2003:1459 - Raystown, Meath

NMI Burial Excavation Records

County: Meath Site name: Raystown

Sites and Monuments Record No.: N/A Licence number: 03E1229

Author: Claire Cotter, 7 De Burgh Road, Dublin 7.

Site type: Enclosure complex; cemetery

ITM: E 704110m, N 751362m

Latitude, Longitude (decimal degrees): 53.501936, -6.430706

Testing was carried out over a three-week period at an archaeological monument in the townland of Raystown, a short distance east of the village of Ratoath, Co. Meath. The monument (designated as Area 21) lay along the route of the proposed realignment of the N2 between Finglas, Co. Dublin, and Ashbourne, Co. Meath, and came to light as a result of a geophysical survey of the road corridor carried out by GSB Prospection in 2002. The geophysics drawing highlighted the presence of a large enclosure complex, located on the crest of a limestone ridge overlooking the Broadmeadow River valley. A significant number of negative features were also indicated on the sloping riverine meadows extending north, east and south of the ridge. The wider enclosure complex is bounded along the north by the Broadmeadow River and along the east and south by a small tributary of that river. A body of water on the west side is unmarked on the OS maps; it may be a large field drain but could be of some antiquity. When in use, the site was therefore surrounded by water on three if not four sides. Somewhat surprisingly, given the impressive dimensions of some of the ditches that came to light during testing, no definite archaeological features were detectable, either on the ground surface or on aerial photographs.

The geophysical drawing suggested the presence of a large, roughly rectangular, enclosure defined by a series of ditches or ditch segments and possibly subdivided internally by a substantial east-south-east/west-north-west ditch; during the testing phase, the interior was referred to as North Area and South Area. Cross-cutting features suggested that the enclosing elements did not remain static and that ditches had been recut, realigned and replaced on occasion. Circular or curvilinear enclosures occurred in both the North and South Areas and a large number of linear features seemed to follow a north-west/south-east alignment. A ditched avenue leading up to an enclosure within the South Area could be paralleled at the site excavated by Judith Carroll at Rosepark, Balrothery (Excavations 2001, No. 334, 99E0155), where it formed the entranceway leading up to a defended early medieval settlement.

An estimated one-third of the main enclosure complex lay within the road corridor. Most of this fell within the eastern half of the North Area, but the north-eastern tip of the South Area was also clipped by the road corridor.

Testing confirmed the existence of a double-ditched enclosure on the crest of the ridge in the North Area. This was bisected by the western CPO fence-line, so that only its eastern half lay within the testing area. The inner enclosure (diameter c. 27m) was defined by a ditch, the excavated portion at the north being relatively unimpressive (1m wide by 0.4m deep) in comparison to many of the other ditches uncovered at the site. The broadly concentric but somewhat irregularly shaped outer enclosure was defined by a far more substantial ditch (over 2.5m wide by 1m deep) or in some places by what appeared to be a series of possibly multi-phase ditches. No definite archaeological activity came to light in the interval between the inner and outer ditches of the double enclosure.

The penultimate use of the inner part of the double enclosure was as a cemetery. Upwards of thirteen individual inhumations were exposed during testing, the majority concentrated towards the central part of the enclosure. Subsequent desodding of the area in advance of the proposed excavation confirmed the presence of many additional burials in the east sector of the inner enclosure. The overlay of the features found during testing and the geophysics drawing showed the southernmost of the exposed burials lying either within, or slightly outside, the (presumably) backfilled inner ditch. However, the concordance between the two sets of evidence is not exact enough to infer a chronological sequence. On the site in general, the correspondence between the geophysics and the 'as found' features took the form of 'line and shadow' rather than exact alignment. The burials exposed during testing showed considerable disturbance, probably resulting from some form of agricultural tillage in the past. The inhumations appear to have been placed in simple graves without any formal features. Although soil cover is relatively thin on the crest of the knoll, removal of one individual for the purposes of radiocarbon dating indicated the presence of multiple burials in a fairly restricted area. The disarticulated remains of two other individuals were present in the grave of the excavated skeleton. Male and female persons were represented and all three individuals seem to have been in the 30-45 age bracket at the time of death. During subsequent soil-stripping, a decorated bone toggle of broad early medieval type was found in the topsoil of the cemetery area.

