Early Medieval Dwellings and Settlements in Ireland, AD 400-1100

Early Medieval Dwellings and Settlements in Ireland, AD 400-1100

By Aidan O’Sullivan, Finbar McCormick, Lorcan Harney, Jonathan Kinsella and Thomas Kerr

Early Medieval Archaeology Project (EMAP) Report 4.2 (2010)

Introduction: Early medieval settlement archaeology utterly dominates the record of excavations in Ireland, including settlement enclosures, complexes, landscapes and ecclesiastical sites. For this reason, the INSTAR-funded Early Medieval Archaeology Project (EMAP) focused its research in 2009-2010, on dwellings and settlements (having previously provided a review of all early medieval archaeological excavations in Ireland). In 2009, EMAP first prepared a gazetteer of what we would regard as Ireland’s key early medieval settlements and dwelling excavations, largely based on a detailed review of the original EMAP database, 1930-2004; amounting to a final gazetteer (see Vol II) of 241 early medieval settlements revealed through archaeological excavation, 1930-2009. The first draft of the Vol. II gazetteer was first completed in a five-month period between July and December 2009 (Kerr et. al 2009) and was edited and expanded in 2010. In 2010, EMAP built further on this achievement, to research and complete a vol. I interpretative text that would precede the Vol II gazetteer, thus providing a reflection and analysis of such themes as houses and buildings, the organisation of settlement enclosures, agricultural activity and crafts and industry. This two volume report, completed in December 2010, arguably represents the first compilation, analysis and discussion of early medieval settlement archaeology in Ireland, as revealed through excavations, 1930-2009.

The preparation of this EMAP report has required a substantial amount of work; gathering unpublished excavation reports, reviewing monographs and journals, collating data and preparing brief site syntheses. Between July-August 2009, EMAP staff carried out research on a large number of early medieval dwellings and settlements in a wide range of previously published sources (journals, books, etc) and also identified unpublished reports that were held in the National Monuments Service, DoEHLG, Republic of Ireland and in the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA). Contacts were made with the staff from these institutions and EMAP staff then contacted individual site directors and companies by email, letter and phone to request permission to read unpublished reports held in the NMS/NIEA and to use these reports in EMAP’s research. It is striking that despite a severe economic downturn in late 2009 and 2010, all site directors and companies contacted were enormously supportive of the project and all site directors contacted gave full permissions to consult the reports – a measure of the profession’s commitment to dissemination and research. In a few cases, it was impossible to locate or contact site directors (often due to staff redundancies in many companies). In such cases, EMAP researchers utilised the brief summaries already published in or in other publications. Between August-November 2009, EMAP staff then used these unpublished reports to prepare brief site descriptions for this gazetteer. and also a review of additional publications and reports, and the personal knowledge and research of EMAP members (e.g. Kerr on Ulster, Kinsella on NRA schemes, O’Sullivan on crannogs, etc). Each EMAP members was given responsibility for the preparation of each site summary, largely on a county-by-county basis, to maximise efficiency and production of reports. Working under the direction of the project Principal Investigators, Dr. Aidan O’Sullivan and Dr. Finbar McCormick, Dr. Thomas Kerr in QUB acted as the day-to-day co-ordinator of the preparation of site summaries, ensuring close version control (e.g. designation of ‘top copies’) and adherence to project timetables. These then required preliminary editing, while site plans, cross sections and other key illustrations were scanned from books, papers and unpublished reports and inserted in relevant locations in the gazetteer. In 2010, EMAP secured further funding from the INSTAR programme and between July-August 2010, EMAP staff initially focused on compiling and rewriting a small number of additional site descriptions for the gazetteer (Vol. II). In total, 13 extra site summaries were written – and 3 sites re-written – in 2010 bringing the total number of sites described to 241 sites. The main priority between August- November 2010 then shifted towards drafting a report on early medieval dwellings and settlement in Ireland, A.D. 400-1100. EMAP focused on four major areas: early medieval houses and other and industrial activities on early medieval settlements. These chapters comprise an investigation of the physical character, social and economic organisation, and the chronology and biographies of settlements and their related domestic, economic, craft and industrial activities. It is hoped that this report and gazetteer will eventually form the basis of a two volume published tome on early medieval dwellings and settlement in Ireland.

In conclusion, the two volume report and gazetteer of early medieval dwellings and settlements is already a substantial and very valuable research report and has been a significant update and ambitious expansion of the existing EMAP research on early medieval excavations in Ireland. In themselves, both could be regarded as significant research resources. The volume I report offers the most up to-date discussion on the excavated evidence for dwelling and related agricultural, craft and industrial activities on early medieval settlements. The volume II gazetteer is significant as no such document of excavated early medieval settlement sites has ever been compiled before (and equally for other periods with less archaeological evidence or data). Both have now been prepared to advanced draft standard for submission to INSTAR in December 2010, but it is envisaged that, with further funding, they can be edited and brought to publication standard in 2011. We hope that such a work will be regarded as a key contribution to dwelling practices in early medieval Ireland.

Click here to read Volume 1 from University College Dublin

Click here to read Volume 2

Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

medievalverse magazine