Early Medieval Ireland AD 400-1100: the Evidence from Archaeological Excavations


Authors: Aidan O’Sullivan, Finbar McCormick, Thomas Kerr, Lorcan Harney

Publisher: Royal Irish Academy

Published: 2014, originally 2013

ISBN: 9781904890607

Pages: 584 pages including Appendix tables, Bibliography, Index, plates and figures.

21421361

Synopsis:

How did people create and live in their own worlds in early medieval Ireland; what did they actually do; and to what end did they think they were doing it? This book investigates and reconstructs from archaeological evidence how early medieval Irish people lived together as social groups, worked the land as farmers, worshipped God, made and used objects and buried their dead around them. It focuses on the evidence from excavations conducted between 1930 and 2012 and uses that evidence to explore how people used their landscapes, dwellings and material culture to effect and negotiate social, ideological and economic continuities and changes during the period AD 400–1100.

Review:

As the synopsis says this book uses archaeological finds and data to investigate and reconstruct how early medieval Irish people lived. The book is full of interesting information and not just about the finds but also about how these finds came to be and all the interesting history of the Early Medieval Archaeology Project and all the work that went into it. And it is A LOT!

The book is made up of nine chapters; the last of which, chapter nine, is a conclusion.

The first chapter discusses is an introduction to what is coming.

Chapter two talks about antiquarian origins and the development of archaeology in the 19th century, the university and state funded archaeological excavations in the Republic of Ireland and in the North of Ireland from the 1930s to the 1970s, the origins and development of commercial archaeology after Ireland and the UK joined the European union in 1973, the urban redevelopment archaeology in Ireland during the 1970s to the 2000s, and the NRA road development schemes during the time period between 2000 and 2013 which had archaeologists attached to them. And the politics and dynamics of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland also played a role in how these finds were interpreted and through which lens. This chapter was a bit too full of names, but if you don’t focus on them what is left of the chapter is very interesting, especially how the Irish dealt with the building of the roads and the archaeological finds around them.

Early medieval dwellings and settlements are the subject of chapter three. This chapter does a great job of reviewing the different types of evidence available for secular settlement activities and the knowledge that these activities provide us about the society of the time. This chapter was so interesting to read. Some of it was straight forward telling of what was found on archaeological finds but then rest of it was pure gold.

Chapter four is all about churches, especially their archaeology, but it also talks about burial, and church craftwork. It wasn’t my area of expertise so I was very interested in reading it and digesting it. I still felt though that I needed to understand more that was not possible with this book focused on archaeology.

The next chapter talks about the economy of Medieval Ireland, specifically farming. The big take away from this chapter was that agriculture was the key element in the organisation of early Irish society and the glue that kept it together. For more information on this, Kelly’s book is seminal.

Chapters six and seven discusses Irelands crafts and technologies and their trading. It discusses the technological knowledge and skills needed for the craftwork, the different roles of specialist craftspeople in the community, the networks of production, they way it was used or exchanged, and the way crafts changed across time. I’ve read a few art books and I think this rounds out my knowledge nicely.

The final chapter is death and burial. This final chapter showed that the conversion to Christianity was very slow and very complicated. There was probably a differing pace between locations and regions.

I feel that this book could really be complimented by reading Ireland in the Medieval World AD 400 – 1000: Landscape, Kingship and religion. See my review of it here.

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