Wednesday, November 12, 2008

1 Ringforts Discussion

The primary document for information on dwellings in early Ireland is the Crích Gablach (CG) dated to c.700AD. We also have some info from Bechbretha (BB) - laws on beekeeping and Bretha Comaithchesa (BC) - laws on farming and a variety of others: Irish Canons, Heptads, the Hisperica Famina, various Lives of the saints, Annals, literary works, the first topographical maps of Ireland (16th and 17th centuries) etc etc. which add some clues. The results of archaeological excavations and surveys, and particularly dating information from dendrochronological (tree rings) and palynological (pollen) analysis and from radiocarbon dating allow us compare found data against the documents. The 'loose cannon' factor (ie my opinions) will be marked clearly as such as I write.

Firstly, the general environment. The earliest topographical maps and suggestions from various other sources point to Ireland being heavily forested across much of its area except where uplands or bogs intervene during the middle ages and up to the 17th century. Within this settlements are shown as 'islands' in the forest for much of Ireland. Centralised settlements (villages and towns) do not feature until the time of Norse and later Norman colonisation. This, together with survey data confirms that settlement from bronze age until c.900AD was uniformly the 'einzelhöfe' type - ie dispersed individual homesteads.

General description of a typical ringfort (drawn from CG and BC): a single farming homestead surrounded by an earthen, found-stone or combination embankment and associated ditch. The embankment is normally 3' or 1m high; the ditch equally deep and widening from a base of 1' (30cm) to 3' (1m) in width. The area enclosed within this ring is referred to as the 'les', the embankment as a 'múr' and the ditch as a 'clas'. The primary dwelling place, the 'tech', was wattle- or plank-walled, thatched and varied from 19' (5.2m) for an Ócaire and 27' (8.23m) for a Bóaire to 37' (11.28m) for a Rí Túaithe. Within (or more commonly just outside) the les we should expect to see a sheep-pen, calf-pen, pigsty, cow-house, drying kiln, fruit tree(s), and possibly a vegetable garden and horse stable/barn. Class-related differences include a requirement for a lord or king to have the drying kiln within the les, while the smaller available space and danger of fire spreading dictate that the kiln of lower classes will be outside the les; similarly the lord or king suffers disgrace if they have any tilled land within the les, while there are signs that lower classes were not socially prohibited to grow vegetables in the les, though indications are that this would generally not be the case for the majority of homes. Outside the embankment were a ring of fields, the 'airlise' which, for higher status homes would include a green, or 'faithche' used for horse racing and ball games. Heptad 64 defines this area as 'four tilled fields nearest to the farm'. Fields are generally described as rectangular and quite large. The actual acreage of farm land allotted to each class ranges from 7 tír cumaile (approx. 240ac. or 97.3hect.) for a Rí Túaithe through 3 tír cumaile (approx. 103ac. or 41.7hect.) for the lowest grade of lord (Aire Déso), 2 tír cumaile (approx. 68.5ac. or 27.8hect.) for the Bóaire and 1 tír cumaile (approx. 34.5ac. or 13.9hect.) for the Ócaire, the lowest grade of freeman.

From archaeological sources we know that the typical ringfort is 33' (30m) in diameter, roughly circular and, allowing for infill of the clas and collapse of the múr, meets the requirements above for dimensions of this perimeter structure. We also know that the typical diameter of roundhouses unearthed within ringforts is 19'-20' (6.0m). Only some houses excavated in larger ringforts have significantly larger dimensions. All this accords with the texts and with a view of the majority of the population being of Ócaire or Bóaire class, and of them living within ringforts.

Now, all this is fine, except that it comes from sources dating to the 8th century or later, and the ringforts in question have produced radiocarbon and dendrochronological dates lying almost wholly within 600-900AD. The texts and structures in question thus are broadly contemporary, so this concordance is what we should expect.


2: Relationship between ringforts and the Irish iron age

The question is really just how relevant is this information, or the locations of the ringforts themselves, to Iron Age Ireland. The particular period I'm most interested in, and which I'll address below, is the late Iron Age, ie 0-500AD approximately. This means that the texts mentioned above are at least 200 years (and as much as 700 years) later than the end of the period in question. However, there have been *some* iron age finds at ringfort sites, and as there is a general lack of finds from the iron age in Ireland as a whole, these few have a greater than usual significance. My proposal is that many of the Early Christian Period (ECP) ringforts were also the location of Iron Age homesteads. Whether these had definable embankments around them or not is a matter for debate (and fieldwork), however my proposal is that they generally did not, wattle fencing or similar serving this purpose instead. I'll detail my reasons for this below.

One piece of information we do have about the Irish iron age is that for much of this time there was a significant drop-off in human activity and a related increase in wetlands and forest. This varies in the length and period of the 'lull' but broadly runs from about 250BC until 250AD. Dates from the northern half of Ireland tend to be earlier (800BC-25AD for one location from Louth for example) and later in the south (beginning as late as 150AD and ending as late as 450AD). Why there is a variation, or indeed why it should vary north to south like this, we just don't know. Tied to this is, as a likely primary cause is a worsening of the climate which broadly matches this lull period, and as a probable consequence both a reduction in the technology in use and the over size of the population. These last will account for the general lack of Iron Age finds and particularly the total disappearance of earthenware use. We know from several sites that iron was introduced into use in Ireland probably around 600-500BC. We have few no iron finds, though, and I'd suggest that the arrival of iron smelting was followed shortly after by the climate change (and maybe other factors) which led to the failure to develop a skilled ironworking community. If anything, poor quality iron will decay faster, and the wetter climate would only exacerbate this. Now, that's just guesswork - we don't really have a good idea about all this.

