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Deer Park Farms

DEER PARK FARMS

Late in 1984 a rath mound in Deer Park Farms townland in Glenarm, County Antrim, was threatened with destruction in the course of farm improvements. It proved impossible to preserve the monument by negotiation, so four summer seasons of rescue excavations were carried out by the Department of the Environment (Northern Ireland). These revealed a remarkable sequence of well-preserved houses and associated finds. The rath stood at a height of 150 meters above sea level in a north-sloping field overlooking the Glenarm River. The monument was a large flat-topped mound, 26 meters in diameter across the summit and 4.5 meters high. The base of the mound was about 50 meters in diameter and was encircled by a ditch, very wide and deep on the uphill side. Occupation layers were visible at various heights in the mound's sides, showing that it had built up in stages over a period of time.

The surface on which the rath was built revealed several prehistoric features, probably dating from the Bronze Age or earlier. The first feature of the early Christian period was a circular ring ditch, with an overall diameter of 25 meters and an east-facing entrance gap. The ditch was about 2 meters wide and 1 meter deep. It was not accompanied by a bank and may have served to delimit and help drain the site chosen for settlement in the early Christian period, probably in the mid-seventh century. The ditch had silted up or had been deliberately filled in before the rath was built over it.

Before the end of the seventh century the first rath bank was constructed approximately over the site of the primary ring ditch. The external ditch that went with the bank was cut away by subsequent enlargement to obtain material for heightening the rath. Probably at the same time as the first rath bank was built, the first of a long sequence of woven hazel buildings was erected in the enclosure.

After a lengthy period of occupation, perhaps fifty years, the rath was converted into a flat-topped mound and a sloping access ramp of clay and gravel was built over the original east-facing entrance. The outer surface of the mound was encased in a heavy revetment wall of basalt boulders and the ditch was deepened. This main phase of mound heightening was accomplished in several stages. The houses in the final stage of the rath were not abandoned and replaced all at once, as had been presumed on the basis of trial excavations at other rath mounds. Instead, each house was abandoned and its remains covered over only when it reached the end of its useful life. As a result, some new houses stood on isolated platforms overlooking other inhabited houses not yet replaced. Two souterrains were incorporated in a further heightening of the rath, probably by the end of the tenth century.

The hillside site sloped to the north, but the rath entrance faced east, with the result that there was persistent ponding of water against the inner face of the clay bank on the downslope, north side. This resulted in the preservation of an accumulation of organic midden material in this area up to 1.5 meters deep. The heightening of the rath caused a rise in the water table in the mound, which preserved the wickerwork remains of the buried houses in the final phase of the primary, unheightened rath. This well-preserved horizon, dating from the early eighth century, is characteristic of the occupation surfaces of the entire rath.

The most obvious feature of the rath in the early eighth century is, paradoxically, untypical. The entrance, instead of being a simple gap, was inturned. Two parallel banks of earth ran for 6.5 meters into the rath interior. They were stone-revetted on the inner faces and formed a long, stone-paved rectangular antechamber inside the gate some 11 meters by 3.8 meters. A further meter inward from the end of the antechamber was the doorway of the largest house, which stood at the center of the rath. This was of figure-eight plan and the larger component, the main house, was 7.4 meters in diameter. It had a central, stone-curbed, rectangular fireplace, also aligned on the easterly axis of the rath layout. The structure, like all the others found in the rath, was double-walled. The inner wall bore the main weight of the structure, whereas the outer wall, spaced 30 centimeters away, mainly served to retain insulating material—grass, straw, weeds and bracken—in place against the inner wall. The smaller "backhouse," which could be entered only from within the main dwelling, was 5 meters in diameter. Its woven walls interlocked with those of the main house showing that the two elements of this figure-eight-shaped house had been built simultaneously. This figure-eight plan was the normal layout for the main dwelling at the center of the rath in other phases.

The walls were woven using a basketry technique, giving an enormously strong structure. The horizontal component of the wall was woven in spiraling sets of 2-meter-long hazel rods twisted around short uprights, giving the courses of the wall a spiralling rope-like appearance. The surfaces of both inner and outer walls were smooth, because the cut ends of the hazel rods were hidden in the space between the walls. The uprights of the wall were composite: they did not run continuously through the full height of the structure. The first set of pointed uprights was driven into the ground about 25 centimeters apart and rose to a height of about 1 meter. When wall weaving reached this height, the next set of uprights was hammered into the body of the woven wall alongside the primary uprights. These protruded up for a further meter, wall weaving continued to that height, a further set of uprights was hammered in, and so on. In one area a large panel of pushed-over walling was found, which would have stood to nearly 4 meters in height, showing that the roof was probably constructed in a similar technique to the walls and not as a separate cone of long rafters.

