• Neolithic house at Humphrystown, Co. Wicklow

    As you probably know the weather this June has been pretty awful. As my colleague Tom Condit might say, the weather has been obnoxious. As I write the water levels at the Poulaphuca Reservoir in west Wicklow are as high as ever you might see them. Indeed, it is even hard to believe that this time last year the water levels had dropped right down as a result of a very dry spring. It is even harder to believe that this time last year we were excavating a Neolithic house in the baking sun on the shores of the Poulaphuca Reservoir

    In 2011 the levels dropped far enough to expose a series of archaeological features and artefacts on the shore of the reservoir. I reported some previous discoveries in the pages of Archaeology Ireland (see 2009 Spring edition, and 2010 Winter edition) which included the discovery of a Neolithic house in Baltyboys Upper. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised when Rob Hanbidge emailed me to say that he heard that another Neolithic house had turned up.

    It turned out that in April 2011 Martin Byrne, who lives near the shore of the reservoir at Humphrystown outside Valleymount, had been taking his daily walk with his dogs, when he spotted on the exposed shoreline something that he thought looked suspicious. Indeed, about a year earlier he had been at a lecture that I gave in Blessington where I described many of the finds along the shoreline, including the Neolithic house at Baltyboys. Martin still had an image in his mind of the Baltyboys house and was pretty sure that what he was looking at in Humphrystown was another example. And sure enough, Martin was absolutely right.

    So, this called for another excavation. The Neolithic house discovered by Martin Byrne was only 500m south of the Neolithic house at Baltyboys Upper. Originally, both houses would have overlooked the King’s River, a tributary of the Liffey.

    The rectangular house was defined by a slot trench on three sides, and measured 6.2m long x 4.3m across. The slot trench was missing along the west. It was initially thought that this end of the house may have been eroded away. However, the western ends of the north and south long walls survived to a reasonable depth where they terminated, so it seems unlikely that the absence of the slot trench here was a question of survival.

    There was a gap midway along the slot trench of the south long wall. This gap measured 52cm wide. It is possible that this gap represents the door of the house. Generally the slot trench was filled with lots of burnt clay, and in many places there were significant quantities of charcoal (subsequently identified by Ellen O’Carroll as oak and hazel). A sample of hazel charcoal was selected for AMS dating and returned a 2 sigma date of 3700 to 3630 and 3580 to 3530 Cal BC, firmly placing the house in the early Neolithic. There were a few artefacts recovered, including thirty sherds of pottery which have been examined by Helen Roche, who has estimated the presence of six early Neolithic carinated bowls.

    A number of other Neolithic artefacts were found in the vicinity of the house, all surface finds. These consisted of a stone axe and a number of flint scrapers, including a concave scraper which is typical of the Neolithic in Ireland.

    Today the water levels of the reservoir are very high. This will undoubtedly lead to further erosion, and with the erosion comes the possibility of further archaeological artefacts being exposed and waiting to be discovered.

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