Thursday, November 27, 2008

Raths, crannogs, and cashels are the primary settlement types during the early medieval period in Ireland (c. A.D. 400–800) and also occur in Irish influenced areas of Scotland and Wales. Until the establishment of Viking cities in the ninth century A.D., Irish society was entirely rural in character with individual farmsteads as the predominant feature of the settlement pattern. The Irish economy was based on mixed farming with cattle as the basis of wealth. This set of circumstances encouraged a dispersed settlement pattern, with each farmstead separated by extensive fields and grazing lands. Although these settlements are considered the classic sites of the early medieval period, the construction of crannogs may have begun in the Late Bronze Age (c. 1200–700 B.C.), and these settlements certainly continued in use through the Viking and Hiberno-Norse periods (c. A.D. 800–1200) and in some areas as late as the sixteenth century.

Raths and cashels together are referred to as ringforts, and they are easily the most common type of early medieval archaeological site. Ringforts were most likely the homes of the majority of the population during the medieval period, and in excess of forty thousand ringforts have been identified in Ireland. Similar in form, both raths and cashels are circular areas surrounded by a bank of earth or stone. Raths are ringforts that have earthen banks and are often surrounded by a shallow ditch. Cashels are stone-built ringforts and usually occur in areas with poorer soil and a natural abundance of stone. Some ringforts have a combination of earthen and stone walls, although these are uncommon.

Ringforts vary widely in size and may also have more than one set of encircling walls. While the largest may have a diameter in excess of 75 meters, the majority are about 25 to 30 meters in diameter. Cashels, however, are on average somewhat smaller. About 20 percent of ringforts are enclosed by multiple banks; these are referred to as multivallate ringforts and were most likely the farmsteads of wealthy or high-status individuals. Regardless of the number of embankments, multivallate ringforts have internal diameters that are not appreciably larger than most single-banked examples and served much the same role.

Ringforts generally functioned as the farmsteads of single families. Excavations have revealed that most contain only a small number of structures, typically a stone or wattle house with a handful of outbuildings. These would have served as the economic center of the farm, and excavations often highlight the self-sufficiency of ringforts as economic units. Raths and cashels would have comprised the home of the inhabitants, enclosures for the farm’s animals, a storage place for grain, and workshops for common crafts, such as ironworking. Excavations of higher-status ringforts often reveal a greater range of crafts produced, including the manufacture of objects made of bronze and precious metals. However, the essential function of high- and low-status ringforts varied little.

The actual defensive capabilities of ringforts is debated, with some archaeologists viewing the walls simply as a way to keep animals in the farmyard and having no defensive use, while others have argued for palisaded or hedge-lined embankments with some sort of defensive character. The most defensive element of ringforts, however, was perhaps not in their physical layout but in their distribution across the countryside. Studies have shown that ringforts regularly occur in semiclustered groups. Although quite separated in distance, each ringfort would have been within sight of another, and these clusters often have a larger and presumably more defensive multivallate ringfort within close proximity. This would have created an interlocking community that used the view across the landscape as a type of defense and that would have given the inhabitants time to flee to more defensive positions in the larger ringforts or in the surrounding mountains and bog lands.

Crannogs are artificial islands built in lakes and rivers that are located primarily in the northern and western parts of Ireland. While not as numerous as ringforts (about two thousand Irish crannogs have been identified), these sites are the second most common type of early medieval settlement and have played a central role in understanding the period. They are considered a predominantly early medieval class of settlement, although research in the 2000s has extended the chronology of crannog construction back into the Late Bronze Age and perhaps earlier. The nature of crannog use may have been much different prior to c. A.D. 400, with crannogs perhaps serving a predominantly ritual use in earlier periods or as seasonal dwellings only. Evidence for their use in the Iron Age (c. 700 B.C.–A.D. 400) is very scarce, and it is during the early medieval period that crannogs developed as settlements. Most crannogs are built up on lake and river beds with stones and debris until they emerge from the water, and some have stone causeways built connecting the crannog to the shore. These artificial islands were then surrounded with wooden palisades, and houses and other outbuildings were located inside. Crannogs vary greatly in size and shape but are most commonly oval or round in plan and about 20 meters in diameter.

Unlike ringforts, crannogs were probably not directly related to the farming economy, as their location in the water would make access to fields and animals quite difficult. However, large amounts of animal bones are often found on excavated crannogs, and this is commonly interpreted as evidence of feasting by the occupants. This supports the belief that crannogs were the bases of powerful lords, and some crannogs have been identified by historical documents as royal centers. Excavations of these high-status and royal crannogs have revealed extensive evidence of metalworking, the large-scale manufacture of brooches and other high-status personal objects, and impressive collections of imported goods, such as Continental and Mediterranean pottery. Despite the large amounts of archaeological material commonly found on crannogs, most seem to have no more than one or two small houses and were probably inhabited by a family group. Excavations have traditionally focused on these higher status sites, but research since the late 1990s has revealed that there are also less-wealthy crannogs. Their role in the early medieval settlement pattern is, however, less well understood.


Edwards, Nancy. The Archaeology of Early Medieval Ireland. London: Routledge, 1990.

Fredengren, Christina. Crannogs: A Study of People’s Interaction with Lakes, with Particular Reference to Lough Gara in the North-west of Ireland. Bray, Ireland: Wordwell, 2002.

O’Sullivan, Aidan. The Archaeology of Lake Settlement in Ireland. Discovery Programme Monograph, no. 4. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 1998.

Stout, Matthew. The Irish Ringfort. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1997.


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