NORMAN VILLAGE BEING UNCOVERED BY STUDENTS DIGGING UP WEXFORD’S LOST TOWN OF CARRIG
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.