1 June 2010
This day 3 weeks ago I was on top of the keep at Carrickfergus Castle with Hannah and Michael, two members of our Belfast branch of the Young Archaeologist’s Club (YAC). Looking out through the battlements we got a great view over the castle, the town of Carrickfergus and Belfast Lough. Paul Logue (NIEA Archaeologist) had taken us up on the roof, via a damp and dark spiral stairway, as a thank you to the two ‘YAC-ers’ who came out to pose, with Paul, as part of the publicity for the launch of the Archaeology Days 2010 brochure (.PDF 3.32Mb).
We were lucky as the sun shone but it was still cold and windy. The castle sits on a rocky promontory that sticks out into Belfast Lough. It was obviously chosen for its strategic position capitalised by its military occupants over many centuries, but it also catches all the winds blowing up and down the Lough.
I had experienced the castle’s exposed location before having just spent a month on site directing an excavation on the grand battery (also location of the photo shoot – and a good spot to watch the ferries and trawlers come and go…). The grand battery is located above the vaulted storehouses on the eastern side of the outer ward - on your left as you enter through the gatehouse and head towards the keep.
The concrete surface of the grand battery was lifted at the beginning of March in order to lay down a new drainage system to stop problems of damp and water ingress in the vaults below. When the concrete was lifted, much to everyone’s surprise, traces of walls and cobbled surfaces emerged. Building works were immediately suspended and a small team from Queen’s University (including me) cleaned back the site and recorded and excavated it by hand.
The scale of preservation was excellent and all of the built features, walls and cobbling, were left in situ. What we uncovered were multiple phases of building and several different surfaces. The most recent were the foundations of an early nineteenth-century officers quarters which replaced an early eighteenth-century infantry barracks. The latter was stone and brick-built and had an extensive cobbled surface. This building and cobbling in turn post-dated an earlier cobbled surface which preliminary examination of the finds suggests was laid in the sixteenth century or earlier. These cobbles were bedded in sand which overlay a sequence of mixed deposits that must have been imported to create a relatively level surface across the tops if the vaults. Viewing the surface or topside of vaults is not the usual perspective we get of vaulting. We more typically see them from underneath. We found out that the correct terminology is the crown (i.e. apex) and haunch (i.e. side) which we agreed would make a rather good name for a drinking establishment.
The excavations also produced an abundance of finds. These included numerous clay tobacco pipe stems and bowls of various shapes and sizes that should provide, along with the pottery, good dating evidence. We also found two millstones, both broken, a couple of gun flints, a corroded iron arrowhead, a William and Mary halfpenny circa 1689-1694, an ornate glass goblet stem and large quantities of food waste in the form of animal bones and marine molluscs.
I’m heading to Dunluce Castle next Monday for a month with the undergraduate students from QUB, with the YAC visiting en masse on Saturday 12 June, but when I return to the office the write up of the Carrickfergus grand battery excavations awaits…
Emily Murray, Centre for Archaeological Fieldwork, QUB