A crannog is an artificial island usually built in lakes, rivers and estuarine waters of Scotland and Ireland. Crannogs were widespread in Ireland with an estimated 1200 examples. However, the Drumclay Crannog, which is an artificial island built in a lake, is the first of its type to be excavated in the North of Ireland since 1870.

The site of the crannog at Drumclay in Co. Fermanagh has been known to archaeologists since the nineteenth century. The plans for the A32 link road originally envisaged bridging the site, allowing it to be preserved in situ. The plans were changed during the course of road construction and excavation began, directed initially by Declan Hurl and subsequently by Dr Nora Bermingham.

An independent review, ordered by the environment minister in 2012, has revealed that the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) raised concerns that the road would disturb or destroy the archaeological remains of the crannog in March 2008 reported BBC Northern Ireland in 2015. We haven’t been able to find any more recent updates for you.

Poor human judgement and systematic weaknesses

The destruction of part of an ancient historical site during a road scheme in County Fermanagh was due to “systematic weaknesses” and “poor human judgement“, a review of the excavation has found.

The Drumclay crannog, a man-made island settlement, was situated on the route of the A32 Cherrymount link road in Enniskillen, completed in 2012. Construction work on the £16m road scheme was disrupted and delayed. The Audit Office estimated the extra archaeological cost was about £2.5m.

A mapping error during the assessment of route options led to confusion over the crannog’s location, even though it was marked accurately on maps dating from 1835 and 1860. The report said the contractor admitted the breach of its licence, and this was an illegal act which could have led to a prosecutable offence.

NIEA took no further action and instead renewed the licence so that the excavation could continue. The report adds that the conduct of the initial excavation did not meet professional standards.

Drumclay Crannog on the outskirts of Enniskillen

Archaeologists have hit the jackpot with the first crannog to have been dug up in Northern Ireland in 50 years — saying the internationally important find is rewriting our understanding of Ulster’s history.  Normally the approach taken is to avoid disturbing crannogs, but this one at Drumclay on the outskirts of Enniskillen lay in the path of the Cherrymount Link bypass and will eventually vanish beneath the Tarmac.

The excavation in 2012 uncovered remains of 30 houses while digging down three metres of layers. The lake settlement in Fermanagh appears to have been continuously occupied for more than 1,000 years, from the sixth century to the 17th century, and may have been settled earlier.

The dig has revealed a treasure trove of almost 4,000 artefacts (later nearing 5,000 artefacts!), revealing a snapshot of life over 1,000 years. So much has been found that archaeologists have likened it to an urban site transported to the Fermanagh lakeland.

Nearly 5,000 artefacts discovered

Among the most striking finds are a unique wooden bowl carved with a Latin cross, the largest pottery collection ever found in a crannog in Northern Ireland, some exquisite combs made from antler and bone, gaming pieces, leather shoes, bone-handled knives and dress pins. The artefacts uncovered so far date back to 900 AD but there are still a number of layers of settlement yet to be excavated.

Archaeologists believe people may have lived there from 600 AD to 1600 AD, and it was probably the home of a noble family, with perhaps four or five houses inhabited at any time. Parents, grandparents, children and servants would all have stayed on the crannog.

It is thought that the same wealthy native Irish farming families probably lived here for many generations in roundhouses and large rectangular houses, often dismantling their homes after only five to 10 years to build new homes on the same spot.

Stormont Environment Minister Alex Attwood visited the site on Thursday and announced plans for an open day this Saturday to allow the public to tour the crannog and talk to the archaeologists. He said:

“On my two visits to date, I have found the site, the dig, and the archaeology beyond my imagination, enormously exciting and changing my view of our history and Irish life.”

“This is the first substantial scientific excavation of a crannog in Northern Ireland. What has been found has the potential not only to be internationally important but ultimately to lead to a reassessment of life in Ulster in early Christian and medieval times.”

Read the BBC report.

Read the original Belfast Telegraph article.

Read the Society for Medieval Archaeology‘s introduction.

Read a review of Prof. Aidan O’Sullivan: “Why people chose to live on lakes” from the Drumclay Conference 2014.

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