2017:176 - Keem, Keel West, Mayo

NMI Burial Excavation Records

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 455821m, N 804480m

Latitude, Longitude (decimal degrees): 53.969477, -10.197617

Introduction and Aims

In May and June 2017 Achill Archaeological Field School (AAFS) carried out an excavation at the settlement cluster of Keem (MA053–003003), on the westernmost tip of Achill Island, Co. Mayo. The excavation, directed by Eve Campbell, was a teaching exercise; as such a major aim of the excavation was to train students in the techniques of archaeological excavation. The excavation formed part of a broader programme of research into the Keem Bay landscape by AAFS, and was the fifth season of excavation at the site (Campbell 2016; Rathbone 2015; Sherlock 2012; Bolger 2009).

The settlement cluster at Keem was in existence from at least the 1770s, and the first-edition OS map (1838) shows 40 buildings at the site. The village was demolished in the mid-19th century. Today the low, grassed-over remains of about 30 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.

During the 2017 season, a programme of surveying was undertaken and two cuttings were excavated at Keem. The survey focused on a previously unrecorded cluster of building footprints flanking the eastern bank of Abhainn na hUachtaí (a stream in the valley), which the author suggests may relate to an early booley phase at the settlement. The two cuttings were chosen to address specific questions about the settlement relating to the form of the buildings, and the character and chronology of the settlement.

The first cutting investigated Building 5, a small rectangular dry stone structure (2.5m by c. 5m) that appears to overlie the other building footprints. Both oral history and historical sources indicate that Keem may have been re-used for seasonal grazing in the late 19th or early 20th century. It is argued that Building 5 represents such a later hut. The aim of the trench at Building 5 was to test this theory.  The second cutting investigated Building 2, a small footprint located east of Building 3. The excavations aimed to clarify the morphology of the building and to investigate the material culture associated with the structure.

Results of the Excavation

The small trench over Building 5 succeeded in revealing its form and shedding light on its date. The trench showed the building to be a small roughly-built dry stone and sod structure. It clarified the overall plan of the building, indicating a bi-partite plan, with a north-west and a south-east chamber. The south-east chamber measures c. 2m long by 1.5m wide internally with a narrow door in the south-east end of its south-west wall. An additional chamber is attached to the north-west end of the structure and it measures c. 2.8m by 2m externally. This second chamber has bedrock elements in its north-east and north-west walls. The relationship between the two chambers is not completely clear and excavation is required for full resolution of the building. The north-west chamber may be a second hut or it may be a storage annexe, perhaps for milk.

The excavation of Building 2 succeeded in clarifying its morphology and provided good dating evidence in the form of ceramics. Building 2 was revealed to be a single-room oblong structure with thick earth and dry-stone walls (0.9-1.3m wide). It had very rounded corners on the exterior and slightly rounded corners on the interior. It measured an estimated 7.8m by 4.7m externally and 5.4m by 2.5m internally. It had a single doorway in the south-east end of its south-west wall. The building had a single stone-lined hearth in its long north-east wall, and it had a cross-drain exiting through the doorway.  The assemblage from the site included early 19th-century refined earthenware, coarse earthenware, bottle glass, copper alloy, iron, amethyst and stone artefacts.


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

Campbell, E. (2016) Excavation of Building 4, Keem, Achill Island, Co. Mayo,  Unpublished preliminary report, Achill Archaeological Field School, Achill, Co. Mayo.

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


c/o Achill Folklife Centre, Dooagh, Achill Island, Co. Mayo