In this edition of Lesser Spotted UCD, Dylan O’Neill takes a look at the Centre for Experimental Archaeology and Material Cultures.
Located behind Roebuck Castle, not many people know of this history gem that is quite literally off the beaten track, with students having to walk along the hiking trail to reach the centre. However, once you have arrived you will be treated to authentic reconstructions ranging from, “the Mesolithic, earliest in Ireland 7000-9000BC, up to the latest we have is probably medieval. The medieval bread oven over there is probably 1200-1300 AD. It’s kind of a mix,” according to a PhD student working at the centre.
Overseeing the development of the centre is Professor Aidan O’Sullivan, Deputy Head of the School of Archaeology, who describes the centre as the “only dedicated university campus facility for experimental archaeological research, teaching, and public engagement in the world.” Established for the use of Undergraduate and Postgraduate Archaeology students under the MSc programme introduced last year. Under this programme, students are required to carry out a research project within the field of experimental archaeology. A PhD student explained that: “the basis of experiment archaeology is finding a problem in archaeological record, and trying to come up with a hypothesis with how something may have worked.” Isotope preparation and seed and bone analysis are then carried out on the samples in the lab to give an accurate date of the sample’s creation.
“The centre for Experimental Archaeology and Material Culture deserves to be featured as more than an under-appreciated part of an archaeology degree, but as a staple of UCD’s historical renovations.”
Among the reconstructions modeled after findings from excavations, was a Viking house that was located among the Viking Houses in Fishamble Street. “The house was reconstructed true to plan and based on a hypothesis of the way the roof was built.” As the centre is a location for research, the entirety of reconstructions were remade using materials around the period in which it was first built. The anthropomorphic bog figures present were used to identify the markings made either from a flint axe or a metal blade, by charcoal and wood specialists.
An example of one of the smaller reconstructions on the site was the Quorn Hill. Building the hill up from remains that were found at an excavation site allowed the students to experiment and determine how the hill worked. They uncovered key features in the structure such as the flu, for lighting the fire, and the wicker basket that protects it from the weather. “They are features that would have been very common in Ireland, but we don’t really know how they work,” this statement emphasises the need for the field of experimental archaeology. Experimental archaeology allows researchers to answer questions and discover the function of materials from the era under investigation. This comes in particularly handy when the remains that have been excavated don’t match the materials been recorded in literature around the same time period.
Having begun development a year ago, many reconstructions were started at different stages due to size and complexity. The Scottish Mesolithic huts were among the first to be rebuilt, only taking a day to reach completion. One item of particular intrigue is the kiln ovens, a project undertaken by undergraduate students as part of their assessment. The kiln originated in the Roman era, and has been reconstructed entirely from an excavation carried out by the centre. It was used as a method of converting clay into pottery and bricks for structural support.
“Although there are specific open-days for the public, students are welcome to visit the site of the centre, and chat to the researchers working there”
The centrepiece of the centre is the giant crannog, which is a man-made hut that sits atop a lake. Records show that earliest crannogs go back as far as the Neolithic Period in Europe. Of the estimated 1200 examples of fossils located around Ireland, it has been amazingly reconstructed due to it being excavated from a waterlogged building found in Deerpark Farms in Co. Antrim. This example has been dated from between 800 BC to 200 AD. From the wattle and heather that they found on the excavation, they were able re-build the crannog. It even withstood Hurricane Ophelia.
Although there are specific open-days for the public, students are welcome to visit the site of the centre, and chat to the researchers working there. However, caution is advised due to the ongoing work.
The centre for Experimental Archaeology and Material Culture, is “a place where we can train our undergraduate students in past technologies, the reconstruction of ancient buildings, food and cooking, and other types of activities which leave archaeological traces that we find in excavations,” and deserves to be featured as more than an under-appreciated part of an archaeology degree, but as a staple of UCD’s historical renovations.