Thursday, July 17, 2014

Return of the Phantom Earthwork | a 'fake' ring barrow at Lissindrigan, Co. Galway

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I'm being haunted ... and it's all the fault of modern technology.

I've been dawdling, not knowing how to start this post. Here’s the problem: Just about everyone who has ever written anything – from a school days essay, or a peer reviewed paper, to a bodice-ripper novel – knows that you need to have three things to make it work: a beginning, a middle, and an end. The middle and end aren’t a problem – I’ve got them nailed! It’s the beginning that’s giving me trouble. I’m like the opposite of Mr Spiggott, the one legged actor, applying for the role of Tarzan – it’s not that I am missing a beginning, it’s that I’ve got one too many.

Enough procrastination – I’ll pick one and see where it takes me.

A very fake ring barrow
I think I'll start with I've often described as 'Facebook for nerds' ... and it sort of is. If you're not familiar with the site, it's a place where you can connect and interact with other students or professional academics in your chosen field. Rather than Facebook's ubiquitous posts featuring LOL cats and Star Wars trivia (I'm guilty on both counts), allows you to upload PDF copies of all your publications. It's an amazing resource for maintaining links with other professionals in your field and gaining exposure to the latest research.

But there's a dark side to this. The search capabilities of sites like this are now sufficiently advanced that they can scan other resources external to their own content, and then make suggestions on work you may have published, but neglected to add to the site. I think what's happened is that they've scanned the Archaeology Ireland section of JSTOR and they've come across my first ever published piece in that magazine I love so much. Every time I log on to the site there is a small, discrete notice suggesting that I upload a copy of this missing masterpiece.

Here's the problem ... and part of the reason that I wasn't sure where to start this piece. There’s another beginning. To understand my reluctance to upload a copy of this piece I have to go back a long, long way ... way back to when I was a young and impressionable undergraduate. I can't honestly remember the circumstances, but I do remember being part of a conversation (or, more accurately, hanging around on the edges of a post-grad bitching session trying to look knowledgeable), when the discussion turned to a certain rather pretentious individual. After all these years, I can't even remember who they were talking about, but I remember one sentence as clear now as the day it was uttered: 'I just can't stand him - he's such an arse! Do you know, on his CV he even lists all his published 'letters to the editor'!?' I may have forgotten the person and the circumstances, but this has stayed with me - one never – simply never – credits this form of ephemera.

Obviously, this is exactly my problem … my debut piece in Archaeology Ireland was just that – a letter to the editor! As much as it repulses me to formally acknowledge it and, intellectually, take it under my wing, seeing it pop up every time I log in to is just becoming such a bore. For this reason, you can now read it in all its glory on JSTOR and on And right there, gently reader, we have evidence that cyber bullying has become automated!

To save you all the reading, my piece was in response to Victor Buckley. In a previous edition of Archaeology Ireland (Buckley 1998) he had told the story of being out one evening exercising the family hound on the communal green space near his home. At that time, he had lived in this development on the edge of Drogheda, Co. Louth, for 11 years, but it was only on this specific evening with the combination of the freshly mown grass and the new street light that he saw an exceptionally low-lying and previously unrecorded ring-barrow. At the time I read it, I thought it was a nice little discovery, but something just didn’t seem right. I’ve spent the majority of my professional career in commercial archaeology on building sites. Up until that time, I’d never seen the pieces of land that would eventually become the green spaces cordoned off and left untouched. From then, until I left commercial archaeology in 2011, I hadn’t seen it either. Then as now, I’m not saying that it’s not a genuine ring-barrow, I’m just advising caution above and beyond that normally applied to an unexcavated site.

For quite some time, Victor’s article passed from my mind. As I note in my response, it was only when I was out walking my own family’s dog – a beautiful, lovely, but immensely stupid red setter called Ross – that I noticed the pseudo ring-barrow at the side of my grandmother’s house in Lissindrigan, outside Craughwell, Co. Galway. My original description noted that it '... measures 5.49m N-S externally (3.28m internally) and 5.61m E-W (3.12m internally). The bank is on average 0.1m above the interior and 0.18m above the surrounding ground surface. The interior is also slightly dished towards the centre.’ Because, back then, I was that guy who went about with a measuring tape and note book in case of encountering any interesting archaeology, I was already part way through recording the ‘site’ when its true origin dawned on me. Back in 1978, my grandparents had decided to forsake the family thatched cottage for a modern bungalow, and just where my wonderful ring-barrow lay was where the builders had dumped their sand. To avoid getting soil mixed into the cement, the builders would have shovelled their sand from above ground level. Presuming that they judged their requirement for sand about right, the remains they would have left behind would have looked just like a small ring-barrow formed of a slight, sub-circular bank and having a dished interior. After the house was finished, the remaining sand was quickly colonised by advancing weeds and grasses. For many years after, my grandmother used this little area as the place she fed and watered her flock of chickens.

