Archaeologists racing against the clock to excavate an ancient settlement in Co Fermanagh before a road is built on top of it have been granted more time to complete the dig.
Work on the Drumclay crannog in Enniskillen was due to wind up at the end of December to allow the completion of a link road, but Stormont Environment Minister Alex Attwood has granted a further three-month extension.
With experts having already credited the site with rewriting the history of early Christian and medieval Ulster, Mr Attwood said: “The excavation is a once-in-a-century opportunity.”
The international team working on the crannog – which is an artificial island built in a lake to provide settlers with added security – have been painstakingly uncovering its rich history layer by layer since the summer.
They won a tender to excavate when it became apparent that the link road would run straight through the long buried site.
The crannog they found was remarkably well preserved because it had been entombed in bog land.
Long-term preservation of the site is not an option as it is already starting to decay as a result of exposure to the air.
As diggers have been constructing sections of the road on either side of the crannog, the archaeologists have been using rather more sensitive techniques in the gap in between, brushing and scraping through generation upon generation of homes built on top of each other.
They have found artefacts dating back more than 1,000 years, but think at least three centuries of history still lie beneath them.
One of the most recent discoveries is a woodcutting axe from around the 9th century.
Pieces of a medieval board game, bone and antler combs, parts of log boats, leather shoes, knives, decorated dress pins, wooden vessels and a bowl with a cross carved on its base have also been unearthed during the six-month dig.
Archaeologists are excited about the finds because their styles and designs hint at influences from elsewhere in Europe, suggesting the area had more extensive links with the wider world than previously thought.
Mr Attwood placed a protection zone around the site when its significance started to emerge.
Work to join up the road can now not start until April.
The minister explained why he was preserving the site for longer.
“It will reshape national and international thinking on crannogs and the lives of people stretching back 1,300 years at least,” he said. “A unique moment requires a unique approach. That is why the dig is being extended another three months.
“This is the first substantial scientific excavation of a crannog in Northern Ireland. What has been found will ultimately lead to a reassessment of life in Ulster in Early Christian and medieval times. It is of international importance.
“Given all of that, it is important that we maximise the opportunity to unveil as much of our rich heritage here as possible. That is why I am extending the period in which archaeologists can dig.”
Around 600 people visited the site last month during an open day organised by the minister. He said he hoped to hold other such events before the dig ends.
“I am sure this extension will be very welcome news,” he said.
“A site such as this can teach us so much about our past. It is a real archaeological jewel. It further enriches our fascinating history, making it another tourist magnet. The built and natural heritage will be the biggest part of future increases in tourist numbers and spend – an essential element of our economy and jobs.”