the pond's lower laminate fill of puddle sediment and peat would appear to complicate an interpretation of the pond as a make-shift trough, although worked flint in this fill suggests it is roughly contemporary to the other Phase 1 features. Much of the fire-cracked micaceous sandstone, distinct from the greywacke/metasiltstone present in the natural subsoil, was over 40-50mm in size, irregularly shaped and not fully shattered, suggesting that it may instead have been used in an 'earth oven', a dry variant of a fulacht trough (J. Ó Néill, pers. comm.). Both of the larger and more central fire-pits (1.38m diameter by 0.32m deep; 1.38m by 0.87m by 0.2m deep) are reasonable candidates for such activity. The scarcity of charcoal in the 'burnt-mound material' fills of these two features particularly, in combination with the prevalence of ashy precipitate sediments across the site (see below), may be taken as an indicator that fuel was allowed to reduce completely in situ, as might be expected with such clamped ovens.

The burnt plant remains that did survive were analysed by Penny Johnston and Lorna O'Donnell: the fuel for the fire-pits was predominantly alder and hazel, with oak and pomaceous fruitwood also present. The wood used was young, as might be expected for the most effective tinder, and probably freshly cut.

Other features on the site include several spreads and small irregular pits, some possibly natural or indicating the former presence of small trees or bushes, but all containing a similar precipitate sediment fill of grey silt clay with charcoal and occasional worked flint inclusions. These fills were formed by the settling of silt in puddles in low-lying places, perhaps with fire-pit ash or rake-out dumped into them. Apart from their ash content, the nature of some of these silting fills is similar to that observed elsewhere in the vicinity, but dating to different eras: Early Christian (Gowen 1992, 65), and medieval/post-medieval (Mossop 2002, 9). The varying dates for similar silting fills bear witness to the similar site transformation processes taking place in this part of the townland, at least up until the main phase of drainage and land improvement in the 18th century.

This period of improvement is witnessed by the Phase 2 remains of plough furrows/drills. Finds from the backfills of these features suggest a terminus post quem of the mid- to late 18th century. This date coincides nicely with the early 1780s Clanbrassil estate map that depicts both land parcels indicative of drainage and agricultural improvement and the canalisation of the waterway now forming the boundary of the main development area and the former Carroll's factory site to the south (ibid. 8, 49). At that time, the excavation site was in a field held by Edward Currin, and its scale (five acres and five perches), together with the topography, is an indicator that it probably served as meadow or rough pasture. In spite of reclamation efforts, it is likely that the ground was still rather boggy then.

Four final Phase 3 land drains on the excavation site and redeposited modern soil are indications of a continuing concern with drainage on the site as late as the 1970s, when a playing pitch occupied the site prior to the ongoing development. Difficulties with flooding in the basement excavations for one of the new development's buildings in the field to the east, under way while archaeological excavation was ongoing, testify to the continuing importance of water management across the immediate landscape.

Monitoring 03E1109 ext.
Monitoring elsewhere on the development site, including that at two access route locations along its southern edge, has revealed no other archaeology.

References
Gowen, M. 1992. Excavation of two souterrain complexes at Marshes Upper, Dundalk, Co. Louth. PRIA 92C, 55-121.
Mossop, M. 2002. Archaeological monitoring and investigations, Dundalk Institute of Technology, Co. Louth (licence 02E0008). Unpublished report, Archaeological Consultancy Services.