Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Seminar series, lecture 8: “Assembly Places and Hunting Grounds in Medieval Gaelic Ireland”

Our final lecture of the semester was brought to us by Prof. Elizabeth Fitzpatrick of NUI Galway, with her talk on assembly places and hunting grounds.

Going into this lecture, I knew very little of what to expect, sometimes this is often the best way. Prof. Fitzpatrick specialises in the archaeology of medieval landscapes so one thing for sure, it was going to be an interesting talk regardless of your chosen field or interest.

The main question being asked was where were these ritual/social assembly places and their associated hunting grounds. In order to answer this question, Fitzpatrick drew information from numerous sources. These sources included location of certain features on the landscape, type of terrain, place names and folklore. Her search was for these Óenachs (or political assembly places) that often had ritual or funerary connotations and where spoken about in early medieval literature.

In order to locate these Óenachs, sites had to tick certain criteria boxes. These were, but not limited to:
  1. Types of landscapes preferably rocky pastoral terrain, often near forests or wooded areas.
  2. Town lands with old Irish names translated to refer to certain features. Eg. Breic (brack) which means a rocky landscape such as Cloghebrack, Brackagh etc or Formaél meaning bald bare topped round hill such as Ballyformoyle, Fermoyle etc and Ferton meaning small pagan grave.
  3. Linear earthworks near at least one prehistoric burial mound and
  4. Later association with deer parks.

These ritual hunts coincided with these large assemblies and often involved coursing with the hunt focused on wild deer or boar.

Prof Fitzpatrick cited three key sites of her study such as Shantemon, Co Cavan and Teltown, Co. Meath. All of her focused areas matched the criteria she put forth.

She noted that the linear earthworks (often up to 300m in length) were used as a method of controlling the method of animal movement and that the prehistoric burial mound (referred to as the mound of chase/hunt) was used as a hunting platform to oversea the hunt.

The archaeological evidence is limited but not unexpected, as little physical evidence would be left in a hunting scenario. Apart from this, her theory was sound. She used ancient medieval texts especially those focused on tales of Fionn Mac Cumhaill and the Fianna. Topographical and toponymical surveys and soil studies, all of which supported her work.

She concluded her talk by suggesting perhaps experimental archaeology could add more insight in to her research.

Prof. Fitzpatrick's talk was a fantastic end to a seminar series that produced such interesting and unique interpretations and theories. She added a brand new perspective to a rarely understood feature and was able to combine both medieval and prehistoric understandings. Her work will be published next year and I personally consider it a game changer in the studies of both medieval, prehistoric and landscape archaeology.

By Cian Corrigan

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