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ireland Celtic Tiger archaeology

When the Celtic Tiger

the golden years of commercial
archaeology in Ireland

During the Celtic Tiger economic boom, Ireland experienced a period of

prosperity which led to an unprecedented ‘golden age’ for commercial
archaeology. In a four-part series, Brendon Wilkins examines the top sites,
finds and controversies that defined over a decade of discovery.

magine a place where the term ‘million- Above Frosty morning: imagine also that these excavations were fiercely
aire archaeologist’ would not sound looking south on the N9/ regulated to control their quality. This sounds like
N10 motorway project
photo: Headland Archaeology (Ireland) Ltd

ridiculous, and where young archae- an archaeo-utopia: but for a short time it existed.
at Russellstown, County
ology students could look forward to Carlow. This was Ireland’s Celtic Tiger archaeology.
excellent career prospects with salaries Current Archaeology last published a special
equivalent to any other profession. issue on Irish archaeology in September 1970 (CA
Imagine hundreds of excavations up and down 22). The sites reported on then by Andrew Selkirk
the country crying out for help, willing to pay (Knowth, Newgrange, Navan Fort and Ballyglass)
handsomely, even for inexperienced diggers; remained state-of-the-art for the following 30

12 current archaeology | October 2010 |

The road building programme in
Ireland initiated some of the largest
infrastructure archaeology projects
undertaken anywhere in the world.
p15); sadly, this bad publicity seems to have been
Ireland’s biggest archaeological export. Few will
have heard news of the multitude of fantastic sites
found during these years, both nationally and
internationally significant, which have revolu-
tionised accepted knowledge of Irish archaeology.
This series of features will redress the balance, by
profiling the ‘best of the best’ of the work that has
electrified archaeology in Ireland.

Boom and bust

There is a strong argument to be made that Ire-
land’s archaeology boom began at precisely
9.00am on 22 February 2002, and finished at
exactly 2.00pm, 6 November 2008. Seminars
were held on both days by the National Roads
Authority (NRA); although they did not feel like
turning points at the time, hindsight shows these
meetings book-end a period during which Ire-
land was the best country in the world to be an
archaeologist. The first seminar, riding the wave
of European funding, was intended to open the
doors to international archaeological consultan-
cies as construction-led demand for archaeolo-
gists far outstripped supply. The second was the
harbinger of doom as Ireland’s Department of
Finance unveiled a new archaeological contract
template, introduced in the wake of steep public
spending cuts. 

below National Roads Authority excavations, 1992-2010.




years. The eminent archaeologists interviewed
in that issue, and the sites which they excavated, 300
eventually came to dominate Irish archaeology.
Now, the sheer scale of work undertaken during
graph: National Roads Authority

the boom has challenged the accepted wisdom of
many key site types and periods. 100
During the Celtic Tiger prosperity, the world
became aware of the contentious Irish sites that 0
1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010
made international headlines (see box feature on

| Issue 247 | current archaeology 13

ireland Celtic Tiger archaeology

war reconstruction boom happened long before

such restrictions were commonplace.
Weighing up the legacy of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ eco-
nomic boom, it is clear that it was a golden age for
archaeologists; however, was it also a golden age
for archaeology? And, what insight does that give
us into how archaeology is practised in the UK?

Rumsfeldian archaeology
The majority of archaeologists in both Britain
and Ireland are employed to work on develop-
ment-led (commercial) projects. Embedding
archaeology in the planning process has been
called ‘Rumsfeldian Archaeology’, because it is
best explained by a somewhat mystifying speech
given by the former US Secretary of State for
Defence, Donald Rumsfeld:

As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don’t know
We don’t know.
12 February 2002,
Department of Defence news briefing

