Something’s cooking in the kitchen….

I know I dont post as much as  I should. Not lazy, just frantic busy.

I’m gonna talk here about two favourite things – food and archaeology.

Irish archaeology during late prehistory is a pretty cool thing. The idea of the ‘invisible people’ ( okay, okay, that phrase has been battered round the head on articles about the Irish Iron Age so many times, may as well give it another wee rattle!) is that they weren’t really hiding – more, standing in the shadow of a hedge and earthen fortification because they can sell you something pretty exotic from the Roman Empire, if you’ve got the right thing to trade. Ireland during the Roman period is a pretty interesting place where cultures, designs, ideas and technology all come colliding together, somewhere between Mos Eisley and your favourite farmers/craft market.


A rare photo in Black and white of Drumanagh trading post, N Dublin, from http://www.starwars,com

The lovely squiggly wigglies which unfortunate souls out there think make the Irish all  the O’Thranduils, wise in the ways of forest lore and magic, and with suspiciously pointed ears are actually the result of a multitude of designs from all over Europe, spanning several hundred years, being messed about by local artisans to create very much their own look. A bit more Hyacinth Bucket wanting what she imagines the fancy folks have. And cultural mash-ups of course tell us heaps about the people making them, as well as reassuring us that identity is a bit of a mad wild thing to try and define at any time!

Dining while keeping up appearances. Copyright Mystic Ed and Fluffy, on Flikr

So, let me tell you a modern story of cultural change and you can apply it to archaeology. It’s pretty much Tolkein- free and wont place a strain on the National Elf Service (sorry not sorry). What it will do is show how things adapt and change in response to new people and ideas.
The story starts (as I suspect such stories always have) on a wet and soggy night in Glencolumcille in Donegal, and cider  and archaeology were indeed involved. My daughter and her colleagues needed food and they tramped across bogs to reach a Chinese carry-out. Her colleagues from the south side of this island were buying spice bags, and she followed suit, and on her (eventual) return home waxed lyrical about what a spice bag actually was. Roast chicken or battered chicken, sliced fried garlic, onion, peppers and chips , tossed in a heady blend of Chinese five spice, topped with mayonnaise. Please feel free to add chip shop curry if you like, it’s perfectly acceptable, especially in Roscommon.

Let the spice flow…. a spice bag.I made this.

Turns out the ubiquitous Dunnes Stores here sell a DIY spice kit, just add veggies and chicken if you like meat.

Now friends from the southern part of Ireland were gleeful we had discovered a very recent Irish delicacy, and I brought a buckload of the spice kits over to my bloke, who works in Edinburgh, throwing them on his kitchenette table,  pointing and staring accusingly at him like Kathleen Ni Houlihan, that he had been too long amidst the Sassenach, that he’d never told me about the spice bag. Truth is, it had kicked off long after he had left for the shores of Caledonia so it was even news to him.

Legend says it was born in 2010 of boredom and experimentation in a Chinese carry out in south Dublin, Tullaghogue, where the proprietors made something they wanted for supper themselves, and then others wanted it. So it grew.

It changed form a fair few times, to the point where some would whisper there are in fact regional variations. But that’s a Masters in GIS for someone in the future…

Meanwhile,  my bloke , ensconced in legal academia, was making his version of spice bag in the leafy heights of Edinburgh, but because he’s not a great one for chips, he makes it with potato wedges, so anyone from Scotland tasting the concoction for the first time with him cooking it would presumably think that’s the way to do it – in fact, that’s just him. But another variation on a theme.

Apart from making you hungry now for suppertime, here’s the point illustrated: new people have arrived gradually to this island over the 20th century and became welcomed, equal citizens. They’ve brought their cuisine, ideas and technologies with them, cooking only being one technology which this looks at. The ideas change and merge and get gooey over time, taking on the shapes of others on the island. This is a dish made in a  Dublin Chinese carry-out, and is a meal which has become very representative of modern east coast Ireland, and has been adapted/adopted across the island.

It’s likely as good a parallel for what’s happening in material culture during the Irish Late Iron Age as you’ll ever get. People  then were arriving gradually , bringing their ways of doing and making things, and being pretty good at it too, but presumably adjusting to  what they could actually grow and make in a soggy landscape, as well as interacting with other people whose ancestors had settled here too,  maybe at an earlier time, and learning from all their ideas as well. It’s not just cooking that this affects – all material culture goes in the cauldron to bubble up new things.

Sure, we liked the stuff they were making in Pannonia, when yer man Decius Albus brought his kit over to trade, but I wanted something a bit more…. swirly. With the thingies thon Romans have too; like, if they come over here, they’ll see we’re like them, not some much savages. And some of yon oul burds my da had on his granda’s sword scabbard- they’re supposed to be good luck and all!’

‘What if we put them all on the mould and it’ll look grand, so?


And that’s how cultures go. It all goes into the cauldron, or wok, or crucible – whatever, and comes out new and rejuvenated and like language, keeps changing. Is it any wonder the Dagda, great lord of hospitality in Irish myth, had a magic cauldron, where all the ingredients go in and can taste like whatever you fancy?

Feel like a chicken tonight? Dagda and his cauldron, from Wikipedia

Or that the Gundestrup cauldron shows rejuvenation and change of the dead, after they come out of the big soup pot a giant deity is dipping them in.

DEtail from the Gundestrup Cauldron, taken at the Celts exhibition in NMS when I likely shouldnt have

Food and cuisine are not things which stick around, although changes of ingredients, with pollens, seeds, lipidic remains on pots can be seen in the archaeological record, and it makes work done by the likes of Early Medieval food folks in UCD and also in UCC, so much more the valuable.  Material culture says one thing, but if it’s backed up with new ingredients of food found, even better! There’ll be one stage where we may well see a fusion of ideas appear clearly in some food vessel, or midden, the equivalent of the spice bag for whatever era of prehistory. And we will smile, knowing that time may move, but people remain pretty similar in outlook about the necessities of life, still standing in the kitchen or the workshop and asking, ‘ what if I did this, how would it turn out’?

Sect Symbols

At a recent academic meeting, it seems that the new sexy theory is that the use of symbols to express a shared identity loses or changes its meaning over time. It’s okay to think of it as diffusion, but not remembered meaning. Maybe that’s how it is in some places, but here, set your clock back some 1800 years, sometimes more. Ireland does not forget. The symbols which are shorthand for our chosen identities, and therefore subsequent political issues persist and are instantly recognisable over 300 years and sometimes more. Even the resurrection of La Tene-derivative artwork as ‘Celtic’ is a bit of a 19th and 20th century ‘up yours’ politically, as artists and dreamers and the odd crafty politician crafted an Ireland which didn’t ever really exist. Don’t get me started on this – there’s enough of it in my literature review. The real Iron Age Ireland is a lot muckier, bloodier, with a lot less gauzy clothing or faeries.

The Dark Rose, Roisin Dubh, is a metaphorically dangerous and lovely Ireland at the Flight of the Earls, with a deeper meaning after the 1798 Rebellion. The symbol is still well enough understood that it was used by Thin Lizzy (and oh, I do love some good Lizzy guitar riffs) some 200 or 300 years later.

