This month’s column will head to Northern Ireland, profoundly aware of the sensitivities of this place, its peoples, and its past. Inevitably, there are gaps in Current Archaeology’s narrative: the magazine began in 1966, which sadly aligns with the timeline of Northern Ireland’s recent, often painful history. What follows is a partial account, but no less powerful for that. I will travel clockwise around the six historic counties, recognising that they are no longer in use as administrative structures, but they are the best way to shape my narrative.
As a starting point, some wider reviews that have touched on sites there (and in the Republic of Ireland) include those covering the Neolithic, in CA 296 (November 2014) and CA 401 (August 2023); the Romans, in CA 317 (August 2016); and the Vikings, in CA 304 (July 2015).
County Derry and County Antrim
County Derry provides a neat microcosm of Northern Ireland’s archaeology from prehistory to the 20th century. The most famous site mentioned is also one of the oldest: Mesolithic Mount Sandel in Coleraine. CA 59 (November 1977) reported from there when it was first excavated, but there were, alas, no further updates until CA 330 (September 2017) picked up the thread on the publication of the lead excavator Peter Woodman’s book, Ireland’s First Settlers. CA 331 (October 2017) then places the site in wider context in a review of the British Mesolithic.
CA 296 (November 2014) moves forward in time to the Irish Neolithic, when works along the A2 airport road revealed a settlement at Upper Campsie. Two Bronze Age sites feature next – first, at Ballynagalliagh, where CA 362 (May 2020) reported on the discovery of an enclosure dating to 2000-1500 BC, covering a 40m by 20m area; and, second, at Corrstown, near Portrush, where CA 195 (December 2004) reported on an extensive middle Bronze Age village. The archaeological trail, at least in the pages of Current Archaeology, then goes quiet for many centuries, until CA 345 and CA 347 (December 2018 and February 2019) pick up the more recent medieval and early modern story in terms of the city of Derry/Londonderry itself.
A great starting point to examine County Antrim’s archaeology comes in CA 294 (September 2014), when excavations ahead of works on a stretch of the A26 road revealed a wealth of evidence from a Mesolithic house to a modern dam. There is then a fine Neolithic site at Ballygalley on the coast north of Larne in CA 134 (May 1993); another Neolithic site at Donegore in CA 92 (June 1984); and the famous Neolithic ‘type site’ of Lyles Hill in CA 114 (April 1989). But the biggest story in terms of Current Archaeology’s coverage belongs to the Bronze Age, when work along the A8 road between Belfast and Larne at Skilganaban revealed a wealth of evidence about its occupants, highlighted in CA 309 (December 2015).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given its recent history, Belfast itself (which straddles County Antrim and County Down) barely features in the magazine, although its industrial heritage is touched on in CA 134 (May 1993) and CA 378 (September 2021). In terms of more modern, especially urban archaeology, Carrickfergus claims the greatest attention in Antrim, with visits in CA 159 and CA 296 (September 1998 and November 2014). And, with my maritime archaeologist’s hat on, it would be remiss of me not to mention the wreck site of the Spanish Armada ship La Girona at Lacada Point, which featured in CA 35 (November 1972).
County Down and County Armagh
Current Archaeology’s coverage of County Down has, historically, been slim to say the least. One significant survey comes in CA 224 (November 2008), when the medieval tide mills at Nendrum were examined as part of the wider exploration of the sea lough there. The related publication, Strangford Lough: an archaeological survey of the maritime cultural landscape (2002), is worth seeking out in your local library. It is a maritime tour de force, rightly winning a slew of awards (see CA 195, December 2004). Otherwise, for a long time coverage was thinner on the ground, except for references in CA 234 (September 2009) to Bronze Age settlement in the Mourne Mountains, and in CA 263 (February 2012) to medieval settlement around Newry. There was, however, a rare return to this region just last month in CA 403, which explored the excavation of an enigmatic Neolithic timber monument at Ballynahatty, five miles south of Belfast.
County Armagh lays claim to the most famous as well as the most referenced archaeological site in Northern Ireland: Navan Fort, one of the great royal sites of pre-Christian Gaelic Ireland. Current Archaeology’s visits there have been numerous. To share some highlights, CA 22 (September 1970) first reported on the site and featured it on the cover at a time when significant sections of its interior were undergoing investigation; CA 96 (April 1985) visited again when the site was at (in hindsight, unconscionable) peril of destruction from an adjacent quarry (see updates in CA 99, February 1986, and CA 101, August 1986, by which point, happily, the site was saved); CA 134 (May 1993) visited again and featured the site on the cover for the second time when a new future was being mapped out for it; CA 317 (August 2016) examined the evidence for Roman contact in the area; CA 360 (March 2020) shared new thinking about the distances Iron Age people travelled to it; and, most recently, CA 367 (October 2020) provided news of recent surveys revealing further evidence for its continuity of occupation.
County Fermanagh and County Tyrone
County Fermanagh’s one major appearance in Current Archaeology is in a feature exploring an early medieval crannog at Cherrymount/Drumclay, near Enniskillen. The site first featured in CA 271 (October 2012), when it was identified – and threatened by – a road bypass scheme; CA 275 and CA 279 (February and June 2013) gave updates on its excavation and analysis, which uncovered the richest finds associated with this type of medieval dwelling anywhere in Ireland; and CA 299 (February 2015) returned to tell the full story of this remarkable site.
Concluding in County Tyrone, there is modest reporting down the years, with only two sites mentioned in detail: first, at Ballynagilly, just north of Cookstown, where CA 20 and CA 24 (May 1970 and January 1971) examined the Neolithic settlement; and, second, at Island McHugh, a crannog on Lough Catherine that was occupied continuously from the Neolithic to the late 16th century. This site is referenced in CA 174 (June 2001) as part of an examination of the ‘AD 540 event’, a plague or (perhaps) an environmental catastrophe that might be explained by tree-ring analyses from sites such as this one. This is an admittedly enigmatic place to end on – but such is the story of archaeology in Northern Ireland, as much as elsewhere.
In next month’s column I will return to the British mainland, to explore the remaining counties not so far covered in my column, starting in Devon, before moving on to Dorset, Somerset, Gloucestershire, and finally Wiltshire.
Discover old issues
Read a selection of the articles discussed by Joe for free online at www.archaeology.co.uk/archive404. They will be available for one month from 5 October. Print subscribers can add digital access to the entire back catalogue of CA for just £12 a year – simply call us on 020 8819 5580 and quote ‘DIGI404’.