IRELAND’S HILLFORT CAPITAL
OUR REPORTER DAVID MEDCALF WENT ON WALKABOUT ON THE HILL AT BRUSSELSTOWN NEAR BALTINGLASS WITH ARCHAEOLOGIST JAMES O’DRISCOLL, EXPLORING JUST ONE OF THE STONE AGE AND BRONZE AGE SITES IN THE AREA
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.
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
‘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.