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Thomas Meinecke in Dublin

If perchance you’re reading this in Dublin and are looking for some free exposure to contemporary German culture (as an antidote to the hegemonic sway of the Bundesbank), come along to the Dice Bar where there’ll be a little reading, but mostly some one-handed action on the decks (err… an unfortunate consequence of a recent accident on the piste) from the legendary Thomas Meinecke.

The playlist is mostly the soundtrack of Thomas’s recently translated first novel, Tomboy, which, with some humour (or even humor), elucidates on the fundamental cultural significance of figures such as Jacques Lacan, Judith Butler, Madonna Ciccone, Lisa ‘One Eye’ Lopez and, rather too fleetingly, Uschi Obermeier. That this critical interrogation is undertaken by a loose, self-indulgent collective of sexually multifunctional friends working and studying in Heidelberg, places the book to some extent within the (t)horny canon of the university novel. However Thomas goes further and pens a theoretical enquiry uniquely his own, one which, as was pointed out on Wednesday night in Trinity, writes a primary source of a secondary source. Or something more or less unashamedly post-postmodern.

Tomboy’s a funny book. The long cadences of the German are retained in the translation, rendering something of a difficult, but as they say, a rewarding experience. I think Thomas has about 10 copies left which he’ll sign and give away for the price of a pint.

Thomas is of course of the great Munich band FSK, a favourite band of John Peel’s; the band recorded their last Peel session a few days after the great man himself died and they’ve negotiated with some skill their way across many of the contours of rock’n’roll since 1980. Like The Fall: always changing, always better. They’ve a new lp (as in a vinyl album and download) out in May.

You can read more about FSK over at the Cedar Lounge: http://cedarlounge.wordpress.com/2010/11/06/this-weekend-i%E2%80%99ll-mostly-be-listening-to%E2%80%A6-fsk/

Afterwards, we might do a wee interview thing on FSK and their few years on the York label Red Rhino and talk more about the other musical contortions they’ve achieved and so beguiled us with over the past 32 years.

Anyway, the Dice Bar in Smithfield this afternoon, Thursday.

The news from Tulla

In the last post I mentioned an edge which possibly marked the end of the area of redeposited subsoil, which we suspected was invisibly present there, somewhere… introduced to form a level platform over the sloped area. I also talked about a possible souterrain, which, as it happened, turned out to be another drain cut down the hill, which someone had backfilled with redeposited (or redeposited redeposited, if you get my drift?).

Trying to find the sides of the drain cut was a chore but last week we noticed a slight variation in the ‘subsoil’ at either side of the drain cut. After more messing trying to get sides that made sense, we exposed the upper fill of an enclosing ditch extending through the site at the very edge of Westropp’s annotation on the map (see previous post).

Where the upper levels are undisturbed, it’s likely the ditch was something like 1.8-2m in depth and about 2-2.4m across, with the primary upcast possibly forming a bank on the inside. We have it for about 35m and are taking out sections to record profiles and extract acceptable samples for 14C processing.

One lovely find so far, recovered from the top of the primary silt fill, was sealed by the backfilled redeposited. It’s an off-cylindrical grinding stone with an off-centered squared hole (where one side of the stone is more worn than the other. It probably sat on a tressle, the timber shaft through the stone turned by a bow or perhaps a handle.

The object, we were told had a parallel in a yard a few miles outside Tulla and indeed, it is quite modern in its appearance. Its find spot however is somewhat ambiguous, where it was found resting on the upper layer of silt, but directly sealed by the, yup, redeposited backfill. So, was it deposited with the silt towards the time when the ditch was falling out of use or was it thrown in with the redeposited, suggesting this activity took place certainly into the post medieval period? No research has been attempted on the grinding stone as of yet. Has anyone encountered anything similar on early medieval sites or am I stuck with an object which merely points towards the time when the enclosure was backfilled?

Frank Coyne kindly came out from Limerick with a handheld device which pinged the feature as it curved gently across the area of excavation. Should the curve be extrapolated around the church at a similar contour, the enclosure would appear to tie in well with the break of slope visible at the southeastern side of the church. Placing the early church at the centre of the enclosure on the hilltop, it’s immediately evident that the early church must have been immediately north of the existing structure, where Westropp said it was.

As you can probably see, the ditch has a sharp slope on the inner side (left), with a shallower though more vertical slope to the outside. One can only assume the upcast was thrown up along the inside to form a bank, which probably made its way back into the ditch as it was being closed up.

