2003:1342 - The Deserted Village, Slievemore, Mayo

County: Mayo Site name: The Deserted Village, Slievemore

Sites and Monuments Record No.: SMR 42:8(02); 42:9(04) Licence number: 91E0047

Author: Theresa McDonald, Achill Folklife Centre (Ionad Eolais ar Shaol an Pobail Acla Teoranta), Dooagh, Achill Island, Co. Mayo.

Site type: Multi-phase landscape

ITM: E 465012m, N 808593m

Latitude, Longitude (decimal degrees): 54.008892, -10.059451

The 2003 excavations at The Deserted Village of Slievemore, Achill Island, Co. Mayo, were carried out over a thirteen-week period in June, July and August. The settlement is located on the southern slopes of Slievemore, at 2214ft the highest mountain on Achill Island. The settlement is divided into three distinct segments, two of which are located west of the Slievemore graveyard and a third to the east. The villages are connected by an old road/pathway that extends from west to east, terminating east of a court tomb and a portal tomb, all of which lie at the 200ft contour. The Deserted Village appears on the first edition of the OS maps (1838-1840), where 137 houses and field systems covering an area of 300 acres, with no subdivisions, are depicted. The 1915 OS map shows 87 buildings present, but the surrounding land is now 'striped' into long narrow linear fields.

In the area of House 36, the following cuttings were excavated: Cutting A, the area west and south of House 36, containing a drainage system, the house platform and a section of the village pathway; Cutting C, the area east of House 36, including manure pit, old drainage channel and two groups of pits; Cutting D, a narrow trench north of the north gable of House 36; Cutting F, a small test-pit opened to locate a section of the village pathway that disappears west of House 36. At the Monk's Garden, Trench 2, Cuttings A-H, which represent various parts of the souterrain, and Trench 4, the lazy-bed system south of Trench 2, were excavated.

In Cutting A, west of House 36, excavation of a grass-covered embankment sloping from north to south revealed an insubstantial stone wall, higher at the northern end and resting on a bed of redeposited yellow clay. The wall may represent an old boundary or demarcation line.

Excavation of the south-east corner of Cutting C revealed a second group of pits, which seems to be in a direct line with a series of pits previously excavated in the north-east corner of the cutting and separated from each other by a narrow drainage channel lined with stones. The walls of the drainage channel were subsequently truncated by the construction of the eastern wall of a manure pit that is associated with House 36. These pits are enigmatic, the group in the north-east corner consisting of one large pit into which several smaller pits were dug and backfilled at various times. An outlying pit, located immediately north of the drainage channel, produced a small piece of haematite. Other finds in the pits consisted of modern ceramics and glass. The group in the south-east corner consists of two small pits surrounded by a stone wall on the west.

The cutting was extended eastwards by 1-2m to trace the extent of the pits in the south-east corner, which appear to be continuing under the eastern baulk. A cluster of deliberately placed stones, consisting of one large flat triangular rock slanting towards the north-east with six large tubular stones supporting it on the south-west, was found within the overburden, sitting on top of a dark reddish-brown (iron-rich) soil.

In Cutting D, a clearly defined baulk of compacted yellow clay (natural) was found, representing the original cut of the house opened on the diagonal on a north-west/south-east axis c. 0.5m north of the present northern gable wall of House 36, but subsequently abandoned in favour of the existing orientation. The change of alignment seems to be related to a nearby water source, possibly a spa well. On top of the baulk were the remains of lazy-bed cultivation ridges, an old wooden fence post and a thick layer (0.1-0.2m) of a red, buttery, spa-like deposit.

A large piece of wood (possibly an old fence post), roughly 0.5m in diameter and 0.5m long, was found. Pieces of glass, pottery and wood were also found. A second large piece of shaped wood (rounded on one side and flat on the other; in effect, a 0.1m log split in half) was found. It was partially burnt and could be an old fence post, roofing beam, or a piece of discarded furniture. Analysis of wood from previous years' excavations found it to be reused wood scavenged from Spanish Armada ships wrecked off the Achill coast.

When cleaning down a section near the termination of the garden wall in Cutting D, several fragments of shell, mainly limpet, were found.

Excavation in the byre area of House 36 (Cutting E) revealed a trench, possibly the original foundation trench of the southern gable. The reorientation of the house, together with this foundation trench, suggests that some unforeseen problems arose during construction of this house. The trench was subsequently backfilled and the present southern gable wall constructed c. 0.1-0.2m to the south.

In Cutting F, which was opened to trace the old village pathway which seemed to terminate west of House 36, a section of the pathway was found, lined with large stones on both sides. After removal of the metalled surface which defined the pathway and the large stones lining it, a spread of the natural soil from Cutting A was noted in the north-east corner. A grey-green deposit originally noted in Cutting A is also visible in Cutting F where it undercuts the metalling of the roadway. A few pieces of pottery and a piece of wood were found in the roadbed; black-glazed pottery (Buckley ware) was found underneath the metalling of the roadway. Buckley ware, previously found at various parts of the site at House 36, was nearly all associated with the metalled surface, either lying on top or under it, indicating a date range of c. 1800-1850 for this deposit.

Excavations at Trench 2 of the Monk's Garden revealed a substantial cairn of stones surrounding a chamber and passage, formerly thought to be a souterrain and substantiated by a radiocarbon date of c. AD 650±80 from a sample of burnt ling heather taken from the southern end of the passage. However, although it is still possible that the structure is a souterrain, some doubt has been cast on this interpretation. A small trench was cut through the cairn, west of the orthostats at the northern end of the passageway (where it joins the chamber), in order to determine whether or not the orthostats rested on the ground surface or were set into a specially dug trench. Work here was not completed this year. Preliminary excavation did reveal what seems to be a revetment of large stones which extends southwards, following the line of the passage. The chamber and passage within the cairn were robbed in antiquity and backfilled with large stones and soil, so that it has not been possible to ascertain with certainty where the passage terminated. The area of burning was found adjacent to the southern area of the passage and it was from here that the radiocarbon date was taken.

South of the burnt area and where the cairn material is sparse, the remains of what appears to be a stone wall were noted. Less than 1m to the east, a second line of stones was found, but this has a clearly defined passage of c. 0.5m between the stones. This passage, while aligned in a north-south direction, begins to curve in towards the burnt area, where several large stones are becoming visible, forming a box-like shape that may possibly represent an as yet unknown structure.

On the front lintel of the chamber, a series of lozenge-shaped motifs were noted, similar to those seen on passage tombs.

In Trench 4, a series of lazy-beds, truncated at the northern end by four large boulders running in a south-westerly direction towards the Monk's Garden, was excavated to reveal an underlying second set of lazy-beds, the two separated from each other by a substantial spread of iron pan, suggesting that the underlying lazy-beds may be considerably older than those overlying them. Artefacts found in the top set of lazy-beds included an incomplete bead of serpentine, a possible rough-out for a second bead, also of serpentine, or possibly a gaming piece, several small glass beads (some possibly rosary beads) and lots of worked quartz debitage.

Excavations at Slievemore will continue in 2004.