This past summer, I spent five weeks in Ireland. The first week, I was travelling around the country with my mother and grandmother. The last four weeks I worked in the Irish National Heritage Park, just outside of Wexford Town doing an archaeological dig. It was… the best experience of my life—maybe not surprising since I’m an anthropology and history double major with a focus in archaeology.
When I arrived in Ireland, it was the end of June and uncharacteristically warm. I arrived around midnight, local time (so it was really only about 7PM, according to my internal clock). The next morning, my mother, grandmother and I explored what the Viking city of Dublin had to offer. Being the archaeology student that I am, I insisted that we go to the Irish Museum of Archaeology. It was so exciting! They had an exhibition on the Battle of Clontarf (23 April, 1014), which I found to be fascinating. In that museum, they also had an exhibit about the Vikings who settled in Dublin. There were multiple swords, shoes, and other Viking artifacts to be seen there. There were even a few skeletons, some of which had the death wounds visible. So cool! After thoroughly examining the bodies and artifacts (and boring my family to death, I’m sure), we went downstairs to visit the bog bodies. A bog body is the remains of a person who had died and was buried in a bog. Because of the acidic nature of the bog, the bodies are more or less tanned, dehydrated, and preserved perfectly to the point where you can even see the fingerprints on the body’s digits. However, the acidity does discolor them (I won’t include a picture of them, as some people may find them disturbing, but you should definitely Google them, they’re fascinating).
After we left the museum, we did a walking tour of Dublin. We were introduced to Christ Church Cathedral (the oldest cathedral in Dublin, dating back to 1030), Dublin Castle, and other notable landmarks. Once our tour was done, my mother insisted upon going to the Guinness factory. And may I say, while I was there I developed quite the taste for Guinness. It was interesting to see how the beer was made, and it was extremely cool having a hearty Guinness in the Gravity Bar at the top of the brewery.
Our stay in Dublin was short, as the next day we embarked on our tour around the country. We visited many landmarks, including Giant’s Causeway, the Cliffs of Moher, as well as many other things. We made a few cool pit stops along the way, most notably to Creevykeel in Co. Sligo and Skellig Michael… Well, we never actually set foot on Skellig Michael, considering it is an island and it would be hard to access with a bus, but we did see it! We saw some of the beehive huts that the monks who inhabited the Dingle Peninsula. And yes, these are the same beehive huts you may have seen in Star Wars VII: The Last Jedi.
Sadly, our tour had to come to an end. However, that was just the very beginning of my incredible adventure. The day after the tour ended, I made my way down to Wexford town. On the train ride, I met a couple of people who I would be spending the next month working with. We became fast friends.
Sunday turned into Monday, and the field school itself began. For the first week, we went on several field trips to get an idea of what our new home would be like. Our first trip was to Ferns Castle, built by William Marshall for his wife, Isabel de Clare. It is relatively well-preserved, considering that it dates back to the 13th century. Because it is in such good condition, we were allowed to go into it. It was incredible seeing all of the components of the castle, including a chapel built specifically for William Marshall and Isabel de Clare.
The second field trip we took was to Wexford town, where there’s quite a lot to be seen. In the town, there are ruins locked away to protect them from vandalism, medieval walls, and cemeteries older than you’d imagine. From there, we visited another castle and abandoned church about fifteen minutes outside of Wexford town.
Tuesday turned into Wednesday, and we went to Hook Lighthouse, the oldest functional lighthouse in Ireland, if not in all of Europe. It was constructed in 1172 by William Marshall. We were allowed a tour of the lighthouse, and the view from the top was incredible.
Thursday, we began the real archaeological work. After a brief lecture in the park about what the site was (the oldest Norman stronghold in Ireland), we walked up a huge hill and saw our site for the first time. And it was an absolute disaster. In the middle of the site was a nineteenth century round tower acting as a memorial for those lost in the Crimean War. To the left of the tower was an overgrown mess of weeds. Our task was to take out all of the weeds and shrubs, but not to disturb the soil. Hard manual labor, as it turns out, creates close friendships. All twenty of us became extremely close in that day. We joked and got to know each other as we worked, which made the day pass by quickly.
Friday, we started excavating! I was assigned to a cutting with five other people. After we cleaned it, we dug a sondage (a cutting within a cutting to get a better idea of if we should take the entire cutting down further). That was when the really exciting stuff began. We began finding things! We found tons of bone, many pottery shards, and several pieces of metal and glass.
While this was a lot of hard work, we did have some time for fun. We were given weekends off, and one of the host families was kind enough to offer their home for a bit of a welcoming party.
Things were pretty mundane, each day we arrived at 9:00 in the morning and left at 4:30 for home. That is, until one of my good friends, Sloane, found something beyond exciting. She found a piece of pottery in the shape of an antler, coming from an aquamanile. This proved what we suspected, that the inhabitants of the site were a very wealthy group of people. Also uncovered was a belt buckle and a piece of what appeared to be a spurr. Unfortunately, I’m not legally allowed to show the images of these items.
The last Thursday of the field school, we had a medieval-style feast. We cooked all of our food over an open flame, we prepared food outside, we even butchered our own rabbits! All of this led up to the option of staying the night in one of the models of an ancient Irish homestead. (Sidenote: you can rent the entire park out for the night on Airbnb with one small caveat– you and your party has to roleplay as an early Christian family living in the ringfort!) Fortunately, our very large group narrowly escaped that fate, as we had to work bright and early the next morning.
Overall, this was a life-changing experience for me. The summer before last, I was pretty sure I wanted to go into archaeology (as I had done the Hopewell Ohio summer field school with Dr. Pacheco in the Anthropology department), and after this summer, I’m completely positive I want to pursue archaeology as a career.
If you, dear reader, would like to embark on the same adventure as I, you can apply for the winter or summer sessions at: http://ifrglobal.org/program/ireland-ferrycarrig/