Somewhere along the line, Buckley’s discovery came back to mind. With a view to as much laugh at my own eagerness to identify/misidentify a site as to provide a caveat to Victor’s discovery, I penned a few lines for Archaeology Ireland and sent it off. An issue or two later it was published, along with a gentle rebuttal and further caveat from Victor himself (Buckley 2000).

THE END … and the middle, too ... just before that.

Except … that doesn’t cover the whole tale … there are other parallel ‘middles’ that never made it into the published version and there are other ‘ends’, too.

Here’s another middle: Back in 2000, I hadn’t published all that much and didn’t have much of a reputation within the industry. Victor Buckley, on the other hand, was well known, well liked, and well respected. He had organised the First International Conference on Burnt Mounds and edited the conference proceedings (Burnt Offerings: International Contributions to Burnt Mound Archaeology). Although, sadly, out of print you can still pick up reasonably priced copies, and it remains a standard text on the burnt mound site type. This was my first ever archaeology conference and it was an amazing experience to see and hear all these academics – many of whom I’d only known through their published offerings – standing up and talking about their work and research. It was an eye-opener in other ways too as I have a distinct memory of a well-known, tenured professor, flirting madly and lasciviously with pretty-much every female there, including his own students … but I digress. This conference was where I first met Victor. On the morning of the second day of the conference he appeared with a large bag of heat-fractured stone from a burnt mound he had excavated and proceeded to hand bits out as souvenirs to all the delegates. Judging by the entries in the database, the material was from either Ballyremon Commons, Co. Wicklow, or Curraghtarsna, Co. Tipperary, both of which were excavated in 1980. Although I’ve seen way too many burnt mounds since [here | here | here | here | here], I still have that piece of broken stone. Because he seemed like a decent individual, and because every once in a while I attempt to overcome my natural inclination towards being an utter knob, I wrote him a letter to say that I’d penned this little piece in reply and that, if it was alright with him, I’d like to send it to Archaeology Ireland. From my records (and, yes, I am that kind of obsessive crazy), I see that I sent him the letter on March 8th 2000. When I’d not heard anything back from him by April 16th, I just thought: ‘To Hell with it! I’ll send it on to Archaeology Ireland and see if they’re interested’. They liked it well enough to publish with a brief response by Victor himself … the end!

The same non-ring barrow from the same angle
... just a different arrangement of ranging rods ...
because that's how I roll!
Here’s another ending: My little piece in Archaeology Ireland was published in Vol. 14, Issue 2 … around June 2000. At just the same time I accepted a job directing excavations on the new motorway bypassing Drogheda. To this end, I moved down to Drogheda and found a place to lay my head in The Green Door Hostel. It wasn’t a bad place to stay, and the camaraderie among the other archaeologists staying there was lovely (As an aside, i'd note that many of whom, I am honoured to call friends to this day). On the other hand, I had spent far too long out of the ‘shared accommodation’ scene and found the realities of a communal dormitory too much to bear. Within a week, I had been offered alternative accommodation in a colleague’s spare room and was damn grateful for it (even taking into account that the ‘let me show you around the house’ tour included an ‘Entrance to Narnia’ style wardrobe filled with pornography and the generous direction to ‘help yourself’ … but I digress). One evening after work, my new Landlord and I were enjoying a quiet pint in one of Drogheda’s finer hostelries. It was fairly quiet in there and the dim lighting, coupled with the cool pints of Guinness, provided much needed respite from the bright, loud, and dusty environment of the excavation and the construction activity on site. I didn’t notice the figure that had slipped quietly into a corner booth behind us until The Landlord nodded in his direction and asked ‘Do you know that guy?’ My memory is of seeing a clump of wiry hair peering over the top of an open copy of The Irish Times and a tweed-sleeved arm reaching out for the pint on the table before him. I couldn’t get a great look at the man, but he wasn’t ringing any bells for me. ‘C’mon, I’ll introduce you’ said The Landlord. With that glow of light-hearted and slightly light-headed amiability that comes from gulping half a beautifully cold pint on an empty stomach, I sauntered across the room, smiling happily. The Landlord made the introductions: ‘Vic – this is Robert Chapple. Bob, this is Victor Buckley.’ I think we both did a bit of a double take – neither of us was prepared to encounter the other in such circumstances as these. For my part, I had a terrible sinking feeling … I had no real idea how Buckley felt about my impertinence in challenging him. He’d certainly never replied to my letter and his, apparently good-natured, rejoinder could – to my increasingly panic-stricken mind – easily mask some anger and bruised feelings. I’m sure it only took a second before he smiled and shook my hand, but it felt like and age as I waited, scanning his face for some inkling of his feelings on being confronted by me in this manner. I needn’t have worried - Victor was absolutely lovely. He’d felt that I’d been more than fair in giving him a ‘heads up’ before submitting the note to the magazine and, as he was particularly busy, didn’t feel the need to reply. Rereading the letter I sent him, I see that I didn’t specifically ask for a yea/nay, so he did have a point. In any event, he was just delighted that people were reading what he’d written and were sufficiently engaged and interested to write back. Altogether, we had a delightful encounter … a couple more pints were had and some food, too. Unfortunately, I’ve only encountered Victor on a couple more occasions in the years since, but on every instance, it has been a joy. There have been occasional pints, along with jokes, stories, gossip, and all the news of the day in the archaeological world.