Oh.. yeah. The United Irishmen. Probably need to explain for a few out there. The urge to support independence for England has existed for quite some time. Sorry, lads. The very Protestant Ascendancy, aided and abetted by the Church of Ireland attempted a cheeky wee bit of ethnic cleansing via the Penal Codes. These were not, as popularly thought, confined to Catholics. They extended to Presbyterians and Dissenters, with the draconian rules meant to either break them into helots or chase them out of the country… all the more luscious land for the claiming when they left. The American and French Revolutions of the late 18th century inspired a glorious and doomed bunch of dreamers and idealists.


Loved ones, let me introduce you to the United Irishmen, the most Romantic set of losers this side of Firefly. They wanted change. Needless to say, the British government didn’t. None of this ended well. As the leaders were all from extremely educated, liberal backgrounds, they often communicated in symbols, hence the imagery of the Cailleach Beara, Kathleen Ni Houlihan and Roisin Dubh; Ireland as a woman to be fought over, and died for love of. It’s always about sacrifice and mourning, it’s always about blood. Because identity and being  culturally awful special comes at a price.

Now, the black rose kept her meaning pretty tight, and of course the 1798 rebellion spawned numerous political symbols and secret codes ‘ for they’re hanging men and women for the wearin’ of the Green’. The United Irishmen used green coloured cockades or scarfs as a means to recognise each other – and perhaps not a very smart one, it has to be said. The extremely flattering painting of a young Henry Joy McCracken, held in the Ulster Museum, has the babelicious rebel wearing a suit of green and looking far too cute to be a political agitator. When the green accessories didn’t work, the shamrock was used, and well… doesn’t everyone know the shamrock symbol as being Oirish? Sure aren’t we the Emerald Isle, bejabers, begorrah, etc?

Henry Joy McCracken pic
Henry Joy McCracken, United Irishman, from a portrait in the wonderful Ulster Museum. Go there.


Symbols do remain, but sometimes their meaning gets a bit twisted depending on who uses it to make a political point. If you don’t get the endurance of a symbol, and how emphasis changes, think on the instantly recognisable ( to us anyway) symbol of the Lámh Dhearg, the Red Hand of Ulster. It sort of tickles me that a pre-Christian symbol can make some of us quite leery, due to who and what hijacked it, even though we know the original meaning. What’s that? You don’t know this one? Ahhh….you’re not a Northie, I’m sorry. Now, this is an identity thing. So here, like a good story? Sit down. Get popcorn. This is pure Game of Thrones.. but then, isn’t most of our history?

Strangely appropriate, Ripley’s Believe it or Not stories featured a version of the Red Hand of Ulster!

Way back as the rowdy pagan Iron Age gave way to the princes of the Church, land was being contested as to who was the chieftain of the north of the island here. Whoever touched the land would own it, and the  story goes that one of the Ui Neill was so desperate to claim the land as his own he cut his hand off while on a boat and used a catapult to fling the severed hand, dripping fresh blood, onto the land of Ulaidh. However, even that was contested in the 17th century, when a version was put forward that the hand was never severed – which, if you knew your legends, makes sense. A leader had to be physically perfect to rule, so a one-handed man wouldn’t be allowed at all (sorry, Twin Peaks dude, the Old Irish were pretty damn Ableist).

The Arm, considering career options after the end of Twin Peaks: heard that the god Nuada needed a hand…. ( yes that pun was intended. If you don’t know why, google Nuada Airgetlám

The other version had the red hand symbol as being a dab of defiance by a personal favourite character of the Ulster Cycle, Conall Cearnach, who smeared his bloodied and fighting hand print on an enemy standard while avenging CuChulainn’s death. This is very much something the old grizzler Cernach would do. He’s Die Hard 0, or maybe Bás-Chrua 1?

From, so much squiggly La Teneyness!
However, here’s Dunseverick, right at the end of the Slighe Midluachra and supposedly a pied-a-terre of Conall’s.

There’s a goodly link to this in the refs, and you’ll see the sort of thing that wins my heart, but the key perhaps in all this is that the hand is bloodied by desire to defend the land to the death, and legitimise your tribal claim to it. The symbol has been accepted as the crest of the O’Neill family from the 16th or 17th century no matter what the legends are, so we know the story certainly pre-dates the Elizabethan era. So, let’s skip forward about 2000 years or so to now. We’ve got some good Gaelic clubs called Lamh Derg (shout out to the Hannahstown Homies), because, y’know, it’s ‘Celtic’ and all. It’s the logo of the Ulster GAA  Also, they do indeed wage decent war on the field!  But, if you know your Troubles history, you’ll also know the symbol was hijacked by a Loyalist paramilitary group, The Red Hand Commandos, who toured around murdering Catholics in the 70s.  Yet it’s also used by the National Graves Association to mark out specifically conserved Republican graves. The symbol is also used non-politically on the logo of Ulster Rugby, the Irish Transport and Workers Union. It is a symbol of the grim and dour north who will never go down without a fight, and a political symbol for both sides of the fray, intransigent to the end, defending ….something. After 2000 years or so, the symbol is well understood, even though it has negative connotations for both sides of the community here. But we remember. These, and many others I could list, are still understood as shorthand of our origins, real or fabricated; and let’s be fair, with Irishness sometimes even we aren’t sure.


So, how does that tally to my beloved La Tène-derivative stuff?

The symbols matter, because once upon a time, they held  our ancestors together.

They were something understood well enough to be re-used over and over again across Europe. They bonded memory like cultural glue. Problem is, we’ve no idea what they actually meant.  Sometimes, after a few too many aperol spritzers, I think I understand them, but that’s also when I flirt with people’s houseplants and goldfish at house parties, so maybe not the most reliable or quantifiable methodology. Memory is the fabric of time and culture, and we can embroider it as we wish according to the trends, but the fabric exists without our embellishment. Memory has its own warp and weft, and bits of it are caught in song and word and fireside story. Despite all their failings, and mucked up contexts as they were written down in the Middle Ages, I am eternally glad Ireland has the ancient texts of the Lebor Gabala, Lebar na hUidre, Tain, Togail… ach, all of them. Because fragments of shattered memory and symbol is captured in the cloth of time, shimmering in the right light. It’s always about identity, and remembrance. And it’s usually connected to land and luck, the things our ancestors couldn’t really do without. Their hopes and fears and identities are within those magical twists which dance and shape-shift across metalwork. Ignore them, try to squeeze them into meaningless ordered filing systems or dismiss them, at your own cost.


Yes! You can do Irish proper too! Reading starts…here.

Cullingford, E.B., 1990. ’Thinking of Her… as… Ireland’: Yeats, Pearse and Heaney. Textual Practice4(1). 1-21.

Curtin, N.J., 1985. The transformation of the Society of United Irishmen into a mass-based revolutionary organisation, 1794-6. Irish Historical Studies24(96).463-492.

Hutchinson, J., 2012. Dynamics of cultural nationalism: The Gaelic revival and the creation of the Irish nation state. Routledge.


Kelleher, J.V., 1971. The Táin and the annals. Ériu22, pp.107-127.

