Wicklow People (Arklow) - - INTERVIEW -

WI NTER in Balt­in­glass, and ar­chae­ol­o­gist Dr James O’Driscoll is vis­it­ing one of his favourite parts of the world.

The Cork na­tive has been lured to west Wick­low by a pre­dic­tion which sug­gests the weather this af­ter­noon will be calm and largely free of rain.

The Met Eire­ann fore­cast­ers were on the ball – con­di­tions are wind-less and, though the air is heavy with mois­ture, the driz­zle is hold­ing off. Un­for­tu­nately they omit­ted to men­tion the mist which has scup­pered his plans.

The in­ten­tion was to fly a drone over Brusselstown Hill in order to com­pile a three-di­men­sional map of the area. But the poor vis­i­bil­ity means that the drone, with its four whirling ro­tors and its cam­era, lies re­dun­dant in the car boot.

If the set­back ir­ri­tates him af­ter the long drive from Ross­car­bery, then he has the good grace not to let it show. In­stead, he seizes the op­por­tu­nity to share his en­thu­si­asm for the hid­den past of the sur­round­ing coun­try­side with the man from the ‘Peo­ple’ news­pa­per.

Where the re­porter peers through the murk at gorse bushes drip­ping water in the fog, James notes tell-tale signs of long-gone com­mu­ni­ties. Where his pas­sen­ger gazes blankly at damp sheep graz­ing reed-strewn pas­tures, the ar­chae­ol­o­gist at the wheel sees a cra­dle of Ir­ish civil­i­sa­tion.

Hu­mankind, it ap­pears, has been mak­ing the most of Balt­in­glass for many cen­turies, back as far as the Stone Age. The orig­i­nal pop­u­la­tion did not build homes on the site of the mod­ern town, along the low-ly­ing banks of the Slaney River. They pre­ferred in­stead to re­side above the tree line on round topped hills which were more eas­ily de­fended.

James O’Driscoll has re­turned sum­mer af­ter sum­mer over the years with UCC’s Pro­fes­sor Wil­liam O’Brien to ex­plore their set­tle­ments and their lives. Their work started on Tuck­mill, im­me­di­ately over­look­ing the town, with its three sites – Sruhan, Rath­na­gree and Rath­co­ran. Then they moved on in turn to Ti­no­ran, Hugh­stown and Spinan’s Hill. Now, his fo­cus is on the hill at Brusselstown, close to 500 me­tres high at the sum­mit, with views out to­wards the Glen of Imaal – on a fine day. Just not to­day.

The scale of dis­cov­er­ies over the past decade al­lows him to style this re­gion ‘Ire­land’s Hillfort Cap­i­tal’, with no hint of hype. In the view of this ex­pert, Balt­in­glass has more to of­fer to his pro­fes­sion than the well flagged won­ders of New­grange. He lists off the find­ings.

Tuck­mill boasts a burial cham­ber, which was ex­ca­vated by ar­chae­ol­o­gists back in the 1930s. At 6,000 years old it is be­lieved to be much older than the more il­lus­tri­ous ex­am­ple in New­grange. The more re­cent work has shown that peo­ple lived on the hill as well as be­ing buried here, en­clos­ing up­land ar­eas be­hind de­fen­sive struc­tures – the hill­forts as they are known. The ex­ca­va­tors made sim­i­lar find­ings at Ti­no­ran which is, like Tuck­mill, largely (but not ex­clu­sively) as­so­ci­ated with the Bronze Age.

They ex­pected more of the same at Hugh­stown, which has an en­clo­sure run­ning to more than eight hectares, only to dis­cover some­thing star­tling. This time, their dat­ing tech­niques dis­closed that the fort was Ne­olithic, a relic of the Stone Age and much older than orig­i­nally thought. And they logged sim­i­lar re­sults two years ago at Spinan’s Hill where the hillfort is four times big­ger than the Ne­olithic fort in Antrim, pre­vi­ously the bench­mark for all such finds. Last sum­mer, they re­turned to Tuck­mill and dis­cov­ered ev­i­dence that it too had been a cen­tre of Ne­olithic ac­tiv­ity, maybe 6,000 years and more ago.

Now the at­ten­tion switches to Brusselstown, which has yet to be defini­tively dated, and which O’Driscoll de­scribes as ab­so­lutely stun­ning, though not well pub­li­cised. Tan­ta­lis­ing sug­ges­tions of pos­si­ble fur­ther lo­ca­tion of in­ter­est have also been pin­pointed at Kil­ranalagh, though com­mer­cial forestry has wiped out much of the ev­i­dence.

James took up a post in Aberdeen Uni­ver­sity last Septem­ber, fly­ing off to Scot­land af­ter ac­cept­ing a five year con­tract. But he re­mains com­mit­ted to ex­plor­ing the Wick­low sites which be­lieves are lav­ishly en­dowed, itch­ing to sink his ar­chae­ol­o­gist’s trowel into the land at Brusselstown. The lo­cal ar­chae­ol­ogy pro­vided him with the ma­te­rial for his doc­tor­ate.

