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heritage ireland

Digging Tlachtga: Getting into the trenches with Ireland's past

Archaeologist Neil Jackman with part two of his three-part series on the momentous dig on the ancient site of Tlachtga in Meath.

Health and Safety Inspectors investigate our spoilheap (pic by Cathy Moore) Health and safety inspectors investigate our spoilheap at Tlachtga ;) Cathy Moore Cathy Moore

HAVE YOU EVER wondered about how archaeologists discover the story of the past? In the second of three articles in an exclusive series for, archaeologist Neil Jackman will take you behind the scenes of the exciting excavations at Tlachtga (The Hill of Ward) in Co Meath.

A team of volunteer archaeologists led by Dr Stephen Davis from UCD and site director Caitríona Moore, are attempting to discover the story behind one of Ireland’s most enigmatic sites.

In this, the second of the three pieces, Neil gives an update into the excavations so far (for an overview of the history of Tlachtga and the background to the project please see the first article here).

Investigating the ditch in Trench 1 Investigating the ditch in Trench 1. Neil Jackman Neil Jackman

We are now 11 days into the excavation, and the three test trenches are nearing completion.

The trenches were placed into features identified using LiDAR (a form of aerial survey that uses lasers to accurately record contours in the ground surface) and geophysics. Each of the trenches had its own role to establish the story of the site.

Trench 1 was placed over a bank and ditch of the existing visible monument. Trench 2 targeted a ditch that was identified during the geophysical survey. Trench 3 at the southern end of the site also targeted a ditch identified during the geophysical survey. All the trenches have been laboriously excavated by hand, using spades, shovels, mattocks and trowels.

The excavation of Trench 1 at the northern end of the visible monument, revealed that the ditch was cut through the bedrock that underlies the site. The ditch was revealed to be quite shallow and it contained a rather sterile fill of stony soil. The bank that was located to the outside of the ditch, was made largely of earth with stone and a further ditch was located just to the north of the bank.

This ditch was found to be very wide (around 5m) but quite shallow with a depth of less than 1m from ground surface. Small fragments of charcoal and burnt bone found within the lower layers of the material that accumulated within the ditch, will allow us to obtain radiocarbon dates to establish what period the ditch belongs to, and how it fits in with the rest of the site.

Trench 2 is located to the west of the visible monument. This trench targeted a ditch that was part of a very large three-ditched enclosure that measures some 190 metres in diameter.

The large ditch in Trench 2 cut into the bedrock The large ditch in Trench 2 cut into the bedrock. Neil Jackman Neil Jackman

The geophysical survey revealed that this enormous enclosure runs underneath the visible monument, suggesting that it predates the monument as we know it. This ditch is just under 3m in width, and measures around 1.5m deep, and it is very similar in appearance to the great ditch of Rath na Ríg on the Hill of Tara. Again the ditch was cut through the limestone bedrock.

When you consider the sheer size of this enclosure (it has a rough circumference of approximately 1500m), and that it is unlikely that metal tools were used, it suggests an absolutely jaw-dropping amount of labour was needed to create it.

We don’t know for certain at the moment how the people who created this massive ditched enclosure managed to dig through the calp limestone and shale bedrock without the aid of metal tools. One of our theories is that they used a practice known as ‘fire-setting’, where large fires would be lit directly on top of the stone. When the fire is at its hottest, water is thrown over it, causing the stone to fracture and split.

The earthworks showing banks and ditches of the visible monument The earthworks showing banks and ditches of the visible monument. Neil Jackman Neil Jackman

This technique was used during the Bronze Age at copper mines like Mount Gabriel in County Cork. Whatever technique was used, it was undoubtedly a laborious and time-consuming effort.

The material that filled the ditch in Trench 2 consisted of fractured stone and rubble with soil. Possibly material that formed a bank that once surrounded this ditch. Perhaps when this enclosure had fallen out of use, these banks were pushed into the ditch to backfill it, as the new monument was constructed.

The ditch fill had an amount of animal bone [primarily pig bone] within it, so we will be able to obtain a radiocarbon date that tells us  when the ditch was created. The presence of significant amounts of pig bone above other species in this ditch fill is interesting, as the consumption of pig is thought to have been related to high-status ceremonial feasting. This perhaps supports the idea of Tlachtga being a site of seasonal ceremonies – though I must stress it is still in the very early stages to be making any assumptions.

Investigating trench 3 Investigating trench 3. Neil Jackman Neil Jackman

Trench 3 also identified a ditch, though it is much smaller in width and depth than that of Trench 2. This trench has produced our largest amount of charcoal, animal bone and even a large piece of antler – though it appears to be unworked, the antler is a very interesting discovery. Overall other than the animal bone and antler we haven’t discovered many artefacts thus far.

However the main aim of this season’s excavation was to retrieve material that can be radiocarbon dated to tell us about the history and chronology of this wonderful enigmatic site. Our excavation for this season comes to an end this week, and we will backfill all the trenches and replace the sod to leave as little trace of the investigations as possible. We hope that following the analysis of our excavations, that we will have answered some questions about Tlachtga, and that we will return again next year to conduct further investigations.

A tour group visiting the site A tour group visiting the site. Neil Jackman Neil Jackman

The excavations are possible thanks to the efforts of Dr Stephen Davis, Site Director Caitríona Moore and the extremely hard work of the dedicated team of volunteer archaeologists who have endured through all the unpredictability of the Irish weather.

We are also extremely grateful to Senator John Gilroy, Joe Conlon, Meath County Manager Jackie Maguire, Deputy Ray Butler TD and Minister Brian Hayes, and the funding provided by The Office of Public Works, Meath County Council, The Heritage Council and The Royal Irish Academy.

The excavations aim to provide information to help to raise awareness of this truly remarkable archaeological site. The site is fully-staffed with experienced archaeological volunteers, though those with an interest in the site, or for those who would like to see how archaeology works, are more than welcome to visit during the excavations.

You can see daily updates, images and behind the scenes videos of the excavation on our dedicated Facebook Page, there is also a live Twitter feed using hashtag #TlachtgaDig

Dig this: How we plan to get to heart of one of Ireland’s most mysterious sites>

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