Gorey Guardian - - NEWS - ANNA HAYES

IT’S AN IM­POS­ING site – tow­er­ing above the River Slaney, flank­ing one of the main ar­ter­ies into Wex­ford town – yet most lo­cals don’t even re­alise the im­por­tance of the Nor­man site known as Fitzstephen Fort, nes­tled high on the hill in the Ir­ish Na­tional Her­itage Park.

Now, al­most 850 years on from the first land­ing of the Nor­mans, 25 in­ter­na­tional stu­dents tak­ing part in an Ir­ish Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Field School (IAFS) dig at the site are hop­ing to un­cover the long hid­den his­tory of Fitzstephen Fort, the place where Nor­man in­vader Robert Fitzstephen es­tab­lished a fortress, hav­ing taken the town of Wex­ford in 1169.

A strate­gic lo­ca­tion, it had the ben­e­fit of be­ing on high ground, as well as af­ford­ing its well-trained and equipped archers a clear view, in both di­rec­tions, of the river, where any would-be at­tack­ers might come from.

Over the years, a hand­ful of ar­chae­o­log­i­cal digs have taken place at the site but, un­til now, all have been short­lived due to lack of funding and, supris­ingly, a lack of in­ter­est. While the Ir­ish Na­tional Her­itage Park charts the his­tory of Ire­land up to the Nor­man in­va­sion, the rest of the story is yet to be told.

In 1984 Is­abelle Ben­nett spent two months at the site and made cut­tings – marker points – on the site that could be fur­ther ex­am­ined in the fu­ture. She sub­se­quently di­rected ar­chae­ol­o­gist Claire Cot­ter to­wards the site in 1986. Claire’s ex­ca­va­tion of the site was fa­cil­i­tated more as a ne­ces­sity rather than a project of in­ter­est, be­cause an ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site study had to be car­ried out ahead of the build­ing of the new N11 road.

Out­door park man­ager Chris Hayes ex­plained that, for what­ever rea­son, the story of the Nor­man in­va­sion had not been dealt with, per­haps due to the painful con­no­ta­tions it had for the cen­turies that fol­lowed. He said: ‘In the past, there were vague nods to­wards this site, with the replica mot­te­and-bai­ley on it. It al­ways struck me that while the rest of the park fea­tures repli­cas, we had the real thing up here – a his­tor­i­cal site – and we weren’t telling its story.’

The aim is to tell the rest of that story, warts and all, but this, he said, could not be done with­out the field school, its stu­dents and their men­tors Richard Reid and Dr De­nis Shine, who hails from Kil­muck­ridge.

De­nis, who is one of the di­rec­tors of the IAFS, ex­plained that he had ini­tially ap­proached the park about stay­over projects but mo­men­tum grew be­hind the idea, as stu­dents jumped at the op­por­tu­nity to ex­pe­ri­ence a real dig, and it has de­vel­oped into the cur­rent UCLA-ac­cred­ited, four-week dig pro­gramme is tak­ing place, with fur­ther schools to come.

‘I’m from Wex­ford and it al­ways in­trigued me that no one seemed to care about this site.

‘It’s not just his­tor­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant in Wex­ford but it’s sig­nif­i­cant for the whole coun­try.

‘It’s the site of the first Nor­man fort in Ire­land and one of the first Nor­man stone cas­tles,’ said De­nis.

The IAFS will spend four months on the site this year, with dif­fer­ent groups of stu­dents, hop­ing to un­cover some of the site’s tur­bu­lent his­tory.

De­nis said: ‘Sum­mer will be the big one. So far we’ve only dug down to where Claire got to and we’ve nearly cleared that so in the next few weeks we’ll be go­ing deeper than any of the pre­vi­ous ex­ca­va­tions. So far, we haven’t found any­thing dated af­ter the 13th cen­tury.’

But the site on the hill is just the be­gin­ning of the story, Chris points out, ex­plain­ing that, out­side the fort, lay a medieval town, a ‘new town’ – the lost town of Carrig – that was built by the Nor­mans and which, much later, gave its name to the nearby New­town Road.

‘We know that there was about 111 houses out­side this fort and the rea­son we know that is be­cause the Nor­mans kept tax records and were good at ad­min­is­tra­tion.

‘It sur­vived for about 130 years be­fore go­ing to ruin, so our project is en­ti­tled ‘Dig­ging the Lost Town of Car- rig’. The long-term aim of hav­ing the field schools here is to re­con­struct part of the town’s streetscape on the hill.’

The 25 stu­dents on this dig hail from the US, Aus­tralia, South Africa, South Korea and China, and in the middle of a very icy Jan­uary they were feel­ing the cold.

‘We drink some­where be­tween 30 and 35 litres of tea per day – that’s what keeps us all go­ing! They’ve found some Wex­ford gems like The Sky and the Ground and ris­soles and things,’ joked De­nis, adding that while some of the stu­dents had come from con­sid­er­ably warmer cli­mates, they all seemed to be en­joy­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence. He said one stu­dent from Queen­stown, Aus­tralia, was constantly seen wan­der­ing around in a T-shirt, while an Amer­i­can girl had be­come the site’s tem­per­a­ture gauge, the cold be­ing mea­sured by the num­ber of lay­ers she wore!

De­nis pointed out that most of the stu­dents’ ar­chae­o­log­i­cal train­ing so far had come from books and so the op­por­tu­nity to get out in the field was en­tic­ing. He also com­mended the ‘home­s­tay’ as­pect of the course, say­ing that it gave the stu­dents a chance to ex­pe­ri­ence life in Wex­ford while also rais­ing in­ter­est in the project with the lo­cal fam­i­lies they were stay­ing with.

Even De­nis him­self has seen the in­ter­est of some lo­cals piquing.

‘I haven’t been in Wex­ford for 20 years but since this started I’ve had friends ring­ing me up, ask­ing to meet up and go out to see the dig site.’

For those who do take a wan­der up the hill, stu­dents are on hand each day to ex­plain what’s go­ing on. There will also be fully-guided tours of the site by ei­ther De­nis or Richard, ex­plain­ing the sig­nif­i­cance of it.

Finds so far in­clude pot­tery – both lo­cal and some that came from France car­ry­ing wine; an­i­mal bones; ev­i­dence of burn­ing wood; and a num­ber of ma­sonry struc­tures on the site it­self.

But the real un­earthing will hap­pen when the team pulls back the plas­tic placed by Claire Cot­ter and delve deeper into the earth.

De­nis said: ‘On a dig like this,

Out­door Park Man­ager Chris Hayes, se­nior su­per­vi­sor Richard Reid and field school di­rec­tor and De­nis Shine.

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