Eachtra Journal

ISSN 2009-2237

A cashel and a burial ground at Owenbristy, Co. Galway (E3770)

October, 2010 · Written by: Eachtra Print This Page This entry is part 20 of 23 in the Issue 08

Archaeological Excavation Report

Cashel and burial ground

This report constitutes the final excavation report on a cemetery settlement identified in the townland of Owenbristy, Co. Galway. The site was excavated as part of the archaeological excavation programme in advance of construction for N18 Oranmore to Gort road scheme. The site was located within the lands acquired for the new road and was identified during the course of Phase 1 testing (E3723) as an overgrown and partly destroyed stone enclosure or cashel. Testing revealed the presence of burials inside the remains of the circular enclosure. The Phase 2 excavation revealed the presence of a cemetery within the enclosure alongside other evidence for occupation and later ridge and furrow agricultural activity.

The excavated enclosure at Owenbristy has been categorised as a cemetery settlement, however, it may also have been an early church or minor ecclesiastical site. A number of possibly pre-enclosure features including a large burnt pit and a number of early finds hint at a possible Beaker phase. The partly upstanding, roughly circular stone enclosure was 44 m in diameter and defined a space located on a small promontory projecting into a seasonal lake or turlough. The enclosure is located close to a probable 18th-century townland boundary and it is likely that the site may have originally being located within Killeenhugh townland, which borders it to the north.

While a large part of the interior revealed itself to be lacking identifiable archaeological features, a number of pits, postholes and possible hearths were identified toward the centre of the enclosure. A clearly defined cemetery area was also identified in the eastern and south-eastern sector of the enclosure. Skeletons of 95 individuals were identified within the cemetery and 1 individual was found within the enclosure wall. The cemetery contained 39 simple pit graves and 26 slab-lined graves with or without lintels. The northern half of the cemetery was arranged in two to three north/south rows of east/west burials.

An extensive programme of radiocarbon dating was undertaken and based on the results of this programme and on the stratagraphic sequence and the character of the burials 75 have been assigned to an early medieval burial phase ranging from cal AD 548 – 972. The early medieval cemetery was then reused as a place for mainly infant and child burials which date from cal AD 1219 – 1445. This second phase of burials was confined to the southern half of the cemetery.

The orderly north/south rows of burials were interrupted by a series of pits and postholes which represent a wooden structure or structures. Two radiocarbon dates ranging from cal AD 580 – 687 were obtained from the charcoal-rich fills of two of the postholes, which would have formed the northern wall of the proposed timber structure(s). The smaller proposed structure may have been a small wooden church. If this site did once lie in Killeenhugh townland and not in Owenbristy, then perhaps the cashel once housed an early medieval church and cemetery dedicated to St Aodh.

The finds from the site formed a typical early medieval assemblage and consisted of several bone and metal pins, a bone-handled iron knife, several other iron knife or blade fragments, several possible whetstones, a plain metal ring – possibly from a horse bridle, two blue glass beads, two fragments of a lignite wristband and several rotary quern fragments. The stone macro tools are predominantly associated with metalworking activities, which may have taken place at the site. A number of slag residues also point towards on site metalworking.

The faunal remains indicate the site was not a large and busy settlement and the economy seems to have been based on cattle and a few sheep and pigs. The predominance of livestock remains displaying butchering marks and the evidence for cooking through charring and burning is proof of some sort of occupation of the site, despite the dearth of domestic buildings within the enclosure.

The interior of the enclosure was later used for ridge-and-furrow cultivation. The furrows appear to have been used prior to the partial destruction of the enclosure wall and the natural or deliberate dispersal of the stone from the inner core of the wall across the site. The furrows appear to avoid the burial area.

Authors: John Lehane & Finn Delaney

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