Evidence of Wexford's first colonisers uncovered in M11 excavation
While the new M11 bypass was championed as a step into the future, a sign of further progress for the region, it also, inadvertently, provided a glimpse into Wexford's ancient past.
Because before a brick could be laid, a road marking painted, an extensive programme of archaeological investigation was undertaken to ensure any monuments or historic environments located on the proposed route were preserved and protected.
The project was designed to avoid all known archaeological monuments identified within its proximity, and minimise impact on the historic environment of this part of Co. Wexford.
And, following four years of excavations, the team of archaeologists revealed they had found 144 previously undiscovered archaeological sites.
Chief among these was a settlement dating back 9000 years.
Located on a low hill in Ballydawmore, the site is believed to have been populated by a nomadic hunter-gatherer community, the first people to colonise the area.
'60% of the sites excavated showed evidence of prehistoric remains. Wexford would be known for its medieval history but it's very interesting to see its prehistoric past, we celebrate the county's medieval history but these people predate the Normans and would have populated the lands before them,' explained Bernice Kelly, Transport Infrastructure Ireland's project archaeologist for the scheme.
Over 260 flint tools were recovered at the site, and interestingly, some of these tools appear to have been shaped by novices who may have been learning to make and mend implements.
'These people were hunter-gatherers who would have used boats to navigate their way around Ireland. The country was densely forested at the time so they used log boats to navigate its waterways.
'They would have settled close to the waterways of Wexford, a mile inland from the Slaney, next to a stream. They would have been making tools there, in camping sites. There's also evidence of a novice learning his trade, someone just starting out making tools,' said Ms Kelly.
In addition, the archaeologists found several burial sites from the Early Bronze Age, one of which contained two funerary urns.
By examining flecks of bone found in the urns scientists were able to discern that one contained the cremated remains of an infant, while the other contained the cremated remains of several individuals.
'There was different types of burial in the Bronze Age, in some instance only parts of the body were cremated. We don't know what happened to the rest of their bodies, whether they were dispersed, buried, placed in a river or preserved,' Ms Kelly said.
One of the largest Early Neolithic houses ever to be discovered in Ireland was uncovered at Dunsinane. The foundations of this rectangular, two-roomed house, measured 14m by 7m and were up to a metre deep.
This building has since been reconstructed by craftspeople at the National Heritage Park in Ferrycarrig and can be seen on its Prehistoric Ireland tour.
Sherds of Beaker pottery - a highly decorated form of prehistoric pottery - were found at two sites in Ballynabarny, close to the River Slaney. This pottery was used by the first metal-working communities in the locality almost 4500 years ago.
At Drumgold, an oval ditched enclosure encircling an area of 4.3 acres was found. Two circular houses and a large pit were located towards the centre of the enclosure where hundreds of sherds of pottery, possibly used for feasting, were retrieved.
Ms Kelly said the function of the enclosure was unclear but that it may have been the site of a short-lived ceremonial gathering in the Middle Bronze Age, 3500 years ago.
An excavation at Scurlocksbush revealed the remains of a vernacular cottage and two outbuildings, a cobbled yard and laneway. The buildings correspond with structures depicted on the first-edition Ordnance Survey map of 1840. Pottery, candlesticks and clock parts found on the site marked the former residents as wealthier farmers within the local community.
All of the finds from the scheme have been catalogued and conserved where necessary and will be lodged with the National Museum of Ireland.
TII has produced two videos featuring the archaeological investigation of an Early Bronze Age cemetery at Quarry, near Ferns, and the laboratory excavation and conservation of a burial urn from the same cemetery.
These videos can be accessed via the Transport Infrastructure Ireland YouTube channel. A book on these discoveries will be published by TII in 2021.