What we do know is that the majority of examples of La Tene (fuzzily equated with later iron age) style of metalworking are found in the northern third of the island, broadly in the region ruled from the twin centres of Cruachán (Connaught) and Emain Macha (Ulster) plus the northern part of Leinster, and very few in the southern half of Ireland. Also, a style of quernstone - beehive quern - is found only north of a line from Dublin to the mouth of the Shannon: again Ulster, Connaught and north Leinster. As we've already seen, the Iron Age 'lull' seems to have taken place for a shorter and earlier time in the north than in the south. It is also generally accepted that the use of hillforts was more common and lasted to a later date in Munster, unlike the ringfort-like constructions in the northern part of the island (Cruachán, Emain Macha and Tara for example) which (on this scale) seem to have had no part in Munster iron age life.

To the above paragraph I'd like to add one observation of my own which does not seem to have been noted in any works on ringforts thus far. When looking at the dates of finds from ringforts those before 400AD are almost all from Ulster and northern Connaught (I know only of one pre-400 date from Munster). Further, when looking at dates 400-500AD Ulster, Connaught and northern Leinster again predominate, with Ulster again topping the list. By 600-700AD the percentage of finds is broadly even across the island. From this I'd like to suggest that the use of ringfort-style embankments as surrounds for non-noble dwellings originated in the Emain Macha-Cruachán sphere and was spread south primarily as a result of the expansion of the Uí Néill from northern Connaught into western Ulster and, more importantly, into the Irish midlands.

A last few scattered pieces of info to back this up. Munster's principal border crossing was past Freestone Hill in Kilkenny (then in Osraige, which was alternately allied to Leinster, Munster and later to Leinster again). The relationship between Connaught and Ulster (and including the north Leinster area and Tara also) is suggested by the Ulster Cycle of tales, backed up by the La Tene, quernstone and ringfort-style royal/ritual centres points above, plus the fact that Uí Néill expansion was originally into western Ulster and north western Leinster, not south to Munster or south east towards southern Leinster. The blanket bogs which dominate a large area of Ireland's midlands suggest themselves as one factor in this north-south split, making travel and communication across the Shannon Estuary-Dublin line difficult (compounded by the known rise in bog and ground water levels during the period in question). Lastly, there is the much mentioned 'leth moga'/ 'leth cuinn' split along exactly this Dublin-Shannon line which, though largely found in legendary contexts, is often repeated and apparently generally accepted as how the island was divided in the late prehistoric period.

All this points to both a cultural and communication difference between north and south, and even the subtle differences in administrative methods and law texts (not to mention notably more militarily-oriented northern society) again reinforce this split. I therefore propose that ringforts are originally a product of 'northern' late Iron Age culture.

One element of the 'dwellings' question that's not been mentioned thus far in this post is that of crannógs, lake-side structures built on a base of rubble, logs and brushwood. These have been found dating from the Bronze Age, Iron Age and right through the historic period up to the end of the 'Gaelic ascendancy'. As such they are evidence for continuous use of specific dwelling-place construction styles over this whole time-span. Because of their location several have produced well-preserved wooden remains which, among other things, show a common use of wattling for wall construction. This style of dwelling was found in the late Bronze Age across the whole of Ireland. Other late Bronze Age sites also reveal a building style making extensive use of wattling fences and walls and again are common to the whole island. It has been shown that there are signs of wattling fences built onto the top of the embankment around several excavated ringforts, and textual references to wattling being used for building animal pens, fences and dwelling-place walls for the poorer levels of society. What is missing in our picture of Ireland's chronology of dwellings is evidence of the style of home used by 'commoners' in the Iron Age. My suggestion is that these were built primarily (or exclusively) of wattling and with wattling (or log) perimeter fencing (or palisades). The sites of these dwellings were, I think, those later used to build ringforts. There are textual references to wattling being fixed to the ground with wooden pegs rather than set into the earth itself in the historic period, and this suggests to me that it will be even more difficult to identify where these fences or walls ran. This, coupled with the lack of data from excavations at ringforts, is the primary reason for the lack of evidence for Iron Age occupation at these sites in my view. Further, a site perimeter of wattling or log fence being later replaced by a bank and ditch structure (as per the ringfort) would necessitate great disturbance of the very earth which would hold signs of those earlier palisades or fences. Again, this will make it extremely difficult to identify remains pointing to the Iron Age.

One other issue affects our ability to find signs of the Iron Age people. This is the seeming disappearance of the use of pottery - it has been suggested that wooden, metal and leather containers were used instead, all of which are prone to decay faster than earthenware, and more so in a wetter environment such as obtained during much of Ireland's iron age. We therefore have little chance of finding domestic artefacts in Ireland dating to the Iron Age (or easily datable at all except in very broad terms).

Finally, though slightly off the point here, I have located information that points to a connection between the modern baronies of Ireland and the estimated 150 or so taithe or small kingdoms of late prehistoric and early historic Ireland. I have yet to examine the information in detail or do my own comparisons of their respective borders, but it looks promising, as does the association of townlands within each barony with separate fine. I'll report on this when I've had more time to consider the issues.

Okay, I've gone on long enough on what is largely background information and scene-setting opinions. I'll deal with hillforts briefly tomorrow, and tie it all together with proposals which will attempt to explain the distribution of known ringforts, provide a tentative chronology of the immediate prehistoric period and finish with an analysis of Ray's draft classification of Irish Iron Age settlement types along with my own suggestions for modifications to this.

Stiofan Mac Amhalghaidh


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