Ó Riain, G., 2011. Varia III: Quatrains relating to the controversy of the Red Hand. Available at:


Ó Riain, G., 2013. Varia I: 1. Two quatrains in Cath Maighe Rath; 2. An unrecorded scribal note in RIA 23 Q 16; 3. IGT II 1258. Available at :

Tuama, S.Ó. and Kinsella, T., 1981. An Duanaire, 1600-1900: poems of the dispossessed. Dolmen Press.






‘ I’ve had the time of my life.. and I owe it all to you’. The NMI, shared space and why you should probably sign this petition

There’s an issue at the moment where the parliament of the Republic of Ireland want to take over (they claim temporarily) the ceramics rooms of the National Museum of Ireland. This, as you can imagine, would mean altering a building which in itself is a work of art (and protected) – changes involving security most likely. The ceramics room is not just for ceramics. It’s used for education space for primary school nippers, for temporary exhibitions, which are often more community related, and also as space for free talks and workshops for the public, a chance to let the highly professional staff of the NMI tell the public what’s new in the history of their own country. And I don’t have to remind you that Ireland is steeped in history, possibly from even further back than we thought!



You can read an infinitely more intense account of this situation right here, by the ubiquitous Prof Aidan O’Sullivan of UCD: but basically it’s the equivalent of the House of Commons taking over the teaching rooms of the British Museum, or the US Senate doing the same in the Smithsonian. It’s a pretty rubbish idea, to be honest, and we all know that politicians have a habit of taking over permanently whatever they tell us is temporary…


Reading the comments on the petition to stop this happening has made me smile in a happy/sad way, and know we all have so much in common because of a wonderful building in Dublin and its staff over the ages. There’s 70+ year old who fell in love with the museum as a child, and the wonder has never left her; the fiery young undergrad , farmers, bankers, dreamers, pragmatists – it doesn’t matter, because each and all of us are united in the love of our past, displayed for free.


‘A cold coming we had of it – just the worst time of the year…”


The first time I ever made it to the NMI it was winter 2010, the worst winter in memory, when the jet stream’s misbehaviour resulted in about two months of ice and snow. Planes could not leave Dublin airport, the North here recorded temperatures under -18 C and roads were frozen and unpassable. We were supposed to have been on our field trip from Belfast to Dublin in early December of that year, but weather had been so bad, we were postponed to the week afterwards. Travelling the Boyne valley, with ice mist hovering over the frozen earth, and Fleet Foxes on the ipod, the day seemed promising, if a bit cold, but by the time we reached Kildare Street the sky had changed from sharp blue to slate and snow was tumbling down upon us again like a scene from Dr Zhivago.

Just keep me in the crypt, stoned.. ogham stoned….

The museum that dark afternoon had a dreamlike quality, all dark golds and echoes, slightly detached from the real world, the way you remember things as a child, but don’t happen when you are an adult. The upstairs, where the medieval artefacts are displayed, felt like viewing some fascinating person’s house, with the twists and turns of the building loaning an odd feeling of upper crust domesticity and hushed intimacy. The Kingship and Sacrifice display, however, with its grotesque ‘Red Man’ figures and bog bodies and the metalwork of heroes literally changed my life. These objects felt right, felt familiar – everything enchanted, fascinated; I don’t know… reverberated inside me that I never wanted to leave the displays. I’m sure someone would suggest a bit of the oul’ reincarnations going on there, but the answer is maybe simpler. It was the day I fell hopelessly in love with the Iron Age, accepting its shadows and its sparkle all at the same time. Any inclination to the Neolithic vanished there and then.

Y1D 005.jpg
Gratuitous y-piece illustration.

I found my dissertation in that museum, with the Irish Y-piece, and as a result of that, my PhD thesis too. The summer of 2012 gave me a freedom and confidence I thought was lost. That summer, each week’s research trip saw me leave the NMI’s crypt late afternoon, smelling of 2000 year old tack, heading into Brown Thomas’ for a spritz of Tom Ford’s Lys Fume ( oh, why did I not purchase that perfume that summer? I’m sure it’s long discontinued, but it was magically sultry) and start the walk down Grafton Street, to O’Connell St and to Busaras with my artwork in folders and my head full of new, and slightly heretical archaeology ideas. I’m sure academia isn’t allowed to acknowledge its sensual aspects, but the smell of the crypt, the metal artefacts, sun warmed skin and good perfume will be forever that heady summer of 2012, when I started to realise chunks of history which had been unknown before were about to be rewritten.

The Broighter Collar… torc dirty to me

The staff of the NMI humoured me, tolerated me and encouraged me with helpful ideas, directions, bashed theories around a bit over tea. No need to be wary over ideas being bandied about; the research rooms are the last homely house. Museum staff as a breed, the world over, tend to be rather wonderful (and believe me, now at PhD I could write a connoisseur’s guide of museums of Europe!) but the NMI’s staff are among the finest worldwide. They treated a scrappy, prickly undergrad as decently and respectfully as a seasoned academic proper. And at this stage of my Dead Pony tour, they continue to do so.

Their staff and dedicated associates brought home the news that Ireland may have an earlier Mesolithic than we first thought, with Dr Ruth Carden’s discovery of a butchered bear patella, found a century ago near Castlebar, the assemblage slumbering until looked at with fresh eyes. Everyone who looks, I‘m convinced, finds their own NMI, their own story. And each of those stories, gentle reader, is YOUR story. How your ancestors got here. How they survived. Why you are here. ‘Cos, hey – that’s what heritage is, kids. Not a stagnant musty thing, but people, the land, their animals, their music, speech, stories.


And those are some of the reasons I love this country’s museum. Those are tiny glimpses at ‘my’ NMI.  You need to find yours. It’s your university students, carefully looking and analysing in small rooms; it’s the passionate layperson, showing up to learn more, just in case the earth churns up a dollop of the past on their dog walk and they’ll know the right things to do because they went to public lectures in the museum. It’s your kids, crowded into an education room or two, with heads full of amazement at the stuff they’ve just seen, with questions rushing at curators like a fresh tide on a new beach. A room is not just a room. It’s a place where times and peoples meet. It’s the world between worlds where everything is possible.


If that isn’t more important than tea room space for a pack of politicians, I’m sorry , I don’t know what is.


Please, sign the petition here if you can, and share. Thank you.

Dirty Money:why should I care about the past, then?

I’ve no idea if the Chinese really do have a blessing, requesting that you live through interesting times, or if it’s just so much more internet. But we sure as hell are in strange times, and they aren’t good for heritage and education. Archaeology as a means of preserving the past, telling the stories we can learn from, is under threat from proposed legislation in Britain , we’ve witnessed events such as the murder of an academic protecting his site in Syria against beings which have degraded themselves so far they have lost their own humanity.


We watch museums become privatised, and even closed. Low morale, and even lower pay, instigated by whatever the hell you want to call the current political school of (lack of) thought in power at the moment, have made the heritage sector not exactly attractive to the public. We may as well be invisible. Irrelevant. Afterthoughts. We’re, umm… history.


