Recent geophysical investigations in Co. Meath by the Discovery Programme’s Late Iron Age and ‘Roman’ Ireland (LIARI) project have revealed a remarkable array of archaeological monuments and features, many of which represent new discoveries.
Building on a substantial body of research undertaken by the Discovery Programme in the Meath/north Dublin region since the early 1990s, the surveys mark the beginning of a new phase of
LIARI field work which is targeting a selection of prominent hilltop sites that are suspected – on the basis of archaeological, topographical and early documentary evidence – to have been important focal centres in the early centuries AD. Archaeology students and graduate researchers from the National University of Ireland, Galway, University College Dublin and University College Cork are participating in the investigations, which will continue through the coming months.
The Hill of Lloyd
One of the principal sites targeted for geophysical (fluxgate gradiometer) survey to date is the Hill of Lloyd, which overlooks the early monastic foundation at Kells and lies in a region renowned for its wealth of major archaeological sites, including the largest concentration of recorded late Iron Age sites in Ireland. Dominating the western approach to the Blackwater valley and the landscape of central Meath, the Hill of Lloyd (ancient Mullach Aite) is perhaps best known as the site of a prehistoric hillfort (RMP ME016-054), the circuit of which has yet to be precisely mapped on the ground. Indeed, although a variety of features, including traces of several large enclosures, are visible on the hill today – and were mapped in greater detail by a recent LiDAR survey commissioned by Kells Heritage Park Limited – some of them appear to have been modified (if not created) in recent centuries through landscaping or for agricultural purposes. Analysis of the LiDAR data from the Hill of Lloyd by Dr Steve Davis, UCD, will no doubt shed further light on the morphology and potential significance of these low-profile features.
The LIARI survey, which represents the first dedicated programme of archaeological investigations at the site, has revealed an even more complex picture, with funerary and possible ceremonial and/or settlement-related activities indicated by the wealth of new features uncovered. Alongside a significant number of burial ‘ring-ditches’ and other small enclosures, the survey has provided additional insights into what appear to be no less than four large, roughly concentric enclosures surrounding the hilltop. The gradiometer survey suggests that the inner (summit) enclosure, which has a projected diameter of about 100m and a possible east-facing entrance, is defined by two closely spaced ditches, each probably originally accompanied by an internal earthen bank. One of the enclosure banks survives as a low-profile undulation and is clearly visible on LiDAR imagery. Just inside the line of the inner bank the survey revealed traces of a possible foundation trench for a timber palisade, which may have been burnt in antiquity. Unfortunately, ground disturbance resulting from ridge-and-furrow cultivation in recent centuries makes it difficult to distinguish any features or structures inside the enclosure, though it is likely that the high level of magnetic variation recorded across this area relates to the displacement of soils/deposits from truncated archaeological features.
Encircling the summit enclosure at a distance of 10-20m is a second enclosure, in this case defined by a single ditch, which is surrounded in turn by yet another, much larger enclosure with a projected diameter of approximately 250m. The geophysical and topographical evidence suggests that the latter enclosure is trivallate in form, though it has been considerably disturbed by later features and ploughing.
While the date and function of the various features revealed by the survey cannot be determined on the basis of geophysics alone, it is interesting to note that other, large, prominently sited enclosures (>80m diameter) defined by closely spaced multivallate boundaries, such as the Rath of the Synods on the Hill of Tara, and Garranes and Ballycatteen, Co. Cork, have been shown by excavation to range in date from the second to early seventh centuries AD. A similar, late Iron Age or transition period, date might be tentatively proposed for the multivallate enclosures on the Hill of Lloyd, which had clearly developed into a centre of some importance prior to the establishment of the monastery at nearby Kells.
Geophysical survey by the LIARI project in the Meath/north Dublin region is ongoing and the results will be posted on the website in due course. The Discovery Programme would like to thank Susan Curran (UCD), Lorcan Scully (UCD) and Karen Mulryan (NUIG) for all their hard work and enthusiasm during the surveys; Kells Town Council for facilitating the work on the Hill of Lloyd; and Kells Heritage Park Limited and Dr Steve Davis for access to the LiDAR data.
Header Image : Results of gradiometry survey (unprocessed data; 0.25 x 1m spacing) overlaid on an aerial image of the Hill of Lloyd.
Contributing Source : Discovery Programme