2016:065 - Keem, Keel West, Mayo

County: Mayo Site name: Keem, Keel West

Sites and Monuments Record No.: MA053-003003- Licence number: 09E0302 Extension

Author: Eve Campbell

Site type: Early 19th-century house, settlement cluster

ITM: E 455842m, N 804457m

Latitude, Longitude (decimal degrees): 53.969128, -10.196821

In June and July 2016 Achill Archaeological Field School (AAFS) carried out an excavation at the settlement cluster of Keem (MA053 – 003003), on the western-most tip of Achill Island, Co. Mayo. The excavation, directed by Stuart Rathbone and Eve Campbell, formed part of a broader programme of research by AAFS into the Keem Bay landscape, and was the fourth season of excavation in Keem (Rathbone 2015; Sherlock 2012; Bolger 2009). The first-edition OS map (1838) shows 40 buildings at the Keem settlement cluster. The village was demolished in the mid-19th century, possibly by Charles Boycott. Today the low, grassed-over remains of about 14 buildings can be made out. While morphologically the settlement bears many hallmarks of a permanent rundale house cluster, ethnographic material collected in the 1940s also associates it with booleying or transhumance (Ó Moghráin and Ó Duilearga 1943, 169).

In 2009 Bolger began excavating Building 3, the largest footprint in the settlement cluster. Rathbone completed the excavation of Building 3 in 2015. In 2016 AAFS decided to return to Keem to investigate Building 4, located immediately west of Building 3. Prior to excavation the site appeared as a small grassed-over oval bank with occasional stones protruding through the surface. The bank defined a building that seemed to measure approximately 8m by 4m, a little smaller than Building 3 which measured 9.5m by 4.5m. A trench measuring 10m by 6m was set up over Building 4, divided into 4 separate quadrants by a pair of L-shaped baulks measuring 0.5m wide. The site was dug by hand and backfilled when the excavation was finished.

Building 4 was oblong in plan, both internally and externally, with straight side walls and distinctive rounded corners. Internally it measured 2.5–2.7m wide (north-east/south-west), by 5.6m long. It was slightly trapezoidal in shape with the south-east end being 0.2m wider than the north-west end. The entrance (0.7m wide and 1.2m deep) was located slightly off centre, in the south-east end of the south-west long wall of the building, c.2m from the internal face of the south-east end wall. The building had mass walls of earth and sod retained by inner and outer stone walls. The north-west end was c.1m wide, while the north-east and south-west walls were between 1.1m and 1.2m wide. The width of the south-east wall could not be discerned as its outer face was completely robbed-out. The structure was built directly on the old topsoil. At the north-west, upslope end of the building the old topsoil had been completely scarped away by a shallow cut to create a level platform for the building. Excess topsoil was removed to the downslope south-east end of the site to raise it up.

The building had a number of internal features including a drain running diagonally north-south across the north-west third towards the entrance. It was 1.8m long and 0.4m wide. The drain was composed of a shallow cut filled with at least two layers of tightly packed flat stones. A single side stone was found on the west side of the feature, held in place by a deposit of very firm orangey-brown sandy silt that served as packing material for the feature. The top level of stones in the drain would have been flush with the floor of the building. The drain’s outlet appears to have simply been the entrance of the building. There was a curious short stone setting, 1.2m by 0.3m, perpendicular to the entrance. It was a single course deep and abutted the internal retaining wall. The feature is difficult to interpret. It is in a similar position to the cross-drain in Building 3, but there is no evidence for it having been part of such a feature. Nor is there evidence for it having traversed the width of the building. It seems unlikely to have formed a dry-stone internal dividing wall. One possibility is that it formed a low seating bench, perhaps associated with Heath 3 (see below).

The occupation of the building was represented by a number of organic-rich accretions of soil, the laying down of at least two episodes of stony threshold material inside the entrance, and the making and use of three distinct hearths. External features, including an area of rough cobbling and a drainage gully, are also dated to this phase.

The building had three hearths. All three were located in the central third of the building. Hearths 1 and 3 were bowl-shaped, cut into the soft old topsoil layer while Hearth 2 had a much more shallow cut and lay directly on the very hard B horizon subsoil. Hearths 1 and 2 were flush with the long north-east wall of the building, and were located roughly opposite the door. Hearth 3, probably the earliest, lay in the middle of the floor, just under 1m north-east of the entrance to the building. The pattern of use in all three hearths bears similarities. In pit-cut hearths 1 and 3, there is evidence for use (ash and charcoal layers) followed by what seems to be deliberate backfilling. Analogously, Hearth 2 has a use layer, followed by a layer of backfilling.  

A number of contexts exterior to the building can also be assigned to this phase, including a shallow gully that ran around the north-west side of the building. To the north-east of the building, flush with the external retaining wall, was a layer of rough cobbling that consisted of a layer of sub-rounded cobbles in a matrix of mid brown sandy-silt. The context was truncated by the excavation trench from 2015 for Building 3, and presumably extended north-east across the narrow area between Building 3 and Building 4 (c.2m wide).

There is some evidence for pre-structure activity to the south-east of the building. Three irregular pockets of charcoal-rich material were encountered downslope of the building on its south-east side.

A total of 74 archaeological objects were unearthed during the excavation. Just over 40% of the assemblage comprised glass, most of it green or brown historic bottle glass. Pottery was the next largest category, making up about 23% of the assemblage (17 items). Creamwares, pearlwares and earthenwares dominated, indicating a late-18th or early-19th century date. Diagnostic pieces include a large (broken) piece of a shell-edged pearlware dish, black-glazed Buckley-type ware and a fragment of slip-trailed earthenware, possibly from Staffordshire.

Fourteen stone objects were also collected. These mostly comprised fragments of slate, which is not found in the local geology. Some of this slate may be roofing material derived from buildings in the vicinity. Amethyst was also retained. Keem was the site of an amethyst quarry that was well known from at least the early 19th century. Contemporary travel writers reported buying amethyst crystals from local children. The amethyst must have been deliberately collected and is therefore deemed to be of archaeological significance.  A single worked stone object was found; it is an oblong piece of schist with a partially drilled hole through one end. It may be a half-made weight.

Three fragments of very badly corroded iron were found. It is not possible to determine what they were.

Two of the most interesting finds from the site are glass beads, one black and one white. The beads were both recovered from the north corner of the building. They may well have been part of a single object, perhaps a rosary.

A sheep/goat skull was found in the later collapse layers, as were a number of animal teeth.



Bolger, T. (2009) Report on archaeological excavations at House 3, Keem Bay, Keel West, Achill Island, Co. Mayo, Unpublished preliminary report, Achill Archaeological Field School, Achill, Co. Mayo.

Ó Moghráin, P. and Ó Duilearga, S. (1943) Some Mayo traditions of the buaile. Béaloideas 13 (1/2), 161-172.

Rathbone, S. (2015) Excavation of Building 3, Keem, Achill Island, Co. Mayo,  Unpublished preliminary report, Achil Archaeological Field School, Achill, Co. Mayo.

Sherlock, R. (2012) Boycott’s House, Keem Bay, Achill, Unpublished preliminary report, Achill Archaeological Field School, Achill, Co. Mayo.

Achill Archaeological Field School, Dooagh, Achill Island, Co. Mayo