In both Britain and Ireland, large-scale devel-

opments are preceded by an impact assessment
where archaeological remains are a material con-
sideration (the known knowns). In the case of
Above Today’s news, Archaeologists have never quite shared in soci- road schemes, these known sites are avoided, and
tomorrow’s chip paper: ety’s wealth, no matter how successful the wider a desk-based study of maps, documents and other
whenever archaeology
economy. In Ireland, however, the archaeology non-invasive techniques is used to assess the land
is in the news in the UK,
it is a positive story; in boom was fuelled by longer-term trends: gen- adjacent to these sites: the known unknowns. If
contrast, during the Celtic erous European structural funding, attractive tax these have archaeological potential, test-trenches
Tiger, archaeology made incentives and, crucially for archaeology, a com- will be excavated to evaluate whether full excava-
headlines in Ireland for all
prehensive National Development Plan designed tion should proceed.
the wrong reasons.
to fix the country’s inadequate infrastructure. In Ireland, these trenches are not just focused
With an annual budget of €1.5bn, the road around known areas of potential. The entire road
building programme in Ireland initiated some corridor is comprehensively tested, with a centre-
of the largest infrastructure archaeology projects line trench running from start to finish, designed
undertaken anywhere in the world. Irish archae- to find the unknown unknowns; sites that would
ology benefitted significantly from this unprec- otherwise fall through the net. This represents
edented investment, underwritten by a cast-iron a considerable investment in the front end of
legal framework designed to protect the historic archaeological works prior to construction, com-
environment from development impact – a situ- pared to Britain where a much smaller percentage
ation that differed from Britain, where the post- of the road corridor is tested.

14 current archaeology | October 2010 |

Excavations in Twomileborris, Co. Tipperary, were directed by
Mícheál Ó Droma and conducted by a crew of 100 people
over 14 months. The multi-period remains, which spanned
a linear kilometre, included evidence from the Middle
Bronze Age roundhouse through to the Early Medieval.
Later evidence included three structures of 16th century

PHOTO: National Roads Authority

date thought to be associated with a nearby tower-house, a
watermill (preserved in situ) and a 19th century limekiln and
limestone extraction pits. A hoard of 57 silver coins, a bronze
pin and an unusual bone object carved into the likeness of a
crenellated castle tower were also found. Interpretation of
the rich findings from this site, and the dissemination of the
results, is ongoing.

The Anglo-Irish Disagreement tion to ‘total archaeology’ in Ireland and ‘sample

archaeology’ in Britain. In the UK, construction
Perhaps the reason this time-pressured system is impact is controlled through planning guidance:
manageable in Britain is because they have a fun- sites are sampled, normally at a rate of 10% of all
damentally different approach to excavation. Let linear features, 50% of discrete features and 100%
us call it the Anglo-Irish disagreement: a presump- of structures. In Ireland, all archaeology is 

the development took place. Much of the site was destroyed

without record, and the offices that were finally built on the
site, known locally as ‘the bunkers,’ are a sore reminder of the
potential resource that was lost.
The Wood Quay protestors failed in their attempt to have the
site preserved but, in many respects, the saga foreshadowed the
tactics of the media-savvy protest groups that sprang up around
Controversies of the Celtic Tiger the ‘anti-roads’ movement.  (Box continues over)
When large infrastructure projects are proposed, controversy is never far
from the news. Media coverage of Irish archaeology has been dominated
Below Looking north from the hill of Tara; the M3
by high profile contentious cases such as the Medieval castle at
roadway is visible between the trees at centre.
Carrickmines on the M50 in Co. Dublin; the 9th century Viking Longphort
at Woodstown, excavated on the N25 in Co. Waterford; and the Iron
Age enclosure monument at Lismullin near Tara on the M3. Given the
considerable investment in archaeology and the remarkable new insights
that commercial excavations have brought, it is worth asking: why has
Celtic Tiger archaeology come to be defined by these problematic sites?
The blueprint for these controversies was drawn in the late 1970s, with
the construction of Dublin Corporation’s headquarters at Wood Quay in
the heart of Medieval Dublin. The 4.5acre site on the banks of the River
Liffey contained deeply stratified urban deposits, dating from the 10th
to the 14th centuries. Initial findings led to a huge public campaign, with
PHOTO: Rónán Swan

