17 April, 2015

The Paddle and the Point

Christina O’ Regan ruminates on some unusual artefacts recently discovered in Co. Tyrone.


In 2012, excavations were carried out in advance of the A32 Shannaragh Re-alignment Scheme in Co. Tyrone. Four distinct areas of archaeological activity were uncovered including a Late Mesolithic encampment, a Bronze Age burnt mound with trough and a medieval wooden ‘trackway’.

The Late Mesolithic encampment represents a rare discovery of settlement evidence from this period of Irish prehistory. The site was surrounded by boggy, marginal land to the west and south and by the Owenreagh River to the east. Typically for Mesolithic sites, the encampment was located beside a bridge, which (presumably) spanned a natural fording place in the river. The archaeological footprint of this encampment was very slight with a small cluster of pits, hearths and spreads of charcoal-rich sands remaining. Radiocarbon dates taken from charred hazelnut shells dated the settlement to 4368–4237 BC and 4446–4258 BC. No definitive structural evidence was uncovered but it can be assumed small, temporary structures were centred on the hearths identified during excavation.

A small assemblage of lithics was found on site, the most notable of which was a ground siltstone point. It was probably used as a projectile head or spear point, perhaps for fishing salmon or sea trout in the nearby river. This object has been termed a Moynagh Point, after similar objects found throughout Ireland in association with Late Mesolithic contexts. It measures 113mm long, 23 mm wide and 8mm thick and was most likely used for fishing and the processing of foods.

To the west of the Mesolithic encampment, a medieval wooden ‘trackway’ was uncovered adjacent to a Bronze Age fulacht fiadh. The trackway, dated to AD 1018–1205 and AD 1043–1222, was composed of timbers and stakes of alder, willow, ash and hawthorn, which were roughly placed across a water-logged area to create a simple platform. Analysis of the timber species, carried out by Ellen O’Carroll, indicated that the construction of the platform was not dictated by the collection and exploitation of specific species but rather by what was locally available. It is possible that this platform may have allowed access to and from stable areas of peat bog where hunting of wild animals, gathering of vegetation etc. could have been carried out.

Hidden among the alder stakes was a small wooden paddle carved from a single piece of oak. It appears to have originally had a short handle, which was now broken. The absence of oak timbers and stakes from the platform structure suggests a general absence of oak within the wider landscape, or that oak timber was valued and held in reserve for the construction of specific items, such as this paddle. Its presence within the platform structure suggests that it had been discarded, perhaps by a weary oarsman!

Although perhaps overlooked today, the Owenreagh and other minor rivers were important resources in the past; places where people lived, obtained their food and worked with what natural resources were available to them. Such minor rivers were also natural routeways, connecting place to place and each site to the wider world. The archaeology of such places give us some insight into these themes, such as the point and the paddle, two artefacts that each give a small but unique insight into the lives of the people living in the vicinity of the Owenreagh River throughout the millennia.

Christina O’Regan, Senior Archaeologist, coregan@iac.ie