Public Archaeology

Exploring the earliest connections between Ireland and Wales

Portalis explores the earliest connections between Ireland and Wales dating back to the Early Mesolithic period, (Middle Stone Age), known for its greater innovation and diversity. We do this by consolidating existing evidence and providing new data. We interpret this data into an exciting cross-border narrative.

Public Archaeology collaboration 

Cross-border cooperation is evident in the sharing of expertise in both regions of Ireland and Wales and is necessary to deliver this operation, given the intrinsic shared nature of the operation content. This pilot seeks to identify the platforms and cultural assets that will allow visitors immerse themselves in a cluster of cultural experiences that are connected through time and place as they travel within the Operation jurisdiction. 

Cross-border collaboration is further evidenced in the shared archaeological goals of Portalis. The focus here is on gaining a better understanding of where our earliest ancestors came from, where their sites are and how the landscapes of occupation differed from those of the present day. In order to achieve these objectives, extant museum collections are reviewed, limited fieldwork on new sites is undertaken to understand environmental change and create a common narrative for early occupation.  

This collaborative approach extends to creating Citizen Archaeologist resources and innovative visitor experiences based on authentic and captivating narratives, provide new and widely accessible content. This will be utilised to build on existing research by developing interpretative heritage tourism offers which provides the foundations for enhancing the touristic offers within the cross-border area. 

Portalis cross border activities and measurable outcomes are aligned closely with ‘Archaeology 2025’ by the Royal Academy & Discovery Programme. This is a ten year strategy to guide the future development of Irish Archaeology. It aims to raise awareness of the value of archaeology and recognise that 3D modelling, digital archiving and community archaeology are changing the landscapes of how archaeological investigations are conducted.  

Archaeology in Wales

Excavations at the site at Talsarn in the Aeron Valley in May 2022 allowed us to re-visit our site first excavated in 2019. The site lies at the top of an old infilled glacial lake. When meltwaters finally infilled much of the lake the landscape was transformed into one of low sand and gravel islands surrounded by wetland with reed swamps, open water and small rivers.

In 2019 excavation of one of these islands produced a small number of flint artefacts as well as a partially polished stone axe-head. We hypothesised that this may be around 5-6 thousand years old, used by Early Neolithic groups of people who are usually associated with the introduction of farming and construction of large monuments. 

This year we returned to examine more of this island and to examine a second island to see whether human activity was more widespread in this wetland. Our first island continued to produce artefacts while a small but significant collection of flintwork were recovered from the second island. In total 33 finds were large enough to record in the ground, while a further 15-20 pieces of worked flint, including formal tools, were also recovered from sieving. Significantly a small microlith, probably a projectile point, was recovered from sieving on this second island.

Other pieces include a core, blades and a bladelet, and several flakes which have been used, possibly as scrapers.  It is also clear that people were not only using flint as a raw material.  It may be that local quartz was also utilised, although this is usually more difficult to work into useable tools.

These finds hint at a more complex story as microliths are typical of what has often been considered the final hunter-gatherer-fishers (Mesolithic people). Our excavations at Talsarn suggest a group of people whose way of life reflects connections rather than divisions between Mesolithic hunter-gatherers and Neolithic communities.

A connection with the sea is now clear. Looking at the flint flakes recovered from this year’s excavations, many of the flakes exhibit a cortex (the outer layer of the nodule that has been flaked) that is typical of beach pebbles. Consequently we can envisage people collecting raw material on the beaches, and then heading to the islands at Talsarn to make their tools. But what were they doing here? So far we have no evidence for hearths, pits or other structures which might suggest they were spending any length of time at the site, perhaps they were present fleetingly to hunt wildfowl or fish. We might know more after next year’s excavation.

