05 Dec 2021

Archaeologist explains significance of recent ancient Donegal artefacts discovered in Ballyshannon

Captine, bronze age burial urn, minature ring ditch and water rolled stones add up to tell great story

Additional  Donegal archaeological discovery at new Sheil Hospital project in Ballyshannon

Excavation work taking place on the Ballyshannon capstone

A significant second archaeological discovery in south Donegal last week has created great excitement when made just days apart. caught up with archaeologist Tamlyn McHugh to explain what has been happening there in recebnt weeks.
The HSE had just begun excavation works at the building site of the new community hospital project at the existing Sheil Hospital site in Ballyshannon when the discoveries were made on the site by archaeologist Tamlyn O'Driscoll McHugh, consisting initially of an ancient burial capstone and later a Bronze Age burial urn.
Tamlyn was carrying out normal site analysis and supervision as the construction site was over a hectare in size and less than 1km away from the nearest urbanised area.

(Caption: Eugene Anderson, Tamlyn McHugh, Ciaran Davies and Leo Leydon keep a watchful eye on the 

Bronze Age burial urn) 

She told the paper:
“On the edge of the site was a boulder just under the pavement of the allotment. We couldn't take it any further at the time as that was the edge of the boundary at the time, so I flagged it as I thought that might be something of archaeological interest.”
Tamlyn had no idea what was in store, but she undertook the normal archaeological analysis that might help identify areas of potential interest.
She was aware of the discoveries at Ballyhanna and artefacts that had been found along theriver over times past, but was deligted when she and her team found mre than they could have hoped for.
And in situations like this, which is called 'rescue archaeology', it was then a race against time to get as much archaeology excavation work done on the site as was possible, so the work continued over that initial first weekend as well, upon its discovery.
The site is almost directly opposite the Ballyhanna skeletons and graveyard discovered in 2003 by archaeologists on the southern Clogher side of the Erne River during the construction of the N15 Ballyshannon bypass, but significantly thousands of years apart in terms of the area's archaeological heritage.

Caption: Carefully wrapping the Bronze Age burial urn is Susannah Kelly 

The National Monuments Service and National Museum were made aware of the unearthing of the capstone on Monday August 24 and a team of three archaeologists began carefully examining the area where the capstone was unearthed and a wider area close to it.
On Friday August 28 the capstone was carefully removed from the site for further examination and analysis.
It comprises a large flat sandstone boulder complete with rock art in the form of cup marks incised into its upper surface.
The capstone did overlay a small amount of cairn material within a large pit, which was fully investigated but contained no burial.
Subsequent further archaeological investigations have uncovered the remains of an inverted urn burial.
Urn burials date to the Bronze Age and comprise a large ceramic pot usually highly decorated; and containing cremated remains.
The urn was later removed by Specialist Conservator Susannah Kelly and the cremated remains recovered will be analysed by an osteoarchaeologist in Limerick and the results will be presented in the site excavation report.
Tamlyn said: “We had targetted our trenches to where we thought we might pick up stuff.”
This was because there had not been any previous geophysical surveys done on site and it was quite heavily grown over.
“So the only way, was to get in there and clear back the area around the border and see what was there.”
Things also improved when it was decided that the allotment area would be used for the burial of knotweed, by the developers.
That got better access to the capstone and she was very pleased to see some evidence of rock art on the stone, as it's unusual in this settings. She described the art as “very simple cup marks with a double ring on it.”
“It also has notches along one side but we believe to have been made by ploughing activity in later times. These are not rock art. But we have have no idea why it was buried.”
“I think that we only have a portion of the site. It was probably a lot more.
“There was remnants of cairn activity slumping into the pit, below the boulder, possibly with some of the materal being moved over time.”
“We would date the capstone (or boulder burials) to about 2,500 BC to 500BC so at least 3,500 to 4,000 years old.”
“Upright stones round this area were unusual, so we excavated this and then recovered the rest of the site.
“It turns out that we have at least 12 cremation pits.


All photos in this article are Copyright of Fadó archaeology

“These are very shallow pits that are filled with charcoal and cremated bone.
“Some of them were just presenting as a scatter of bones.”
“Everything has now been recovered and we worked very hard over the last two weekends to complete the work, to free up the area for the construction company.”
Other interesting discoveries included a minature ring ditch with water rolled stones from the nearby Erne, “all the same size and deliberately placed.”
Post excavtional analysis will continue in the months ahead before a final report is published.

Amazing experience

It was also an great experience for others. Eugene Anderson is a fourth-year undergraduate studying Archaeology at IT Sligo who lives in Donegal Town and is closely associated with the ongoing Disert Heritage project near Letterbarrow.
He told

“I was asked to help complete the rescue excavation at the Sheil Hospital in Ballyshannon after the extent of the archaeology was more than expected.
“Pits with burnt bone, a ring ditch, a flagstone with possible cup-marks and an upturned urn containing bone. Even one of the features would have been phenomenal in an excavation.
Working alongside professional archaeologists who were willing to share their knowledge and expertise was invaluable to a student.

The experience of revealing archaeology and recording it brings all the theory taught in the classroom to reality.”
Shane Campbell, HSE Estates Manager, North West who was present at the unearthing said:
"The earth removal work is part of an overall €21 million euro construction of the new Sheil Community Hospital.
“ I wish to offer reassurance that work is continuing on site as planned.”

He thanked Tamlyn McHugh and Fadó Archaeology “for their painstaking work in uncovering these significant historical artefacts and ensuring they are properly conserved”.

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