The central house had two bedding areas, one on the north and one on the south, formed of thin branches and twigs alternately laid radially and concentrically against the house walls. These were filled with finer chopped vegetable material. The ends of the bed on the north were protected by wicker screens fixed into drilled holes in oak beams on the floor, forming bed ends. Two stone-curbed paths ran north and south on either side of the entrance to the main house and curved to the west to provide formal access to two other dwellings. The one on the south was a simple single circular house or hut with a central fireplace and a bedding area on the north. The structure on the north was another figure-eight, but smaller than the central one. The western component of this structure at first stood as an isolated single house, but after some time the larger, eastern component was woven onto the front of it. This may reflect a change in the social status of the occupant of the single home, for example maturity and marriage. The complete doorframe of the primary component of the figure-eight was preserved. This was the outside doorframe of the original single house, which then became the connecting door between the conjoined houses. The isolated house on the south may have been occupied by a single or widowed relative of the occupant of the main central house.

One of the most interesting aspects of the excavation is the close correlation between the archaeological evidence from the site and the details of houses, furniture, fittings, and personal equipment and tools given in the contemporary law tracts on status. These specify the equipment and buildings appropriate to hierarchial grades of free farmers who lived in raths. Hitherto, these legal inventories have been considered by archaeologists as somewhat idealized and not a true representation of reality. The occupants of the rath at this phase possessed many artifacts and craft-techniques listed in the law tracts as appropriate to what would now be termed upper-middle-class farmers. They used a coppicing method to grow hazel for their houses and fences, they wore composite leather shoes, they ate a variety of animal products (cow, sheep, pig), and they had access to a water mill for grinding cereals. The wooden hub and two paddles of a mill wheel were found in the waterlogged midden. The rath occupants wore woolen clothes; they plowed the land (as evidenced by two iron plough tips); they made their own stave-built wooden vessels, probably using light from iron candle and rush-light holders also found in the excavation. They had metal cooking pots and hooks for hanging meat, they cultivated woad for dyeing, and they decorated themselves from an extensive range of metal pins and colored glass beads. More personally, evidence suggests that they and their settlement were occupied by more than sixty species of parasitic and decomposer insect species, in proportions normally regarded as typical of more densely occupied urban sites, such as Viking Age York. From the number of head-louse remains found immediately outside the main central structure, one can picture the family sitting on the end wall of the entranceway combing and grooming one another. Perhaps hair cutting went on at the same time as five locks of cut human hair were found in different levels of the midden nearby.

The deposits in the lower levels of the Deer Park Farms rath were uniquely well preserved, permitting close contact with the life of the people who lived there. In the context of this encyclopedia one is tempted to ask, were these people "barbarians"? What share of their material, cultural inheritance came from a prehistoric insular past and what had been adopted from the Roman world? The round wickerwork houses have not been found in earlier contexts in Ireland, but little is known about houses and settlement in Ireland in the preceding Iron Age. Bronze Age houses, although also of round form, seem to have been made of heavier materials such as stone, clay, and timber. Nevertheless, the round house was essentially a prehistoric form which, uniquely in Europe, survived in Ireland into the historic period. Circular earthworks are known from prehistory but these generally occur in ceremonial or funerary contexts. In turn, this suggests that if there is some continuity with prehistory, the rath enclosures may have had a sacred or legal significance, identifying the special importance of the home place. This could include its significance as the primary domain of women, where household and lighter agricultural crafts were carried out.

Some of the smaller items of equipment found in Deer Park Farms and other raths, such as brooches and iron tools, are of forms that can be paralleled earlier in Roman Britain. Similarly, small enclosed settlements were built in western Britain during the Iron Age and Roman period and some researchers interpret these as being ancestral to Irish raths. The clear view from Deer Park Farms of Slemish, 8 kilometers to the southwest, suggests that the occupants of the rath adhered to the Christian faith of the late Roman Empire, introduced to Ireland by St. Patrick and his contemporaries in the fifth century. Slemish is the prominent hill where St. Patrick is said to have labored as a swineherd some 250 years before the Deer Park Farms rath was built. A small hone, found in the midden layer of the rath, had engraved on it an animal head in the style of the well-known Tara Brooch (from Bettystown, County Meath). Underneath the head is a scratched inscription of seven letters, the earliest archaeological evidence for an awareness of writing in a domestic site in Ireland.


See alsoEarly Christian Ireland (vol. 2, part 7); Raths, Crannogs, and Cashels (vol. 2, part 7); Viking York (vol. 2, part 7).

bibliography

Kelly, Fergus. Early Irish Farming. Early Irish Law Series, no. 4. Dublin: School of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1997.

Lynn, Chris J., and Jacki A. McDowell. A monograph report by Lynn and McDowell on the Deer Park Farms excavation is at an advanced stage of preparation. Some draft chapters may be consulted on the Internet at http://www.ehsni.gov.uk/built/monuments.

Mytum, Harold. The Origins of Early Christian Ireland. London: Routledge, 1992.

Stout, Matthew. The Irish Ringfort. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1997.

C. J. Lynn

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