street protests and legal challenges orchestrated by Friends of Medieval

Dublin. Though their delaying tactics enabled a rescue excavation to
take place, the government enacted special legal measures to ensure

| Issue 247 | current archaeology 15

ireland Celtic Tiger archaeology

resourced; not so much ‘preservation by record’

as ‘destruction in denial’. But they may respond
by citing the law of diminishing returns, insisting
that the sampling approach is more cost-effective
and a better way of filtering out the irrelevant,
compared to the indiscriminate information-
gathering of the Irish model. Is it precisely this
indiscriminate approach, however, that safe-
guards archaeology from commercial pressure?
Students of excavation theory will recognise an
echo in this debate that harks back to the foun-
treated as potentially unique, dations of archaeology as a scientific discipline:
requiring 100% excavation General Pitt-Rivers believed everything should be

PHOTO: Headlnad Archaeology (Ireland) Ltd

and preservation by record. recorded, irrespective of perceived significance,
A legal framework under- because ‘fresh problems in archaeology…are con-
writes all decisions that stantly arising’; while Flinders Petrie advocated a
may potentially impact on discriminatory approach because the excavator
the archaeological heritage, ‘does not find anything he does not look for’.
and any proposed develop- But this does not explain how these different
ment must be preceded by full methods were adopted in Britain and Ireland. For
excavation of all sites and features. Above This stone that, we must look back to see how commercial
But, digging larger quantities means larger artefact, broken during archaeology evolved in each country.
manufacture and then
costs. If this is undertaken in the public interest,
reused probably as a
one has to ask: does digging more equal value fishing weight, was found Ground Zero
for money? Who does it better, the British or adjacent to the Bronze
the Irish? Initially, it appears the British are the Age trackway at Site 34, Commercial archaeology in the UK is a legacy of
losers, with excavations understaffed and under- the ‘Rescue Revolution’ – a reaction to post-war

Nowhere were these tactics more apparent than during the preferred route was selected from a number of different options, all of
excavations on the M3 as it passed through the Tara-Skryne valley in which attempted to steer clear of known archaeological sites.
Co. Meath. The Hill of Tara is a complex of earthworks dating from the Nevertheless, in such a rich archaeological landscape it was inevitable
Neolithic to the early Medieval period, and according to tradition was that entirely new sites would be unearthed, and when a highly significant
the seat of the High King of Ireland. The distance between the new Iron Age enclosure was discovered at Lismullin, the excavation rekindled
motorway and the exact site of the hill is 2.2 km (1.37 miles), and the debate in the media on the proposed route. The site was seized upon by
pressure groups opposed to development, and the motorway
was widely reported as being built through ‘the hill of Tara.’ The
perception at home and abroad was that Ireland was riding
roughshod over its past, blatantly bulldozing one of its most iconic
monuments. Public opinion was polarised, and commercial field
archaeologists, engaged by the NRA, were caught in the crossfire.
The fiercest critics of Celtic Tiger archaeology object on
principle. Condemning the ‘development at all costs’ agenda, the
Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney criticised modern day Ireland’s
pursuit of the secular above the sacred. In an interview with
the BBC in March 2008, he said, ‘If ever there was a place that
deserved to be preserved in the name of the dead generations
from pre-historic times up to historic times up to completely
PHOTO: Michael Fox/

recently – it was Tara.’ His call to arms was echoed by Jonathan

left The Hill of Tara ceremonial complex. The new motorway

is further away from the monument than the existing roadway,
shown at the bottom of the photo.

