The Persistent Place:
5000 years of archaeology at Gortlaunaght, Co Cavan, Ireland.
Robert M Chapple.
The story of the archaeological excavations at Gortlaunaght is one of discovering the extraordinary within the ordinary. As a professional field archaeologist, the contract to monitor the topsoil removal in advance of development in western Co Cavan was rather run of the mill – just another job to pay the bills. It certainly felt that way from April 2006 through to January 2008 as we first watched in advance of road construction across the mountain side to link an existing cement factory to the new quarry, and then as the quarry was opened and blasting began. No archaeology was found – no indication that humans had left any surviving mark on the landscape.
We were about half-way through monitoring the area of the quarry when archaeology was discovered – lots of it, but all confined to one small area in the townland of Gortlaunaght. Gortlaunaght lies on the western slopes of a small foothill of Slieve Rushen, overlooking the valley of the Cladagh and Blackwater rivers. From the other side of the valley the site is overlooked by the cairn on the summit of Cuilcagh Mountain known as ‘hacht a mhac a whoole’, thought to have been an inauguration site of the Maguires.
Archaeological excavations, directed by Robert M Chapple, were undertaken from May to December 2008. Here we discovered the remains of a large sub-circular enclosure, a large sub-rectangular structure and associated features of all kinds. The sub-rectangular structure appears to be the remains of an Iron Age building of unusual form, while the large sub-circular enclosure is of Early Medieval date, it incorporated artefacts and features of Neolithic and Bronze Age date too. We also identified and test-trenched an upstanding, but previously unrecorded rath/ringfort of Early Medieval date. The evidence from this site stretches from the Middle Neolithic (c3500-2900 BC) to the Medieval period (c1250-1611 AD), with all eras in between being represented. Together, they demonstrate a remarkable continuity of occupation over 5000 years in a relatively confined area of approximately 500m by 500m.
The reason for this concentration of evidence all in one spot is due to a quirk of geography – this little area sits on a natural shelf on the side of a the river valley. The area is quite sheltered, but still commands extensive views in most directions as well as having well-drained, level ground, suitable for building. The finds and features investigated here are, for the most part, concerned with the mundane tasks of food and farming – items of simple domesticity. Even where they are more ritual in character, they can still be paralleled among other Irish examples, demonstrating how this one place is woven into the fabric of Irish archaeology.
For all that, Gortlaunaght possesses some unusual features, not easily explained by reference to other sites. In particular, the large Early Medieval enclosure is rather strange as it was cut down through the earth, but leaving large amounts of the underlying bedrock in place, diminishing its effectiveness as a barrier or defence. Similarly, the same enclosure possesses to short sections of significantly deeper ditches that appear to have been left unfinished. As well as presenting the chronological development of the Gortlaunaght site over time, the presentation will look at how succeeding generations interacted with the monuments of their ancestors.
Robert M Chapple grew up in the west of Ireland, and received a BA (1991) and MA (1998) in archaeology from UCG/NUIG. Since 1997 he has been based in Belfast, in Northern Ireland. He is a former member of both the Historic Monuments Council and The Joint Committee for Industrial Heritage. After more than 20 years in commercial field archaeology, he left the profession in 2010 and now works in IT, describing himself as a ‘Recovering Archaeologist’. He still maintains a presence in the profession through his writing, blogging, and advocacy activities, along with personal research including the Irish Radiocarbon Determinations and Dendrochronological Dates (IR&DD) project.