27 February, 2015

Fields of Dreams – a Medieval Farmstead at the National Sports Campus

Tim Coughlan describes an excavated medieval farmstead in the Dublin hinterlands.

Pre-development archaeological investigation carried out in advance of the National Sports Campus development indicated features of archaeological origin at Sheephill, Co. Dublin. Subsequent excavation in early 2013 (Licence 13E020) revealed a small complex of early Bronze Age burnt mounds in ‘Area A’ and the remains of an undefended medieval farmstead and post-medieval brick kiln in ‘Area B’. While the complex of burnt mounds at Sheephill was locally significant, in that there was previously little evidence of prehistoric settlement, they conformed generally to current understandings of function, form and date and as such added little to previously known narrative for these site types.

The core of the medieval settlement consisted of small enclosing gullies, pits and a possible hearth situated on a flat plateau adjacent to a small stream. This area was situated in the north-east corner of the development site and produced a high density of pottery further indicating that this was the location of core settlement. The enclosing gullies would have provided drainage to the nearby stream.  To the south of the core settlement an area was enclosed by a series of ditches, creating a small field or pen. Two fields were created as annexes to this field enclosed by a further series of ditches; extending the area of the farmstead to the west/north-west. A number of smaller features (deposits, pits and cistern) were recorded across the site that have been dated to the medieval period either on the basis of their stratigraphic relationship and/or artefactual evidence.

A large quantity of medieval pottery (1,057 sherds) was recovered which suggested a date range of mid-late 13th century. The range of pottery was typical of a medieval farmstead of the period with locally produced jugs, cooking and storage jars and a bowl. The animal bones recovered from Sheephill (weighing c. 10kg) were mostly dated to the occupation of the medieval farmstead. The range of identified species fits with the expected pattern for a medieval rural settlement with livestock and domestic pets dominating the assemblage. The cereal crops recorded from the medieval farmstead represented a typical medieval assemblage associated with an organized managed settlement. The pulse crops identified confirm the late medieval date for the site and reflect that managed garden plots may have been present. A single broken smithing hearth cake was recovered which was well within the range of weights and sizes produced during blacksmithing in the medieval period in Ireland.

Unusually a small fragment of an early medieval glass bangle was also retrieved from a ditch fill. The decorated native Irish bangle recovered from the site is only the second of its particular design to be recorded in the country, making it quite significant. The date for the production of this bracelet (7th and 10th centuries AD) does not correspond to any other recorded activity on the site and in this regard it can be considered as a “stray” find; although it may be indicative of previously unrecorded early medieval activity in the area. The colouring is so striking that it could well have been recovered during the medieval occupation of the site and kept as a keepsake or similar which was ultimately lost or discarded upon abandonment of the site.

By the 14th century a contraction and deterioration becomes apparent in Irish medieval settlement. The combined impact of the Bruce Wars of 1315–18 (when the native Irish revolted against their Anglo-Norman occupiers and undefended settlements in the hinterland became unsafe), several bouts of plague and pestilence (most notably the Black Death in the mid 14th-century), and a climatic deterioration which had a severe effect on Irish agriculture and tillage resulted in population decline. It seems likely that the farmstead at Sheephill was probably abandoned in the first half of the 14th century as indicated by the dating of the pottery assemblage from site.

A number of the more substantial medieval field boundaries were re-cut in the post-medieval period and may relate to the development of agricultural lands associated with the nearby Abbottstown House. A brick kiln was recorded to the north of the farmstead in an area that had been annotated on the first edition six-inch OS map as ‘Brickfields’. A comparison of the brick from the kiln with those in the garden wall west of Abbotstown House confirmed that they are of a similar fabric and identical size. This would suggest that the bricks fired here were used within the surrounding parkland walls.

The findings at Sheephill are locally significant as they provide the first excavated evidence of domestic medieval activity in the immediate area. The site is also of regional and indeed national significance given the paucity of excavated evidence for medieval rural farmsteads and settlements. While the site conforms largely to our existing understanding of the function and form of medieval farmsteads, complimented by the artefactual assemblage, the rarity of the site type in the archaeological record makes it an important addition.


Tim Coughlan, Senior Archaeologist, tcoughlan@iac.ie