16 current archaeology | October 2010 |

PHOTOs: Headlnad Archaeology (Ireland) Ltd
reconstruction, laying the foundations for a net-
work of regionally-based field units. Widespread
development preceded adequate legislation, above The main Bronze Age trackway found at Newrath, surrounded by a plank
thereby forcing the archaeological community walkway, and (inset) close up of the trackway. Note the long-handled Irish shovels next
to lobby for recognition, and develop working to the trench; another difference with archaeology in Britain, where the shovels normally
have a short handle barely 3ft long – and archaeologists swear that anything different
practices that could deal quickly with the would break their backs.
archaeological ‘problem’.
In Ireland, it was the opposite: state control of
archaeology and the introduction of a license- preservation and acquisition of monuments,
based system were enacted long before wide- and placing restrictions on the licensing of
spread development became an issue. Measures excavations.
to protect Irish archaeology were set in place with In a letter to Current Archaeology (CA 225),
the establishment of the National Monuments NRA Project Archaeologist Richard O’Brien
Act in 1930, providing for the guardianship, commented on an article by Richard Moore 

more about modern Ireland’s concerns in the present than it does about
preserving the past. Irrespective of the clear protocols for the conduct of
excavations on road schemes, headlines typically depict the impact of
development as a simple choice between preservation and destruction,
rather than a negotiated process of impact assessment and consultation.

below The arc of stakeholes at Lismullin being watered and protected

with plastic; stakeholes in the foreground are marked with gridpegs.

above Excavations on the revetted fosse at the site of Carrickmines

Castle, Co Dublin.

Foyle, Chief Executive of the World Monuments Fund Britain, who

PHOTOs: National Roads Authority

declared that the construction of the M3 was equivalent to the state-

backed destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan.
Ireland is by no means alone in courting controversy over the handling
of its archaeological heritage, but the resulting media storm – detracting
from the positive story about new archaeological discoveries – says

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ireland Celtic Tiger archaeology

– every 1.3km compared to every 3.7km in the

UK. But recent commentators in Ireland have
pointed out that infrastructure projects are a
special case, and by no means reflect the day-to-
day reality of all commercial archaeology.

Time and tide

This example moves us on to Newrath (Site
34) on the banks of the River Suir, a site that
illustrates perfectly how the Irish method of
‘unknown unknown’ archaeology can find sites
that would otherwise go undiscovered. Newrath
was a multi-period alluvial and estuarine wet-
land site, excavated by Headland Archaeology
(Ireland) Ltd, in advance of the N25 Waterford
Exceptionally well-preserved, Site 34 com-
prised 21 individual structures and five areas of
activity, with almost every chapter of human
history represented from the Mesolithic through
to the 19th century. What was most important
about Site 34 was that it was totally unexpected;
although similar landscapes have yielded a
wealth of archaeological information in Britain
IMAGE Headlnad Archaeology (Ireland) Ltd/Jonathan Millar

and Europe, this was the first time an alluvial

and estuarine wetland had been excavated on a
road scheme in Ireland. As a consequence, our
starting assumption was that this type of land-
scape was archaeologically marginal and would
not benefit from extensive excavation.
In spite of these low expectations, Site 34 was
given the same archaeological treatment as the
rest of the proposed road scheme. Much more
was found than we had bargained for: Meso-
above Plan of Site 34 at of Network Archaeology (Village, cemetery and lithic flint scatters on what would have been a
Newrath, showing all four dyke, CA 222), about work on the Easington to dryland surface at the water’s edge; Early Bronze
excavation areas, with
trackways extending from Morecambe Bay pipeline. O’Brien compared the Age trackways intended to cross boggy ground
the dryland margin into archaeology of the cross-Pennine pipeline with to reach the open water; a Bronze Age burnt
what would have been a that done on the Pipeline to the West in Ireland, mound on the edge of the wetland area; Iron
dynamic tidal landscape. noting that the rate of discovery between the Age hurdles to cross tidal creeks for saltmarsh
two countries differed significantly. On the UK grazing; Medieval platforms and a 19th century
pipeline, 65 new sites were discovered over the brick kiln, which would have made use of the
course of 245km, compared to 245 sites discov- abundant alluvial clay. The quantity and scale
ered in Ireland over a longer 335km route. Over of the remains suggested that Site 34 had been
twice as many new sites were found in Ireland part of a very active landscape; and, the wet con-
ditions of Site 34 meant that – as well as quan-
tity – Newrath had exceptionally well-preserved
archaeological deposits.
What insight can we gain by comparing Located on a terrace on the edge of the River
the British and Irish systems of Suir, we excavated through deposits over 3m
deep, which had been accumulating since the
commercial archaeology? end of the last Ice Age. As the landscape was grad-
ually transformed, layers of earth were deposited

