Digging up new chapter in Ulster’s history

Ruairi O Baoill from the Centre for Archaeological Fieldwork, School of Geography, Archaeology and Palaeoecology, Queen's University Belfast has taken part in many of the recent digs in the city
Ruairi O Baoill from the Centre for Archaeological Fieldwork, School of Geography, Archaeology and Palaeoecology, Queen's University Belfast has taken part in many of the recent digs in the city

WITH a lack of obviously very old buildings, many people have for a long time assumed that Belfast is a young city.

But a new book that has compiled findings from scores of little-known archaeological digs has revealed our capital city’s true history stretches back to 7000BC.

The problem with Belfast, according to Queen’s University archaeologist Ruairí Ó Baoill, is that when people visit other towns, such as Carrickfergus, the history is immediately obvious with the castle and old town walls.

“In Belfast, although there have been castles and defences, there is nothing surviving above ground older than 250 years, so it was very hard for people to get an idea that there was a settlement 800 years old in the centre of town,” he said.

Archaeological digs uncovered finds such as flint tools which prove that there were settlements on the Belfast hills, Ormeau and a site close to today’s Belfast City Airport going back to around 7000BC in the Mesolithic age.

However, it is Belfast’s medieval chapter and its three missing castles that really fascinate archaeologists. Medieval pottery was found during an excavation on the site where Woolworths used to stand during a dig in 2003, while later pottery was discovered during a dig of St Anne’s Square in 2006.

St George’s Church on High Street may not be the oldest building in the city centre, but it is one of those that give us most clues about our past.

The original church lies under the current building and was known as the Chapel of the Ford.

Mr Ó Baoill said: “The Lagan was considerably wider at those times. For people trying to cross, it was quite a hazardous affair and people would give alms for safe crossing. There was a church mentioned in a document of 1306, so we think there was a church there from the medieval period. 

“Underneath the present church is the medieval Chapel of the Ford which was one of the principal medieval buildings of Belfast.”

That crossing point of the Lagan became the hub for the first city centre. However, nothing remains above ground of this medieval town. Mr Ó Baoill said finding the remains of any of the three castles which once stood in the city centre is the holy grail for local archaeologists.

He said there was a medieval castle mentioned in 1262 which was destroyed along with the whole settlement in 1333 during a civil war between the Earl of Ulster and his barons. The second castle was built by the O’Neills in the 15th century, before the third castle which was built by the founder of the Belfast we know today, Sir Arthur Chichester, in the early 17th century

Mr Ó Baoill said: “There are no remains at street level, but we know roughly where they are. It’s the holy grail of archaeologists that we might get the chance to dig if there was development in and around Castle Lane and Castle Place.”

Mr Ó Baoill said with few documentary sources from early history, archaeology is our only chance to find out more about Belfast’s history.

He said: “With the coming of the Christians in the 6th century, we get writing and documents. People are speaking Irish and are Christians so we have descriptions in and around Belfast, but unless we find any new maps or documents, pretty much all new information about the development of Belfast certainly up to the 17th century will come from archaeological discoveries.

“Archaeology is a great leveller. Historical writings generally tell us about the great and the good, but on excavations we find things that the ordinary people of Belfast have been using in their daily lives.”

Mr Ó Baoill has been running city centre tours of the hidden history of Belfast for the City Council for several years and says these have been consistently oversubscribed.

This year will see the 400th anniversary of the granting of a charter for Belfast. The year will be marked by a series of events, lectures and tours which will be announced by Belfast City Council in the coming months.

The Northern Ireland Environment Agency: Built Heritage oversees the practice of archaeology in Northern Ireland.

Anyone interested in finding out more about archaeological work carried out in Northern Ireland or any aspect of heritage here can visit their offices on Hill Street in Belfast.

n Hidden History Below Our Feet: The Archaeological Story of Belfast written by Ruairi O Baoill from the Centre for Archaeological Fieldwork, School of Geography, Archaeology and Palaeoecology, Queen’s University Belfast, was commissioned by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency and Belfast City Council. It is published by Tandem and is available from bookshops priced £14.99.