Yet, people love the past. It’s the governments who have brushed us into the corner, as reminders of where we all come from and how we all got here. History can be manipulated for nationalism, fear, anger, but it’s very hard to do that with archaeology. Because once you are down in the muck, you see the debris of the town where once everyone lived peaceably together in; you see the scorched earth and battered rubble of the city which did not just fade away…. Earth remembers and when you stroke it gently with the trowel, exposing the memory held in marl and clay, it tells you willingly exactly how things were. That may not be the story you want to tell the public, of course.


But as I said,  people love the past. They love the gold and the bones, the cairns, tholoi and dolmens. They love the sun playing on the carved stories which may be graffiti or may be entire chapters of humanity’s lost history. I’ve watched my own kids in museums and I’ve watched schools, and their expressions of wonder remains unchanged despite all the swish electronic gizmos waiting for them at home. I love to tell them about the things and the places, mainly because I never fully grew up either from the ragged haired wee girl hanging out of a tree watching birds and drawing standing stones from a height.

Ballaghagen still from some Irish Language show on the BBC! Muggins there can be identified by red hair and waterproofs,giving hell to someone on the  right ;):

    I may be in this photo….

I know an eminent academic – maybe one of the finest I’ve ever met. His publication record is fierce and inspirational, and I was rather scared of him until I looked him in the eyes – there’s a wee boy still twinkling in there.  Maybe the most passionate archaeos never quite grow up. They need to tell the stories for everyone to know, though, I think academics in archaeology do themselves no favours. The writing in so many reports is brutally awkward and off-putting. You talk about the dissemination of knowledge being the prime reason for research, but it ends up being shared with the select few who speak the lingo. The average archaeology report usually consists of the English language being tied up, beaten brutally and tortured until it whimpers quietly for mercy in technical terms in a corner, just to make it all stop. The reports which the public could read, and be inspired by, are exceptions and ultimately precious. Our future hinges on those well-written pieces.I want to see people come into this business with high spirits and clear eyes, and still love what they see.

So I’m going to use this as a way of telling any unsuspecting reader why we fight; Why is the past important?  I’d tell them of the klutz who had a gut feeling about a part of a medieval site, but was made fun of that she was digging up a Victorian pipe, only to discover it was a Gaelic broadsword.

Final shot from continuity issues of Coast:
I might be in this as well…

I’d tell of the rag tag funeral for some unknown event after the removal of the sword from the soil, as a procession of trainee archaeologists made their way down a sweet green summer hill, one carrying the sword, the others going solemnly ahead with spoil buckets, cameras and plastic as the small crowd of tourists applauded, and parted, as if some untold story was finally ending, lacking only a sobbing piper’s music to loan some grounded soul the wings to reach eternity. Those sunglasses were glued on me for a reason, gentle reader, and it wasn’t hayfever. I was snivelling quietly. The past weighed much, much more than the sword did. That past was a town which sang a happy song of praise to shared wealth and prosperity and the devil take religious differences, until uprisings and injustices got the better of it. But that town did exist, was a small flash of good times in the sea of conflict and misery that is Irish history. We can do it, the happy thing, given the chance.


I’d tell you of waking up in a Bronze Age landscape at 430am, making my way to a bathroom in vest and pyjama bottoms and bare feet, across mists on an ancient trackway through morning mist, watched only by wary, curious wild creatures – the copper flash of a fox, the soft brown of rabbits, the only noise birdsong and the swish of feet through dewy grass. The sudden rising of a massive sun across a flat landscape heralded morning, and even the mist blushed pink and gold. Here was the wetland where tracks led to sacred places, what metals and memory were beneath my feet?

Dark waters, deep time….oh I love my bogs!

For that brief moment I was a priestess of Avalon and not a prosaic, grumpy middle aged oul’ doll in Primark pyjamas. Seeing that landscape as the ancients would have, still held transformative power. They saw Nerthus, we inherited the ‘spirit of dark and lonely water’ (remember that advert for lonely places?).. There’s a bog I worked on, Bohermeen, in County Meath, where children have drowned and on the retrieval of their bodies, they were not acknowledged as human – they were beams of wood. The real children had gone to the otherworld as themselves. Complete. That idea persisted from the Bronze Age to the 20th century, part of the fabric of who and what we are, whether its fairies we see at the bottom of our gardens or kelpies, trolls and nixies.

Places you go, things you see…it’s a hell of an office!


Each site brings new stories, and deep understanding of where we come from – the sad memento mori of the skeletal remains in a Norman graveyard, the silent stone circle where only hawks can observe properly, the booley hut, the wetland…. I am in love with them all, and you should be too. They remind us there is nothing new under the sun and the only thing that separates us is technology and time. I often imagine myself having conversations with historical characters, some I’d like, some I’d despise, but I can say that about living, breathing people today. Only those who choose to forget have no real future. Our ancestors understood the power of memory which is really the super-power of identity, be it the story of the green fields over the hill and how to get there, told by a Mesolithic fireside, or the satire sung by the 14th century troubadour. Me? I like that minstrel Jennifer Lopez ‘don’t be fooled by the rocks that I got, I’m still Jenny from the block – and I know where I came from’.


These days of people in power who would alter the past, I’d urge people to remember exactly where they came from, how we are all migrants, how we all drifted in from someplace; how that never stopped our ancestors from working together and appreciating co-operation. That’s what all those terrific stories of Mediterranean migrations you read on archaeology websites translates as. It’s one of the really great things about studying archaeology, you get to know how we all link to each other. That’s how we got here. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not. That’s what earth and muck tell you, and it can’t lie.

Household Gods: Where’s the archaeology of domesticity in Irish late prehistory?

In the current political atmosphere, there’s not a lot of focus on love, peace and understanding, so  I’ve been keeping myself cheered up a bit by thinking about domestic and peaceful archaeology. This is a bit of an irony, of course, as my usual research oozes hairy chested, iron necklaced  warrior machismo.


The medallion man statement of the Irish Iron Age. Worn with skin-tight trews no doubt. Baybee…. what’s your starsign?

The use of the word ‘warriors’ applied to Iron Age Ireland is a bit too strong a word, maybe, but to quote Hot Fuzz, ‘ everyone’s packin’ round here.. Farmers… farmers’ mums…’ Two thousand years ago would certainly appear to be as bad as our own time, with too much snarling , jostling testosterone and not enough sensible ways to use that hormone. Seriously, could you imagine Cu Chullain doing something more practical than becoming the Incredible Hulk with all that eye bulging and fury? There’s sure-fire signs of the principle of comitatus, though, from the Togail Bruidne Dá Derga (likely a pretty tight recollection of hostilities in a pre-Christian Ireland, retold by medieval scribes), when poor old Conall Cernach ****SPOILER ALERT!!!!****** is questioned why he managed to survive the apocalyptic last battle. There are a few women who were scribbled into the pseudo-histories, Jungian archetypes such as Meabh, the ultimate Dame to Die For, where Frank Miller meets the Tain. There’s Macha Mong Ruadh, Scathach, and the Morrigan herself, all ambivalently supernatural, maybe a way to get round the idea of women living ( and occasionally dying) as equals in a boys own ‘hood, rare gangland godmothers on horseback. I like to imagine had they been into depicting humans back then, they’d have them all depicted as Red Sonja-esque bikini’d babes, about as realistic representations of women then as they are now, says she muttering cynically about battle porn. The Irish Iron Age as viewed by monks – boys will be boys and women lethal .