The End! … The two archaeologists arguing in print meet and find they get on pretty well. In a proper and well thought out movie – like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – the protagonists ride off into the sunset as the credits roll. Definitely the end!

Except …
                … there’s one more ending

Back in the late ‘90s, and even into 2000, I was pretty unfamiliar with email. Even though it was becoming more common, it was certainly not as prevalent as it is today. Back then, I certainly preferred the more formal letter to this new electronic upstart. Today, you’d just attach a PDF or an MSWord document to the email, probably with a photo or two, send the lot off … simples! What did I do? I sent them a paper version of the piece with my cover letter that included the ridiculously formal line: "Should you wish to publish it, please contact me and I will send you a disk copy and the accompanying photograph." … and then I waited. I waited so long that I presumed they weren’t interested in publishing it – not that I could blame them … it was hardly the stuff of legend, destined to set the archaeological world alight. The first inclination I got that the editor was interested in it was when I saw it in print. They’d obviously transcribed the text from the paper version … and they hadn’t asked for the photo. I always thought that this was a pity as my phantom ring-barrow really did look like the genuine thing. In anticipation of writing up this momentous paper, I’d returned to my Grandmother’s house, armed with a camera and a ranging rod and taken a couple of slides for posterity (another part of the middle). I remember looking up from straightening the ranging rods to see my Granny looking out at me from behind the net curtains, no doubt wondering what her eldest grandson was up to this time and why he was so interested in the place she fed her chickens. The slides came back after having been developed and I dutifully numbered and catalogued them and put them away in clear plastic envelopes (just so we’re clear: I’m that type of crazy). In the early part of 2012 I was ‘between careers’ and, as one of a number of measures to relieve the depression of receiving multiple rejection letters for entry-level positions, I set about transferring the slides to digital. When I came to these two photos, I thought: ‘I must write something about these … sometime’. So … here’s my final ending to this story: making these photos of my ‘phantom earthwork’ public, and (hopefully) adding a little to the communal pile of knowledge.

They found me ... now they want me to tag it!


… or maybe not …

Maybe reading this will help make a mental connection for someone, somewhere and help set of a line of thought and research that blossoms and bears fruit for them. Maybe they’ll report back that they’ve seen something similar, or maybe it’ll sit tucked away in the back of someone’s mind for many years and we’ll never hear of it. Maybe there will be new beginnings, middles, and ends, all interlinked parts of this and other stories … maybe you’ll be part of it!

The Beginning? …


If you’re interested in Irish archaeology, you really should have a subscription to Archaeology Ireland. Go and subscribe: here. If they have a space for comments, tell the good people at Wordwell Books that Chapple says ‘Hi’. I’ll not make any money off it and you’ll not get a better deal … but it may just bring smiles to the faces of the good folks who produce this fantastic magazine. Apart from the excellent periodical filled with the latest on all things related to Irish archaeology, every quarter you’ll receive a lovely ‘Heritage Guide’ card. As if this was not enough, you’ll receive access to the Irish archaeology portion of the JSTOR resource, so you can read all the back issues and other great works of Irish archaeology for free!

Buckley, V. 1998 'Walkin' the Dog' Archaeology Ireland 12.3, 4.
Buckley, V. 2000 'Of Folk Tales and Concrete Evidence' Archaeology Ireland 14.2, 44.

Chapple, R. M. 2000 'Phantom Earthworks: A cautionary Note' Archaeology Ireland 14.2, 44.