One of Northern Ireland’s most impressive, but mysterious, ancient monuments will shortly reveal its secrets.
Environment Minister Alex Attwood said today that work has started on trial excavations at the Mound of Down, a monument on the edge of the Quoile marshes on the outskirts of Downpatrick.
The Mound is a huge earthwork with a massive bank and ditch enclosing an area of over three acres. Within the enclosure is a second U-shaped mound around 12.5 metres high, which affords commanding views over the surrounding countryside.
Commenting on the start of the excavation, Alex Attwood said: “The Mound of Down is one of our most important and impressive ancient monuments yet very little is known of its origins or use. One theory is that it was a royal stronghold and that it was built by John de Courcy, the Anglo-Norman knight who led the Norman invasion of Ulster, soon after his victory in the area in 1177. I am hopeful that the Mound will soon begin to give up its secrets and that excavation of the site will reveal why and when it was built. A geophysical survey – familiar to anyone who watches Channel 4’s “Time Team” programme – has already helped to define the excavation trenches.
“A monument of such antiquity and importance deserves to be better known so to help prepare for the excavation, a lot of the vegetation which had covered the site and hidden it from view,has been removed. This has opened up tremendous views from the summit of the Mound and made it more accessible to visitors.
“Further work in 2012 will improve the pathways and new information panels will outline the area’s amazing archaeology and natural heritage attractions.”
Mr Attwood also said that this important excavation will provide an excellent opportunity to tell local schoolchildren more about archaeology.
He said: “Students from several local primary schools will have a unique opportunity to see an important “dig” at close quarters and will be able to get involved in a real excavation. After being briefed in the Down County Museum, the students will be able to work – under supervision – in their own trenches. Volunteers form the local branch of the Young Archaeologists Club will also be involved.”
Dr John O’Keeffe, Principal Archaeologist in NIEA explained: “The Mound of Down project is an excellent example of how we aim to work with other heritage bodies, such as local councils and universities, as well as local communities, to promote our built heritage. We particularly welcome the chance to work with local schools and interest groups in a practical and enjoyable way.”
1.The excavation brings together archaeologists from the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, the Centre for Archaeological Fieldwork at Queen’s University, Belfast and Down County Museum.
2.The site is most commonly known as the Mound of Down, but it is also known as Dundalethglas, meaning the English Mount, and Rathkeltair. The dún placename element, later Anglicised as down, means ‘fortification’, and it may be the site that gave both the county, and the county town, its name.
3.The site has not yet been subject to scientific archaeological excavation, but it is thought that the large earthwork is a pre-Norman fortification, most likely a royal stronghold of the Dál Fiatach, the ruling dynasty of this part of County Down in the first millennium AD.
4.The Mound of Down is located within an Area of Special Archaeological Interest, a planning designation that recognises the fact that this area is rich in archaeological remains, representing an historic landscape of great antiquity and interest. As part of the routine work of the Department, NIEA seeks to protect these irreplaceable assets, through ownership of some sites and statutory protections of others as Scheduled Historic Monuments or Listed Buildings.
5.John de Courcy, the Anglo-Norman knight who led the Norman advance into Ulster, had his first major (and victorious) battle in Ulster near the Mound in 1177. He may have planned to re-use the site as his own stronghold, and the smaller earthwork may be the remains of an Anglo-Norman castle. However, it is an unusual shape, and if it were a castle it was apparently never finished or else it was later damaged.
6.The excavation is timetabled to begin on Monday 12 March, with local schools taking part on 20-24 March. It is a joint project involving NIEA, which manages and presents the site as a monument in State Care; the Centre for Archaeological Fieldwork at Queen’s University Belfast which will be managing the excavation and Down County Museum which will be hosting the local schools and YAC and supervising their involvement in the dig.
7. For media enquiries please contact the DOE Press Office on 028 9025 6058 or out of office hours call the EIS Duty Press Officer on pager 076 9971 5440 and your call will be returned.