The Welsh Archaeology Team

Professor Martin R. Bates, Public Archaeology Lead, Portalis

Dr. Samantha Brummage, Portalis Post Doctoral Researcher

Dr. Katharina Zinn

Dr. Ros Coard, Senior Lecturer, UWTSD (vertebrates)

Mr. Quentin Drew, Senior Lecturer, UWTSD (excavation)

Dr. Tudur Davies, Hogg Fellow, UWTSD (pollen)

Dr. Carla Ferreira, Queens University Belfast (pollen)

Dr. Rosie Everett, Lecturer, Northumberland University (pollen)

Dr. Tim Kinnaird, University of St. Andrews (OSL dating)

Steve Thomas, Drone Operator

Jake Whittaker, Videographer

Nicola Sharman, Project Officer

Jody Deacon, Project Officer

Mr Jay Hodges

Archaeology in Ireland

The 2022 research season featured 8 weeks field and lab work to document the earliest and subsequent settlement of the Waterford Estuary and (specifically Fornaught Strand located on its west bank) and to reconstruct the environmental prehistory of this region since the receding of the most recent glaciers 12,000 years ago. The 2022 field season included artefact analysis of current collections and sedimentary coring of the estuary.

Examination of Artefacts and Bones

Our focus on lithic (stone tool) analysis compared a sample from Noel McDonagh’s collection of stone artifacts and animal bones from the Creadan Head area with previous analyses of   lithic artifacts collected during the Bally Lough Archaeological Project in the 1980’s and 1990’s. This lab work reconfirmed that the first colonizers of the area came 9,000-10,000 years ago, during what is known as the Early Mesolithic Period.  This confirms that southeastern Ireland was among the earliest entry points for Ireland’s first settlers.  The artifacts further demonstrate continuous use of the Fornaught Valley through later Mesolithic to Neolithic (first farming) and the Bronze Age (village settlement) of 3,000 years ago.

Our research details the specific type of stone tool making known as Bipolar Knapping during the early Mesolithic that was suitable for making small cutting and scraping tools from local beach pebbles. Crafts people placed the small chert beach pebbles on other stones and hit them with larger hammer stone. Beginning in the later Mesolithic, bipolar technology was complemented by the more common platform technology where larger flints were handheld and chipped to create larger flakes, blades and other tools.  These larger flint stones were probably imported during their settlers’ seasonal settlement movement and exchange networks.

The McDonagh collection included one Red Deer Antler that was fashioned into an axe. It has been sent for C14 dating and is expected to match another antler and the Fulacht Fiadh that dated 2800 BP.

Environmental Coring

A team of geo-archaeologists spent one week coring the Fornaught strand, its intertidal zone, and the adjoining marsh using a Geoprobe brought in from Belfast.  Approximately 2 dozen cores were drilled to reveal the depositional layering of Fornaught Strand over the past 12,000 years. These cores were cut and sampled in the lab. The samples are now being prepared for specialist analysis that will date the layers, reconstruct the vegetation, and reconstruct salinity, sea level and overall climate of the region as it has changed over the past 12,000 years.

The Irish Archaeology Team

The Irish Archaeology Team

Dr. Stanton Green, Professor Emeritus, Monmouth University, US

Dr. Joseph Schuldenrein, President Geoarchaeology Research Associates, US

Claudia Green, Independent Archaeologist, US

Dr. Thomas Kador, University College London, UK

Dr. Heidi Luchsinger, Professional Geoarchaeologist, SWCA Environmental Consultants, US

Sophie Green, Professional Graphic Designer and Photographer, US

Julia O’Donoghue, Certified Archaeologist, Mizen Consultants, Cork

Dr. Peter Rowley- Conwy, Professor Emeritus, University of Durham, UK

John Castleford, Professional Archaeologist, Rosslare, Republic of Ireland

Conor Donegan, MA History, Dunmore East, Republic of Ireland

Dr. Linda Scott Cummings, Paleo-Research Institute, USA

Robert Barry & his Geoprobe Crew, Antrim, NI, UK

Brian Gordon Phillips, Local Liaison, Dunmore East, Republic of Ireland