In the real world, however, found by cutting into mud and wattle some 2 or so millennia later, we discover very quickly that very few men or women were Irish versions of the Winter Soldier or Natasha Romanoff. I only know of one site which might – and I keep my fingers crossed on this one, as it’s currently part of my research – be a mass grave of that period (watch this space). The Iron Age blurs with either the end of the Bronze Age or the start of the Early Medieval period.

There’s scant detail of much except the enigmatic absence of agriculture, allowing land to be claimed by nature with scrubby woodland popping up around the place They call it the  LateIron Age Lull, they say it’s exclusive to Ireland.. errr.. I’m not so sure about that! We have only scraped the surface of ordinary everyday life in Ireland 2000 years ago, with most of what we know relies on random finds of pretty shiny pointy things made of metal, and excavations of sites like Teamhair and Tlaghtga, meaning that we only get glimpses of the lifestyles of the rich and famous – the Uí Cairdasíans, and their feasts, sacrifices and dangerous tribal liasons. Needless to say, history takes that as a sign that it was all heroics, but hey – someone has to make the sandwiches and cut the grass. All that hero stuff takes a bit of infrastructure.


A plan of Lismullan, maybe my favourite site of the Iron Age, from Prendergast’s research right here: Read it! Tis good!

Where are the real, flesh and blood men and women of late prehistoric Ireland? Where are the families? We have the idea of relations being interred by the Early Medieval period in fertá –territorial ‘statement’ burial mounds such as the one made at the well of Clebach, when the princesses of Rathcroghan died shortly after their their conversion to Christianity by oul’ Paddy himself ( but you likely want to follow old foxy Vox Hiberionacum’s blog for more of that sort of thing). So – there were families. They couldn’t all be kings, princesses and demi-gods surely.

We have nothing like the intensely moving archaeology of domesticity like the remains of the Etruscan civilisation up in beautiful Tuscany. Wandering the tombs of Cerveteri, finding a stone bed made for corpses; it had stone pillows carved into it, with a painfully human touch – the indentation of an adult and a baby’s head scooped skilfully into the granite. It was as if they had just gotten up for night feeding, or to change nappies. I found I could not speak much for a while after that. Also in Cerveteri, the tomb painted as a home, with kitchen utensils painted on the walls, dogs and cats painted mooching for scraps of eternity, fresh fruits painted bright and ripe. It was a proper Italian kitchen, where the men were probably as frequently found as the women. Archaeology, why do you sometimes leave me with bloody great lumps in my throat?

I took this photo in 2011, in Cerveteri. The frescos in the tomb show ordinary, everyday life - this wee dog play-bowing I find ...well... don;t be stupid, that's not a tear, that's pollen. Or a midge. Stappit.
I took this photo in 2011, in Cerveteri. The frescos in the tomb show ordinary, everyday life – this wee dog play-bowing I find …well… don;t be stupid, that’s not a tear, that’s pollen. Or a midge. Stappit.

I blame the shiny La Tene derivative things, although I love them deeply. They seduce you into a world of myths and sail you off to Manaanan’s land of faerie on the Broighter Boat. I can’t help wondering if we have even really, really, looked for the archaeology of peace and stability. Or have we just chucked all the peaceful stuff of pots and spindles into the Early Medieval, ‘cos, Christianity. I’ve a horrid suspicion this is what’s happened with the alleged lack of ceramics in the Irish Iron Age, but man, sherds are sods to date accurately. Apart from who you prayed to, I’m suspecting things didn’t change a lot for quite a while into the Early Medieval.

My Masters looked at the pollen and charcoal of Bohermeen Bog, which exists between Faughan Hill and Tlaghga, making it a seriously meaningful landscape. Years ago, close to the bog, a little lares figure was found, chucked in the water by some unknown hands until it washed up in a river somewhere between Jamestown and Navan , Co Meath.

 Sometimes I put my hands up in the air...the Navan lar's funkeh little self Picture from the Navan and District Historical Society. They have also got a nice website.
Sometimes I put my hands up in the air…the Navan lar’s funkeh little self.  Picture from the Navan and District Historical Society. They have also got a nice website.

Now, I’m not going to get into the why’s and wherefore’s of a Roman statue being found in Ireland… that’s for another day! But there is something quite poignant in that deposition, when I ruminate, as I do a lot.A lar was a wee household godling, who looked after families and brought prosperity – not far removed from the Robin Goodfellows, Piskies and Brownies of the British isles. Someone threw out the baby and the bathwater into that wetland, for unknown reasons, but once, this little piece of bronze belonged in a home. A nice, messy, chaotic home, although more likely a middle class one – dat Roman import, tho. A home far removed from the stuff like chariots (of which we have found little to no evidence yet) and war horns which have bewitched too many generations of researchers. And I guess I plead guilty ( or should that be gilty?) to that bewitchment initially too, until I really got into the research and started to see the real people and their livestock, instead of their artefacts of war.

Maybe our evidence will turn out to be as gossamer fine as wools they would have woven by firesides so long ago, needing the loom of research, and tedium to build the fabric of life up. The spindles and querns are obvious indications of daily life, but I like to think that the few human remains found, if proven to have lived to venerable ages, are evidence of nurture and food and family. We’re all here, as a population today so the Irish Iron Age, by sheer force of logic, could not have been all battle drums. We need to step over the harsh faced stone idols and pick up the wee lares figure, clean him up, give him a new cornucopia to hold and set him near our academic doorstep for luck.


More lovely, lovely reading….

O’Connor, R., 2013. The destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel: kingship and narrative artistry in a mediaeval Irish saga.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Coyle McClung, L. 2013. The Late Iron Age lull – not so Late Iron Age after all!, Emania. 21. 73-83 Details of publication at :


Sadowska, E. 1997. “Horses Led by a Mare” — martial aspects of Táin Bó Cúailnge, Emania. 16. 5-48. Details of publication at :

Story of the lares figure available here:
Bieler, L (ed. and tr.). 1979. The Patrician texts in the Book of Armagh, Scriptores Latini Hiberniae 10. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies


Worthwhile blogs to mooch through…. and

A wee bit more about the Late Iron Age Lull here:

and here:



Y-piece and chill….

