2011:524 - CLOONOWN, Westmeath

NMI Burial Excavation Records

County: Westmeath Site name: CLOONOWN

Sites and Monuments Record No.: RO005-003005 Licence number: 11E0360

Author: Comber, M.

Site type: Iron-working hearth and furnace

ITM: E 603905m, N 735317m

Latitude, Longitude (decimal degrees): 53.367805, -7.940580

An excavation took place following a testing programme on a proposed playing field development at Cloonown. The greenfield site lies to the immediate west of RO055-003005, classified as an ecclesiastical enclosure.
Initial testing results identified two areas of archaeological potential, both located to the south of the site. Area 1 comprised three burnt spreads with charcoal-enriched material and oxidised clay; Area 2, located to the east, was an infilled ditch approximately 40m long, 2m wide and 1m deep. In consultation with the National Monuments Service it was agreed to excavate the area of archaeological potential to determine the nature and extent of the material.
Excavation took place over two days in wet and windy weather conditions on 15 and 21 December 2011. Prior to hand excavation the site was re-exposed using a mechanical digger, revealing the protective sheeting that was used to cover the underlying deposits. The full extent of the metal-working area measured 10m north-west/south-east by 9m. Following an initial trowelling back, the three previously identified charcoal-enriched features were revealed. Feature 3, the most northerly deposit, was an amorphous spread with frequent charcoal flecking, representing a dumped deposit or plough scatter associated with the nearby furnace. It measured roughly 2m in width east–west by 1.85m and was more concentrated along its western side.
Feature 1 was the first spread to be identified during testing and was at this initial stage cleaned back and half-sectioned. It measured 0.8m east–west by 0.6m and consisted of a black-brown charcoal-enriched silt within a subcircular concave cut, 0.12m in depth. From within this fill a moderate amount of degraded slag, a single fragment of copper alloy (16mm in length by 3mm wide) and a heavily corroded iron bolt (80mm by 15mm) were recovered. When Feature 1 was fully excavated it lay within a shallow pit with gradually sloping sides on a relatively even base. The basal clay layer of Feature 2 was not as oxidised as that of Feature 1, and this pit was interpreted as a charcoal pit intended to provide material for the actual furnace, Feature 2.
Feature 2, to the immediate west, was originally identified as a charcoal-enriched curvilinear feature measuring 0.45m north–south by 0.15m. It had an orange-white oxidised edge, indicating intense burning. On excavation Feature 2 enlarged into a subcircular bowl-shaped cut, 0.7m north–south by 0.8m, containing blackened silt overlying oxidised clay in a concave pit approximately 0.17m deep. This feature was identified as the main furnace for the smithing activity. Within the furnace bowl of Feature 2 were a number of iron slag fragments, three fragmented cakes of smithing hearth slag and a piece of vitrified clay. The smithing hearth slag fragments were characteristically plano-convex in profile and were found just beneath the blow-hole or where a tuyère was inserted. The fragments of iron slag and smithing cake retrieved from Feature 2 weighed 1kg. The single fired clay fragment was probably formed as part of the original furnace shaft or chimney.
A total of 3kg of iron slag was recovered from within the three features and the wider excavation area. No additional pits, post-/stake-holes or finds were uncovered from the vicinity of the site.
The ditch (Feature 4) discovered during initial testing works, which runs parallel to the southern fence line, was mechanically tested to assess its archaeological potential. Previous trenches had exposed a uniform orange-brown silty fill within a 2.5m-wide U-shaped cut varying in depth from 1m to 1.4m. The majority of the ditch was excavated and was entirely sterile, apart from the skeletal remains of a dog. Based on its relationship and proximity to the road, it is probable that the ditch was mechanically excavated in more modern times and was dug for drainage purposes.
The site at Cloonown represents both a hearth and a furnace used for iron-working. This activity so near a monastic site has many precedents. Indeed, as Comber (1997, 101) points out, ‘the evidence from monastic sites in particular suggests that the church played an important role as patron or teacher of fine metal working. The level of fine metal working on these sites varies from a limited casting operation represented by a few crucibles and/or mould fragments (Reask, Co. Kerry, Fanning 1981), to a complete manufacturing process incorporating everything from the primary smelting of the metal from the ore to a relatively large scale production of finely finished items’. The evidence from Cloonown suggests a very modest level of metal-working but is notable nonetheless.

1997 Lagore crannog and non-ferrous metalworking in early historic Ireland. Journal of Irish Archaeology VIII, 00–00. Billy Quinn, Moore Archaeological & Environmental Services Ltd (MOORE GROUP), 3 Gort Na Rí, Athenry, Co. Galway