18 current archaeology | October 2010 |

IMAGE Headlnad Archaeology (Ireland) Ltd/Jonathan Millar
Brendon Wilkins

further READING 

Brendon Wilkins, ‘Time and tide: five millennia of

environmental change and human activity on the Suir,
New Routes to the Past, National Roads Authority.
ISBN 978-0954595531.
James Eogan and Eoin Sullivan, ‘Archaeology and the
decline of the Celtic Tiger’, The Archaeologist, Number
72, Summer 2009.

above Section photograph showing archaeological phases.

or eroded away, leaving a visible and permanent

record in our section drawings. These layers of The architect of the revolution
different coloured and textured deposits – wood How did the National Roads Authority become such an effective sponsor of
peats, reed peats and estuarine silts – all provided archaeological work? To answer this, look to Dáire O’Rourke (who sadly passed
snapshots of what the landscape had been like, away in 2010), former chief archaeologist of the NRA.
while the artefacts and structures contained In early 2000, a Code of Practice was agreed between the NRA
within them indicated how people had used the and the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands (the
land. The site has changed how archaeologists Minister then tasked with the care of Ireland’s archaeological
now think about alluvial landscapes – helping heritage). This was perhaps the single most important
to develop techniques and strategies, as well as archaeological document published during the Celtic Tiger.
influencing policy and guidelines. It saw the NRA directly employ their own archaeologists,
who were responsible for monitoring the work of private
Moving forward archaeological companies employed on road schemes,
from planning stages through to final publication.
What insight can we gain by comparing the Dáire was appointed NRA Chief Archaeologist in 2001,
British and Irish system of commercial archae- at a time of intense pressure for the redevelopment
ology? At the beginning of 2010, the British of existing roads and new motorways. Drawing on her
replaced PPG16, the planning document which previous experience as Dublin city archaeologist, she put into
coined the phrase ‘preservation by record’, with effect a series of protocols to ensure that highways projects
PPS5. The new planning guidance aims to erase would be accurately assessed for their impact on archaeology,
the turf line from consideration, making above- with excavations taking place well in advance of construction.
PHOTO: National Roads Authority
ground and below-ground archaeology equally It is a testament to Dáire’s skills of persuasion that under her
important, and contains the lofty goal that watch, the NRA’s commitment to the historic environment was
archaeology can realise a ‘public benefit’. solidified, and a formidable team of archaeologists was built who
Similarly in Ireland, the question of whether continue her important legacy.
current strategies are fit for purpose is currently
under ministerial review, with wide-ranging
reforms eagerly anticipated. These policy
changes suggest that archaeologists from both Coming next month:
countries have been grappling with the short- From modern highways to ancient waterways: Ireland’s prehistoric beginnings
comings of their frameworks. Clearly, there is a In prehistoric Ireland, people would have moved most easily along rivers; and not
tremendous amount to gain by learning from surprisingly, that is where much of the best archaeological evidence has been found.
each other. Irrespective of what side of modern From remarkably preserved Mesolithic fishtraps on the River Liffey in the centre of
political borders archaeologists may currently Dublin, to the first Neolithic House in Co. Kilkenny near the River Suir, and onwards to a
work, there are many similarities in terms of the multi-period site spanning both sides of the River Lerr in Co. Kildare, the second feature
physical remains of the past: and it is to the dirt of our series will explore the new evidence emerging from these watery landscapes.
that we should turn our attention. C a

| Issue 247 | current archaeology 19