Sometimes I like to go to a particular corner of the Ulster Museum, where the Iron Age tack is displayed, and just sit there . This, on writing, looks a lot sadder than it actually is. It’s not a very ‘sexy’ área of the museum unless you are into later prehistory, and many walk right past it on their way to the mummy or the big flashy Viking swords. Don’t get me wrong, those displays are equally beautiful and important, but there’s something about the grace of the relief work on the Lisnacrogher sword scabbard, and the first hints of the ‘Claddagh’ ring design on the 1c type Y-pieces shown in conjunction with small pony bits that makes my heart go pittipatter. For most however, unless you have a certain proclivity for swirly martial things, it’s a bit of a forgotten corner.
The objects are subtle in their beauty, with something of an edge to them – swords, equestrian equipment, brutally beautiful jewellery all suggest wearers who were culturally charming, slightly vain and latently lethal. Growing up in the height of the Troubles, I knew many ‘godfathers’ who answered a similar description. Their hospitality and warmth was deceiving to those who weren’t ‘in the know’ as to who, or perhaps most importantly, what, they were. I think as I have gotten older I have realised that the parts of Northern Ireland I lived in were the places where hints of the Iron Age and the transition period from pagan Ireland to the early historic period were still kept alive by tradition and social mores

Y-Piece, Irish Archaeology, Iron Age, Metal Work, Horses, EquestrianismPeople forgot what objects do when technology gets rolling, and then make stuff up about them, reinventing a story the way they want it to be for their time, their place, or their socio-political agenda. Swords only gain mythos with such veneers of false memory; a sword has A History and a Destiny (and yep, those capital letters are needed for the

Jim Fitzpatrick - The dream of Nuada (1978)
When you’re 10 minutes The Tain and he gives you that look… / picture courtesy of Jim Fitzpatrick /

cinematic tone I’m using while writing!). People get all excited about swords because they think of Cu Chullain and warriors and Jim Fitzpatrick paintings, and truthfully, I’m cool with that. If the war lords of two thousand years were allowed to come back, living and breathing for one day, I imagine that they’d love to be shown with swords in hand, pumped six packs, writhing on furs with goddesses of unearthly beauty and flattening the enemy. Reality was duller, harder, lacking glory and focussed on survival as life always is; the Iron Age, in Ireland anyway, was thuglyfe, where revenge scuffles got magnified into legend. Not much separates the Táin from Tupac, only the span of the years.

But the horse stuff of the Iron Age -that’s a bit different. People forgot the specialised uses because cars, and engines took over, and horses are seen as pets of the privileged and not relevant to this brave new world. I grew up around horses and ponies, some of them not the sort you ever would place young Tamsin or Victoria on. Of maybe you would, just for schadenfreude, if you had a wicked streak in your Communist ethos. Those kinds of ponies were education on four legs. Some were young and dumb, some in horsie PTSD states from past experiences, some just plain mean. But they were the best teachers on the planet as to how, if one thing doesn’t work to make them accomplices, something else will. There’s a bit for every horse, they say. Our ancestors were no different n their understanding of that. If you want a willing horse, you need to find all the buttons that make it work for both of you.

As I’ve worked on this research, I find it pleasant to think of the golden ‘Celtic’ (cough cough) Age of Heroes being covered in stable muck. The people are more real, just like you and me. Living with horses isn’t all about galloping around – it’s the discipline to put your animal’s welfare first before your own comfort. Cleaning it, feeding and watering after a day’s work, even when you ache. Not very glamorous, but a nice life , enhanced by soft pony muzzles looking for treats and affection, with the calm of a good days work. But an entire re-imagining of the reality of the ‘heroic age’ of 2000 years ago started as soon as young monks with quills moved into the great ecclesiastic centres which spread across Ireland from the 5th and 6th centuries AD. No mud or chapped hands or manure on the carpet was ever allowed in that fantasy world. Absence of glorious distractions such as cat memes and live streaming presumably allowed them to write their re-imagining of folk tales and vague memories, making them into 2 AD Fast Too Furious. And so the great Irish myths were most likely born. Jim Mallory gives the academic talking of that talk in Aspects of the Tain. You’ll get copies from the Navan Centre, in Armagh.

So, while swords and pointy things are all kinds of archaeological and folkloric sexy, bridles and bits got forgotten, just like the horses who once wore them. I read a story once, ages ago, a Native American legend, of the old Coyote Woman who gathers useless bones together from the desert and takes them back to her cave. She lays them out as if on a lab Y-Piece, Irish Archaeology, Iron Age, Horses, Equestrianism, skulltable and sings them back into muscle and heartbeat and breath until they jump up from the sandy floor and run off into the desert again. Now, metaphorically that’s pretty much what archaeologists do to some extent. Let me tell you, it’s a strange thing when working with bits and Y-pieces, being able to actually feel how those animals behaved when riding out 2000 years ago. Feeling the use on the bits, you’ll know who leaned on the bit too much, who was a nice forward ride. Don’t ever let anyone tell you memory is an abstract thing and intangible. It’s real, for those who choose to look at it. Because what we use, especially the things we use over and over again, display so much about us.

A horse, of course is not just a horse – it carries a culture on its back. It’s a means of travel, a way of life, requiring a particular landscape and maintenance. The memory held of those bits also tell stories about the people who made the tack, from the people stoking up the gleaming furnaces for the casting in bronze, to the riders themselves and how they lived. You know those science fiction dystopian films, where a hologram flickers into life by accident in response to some accidental traveller in the ruins of a past culture? And the hologram tells of that culture’s peril? It’s a bit like that, working on this research.

When I sit in the dim lit corner of the museum, needing peace and quiet, I know what those pieces on display are used for, how they work. They told their stories, and continue to do so, them and their counterparts across Europe. They don’t sit there, unremembered or rewritten. The ponies stayed truthful as animals do, and told about the world, 2000 years ago, from their point of view. And by them answering the questions so well, they are now part of my memory of the crazy and sometimes traumatic undergraduate years and MSc times. They are now part of my own history, my memory. Nothing got forgotten after all, only delayed a wee while (and wait til you see some of the answers – but maybe more importantly, some of the new questions!).

Maisie Gaffikin’s Shoes.

I’m an awful one for getting distracted. Working from home this past few days due to being a bit poorly has allowed more time than I normally would for catching up with ideas and issues on social media. There’s been a lot of discussion about women in STEM, and it’s an interesting debate. That being said, I think of the  female archaeologists of the past and how we have chances they would have killed for. let me introduce you to an unsung hero – Maisie Gaffikin. Despite the most immaculate work of any human on Ballynoe stone circle, the rescue operation of Lyles Hill in 1937, the immaculate recording of ceramics found after winter storms in the early 30s, she was always referred to as an ‘amateur’.

I don’t know what she looked like, but her writing is direct and to the point. She was brought up in a castle, wealthy Ascendancy parents – I refuse to think of her as conventionally pretty, but as a strong faced and empowered woman, who would have loved the chances we do have today. In my imagination I like to think of her striding out, with a voice that would blister the back of the hounds she also loved to ride out to. This obviously says more about my alter-ego than anything, but husha! this is my imagination!

So, a bit of froth but with a big message – let’s have the courage of those women long ago and take on the challenges the way they did – by keepin’ our eyes on the prize  of good work, well done, played fairly and worked at with passion!

Oh, and yes – I did buy a pair of very 1940s style shoes recently, as a consolation for having relapses of flu. that’s where this idea all sort of came from….

Maisie Gaffikin’s Shoes

These feet are small but sturdy, and they’ve walked a lot of roads

There’s been a lack of princes, but I’ve kissed a lot of toads.

I slipped down off the beaten path as a fugitive to the past,

The stony hills and brambles – my footwear wouldn’t last.

So I bought some sturdy leather brogues, laced up, of fine brown leather

The sort of shoes that smack of hikes in any kind of weather.

Now, maybe recent reading had influenced my choice –

There’s sometimes someone from the past who speaks with a clear voice

down decades, wars, and social change can somehow change your views:

These were no red soled Louboutins- these were Miss Gaffikins shoes.