The testing also produced evidence for extensive activity in the area immediately outside the double enclosure to the north, south and east. Most of this took the form of ditches, but some gullies, pits, furrows and a stone structure, probably a partly robbed-out souterrain, were also uncovered. Ditches varied from less than 1m to over 3m in width and 0.4m to almost 2m in depth. Double, stepped, V-shaped and flat-bottomed examples were all represented. Finds from the ditch fills included a few fragments of iron smithing slag, the blade of an iron whittle-tang knife, an iron ring-pin shank, one sherd of what has been tentatively identified as Leinster or Dublin-type cooking ware and a worked bone rib. Two pieces of flint were recovered from soils covering the remains of the souterrain. The presence of the souterrain suggests that the site was in use during the very late first millennium AD and the range/type of finds recovered would accord well with that dating.

Parallels for this type of enclosure complex seem to be particularly concentrated in north county Dublin and in the adjacent parts of Meath. This may be entirely due to the high level of recent development in that general area, rather than to any existing distinctive regional pattern. Sites such as Colp West, excavated by Margaret Gowen (Excavations 1988, No. 51), and Ninch, excavated by James Eogan and Martin Reid (Excavations 2000, No. 760, 98E0501) in Co. Meath, and Gracedieu, excavated by Margaret Gowen (1988) and Malachy Conway (1999) (Excavations 1988, No. 16; Excavations 1999, No. 248), and Kilshane, excavated by Margaret Gowen (Excavations 1988, No. 18) in Co. Dublin, seem to be broadly comparable to Area 21, in that all consist of early medieval/medieval inhumation cemeteries defined by ditches. Most have also produced evidence for associated activity in the form of additional ditches, gullies, pits, stake-holes, etc. In some cases, there was also clear evidence for earlier, contemporary and/or later settlement and/or industrial activities within the wider cemetery complexes. Some of these sites seem to have had a long history extending back into the prehistoric period, but in all cases the excavators were of the opinion that the inhumations belonged to the early medieval/medieval periods and this dating was confirmed in some instances by radiocarbon dates and/or the presence of E- or B-wares.

While there was no definite trace of any prehistoric activity at Area 21, there was clear evidence for a sequence of activity. The presence of the souterrain, the range of finds and the quantity of food refuse present also suggest that there was some settlement activity on the site. While it is possible that the South Area may have been the main focus for any settlement, the organic-rich deposits found east of the double enclosure, and the souterrain itself, raise the possibility that some non-funerary activity also took place in the North Area. Indeed, it is quite possible that the cemetery represents only the penultimate use of the site; an early medieval settlement site excavated at Smithstown, Co. Meath, by Margaret Gowen (Excavations 1988, No. 55) was also defined by a series of ditches, gullies and related features. The number of non-monastic cemeteries that have come to light in north Leinster in recent years is noteworthy and hints at a fairly sizeable population in the area in early medieval times. The context of these cemeteries is of some interest. As noted above, many of the known examples appear to have had a non-funerary aspect, but it remains unclear if we are looking at spatial diversity, a sequence of domestic/funerary activity, or possibly even some ritual activities associated with the act of burial. The exact location of cemeteries within the territories of early historic population groups is also a subject of some interest. In that respect, the Broadmeadow River seems a natural 'frontier' and it is possible that the site lay along a tribal boundary.

The excavations at Area 21 provided a rare opportunity to directly compare results from two different approaches to mapping a hitherto unrecorded archaeological monument. The concordance between the two sets of evidence was remarkable and, in the extremely dry conditions of summer 2003, the geophysics blueprint greatly enhanced feature recognition during testing. As a result of the testing, the limits of the zone of prime archaeological interest were defined in advance of full excavation.