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Archaeological site (Dunluce Castle ruins) in Northern Ireland. Source: Goinyk / Adobe Stock.

800 Archaeological Sites Unearthed in Northern Ireland

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Since 2015 there have been approximately 800 sites with archaeological potential found in Northern Ireland . New rules mean that construction companies are obliged to record sites of possible archaeological interest. This has led to an amazing number of finds, from the prehistoric period right down to relatively modern times.

Among the many discoveries are Neolithic houses , a Bronze Age ritual site , an ancient cooking pit, medieval enclosures, and industrial mills. Details of the finds have been published in a booklet, entitled Unearthed, which was issued by the Department of Communities.

The new planning laws were a result of the need to promote sustainable development and to protect the heritage of Northern Ireland. In 2015 planning powers were transferred to local councils. This was done in part to “ensure that the historic environment is preserved for future generations to understand and enjoy” according to the Unearthed report.

The Department of Communities advises councils on how best to manage and license archaeological sites. Since 2015 some 800 licenses, have been granted by the department for archaeological digs. Senior archaeologist Andrew Gault of Ulster University has described the digs that are a result of the new planning regulations as “mitigation archaeology” reports the BBC.

Archaeological Sites Dating Back 8000 Years

The archaeological finds have been categorized into three distinct periods. The first period is the Prehistoric period this “covers the period from the arrival of humans in Ireland to the arrival of Christianity’” according to Unearthed. This era dates from approximately 8000 BC to 400 AD.

The remains of a “rectangular Neolithic house was identified at Turmeel townland, Co. Londonderry during the archaeological investigation of the A6 near Dungiven” according to the Unearthed report. Over 1000 shards of pottery have been found at the site. It was possibly inhabited by some of the first farmers in Ireland.

Excavation of a Neolithic house at Turmeel, Dungiven © NAC Ltd / HED

Excavation of a Neolithic house at Turmeel, Dungiven © NAC Ltd / HED

A Bronze Age roundhouse, consisting of stake- holes and an enclosure was found during a dig at a solar farm in Rasharkin, Co. Antrim. According to the BBC “Enclosed houses like this generally date to the Middle Bronze Age, about 1500 BC”. Researchers believe that they have also found a rubbing stone at the location.

Bronze Age Barbecue Archaeological Site

During a dig at a housing development near Dundonald in Co. Antrim, a prehistoric enclosure was found. This contained a number of prehistoric houses and a cremation burial. At the Laurel Hill solar farm at Donaghcloney, researchers found “a ‘ fulacht fiadh ’ - a cooking pit for wild animals” reports the BBC.

Representation of a fulacht fiadh that was found at an archaeological site in Donaghcloney. (Richard Webb / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Representation of a fulacht fiadh that was found at an archaeological site in Donaghcloney. (Richard Webb / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

This was a pit where hot stones were placed in a trench full of water. Once the water was boiling hot, it was used to cook meat.

Perhaps the most important prehistoric find that was made, because of the changes in the planning process, was a ritual site discovered at Glenshane Road, Claudy. This consisted of a great many post holes for a large timber circle.

Once it consisted of “large wooden posts with an outer fenced forecourt– which dated to c. 2500 BC” according to Unearthed. These timber circles were ceremonial and ritual centers for Bronze Age populations.

Medieval Enclosures

Archaeologists found a number of sites that date from the historic period, this is from the time of St. Patrick (5th century AD) to the Ulster Plantation when the region was settled by English and Scottish immigrants. Most of the finds from this period are outlines of raths.

According to the Unearthed report, these were “an early medieval enclosure with two sets of banks and ditches, normally associated with high-status individuals”. Perhaps the most impressive of these was found at Killuney, Co. Armagh. Here the possible remains of an oven, used in cooking, were found adjacent to the outer ditch.

Mills and Tanning Pits

The third category is the Post-medieval and Industrial Archaeology phase, roughly from 1600 to 1900. Archaeologists have found a number of important sites related to the industrial history of Northern Ireland. At the Royal Exchange Development, in the heart of Belfast was found 15 wood-lined pits.

Tanning pits at Royal Exchange, Belfast ( © Gahan and Long / HED)

Tanning pits at Royal Exchange, Belfast ( © Gahan and Long / HED)

These were tanning pits and used in the manufacture of leather in the 18th century. The remains of a flax mill have been found in Bessbrook, Co. Armagh and a flour mill in Milltown, in the same county, were also discovered.

One of the most interesting facts that have come to light is that solar energy developments often led to archaeological finds. This is because they are built on south-facing hills.

These would have also been selected as sites for human habitation, from the prehistoric period right down to modern times. It is hoped that the results of further digs will be published annually in forthcoming editions of Unearthed.

Top image: Archaeological site (Dunluce Castle ruins) in Northern Ireland. Source: Goinyk / Adobe Stock.

By Ed Whelan

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