I’d read her work on Ballynoe, and caves in Ballintoy,

Friends with Jackson, Mahr, Van Giffen, all the hard core boys.

She’d trampled out the rescue  for Lyles Hill ‘37

Leading the charge with McGregor and, of course, Estyn Evans.

Her  name and work is plentiful, yet all she’s ever known

As ‘amateur archaeologist’ in the academic tomes.

Times have changed for good and bad; I ache for the dash and style

Of those 1940s paragons who raised our game by miles.

We’ve come some way to equality in this game of sherds and stones,

The adventures of the trowel don’t belong to boys alone.

As a woman in a PhD, I’ll think of those who came before

Who never had a chance at academia’s open door.

I’ll  try to take each step with courage, each triumph and each bruise;

I get to walk the whole damn  road in Maisie Gaffikin’s shoes.

Kintsugi: Thoughts on Mental Health Awareness week 2014.


This week is Mental Health Awareness week, the morning news informed today via a smug bald doctor who was so slick I could almost hear the rattle of the antidepressant bottle in his pockets.

At the same time, the Guardian ran an article about mental health issues ( in academia which made my blood run cold. I initially felt dreadful for the people bravely interviewed. If I’d known anyone in my uni was in such a state, I’d have made sure they knew I was there to whine at, cry with or just lean on til they gained some second wind, enough to say ‘ I can and I will’.

I thought of a lovely friend who recently shocked me with their admission they’d went into academic meltdown. Again, I’d no idea, and that made me feel utterly awful. I’ve lost people through the years to despair, and am terrified, as I get older, of losing any more.

I’m a pretty unflappable kinda gal, and when I think of these things, I feel some trepidation at my own encroaching time as a PhD. I like company and fun, although often like solitude and silence too. But I’m not a machine, any more than you are, gentle reader. We all have days of just wanting to curl up with a blanket and tea and watch Star Trek repeats. We get days of terrible sadness, and probably equal amounts of joy.  We’re all made of flaws and fear, with a few dollops of swag and bravado chucked in. The workplaces I spent the longest in, and learnt the most emotional intelligence from, acknowledged these things and knew they made for productive, creative and vibrant souls. Valuable. Sometimes, just knowing the value of frailty, humanity and having equally fragile and human folks to laugh and cry with, who would think no worse of you for doing so is just enough to buy someone a tomorrow.

I remembered on the bus today about a Japanese art I’d read about once, the art of the broken and mended: Kintsugi. Possibly dating to the 15th century ( but very possibly earlier), kintsugi takes the broken and repairs it with gold-dust, or equally valuable sparkly material. Before it was broken, it was just lacquer ware – a pot, or vase. Pretty, maybe but mundane. The scars of the breaks are not made invisible, as people seek to restore in the West. They are made conspicuous, and valuable, part of the history of the object. No deliberate destruction and dumping in boggy waters here — the life of the object continues after it is damaged or smashed. It becomes more valuable by the flaws that threatened to make it useless.

It is not hidden, not hushed up. Not feared or rejected because somehow it‘s not perfect. The object transcends its damage, and becomes something as precious as jewels or gold. It survived, and the scars are part of the story of survival.

The simple aesthetic is that it through damage and repair the vessel becomes a unique and beautiful thing, complete in itself and more valuable because of its transformation and continuance in its new form.

I think the news should have told that story, and left the smug doctor out of it.


Who knows where the time goes?

It’s been a while since I blogged on this page. Well, not since I blogged ;I’ve been popping up all over the place these days –I help out on a Pleistocene one, Twilight Beasts, here on WordPress. Work and university came and bit my metaphorical butt hard, and there was nothing else to do but knuckle down and learn magical things like Bayesian probabilities and calculus, age-depth models and so on. And before you think I’m whining, I’m not — I’m writing it with a slightly nerdy grin, as I do feel somewhat blessed that I have learnt these things from the best in the business.

So, I’m now packing my bags as a MSc and getting ready to move up to the next phase — again, more secular, academic blessings showered on my big thick culshie head. When I’m not panicking about work deadlines or research, I find myself looking back on the past nearly-four years in academia and smiling at all the amazing things that have happened.

My year as a Fresher, 2010. Oh my what a year! The winter of 2010 was one of the coldest on record here. I remember when the temperatures plunged to -20C, which at that moment was colder than Kazakhstan. The snow did not melt away as it always does here but compacted into thick sheets of ice — was an interesting time to be looking at Glacial Maximums and Milankovitch Cycles, with more than a hint of living the Ice Age Dream!

We were meant to go to the National Museum of Ireland to do a critical analysis of displays , but there were warnings about travelling through blizzards, so ten days passed before we were told there was one window of travel that Friday, and lets get the bus rolling to complete the module coursework.

There was even a strange, still magic on the motorway that day, with a silver ice-mist hovering over the Boyne river, and fields of platinum snow replacing the normal grasslands of Meath. Every time I hear Fleet Foxes ’ White Winter Hymnal’ I think of that ethereal landscape, as I had that song almost on repeat on the oul’ iPod. By the time we reached Dublin, there were flurries of grubby, weary snow drenching Grafton and Nassau Streets. The dark days of Christmas, my granny used to call that early dusk of December. No matter — a museum is a museum and they exist in their own blissful space-time continuums, detached from weather or any other external influence.

I remember the famous last words of a young friend as we stepped into the rather magnificent reception area of the NMI in Kildare Street, Dublin. “ I suppose this would be where all the business in archaeology is done. Suppose you’d have to travel up and down to here a bit as a professional“. I agreed, and added it really would be a bit of a bummer, all those early morning starts. I’ve a feeling, at that moment, somewhere in the Kingship and Ritual display, several bog bodies held their sides laughing at what perhaps they, in their Great Kingly Beyond, knew what would happen! That in a matter of a year I’d be travelling up and down to Dublin every week to research my first research project.

The years go pretty fast at undergraduate, and before you know it you’re doing a dissertation. Mine was Iron Age based, not what I thought I would ’ grow up’ to be, but I find myself inextricably drawn to all times of chaos and change, where we see the two strands of humanity — one trying to maintain some semblance of normality, and the others capitalising on the confusion that societal upheaval creates. I’ve lived through those sorts of times, which I think explains the fascination. I was the girl who obsessively watered the houseplants which had sat on the window ledge, after the windows have been blast shattered and boarded up during the height of the Troubles in Belfast.

People either despise me or look at me as if I was crazy when I tell them my dissertation was a thing made of joy and freedom. But that’s the truth. There were the turquoise dawns standing at the bus stop accompanied only by sullen cats slinking homewards, and birdsong echoing the empty road. Those 430am starts were needed to make it to Dublin for the NMI opening at 10am, to start a days work in the magical basement, surrounded by artefacts you’d only dream of. I felt I was the richest woman ever born, and certainly the happiest. The smell of Tom Fords Lys Fumee ( liberally sprayed on at the perfume counters of Brown Thomas), merged in sultry summer heat with the scent of 2000 year old bronze harness pieces of a warrior elite, proving that swag and bling are timeless.

