LETHAL jewellery, board games and sophisticated housebuilding all formed part of the lives of an old Irish dynasty, new research has revealed.
This weekend, for one day only, the Drumclay Crannog site in Fermanagh will be opened to the public.
The site is an old man-made island, which is believed to have housed generations of noblemen. Dates are hard to pin down, but it is thought to have been inhabited roughly from around 800AD up until the Plantation period and the Flight of the Earls.
Among the finds are an old dining bowl bearing a Christian cross, and even a dual-use cloak fastener – described by one expert as a “deadly piece of jewellery”.
The crannog (artificial island) is currently being excavated by archaeological experts in what is the first such dig in more than 50 years in Northern Ireland.
And Dr John O’Keeffe, who is supervising the excavation for the Department of the Environment, said it was one of the most extensive of its kind in the whole island of Ireland over the past half-century.
Whoever built and inhabited the island had their work cut out.
They would have cut sods of turf to raise the island out of what was then a freshwater lake – but is now a boggy marsh.
It was probably about 30 metres out to shore, and would have been accessed by hollow canoes or coracles. The wet environment would have rotted food and put the inhabitants at greater risk of sickness.
But who would live such a water-logged lifestyle – and why?
Dr O’Keeffe said: “Although we would see them as primitive by today’s standards, they certainly had a technology of their day – in engineering and construction – that was reasonably well advanced.
“Given the labour and the costs of building it you’re probably looking at a family that’s part of the nobility.
“It was both for prestige, and for defence. It was to show off, on one hand, that it can be done, and on the other it does provide a safe haven.”
It would have protected the dwellers from cattle raiders, he said – but ultimately it seems to have been abandoned from around the time of the Plantation as local power structures shifted and other nobility moved into stately homes.
Some artefacts found also give an indication of life of the time.
They include a medieval chess-like board game, combs made of precious amber and the bronze cloak-fastener cited earlier, which Dr O’Keeffe said could have been used as a dagger if the wearer got into a tight spot.
Experts have hailed the finds as internationally significant, claiming they shed new light on life in medieval Ireland and its connections further afield, with some of decorations echoing those found in York and the Scandinavian world.
Parts of log boats, leather shoes, knives and decorated dress pins have also been unearthed during the six-month dig, which began in the summer. The whole site was uncovered during the construction of a link road, and excavation work is continuing until the New Year.
Dr O’Keeffe said: “This is the first substantial scientific excavation of a crannog in Northern Ireland. What has been found has the potential not only to be internationally important but also ultimately to lead to a reassessment of life in Ulster in early Christian and medieval times.”
The Drumclay Crannog open day will comprise a series of talks at the Fermanagh County Museum, followed by a guided tour of the site.
Booking is advisable, on 028 6632 5000.