‘Peo­ple don’t re­alise how hugely im­por­tant this area is,’ says the Cork man. ‘The forts here are all much larger than pre­vi­ous dis­cov­er­ies and we have some of the ear­li­est for­ti­fi­ca­tions built in Ire­land. This is a much more in­ter­est­ing area than New­grange. These Ne­olithic en­clo­sures are an im­mensely im­por­tant find – Ire­land’s first mon­u­men­tal struc­tures.’

NOWHERE else on this is­land has been shown to have such a con­cen­tra­tion of pre­his­toric ac­tiv­ity. All told there are 108 hill­forts recorded in Ire­land, dis­tin­guished by var­i­ous banks, walls, pal­isades and ditches en­clos­ing parcels of up­land. Of the 108, nine are in Balt­in­glass, the only area to have more than two such sites.

As he pon­ders why this might be, James sug­gests that Balt­in­glass was well sit­u­ated in the foothills of the moun­tains Wick­low on the fringe of fer­tile Car­low land. This left the fort dwellers well po­si­tioned as pi­o­neers of farm­ing rather than fol­low­ers of the hunter-gath­erer sub­sis­tence life­style of the first folk to set­tle in Ire­land.

It is also note­wor­thy that the re­gion boasted ac­cess for traders from abroad along the val­ley of the Slaney Bronze Age arte­facts un­cov­ered in Ir­ish digs in hill en­clo­sures have in­cluded goods from Con­ti­nen­tal Europe. Buck­ets from Ger­man, beads from Italy and swords from Den­mark were items that pro­claimed the high so­cial stand­ing of those who owned them. Such finds, in­di­cat­ing wealth, sup­port the sug­ges­tion that the forts were likely to have been ex­pres­sions of power and sta­tus, pos­si­bly with lim­ited mil­i­tary value.


‘The build­ing of forts rep­re­sented great com­mu­nity en­deav­our which helped to cre­ate a sense of iden­tity,’ reck­ons James. He adds that the struc­tures may also have been an af­front to ri­val groups. Ex­plo­ration of Bri­tish forts of sim­i­lar vin­tage has un­earthed ar­row­heads and bones show­ing bat­tle­field in­juries along with in­di­ca­tions that vic­to­ri­ous in­vaders went to great lengths to de­stroy with fire what they had cap­tured. Closer to home, there are signs in Hugh­stown that the build­ings there were also torched. Sim­i­larly, James be­lieves that ev­ery inch of the Bronze Age set­tle­ment on Tuck­mill was at one stage lev­elled by fire, an act he feels must have been de­lib­er­ate.

Find­ing the money to en­hance the re­search has proven prob­lem­at­i­cal over the years, with digs re­stricted to small trenches. Hik­ing up across boggy pas­ture from the pub­lic road to the top of the hill at Brusselstown, he is as yet un­sure as to whether it was set­tled in Ne­olithic times or whether it was a more re­cent de­vel­op­ment. How­ever, even with­out break­ing ground and dig­ging down, there are plenty of signs of an­cient oc­cu­pa­tion.

To the ed­u­cated eye, a scat­ter­ing of boul­ders may mark where some pre­his­toric fam­ily erected their home. Though some of the stones have been lifted by sub­se­quent gen­er­a­tions to make field bound­aries, there are still plenty left where they resided all those thou­sands of years ago. At least 88 such house sites have al­ready been iden­ti­fied and closer ex­am­i­na­tion is ex­pected to re­veal many more.

Some of the houses are out­side the walls of the fort while (pre­sum­ably) the lead­ers of the com­mu­nity lived high and hand­some in­side. The walls re­main clearly vis­i­ble, a ring of jum­bled stones. When this place was a cen­tre of eco­nomic and mil­i­tary im­por­tance, this mighty bar­rier was at least ten me­tres thick, the rock la­bo­ri­ously hauled into place to en­close a large area of hill­top. It is still pos­si­ble to dis­cern where nar­row gate­ways al­lowed ac­cess to the orig­i­nal pop­u­lace, though these days it is easy to climb over the tum­ble­down walls.

ABETTER grasp of the pat­tern of set­tle­ment will emerge when­ever the fog lifts and clear days al­low the drone to take flight and com­pile data for com­ple­tion of the 3D model. The tech­nique used is called pho­togram­metr y, stitch­ing to­gether may 1,000 pho­tos to make the com­puter model.

‘I am not turn­ing my back on Balt­in­glass,’ says the Scot­tish based Mun­ster aca­demic. ‘I was here in the sum­mer of 2017 and I will be back in the sum­mer of 2018. I could spend my ca­reer here and still not have done as much as I would like. There is plenty of amaz­ing stuff to be found on the sites in Balt­in­glass.’ He cal­cu­lates, for in­stance, that just 0.001 per cent of the Ti­no­ran site has been ex­ca­vated so far.

Ar­chae­ol­ogy has been part of his life from boy­hood, play­ing as a chap in an an­cient burial site which was just 40 me­tres from the fam­ily home in Ross­car­bery. James feels that he is in the right pro­fes­sion, never one to linger too long in­doors. He ex­pects that he will con­tinue to re­turn to West Wick­low where many more ex­cit­ing dis­cov­er­ies are wait­ing to be made.

Dr James O’Driscoll and, above, one of the ar­eas of ar­chae­o­log­i­cal in­ter­est at Brusselstown.

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