25 February, 2020

Pussycat, pussycat, where have you been?

Muireann Ní Cheallacháin shares recently discovered archaeological evidence for wild cat in the Dublin hinterlands.

In 2018 an array of archaeological investigations, including impact assessment, geophysical survey, test trenching, monitoring and excavation, were carried out in advance of development in the townland of Sheephill at the National Sports Campus, Abbotstown, Dublin 15 (Fig. 1–2). The excavation, carried out under licence 18E0341, was undertaken to preserve-by-record archaeological features which had been identified in the earlier investigations. Prior to development the site formed part of a level field of pasture, bound by trees and hedgerows. Previously recorded archaeology in the area includes remains of prehistoric burnt mound activity, medieval farmstead and post-medieval brick works c. 100–250m west and north of the current site excavated by Tim Coughlan for IAC in 2013 (Licences 13E0020 and 13E0134).

Three phases of archaeological activity were recorded at Sheephill, beneath well-ploughed agricultural land (Fig. 3). The earliest evidence for human settlement comprised of a cluster of Bronze Age pits associated with burnt mound activity (Fig. 4), radiocarbon dated to 2192–1978 BC (2-Sigma, UBA-39896). This is contemporary with the burnt mound activity excavated in 2013, some of which has been added to the SMR as DU013-147. Further to the south early medieval activity was recorded in the form of a possible waste pit and a large hearth/pit which have been radiocarbon dated to AD 686–882 (2Sigma, UBA-39897) and AD 662-774 (2Sigma, UBA-39898). Later activity in the medieval period relates to a series of short curvilinear slot trenches of undetermined function, radiocarbon dated to AD 1034–1158 (2Sigma, UBA-40271), which were located adjacent to the prehistoric pits. A waste pit which was truncated by one of these medieval slot trenches and a charcoal-rich spread were also located to the north (Fig. 5). Given the stratigraphic relationship with the medieval activity and proximity to the Bronze Age pits, the waste pit and spread have been interpreted as probable prehistoric features. The modern agricultural use of the site is also confirmed by the presence of three modern ditches and field drains.

A moderate quantity of animal bone (n=207 elements) were retrieved from all phases of activity at the site and submitted to faunal remains specialist Margaret McCarthy for analysis. For the most part, the results of this analysis were as expected with mature cow molar and long bone of indeterminate species recovered from the Bronze Age pits and the remains of cattle, sheep/goat, pig and horse recovered from the medieval slot trenches. The charcoal spread and waste pit, which are interpreted as prehistoric activity, also contained faunal remains. Elements of a dog, cattle, goat and pig were recovered from the charcoal rich spread. Similar remains (cattle, pig, sheep/goat) were identified in the waste pit, with the interesting addition of a single bone from a probable wild cat.

The cat bone was identified as a portion of a maxilla from an adult individual, presumably from the wild form of cat (Felis Sylvestris; Fig.6). Ireland has only fourteen native species of mammal and four of these (wild boar, wild cat, brown bear and wolf) are now extinct. Evidence of wild cat is very rare and has only been identified at a handful of archaeological sites to date. A range of species from Wild Cat (Felis Silvestris Shreber, 1777) to red fox were identified by Roche and Stelfox in 1935 at Kilgreany Cave in County Waterford but based on the disturbed nature of the context they were unable to give an estimate of age. The earliest evidence for wild cat identified on an archaeological site was at the Mesolithic site of Lough Boora, Co. Offaly. They have also been identified at the Neolithic sites of Lough Gur and Newgrange and in a middle Bronze Age faunal assemblage from a double-ditched enclosure site at Chancellorsland, Co. Tipperary.

The absence of certain animals from the archaeological record at varying times is accepted as evidence for their waning use or availability. There is no evidence of red deer after the Younger Dryas glaciation (c.12,000 years ago) and they do not reappear in the fossil record until the Neolithic period. The absence of red deer as well as other species such as badger, fox, pine marten and squirrel during the Mesolithic would have resulted in different choices being made for skins used for clothing. This may explain why hare bones seem to occur more frequently on Irish Mesolithic and Neolithic sites than elsewhere. The presence of small quantities of wild cat at the prehistoric sites of Lough Boora, Newgrange, Lough Gur, Chancellorsland and now Sheephill is perhaps evidence of wild cat also being hunted for their skins rather than as a food resource.

Archaeological evidence has shown that the wild cat seems to disappear from the Irish record at the end of the Bronze Age and the wild cat bone retrieved at Sheephill does not dispel that theory. A documentary reference to ‘Two skins of Mountain Cats’ (presumably wild cats) being imported into Ireland in AD 1172 seems to imply that wild cat pelts were no longer available in Ireland. Domesticated cats were introduced into Ireland in the later Iron Age or early medieval period and there is archaeological evidence for the exploitation of domesticated cats for their skin.

The findings at Sheephill are significant as they provide the first excavated evidence of wild cat in the Dublin area. On a national scale this is also important given the paucity of excavated evidence for wild cat in Ireland as a whole.

Muireann Ní Cheallacháin, Excavation Director, mnicheallachain@iac.ie

Further reading

  • Coughlan, T. 2014 Final Excavation Report for Sheephill, Co. Dublin: National Sports Campus (Licence 13E0020). Unpublished report prepared by IAC submitted to the National Monument Service.
  • Coughlan, T. and Moraghan, M. 2014 Final Excavation Report for Deanestown, Co. Dublin: National Sports Campus GAA Pitches (Licence 13E0134ext). Unpublished report prepared by IAC submitted to the National Monument Service.
  • Coughlan, T. 2015 Fields of Dreams – A Medieval Farmstead at the National Sports Campus. Article uploaded to IAC Website on 27th February 2015.
  • McCarthy, M. 2008 The faunal remains from site A. In M. Doody (ed.) The Ballyhoura hills project, Discovery Programme Report 7. Discovery Programme, and Dublin.
  • McCarthy, M. 2019 The Faunal remains at Sheephill, Abbotstown. Unpublished specialist report prepared on behalf of IAC.
  • McCormick, F. 1999 Early evidence for wild animals in Ireland. In N. Benecke (ed.) The Holocene history of the European vertebrate fauna: modern aspects of research, 355–371. Verlag Marie Leidorf Gmbh, Rahden/Westfal.
  • McDevitt, A. & Carden, R. 2012 Ireland’s ancient deer.
  • Ni Cheallacháín, M. 2019 Final Report on Sheephill, Abbotstown, Co. Dublin (Licence 18E0341). Unpublished report prepared by IAC submitted to the National Monument Service.
  • Van Wijngaarden-Bakker, L.H. 1989 Faunal remains and the Irish Mesolithic. In C. Bonsall (ed.), The Mesolithic in Europe, 125–133. Edinburgh. John Donald.
  • Woodman, P.C., McCarthy, M. & Monaghan, N. 1997 The Irish Quaternary fauna project. Quaternary Science Reviews, 16, 129–159.
  • Woodman, P.C. 2014 Ireland’s native mammals: a survey of the archaeological record. The Irish Naturalists’ Journal, 33, 28–43.