Community Archaeology in Fingal

The Digging History project, established by Fingal County Council with the support of the Heritage Council, has become the model for community archaeological projects elsewhere in Ireland. 

In 2015 when Swords Castle finally re-opened to the public (once essential preservation work had made it safe to do so), it was time to help locals reconnect with this national monument. Christine Baker, then Community Archaeologist for FCC, organised an Archaeofest in the castle grounds incorporating various historical activities to engage the imaginations of young and old. 

Later that year Christine organised the first of three archaeological digs in the grounds, led by herself and three other professional archaeologists. The majority of the physical work was undertaken by the hundreds of volunteers, aged from 18 to 90, under their direction. The aims were to fill in the gaps in our knowledge of the castle’s history, and to encourage the public to learn more about their heritage. Much was learned about hidden structures, and the daily life of those who’d lived and worked in what’s actually an Archbishop’s palace.

On March 29, 2022 in the restored chapel Christine Baker launched her fascinating book “Swords Castle – Digging History: Excavations 2015-2017.

It was published by Wordwell, and can be purchased online. 

FCC with the support of the Heritage Council later engaged Christine Baker, now Heritage Officer, to run successful community digs at Bremore Castle and The Naul. 

In 2017, FCC acquired the approximately 44 acres site at Drumanagh, which lies between the villages of Rush and Loughshinny in North County Dublin. This nationally important Iron Age (400 BC to 400 AD) promontory fort with its link to the Roman world needed scientific investigation. 

Thanks to their previous sucesses, FCC and the Heritage Council were given ministerial permission for three archaeological excavations so far at this site. Under the direction of Christine Baker these have been community digs, involving other professional archaeologists and hundreds of keen amateurs of all ages and from all walks of life. These occurred in 2018, 2019 and 2022. 

Further information about these can be found here

Who Can Participate and How?

Volunteers for digging need to be over 18 years old, but there is no upper age limit. Fortunately most of us enthusiasts in the older age bracket (60+) have always been able to keep up a steady pace, and rise to the physical challenges of digging, trowelling etc.

Volunteers with mobility problems can attend the equally  important washing of the finds at Swords Castle, where there is running water. 

Digging at Drumanagh in 2022

From August 17 to 31, 2022 I once again hung up my Swords Tidy Towns vest for the duration of this year’s community dig. It was time to put everyday life aside, and to try and imagine life in a very different time. 

The geophysical survey indicated that there could be an a road beneath our trench. Was it a recent one, or one from ancient times? What evidence of daily life would we uncover? 

On day 1, a motley crew of amateurs gathered to remove the sods of grass from the trench, which was outlined in string. These sods are always put to the side until the end of the excavation, when we fill in the trench with the waste and re-sod it. Within a matter a weeks, Mother Nature will ensure that all signs of disturbance will have vanished. 

It’s amazing how quickly bonds can be formed between like-minded people, and how almost immediately we begin to operate like a team. Some of the volunteers were veterans of previous excavations, but once again there were lots of new faces. A sense of camaraderie developed very quickly, as we are all united by a common passion.

There is always much laughter and interesting exchanges. So many of the volunteers are people who’ve never had the opportunity to study archaeology formally or to participate in a real life dig, but who have read a lot of history or who’ve watched good documentaries. 

In the quiet moments at Drumanagh the air is filled with birdsong and sounds from the sea. The views are  magnificent. Directly opposite lies Lambay Island.  Rush is to the south. On the other side is Loughshinny, with its amazing sedimentary rocks, pushed into a zigzag shape by the collision of Spain into the coast of Ireland in ancient times. 

All of Christine Baker’s community excavations have been run on a very professional basis. The archaeologists involved always explain why we can dig with a mattock in some sections at times, and why we need to use a trowel at other times. There is a separate finds tray for each level that we uncover, and photographs and observations are made before digging down to the next level. 

Soil from each level is dumped into individual areas. This soil is then sieved by volunteers, and finds are placed in the appropriately marked trays. The mantra is “When in doubt, don’t throw it out!”. When find trays are routinely checked, the novice can feel disappointed that the piece of pottery they’ve found is in fact just an “interesting stone”. Some finds turned out to be evidence of trade with the Romans e.g fragments of amphora prove that olive oil was imported in such vessels. One eagle-eyed lady found the handle of a wooden comb, and the matching end turned up in another tray. At the end of the day, a fun “award” is given for the find of the day, but it is definitely a team effort. 

This year we reached natural without finding any artefacts since the Iron Age, unlike the two previous digs where we also had finds from the medieval period and the 19th century. This year’s geophysical survey seemed to indicate a road from the coast inland, but it is more likely that this was in fact the base of two houses. As usual there will be a get together of participants in the Spring, where results of the excavations will be explained.

On the final day the last professional photos and measurements were made, and more  drawings on grids were done to show what lies on the final surface.

Then the business of filling in began. Here there’s no painstaking replacement of soil back to where it came from. It’s a question of filling wheelbarrows with sifted soil, and dumping it in the trench. At intervals the volunteers jumped into the trench to flatten the soil, trying to outdo one another with silly dance moves. 

The post-evacuation stage took place in the grounds of Sword Castle. Despite the unfortunate weather there was a good daily attendance of volunteers. It’s always fun to reunite with those friends from previous excavations, who can’t dig but who can do the important task of cleaning the finds. This year we had lots of animal bones. Archaeologist, Siobhán Duffy is our expert on bones, and she supervises this stage of the operations. 

Once they’re dry these are bagged and labelled according the feature number, in which they were unearthed, and sent to the National Museum. 

It’s such a privilege to be able to take part in the excavations at important national monuments in Fingal, under the direction of professional archaeologists, who are willing and able to share their expertise. 

Roll on Digging Drumanagh 2023!