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Aims and objectives

The Irish Fieldschool of Prehistoric Archaeology was formed in 2015 by its field director - Dr Ros Ó Maoldúin and its academic director - Dr Carleton Jones. The aims of the fieldschool are to archaeologically investigate prehistoric Irish societies and provide quality education in the techniques of archaeological excavation.

We are particularly interested in social organisation, social change and the ontologys (world views) of prehistoric and other past societies. We currently have two major projects underway. The Roughan Hill wedge tomb project and the Knockloon Hill ceremonial complex project.

The Roughan Hill project is in its post-excavation phase and we plan to publish a monograph and book within the next two years. You can read more about it here or explore some aspects of the project through the 3D model below.

We have completed two years of survey and one of excavation on the Knockloon Hill project thus far, and plan to continue survey and excavations there for at least another two summer seasons. A link to further details will be provided shortly. In the meantime we welcome you to have a look in our trenches in through the 3D model below. 

The Roughan Hill wedge tomb project

We are currently focusing on the mid-third millennium BC (c.2500 BC) and a particular megalithic tomb type - wedge tombs. 

These tombs get their name from their characteristic wedge shape, which is generally widest and highest at their entrance. They are predominantly orientated to the west or southwest, toward the setting sun, and were built during the Chalcolithic (Copper age) and Early Bronze Age, almost several hundreds of years after most other megalithic tomb types ceased to be built. They are most common in the west and north of Ireland, and Roughan Hill, where we will be excavating, has the densest concentration of wedge tombs anywhere.

Key research questions the IFPA intend addressing include:

What relation is there between the builders of the Roughan Hill wedge tombs and the nearby court tomb? (see previous excavation at Roughan Hill below).

Why after several hundred years of not building megalithic tombs did communities in the West of Ireland commence a new phase of tomb building?

Is there any evidence for the arrival of newcomers on Roughan Hill at the beginning or during the Chalcolithic?

What evidence for ritual practice can excavation of a wedge tomb in the Burren reveal? Is there evidence for for a variety of post-mortem stages, or for the removal and re-interment of bones?

Were wedge tombs limited to funerary ritual or can evidence for other ritual practice be detected?

What evidence for interaction with neighboring or distant groups can be detected?

Is there any evidence for violence on the bone from Roughan Hill?

What can be inferred about the social organisation of the society that built the wedge tombs on Roughan Hill?

The 2017 Excavation

In 2017 we excavated Parknabinnia wedge tomb, probably the best known wedge tomb in the Burren. Our field director Ros is currently writing the preliminary report and details will be uploaded here as soon as it is completed.

The 2017 geophysical survey

In 2017 we conducted a geophysical survey on a hill near our excavation. Our survey director Ger is currently writing up the results and a preliminary report will be uploaded here as soon as it is completed.

The 2016 Excavation

In 2016 we excavated a large dilapidated tomb. It had suffered severe badger disturbance and only one sidestone remained.

Despite the disturbance a substantial amount of human bone, mostly cremated but also unburnt, was retrieved is proving useful for osteological, aDNA and isotope analyses. Several lithics were also retrieved from and around the cairn. These included flakes from two polished stone objects that may have been ritually broken or 'killed'. The 2016 preliminary excavation report can be accessed here.

The 2015  Excavation

The 2015 excavation concentrated on a single wedge tomb CL017-180002, one of sixteen wedge tombs on Roughan Hill.

After peeling back the vegetation, it was clear that, although the tomb’s chamber was small, it was surrounded by a substantial cairn of regularly laid stone. It is believed that most wedge tombs were intended to be accessible, with easily removed blocking stones or had chiselled openings (opes), through which people could touch, remove or replace bones from tombs. The cairn that surrounded this tomb appears to have completely encased it, not allowing for that interaction. Either this represents a different pattern of ritual practice or alternatively the cairn may added during a period during which beliefs had changed or people wanted to restrict access to their ancestors. 

The entirety of the tomb chamber, a one meter wide strip to the front of the chamber and a two meter strip through the surrounding cairn were excavated.

A substantial amount of cremated and unburnt bone was retrieved. This is currently being analysed, but from initial impressions it is clear that there are several individuals and that adults and children are represented among the assemblage. Some of the bone came from inside the chamber and some was stacked up against its outside. The human bone is being analysed by Dr Linda Lynch. Once the osteological analysis is done, radiocarbon dating of this bone will further elucidate the chronology of the tomb. A program of DNA  analysis and isotope analysis is also planned.

Animal bone was also retrieved during the excavation, from within and outside the tomb chamber. Part of a sheep or goat, that was at least partially articulated, was found under a short orthostat at the entrance to the tomb. This may represent the offering of a joint of meat deposited at the tomb entrance. The animal bone is being analysed by Dr Fiona Beglane.

Several lithics were found within the tomb cairn and in the grykes surrounding the cairn. One of those lithics was a c. six  centimetre flint blade. Flint is not geologically native to the Burren but pieces of glacially transported flint are sometimes found. The flint blade from the excavation is unlikely to have been struck from glacially transported flint, however, as there appears to be chalk still adhering to the cortex on its distal end. This artefact is likely to have been transported in its current form from Co. Antrim , or even further afield.

The 2015 preliminary report can be accessed here.


Previous excavation at Roughan Hill

The first phase of excavation on Roughan Hill was directed by our academic director, Dr Jones. Excavations concentrated on a Neolithic court tomb, Chalcolithic to Early Bronze Age settlement enclosures and on establishing the date of the complex of mound walls that traverse the hillside.

Have a look at Dr Jones' publication list for further details.

DNA Research

Due to the spectacular preservation of bone on the Burren it has been possible to extract human and animal DNA from bone retrieved during Dr Jones' excavation of the Neolithic court tomb on Roughan Hill. The extraction of the DNA and its analysis is being carried out by Professor Dan Bradley, Lara Cassidy and their team at Trinity College Dublin. One of the key objectives of the wedge tomb excavation will be to find bone human and/or animal of Chalcolithic or Bronze Age date. This will allow for unprecedented insight into genetic variability over time in a local Irish prehistoric context.    

Isotope analysis

Isotope analysis has been carried out on the human teeth from the Neolithic court tomb on Roughan Hill and on the teeth from Dr Ann Lynch's excavation of Poulnabrone Portal tomb, also on the Burren. These two data sets evidence interesting patterns, in which it is possible to identify persons who grew up on different geology and then moved onto the Burren. Such analysis, when combined with the DNA research, careful chronological control and ethnographic analogy, has the potential to elucidate patterns of interaction between prehistoric groups on the Burren and there interaction with neighboring groups. Another objective of the excavation of the wedge tomb, should suitable material be found, will be to see how such patterns changed over time.