An archaeological excavation at Ireland’s best-preserved Anglo Norman castle has been extended after the discovery of a secret tunnel.
Experts from Queen’s University had been commissioned to spend three weeks conducting exploratory digs at Carrickfergus Castle in a bid to find out more about the 800-year-old fortification on the shores of Belfast Lough.
But Stormont’s Environment Minister Mark H Durkan has now given the archaeologists another month to carry out further excavations.
Built in 1177 by Anglo Norman knight John de Courcy soon after his invasion of Ulster, the castle lies on the stretch of coastline where King William III landed in Ireland before the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.
Its history includes sieges by King John in 1210 and Edward Bruce in 1315 and capture by the French under Captain Francois Thurot in 1760. The castle was used by the British Army until 1928 and it housed air-raid shelters during the Second World War.
Mr Durkan said the excavations had already revealed new information about how the castle was used over the centuries, particularly its use in the Victorian period.
He said archaeologists were surprised to discover parts of a 19th-century tunnel extending into the area where the medieval Great Hall once stood.
The Victorian features have disturbed earlier deposits and are allowing archaeologists to dig a little deeper into the site and uncover substantial remains of what look like medieval walls.
Mr Durkan said he was extending the dig to the end of March so these uncovered features could be more fully recorded.
“The discoveries that the archaeologists have already made at the castle are very impressive and further reinforce my belief in the importance of using archaeology excavations to inform our rich heritage history,” he said.
“From the Victorian works through to medieval pottery from Carrickfergus, Britain and even France, these finds will help bring this site to life.
“The extension to the initial three-week excavation period will make sure as much of this information is gathered as possible so that it is included in the future visitor experience at the site.
“This work is a tremendous opportunity to find out more and strengthen the unique heritage offering to all visitors to this and our other treasured historic monuments.”
The excavation was commissioned ahead of renovation work to open up more of the castle for public view.
Access to the dungeons and ammunition room will be possible in the future and the restoration work will also see the roof of the Great Tower replaced.
Although the dig has been fenced off for safety purposes, visitors to Carrickfergus Castle will still be able to view the excavations as they take place and see what the archaeologists are uncovering.
The Centre for Archaeological Fieldwork at Queen’s is carrying out the work on behalf of the Northern Ireland Environment Agency.
The work at the castle is part of a £4 million investment by the Department of the Environment in a number of historical and heritage sites across Northern Ireland.
Dundrum Castle in Co Down is getting a new visitor facility to present its recently excavated features while access is being improved around the ancient inauguration site of the O’Neill chieftains at Tullahogue Fort in Co Tyrone.
In the Faughan Valley, near Londonderry, 21.5 hectares of grassland is being acquired to build 17 kilometres of public pathways through the countryside setting.