NMI Burial Excavation Records


Sites and Monuments Record No.: N/A Licence number: 91E0047


Site type: Multi-phase landscape

ITM: E 465012m, N 808593m

Latitude, Longitude (decimal degrees): 54.008889, -10.059444

Archaeological investigation of the cultural landscape associated with the Deserted Village, Slievemore, Achill Island, Co. Mayo, as part of the 2004 Achill Archaeological Field School, took place between June 1 and August 20, 2004. Key elements of the 2004 programme included excavation at one village dwelling known as House 23, the completion of recording at House 36, the excavation of a series of test units around an enigmatic orthostatic structure pre-dating the village and the implementation of an extensive digital survey of the Slievemore landscape. The 2004 season also witnessed the introduction of a public archaeology programme, which will become a permanent part of the field school schedule.

The post-medieval Deserted Village is divided into three clusters, or villages, stretching along the lower southern slopes of Slievemore Mountain. Architectural and artefactual data associated with the dwellings and field systems suggest a date no earlier than the late 18th century; however, it is clear that the landscape itself represents a palimpsest of human activity from the Neolithic period through to the 20th century. Beginning in 1991, the Achill Archaeological Field School took as its mission the recording and investigation of this multi-period cultural landscape, of which the post-medieval village represents only the most visible element.

The research design for 2004 focused on the potential of the material culture associated with the 19th-century village. Employing an approach known as household archaeology, plans for 2004 included a concentrated focus upon a single household. House 23 was selected as an ideal location to employ this 'microcosmic' approach, for several reasons. First, the dwelling itself conforms to the general plan of the Slievemore dwellings: it is a single-unit, drystone-built masonry dwelling oriented north to south with opposing doorways, western window, internal drain, storage niche, open hearth and outside manure pit. Surrounding the dwelling on its western and northern sides is an enclosed garden area with surface traces of lazy beds and a retaining wall, suggesting that cultural deposits around the house may be in excess of 1m in depth. Although the association of an individual plot with a particular house at Slievemore is problematic because of the practice of rundale, which saw periodic redistribution of cultivation plots amongst a community, the physical juxtaposition of the garden and its wall with the house and its rear door supports the association of activity in the garden with the household at the time of its occupancy.

The excavation at House 36, begun in 1991, was completed during 2004 following recording of the south-east corner of Cutting C and a small test excavation outside the south gable of the structure.

Excavations in Trench 2, which encompasses the orthostatic chamber and passage feature variously interpreted as a souterrain and as a passage tomb, concentrated upon ascertaining whether or not the large spread of stones surrounding the feature represents a constructed cairn such as one might expect covering a tomb, the results of which would help in the formulation of a more specific research design to investigate this enigmatic feature in the future.

House 23 excavation
House 23 is situated within the westernmost village on the slopes of Slievemore, measuring 6.25m in length by 3.2m in width. Although it is in an advanced state of dilapidation, architectural features that can still be discerned include opposing east-west doorways (the western doorway being blocked), a single window situated in the north half of the western wall, a manure pit outside the eastern door and, unusually for the houses on Slievemore, evidence for corbelled construction in the rounded south-west corner of the structure. On the western and northern sides of the dwelling is a built-up garden area with a 1.22m-high retaining wall on the south and west. House 23 is either built into this area and its natural slope or the agricultural deposits in this zone were built up and partially buried the house, a question still to be addressed archaeologically.

With the exception of two sherds of North Devon coarse earthenware (one gravel-tempered, one plain), an English utilitarian ceramic dating to the 17th and very early 18th centuries, all materials excavated in the garden area of House 23 date to the mid-19th toearly 20th centuries, which appear to be the principal period of agricultural activity in the vicinity of the house. One sherd of North Devon pottery was recovered from a feature which pre-dates the construction and use of the lazy bed cultivation ridges, which are present in the garden area immediately west and north of House 23. If one assumes that the ridges are contemporary with the occupation of the village, a logical assumption, given their physical associations as well as the archaeological evidence from House 36, then the earlier features reference activity which pre-dates the construction of the stone dwellings which typify the Deserted Village. Further excavation inside and around House 23 is required to further explicate this chronology and the nature of what may be 17th-century activity.

Excavations revealed a shift in agricultural practice in the garden area. Initially, at some stage probably in the mid-19th century, trenches were dug in a north-south direction and the contents piled up on the adjacent surfaces to create raised beds, or 'lazy beds'. Soils atop these beds appear to have been continually turned and also fertilised and replenished with household waste, evidenced by the presence of discarded and broken glass and ceramics as well as fragments of partially burned turf and also by the presence of sandy patches which probably indicate enrichment of the soil through the use of seaweed as fertiliser. The archaeological evidence for cultivation trench cuts indicate that the north-south orientation of the ridges, a method of channelling runoff from the steep slopes of Slievemore, was truncated and new beds built on an east-west axis. This may have been done to prevent the coursing of water into or against the masonry dwelling. This phenomenon was also noted at Cutting B at

House 36
Other features encountered during the 2004 excavations include what appears to be a stone-lined drain feature running in a west-east direction north of House 23 and possibly designed to channel water away from the rear of the dwelling and into a slight ravine and the manure pit which lies to the east of House 23. This drain feature intrudes upon rubble which may be associated with a retaining wall or possible rear addition to House 23. Excavation of the rubble has yet to define an actual structure, but more work needs to be done to fully explore the nature of this feature. In the units which were excavated to the subsoil level, a series of features which pre-date the construction of the lazy beds were encountered. Two of these appear to be sizable post-holes. From the top of one, a sherd of North Devon coarse earthenware was retrieved.