Mind, the NMI is pretty swaggy and bling as well, with that exquisite domed building in Kildare Street, and the fabulous zodiac mosaic on the floor. It was built in 1877, by Thomas Newenham Deane, who was somewhat in love with old things too, and it shows. I’ve always classifed the NMI as the museumophiles’ museum. I love all museums, but the NMI will always have my heart as the place where the professional me started to develop, somewhere in the basement among the ogham stones and beehive querns.

This postgrad year I’ve got lab experience, working on soil from 2000 years ago, looking for metals and pollens to tell a story of a people steeped in legend, and aware of it as they dwelt close to a very important ritual site. The peat is as dark as the history of the times, and I’m loving it. But that being said, I’m looking forward to going back to a place I classify as some sort of ‘spirit home’, where there are friendly faces and kindly hearts who took sufficient pity on a wee ageing undergraduate who regularly got lost in her head and artwork, somewhere towards the end of the Bronze Age, and had to get fished out with the lure of strong tea.

‘Mixing Memory and Desire in the Dead Landscape’ – conflict tourism and sociopolitical wall murals

I had so many plans this summer. They involved digging in Somerset, drinking considerable amounts of cider, talking Bronze Age all summer long at the tent-door. Instead this summer has been a blend of research where you can grab it and working for the mighty dollar as a tour guide.

Now, this is no bad thing, in my opinion. In fact, it’s proving to be a powerful teaching tool for future presentations and the conferences of the future. You choose the main points that need to be made about areas, you weave them with humour and you keep your pace and timing exactly synchronised to the speed your coach is travelling at. You select the topic, time your tale as you approach the targeted site, and them wham! point it to them dramatically.

The other fact of course is, that even if you do get lucky enough to work and write academic articles on some ground-breaking facet of archaeology, you will have to be able to take all those multisyllabic words so beloved of peer-reviewed pieces, deconstruct them and talk in honest, plain words to the enthusiastic layman, who is no enthusiast of archaeological theory. We do what we do to disseminate information, and what we work on belongs to housewives, pensioners and school kids as much as it ‘belongs’ to us. Tour guiding really refines a body’s capacity to take the contents of JSTOR and make it relevant and accessible to the proverbial ‘man in the street’, and all in under 30 seconds. Effectively, I’ve done this with large chunks of ‘As I Roved Out’ ( O’Byrne, 1970), ‘Carrickfergus’ ( O’Baoill, 2008) and ‘Hidden History below our Feet’ ( O’Baoill, 2011). Remind me to buy Ruari a large cold pint with my hard won gratuities when I see him next….

Travelling on the big open top buses can give you an odd perspective on things pertaining to your own city. I’ll refrain from the worst stories, although I cant resist telling you all about the American tourist who actually stamped her feet that we have too many trees and we should cut them down, as they obscure good photographs. Being a prehistory sort I tend to give my tourists a rollercoaster tour of 4000 years. Sometimes, when needed I’ll drag them back to the Mesolithic and remind ‘em about Mount Sandel ( Bayliss and Woodman, 2009) and Strangford ( Pollard, 2011). But mostly, we drive through paint- bomb splattered road and glass-strewn ghetto street. If you’re reading this you’re a big boy or girl, and have an idea that there’s problems in urban Belfast as I write in 2013.

From the top of the bus I see the cream and grey 18th century buildings, symmetrical and graceful and the florid Victorian brutes of institutions, meant to remind you how very wee you really are. You also see a lot of murals. Actually, you’d be shocked at how many come here for the murals, as if no other country had them. I would never go to any country to look at such things, because frankly I have always viewed conflict tourism as somewhat ghoulish, if I’m being honest, although part of that is changing for me, as I travel around and think a lot.

Our socio-political murals hold little fascination for me. I grew up when many of the illustrated events were happening, they are constant reminders of times I’d rather forget. They mark modern landscapes, ritualised and consecrated by violence, blood and misery, and for many of us here, we knew a fair few of those who now exist as names on plaques or faces on walls. There are places I travel round and still shudder, especially if I need to speak of them in such a cold blooded way when I want to tell the memories, the real people. Tour guides of course do not have opinions or memories. But they do still keep a certain amount of semester-time analysis!

I’ve noticed placement of murals, and their visibility in different territories. Loyalist murals are mostly on gable walls, suddenly visible only as you turn into an area, the mural equivalent of the tap on the shoulder and icy glare that you‘re a stranger on someone‘s strongly guarded territory. I think only the Newtownards Road paramilitary mural really bucks that trend. Republican areas tend to place murals as narrative — long, flat walls are favoured, almost like a processionary route, or camina. A modern Stations of the Cross. Sometimes, when I look at the International Wall on the Falls Road, I think of the stones of Newgrange and Knowth, drawing people around the structure they want all the focus on, probably relating a story well known to those who were Neolithically ‘in the know’.

The sombre little shrines set apart from the murals, the plaques on walls, the ‘peace wall‘ and the no-mans land beside it at Lanark Way surely a liminal space if ever I saw one. Maybe this is just me, but if you’re into those big, dramatic ritual landscapes such as Avebury, or the Boyne, doesn’t this modern Belfast landscape of tribalism, religion, politics and winding memory look all a bit similar to those Neolithic sites?

Are we hotwired to express pain, memory, rage and grief by piles of stones, wood, or paint daubs? If this is the case, then megalithic routes are no more graves than the sad little memorial of the Bayardo on the lower Shankhill, or McGurks in North Queen Street. Only memories are entrapped in such places, and the accuracy of memory attached to any monument becomes diminished as years go by. Of course, today we have written words, hard copy, digital — you name it, we got it. Accuracy of memory may be longer for us, if we as a species don’t kill ourselves off before our technology becomes obsolete. The past had stone, the longest lasting material they could find. And the stones kept the faith through the millennia, just not the words, for words, even spoken, change all the time.

It’s a humbling, and perhaps challenging idea, to think of those much-loved and mystical megaliths as conflict sites, and therefore any student of them as a no-good ghoul of a conflict tourist.. As a species we are red in tooth and claw, and civilisation is seldom more than a thin layer of butter scraped on harsh, coarse rye-bread. We’re constantly polarised between our imaginations and the beauty that can create, and the darker aspects of territorialism.

All of this is, of course, a potential thesis for someone. But not me. I’ll be hoofing around from the Late Bronze Age to Early Medieval, where you know they’re quite into warfare, with no ambiguity! Meantime, be kind to any heritage worker you may encounter — you don’t know what blog they’re writing in their heads as they take their coaches around the countryside, living in the past lane….

O’Baoill, R. 2008. Carrickfergus: The story of the castle and walled town. Belfast: Stationery Office Books.

O’Baoill, R. 2011. Hidden History Beneath our Feet: The archaeological story of Belfast. Belfast: Tandem Design Books.

O’Byrne, C. 1970. As I Roved Out. Belfast: EP Press.

Bayliss, A and Woodman,P. 2009. ‘ A new Bayesian chronology for Mesolithic settlement at Mount Sandel, Northern Ireland’. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society. 75.

Pollard, E. 2011. ‘ The Mesolithic maritime landscape on the north coast of Ireland’. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology. 40 (2). 387 — 403.