Finds from House 23 numbered 690. Of the ceramics, the vast majority represent refined white earthenware tablewares, many of which were decorative (sponge-decorated wares from Scotland, English transfer prints, and moulded plain glazed refined white earthenwares probably from the Staffordshire potteries). Very few (less than ten) sherds of black-glazed coarse earthenware were unearthed, even though this ware type represents those utilitarian forms such as milk pans and storage jars which would be expected to be present in a 19th-century rural household. Two fragments of cast-iron cooking ware were found and architectural materials were represented by a nearly complete strap hinge, three nails and wood fragments, which could have originated in household timbers or furnishings.

The quantities of industrially produced decorated table and tea-wares, including teacups and saucers and teapot fragments, recovered from the excavations suggest that the occupants (presuming the materials originated from the dwelling) placed some importance on setting a colourful and welcoming table and that they exercised some degree of choice in acquiring these wares, which are dominated by underglazed sponge-stamped and hand-painted wares. The sponged wares were nearly all polychrome and are very similar to the examples found at Slievemore. One find from House 23 exhibits a blue shamrock decoration, which may reflect a design marketed specifically to Irish consumers.

Further research is required to pinpoint the means of acquisition and the relative expense of these ceramics for the previous inhabitants of the Slievemore village. However, research into the economic scaling of 19th-century ceramics uniformly indicates that plain refined earthenwares, generically termed 'cc', or 'cream-coloured', were the cheapest available tablewares. Clearly, the Slievemore consumers were opting for a slightly more expensive product to suit their own tastes and purposes.

The densest concentration of artefacts recovered from the House 23 excavations was located in direct proximity to the western wall of the house. These materials were dominated by 358 highly fragmented pieces of clear glass from commercial food jars, probably of a 20th-century date. Whether these materials indicate a 20th-century occupation of House 23, with rubbish simply tipped out of the window or rear door, or whether they indicate use of the west wall exterior as a place to toss garbage during cultivation activities in the garden, which may have post-dated the house occupation, remains to be determined through further excavation.

Excavation of House 36 was begun in 1991. Thousands of artefacts were recovered from the structure and its associated garden, forming a critically important collection of artefactual material dating from the mid-18th through to the mid-20th century. Architectural features such as a series of drains and an alteration in original construction plan were recorded, as were agricultural features which were contemporaneous with, and some post-dating, the occupation of the dwelling. Features which predate the occupation of the house include an enigmatic series of pits interpreted as possibly associated with smithing activity. Excavation within the house revealed a well-built drain for the byre (south) side of the dwelling, a well-preserved flagstone floor to the north and an open hearth against the north gable wall.

During the course of previous excavations south of House 25, an enigmatic orthostatic feature with a curvilinear passage and a roofed chamber was unearthed. The initial interpretation of this feature saw it as a souterrain, suggesting an early medieval occupation of the Slievemore mountain slope which would later support the post-medieval village. This interpretation was bolstered by a 7th-century 14C date from an area of burning unearthed immediately south of the passage. While this date of AD 650 (±80) is somewhat early for the construction of a souterrain, it is plausible. However, the association of the burned deposit with the structure is not direct. As the passage was emptied of its fill, which itself only dated to the 20th century, in the course of excavations in 2002 and 2003 (Excavations 2002, No. 1408; Excavations 2003, No. 1342), the orthostatic nature of the stones lining the passage suggested another possibility: that the feature may represent a heretofore unknown type of small passage tomb. Because the passage and chamber had been emptied in the recent past, no dating evidence was found in the interior to shed light upon the chronology of this feature. Other suggested interpretations see it as a post-medieval corn-drying kiln (highly unlikely considering the lack of a flue) and a post-medieval sweathouse.

Test excavations were carried out to the east and west of the boundaries of Trench 2. Following the uncovering of the Trench 2 excavation area, a number of artefacts were recovered from the surface of the possible cairn during cleaning activities. These included refined white earthenware, amber bottle glass, fragments of clear container glass, individual fragments of press-moulded refined white earthenware, a fragment of clear container glass and fragments of green container glass. The presence of a variety of 20th-century materials atop the possible cairn strongly suggests that the surface of the stones themselves were exposed and attracted rubbish during the latest occupation of the village. While this does not mean that the stones themselves were deposited in the 20th century, it does mean that it is necessary to excavate into and below the possible cairn to ascertain its date and assess its posited association with the orthostatic structure, particularly as oral history suggests that a 'cave', probably the chambered structure in Trench 2, had been filled in and covered over in the 1940s.

Excavations at the Deserted Village and other sites on the mountain will continue in 2005. Theresa McDonald, Achill Folklife Centre (Ionad Eolais ar Shaol an Pobail Acla Teoranta), Dooagh, Achill Island, Co. Mayo, and Audrey Horning, Achill Folklife Centre and the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA 23185 USA.