One section we excavated appeared to have a much lower fill, lower in fact than the actual cut. Yup, a good thick layer of pure silt in the natural, about 400mm below the flat base of the enclosure ditch cut. What did we do? Dug a huge bloody hole through the natural we did, to see basically if we were dealing with an enclosure ditch the size of say, Downpatrick’s. It seems however we weren’t.

The hole we dug to a depth of about 2200mm into the natural; we were looking for some indication that there migh be a much bigger feature here and that the enclosure we were dealing with had been a mere recut all along. We stopped depth-wise at a point where the boulder clay peeled off a very hard surface of the same material. Had we found the bottom of some huge enclosure or some geological feature suggesting natural stratification in the subsoil? Hmmm… the latter unfortunately.

So where now? We’re into our final week here in Tulla. Today it reached 21 degrees on site under an unseasonally cloudless sky. No machinery around today, just birdsong and the occasional hammer strike from the conservation works being undertaken on the funary vaults on the hilltop above. The subsoil, in all of its manifestations, has turned to concrete of course, but hey, you can’t have it every way.

On an entirely different matter, the young fella has a grand plan for the Euros. Basically it involves baking shortbread representations of any opposing team’s manager. And then eating him. This, for example, is the manager of the Italian team, immediately prior to his being eaten by the writer. We wait to see what effect, if any, this will have on the Irish Euros campaign, but we all live in hope.

There are several more unusual… nay, go on, spit it out…  structural features coming up on the site, which I might post something on later on in the week. Meanwhile, if you’re reading this from one of the Clare links, please feel free to drop up to the site and have a look at what we’re doing. We drink cider.

A few thoughts on redeposited…

‘Redeposited’ is the shortened form of the technical term ‘redeposited subsoil’, meaning subsoil which has been taken up from elsewhere in antiquity, and spread or deposited over that area you’re excavating; a tricky obfuscation. Subsoil is also referred to as ‘the natural’ and indicates virgin soil, undisturbed by human agency. In East Clare, where I’m digging at the moment, the natural is referred to by everyone as the dhoib-bhuí (yellow daub) due to its use in the recent past as a binding mortar in the vernacular cottages and boundary walls of the district. Indeed, such is the level of knowledge of these things in the vicinity of Tulla, most visitors to the site were willing to comment intelligently on the great expanse of the stuff evident across the site before the rains of last week turned it into a viscous yellow soup. For here, a good proportion of the hillside had been trowelled clean, exposing several features clearly cut into the upper surface of what was confidently identified by all as the dhoib-bhuí .

Or was it? On urban sites where there is generally a good idea of where the bottom will be located, redeposited subsoil is rarely problematic and can be easily recognised by the fact that is is generally quite different in hue from the more organic occupation layers more usually encountered. It’s subsoil remember, brought onto the site from elsewhere, so it won’t yield any finds. It’s usually mattocked off after being planned and levelled (i.e. drawn on the site plan and its height relative to sea level measured with a level and staff). On rural sites however, redeposited tends to be a horse of a different colour, so to speak.

The trouble with the redeposited began when considering T.J. Westropp’s site plan of St. Mochulla’s Church, surveyed in 1909 and published in the JRSAI two years later. The field we’re excavating, in advance of an extension to the parish graveyard, is clearly indicated to the west of the church, its western edge incorporating the boundary of the early monastic enclosure (which itself is surely pre-historic, something I’ll return to later). Westropp employed a system of hachuring to depict the gradient of the slope on the hill, indicating a ‘platform’ to the south of the church and a ‘slight terrace’ to the north against the enclosure.

To misquote Pete Astor, my magpie eyes were hungry for the prize and I’d been looking at this field for years as the only area within the enclosure seemingly free of burials. Even at that, like a local TD I’ve been no stranger to funerals up on the hill and have been careful on several occasions to position myself close to the priest to have a better look at the section at the graveside. Prior to undertaking (typically inconclusive) geophysical survey and test trenching within the field in question, I’d failed to see Westropp’s scheme presenting itself on the ground. The field had been in use as a paddock for horses for years and prior to that it had been a garden associated with a line of labourers’ cottages defining the northern side of the Fair Green, an open area between the town and the church entrance. A slope was of course evident uphill to the boundary of the modern graveyard, however the break of slope indicated by Westropp, if indeed this is what he was trying to get across, was invisible to me. If I’d given it much thought, I’d have reckoned that the effect so evident to Westropp was created by sculpting the surface of whatever was there to begin with, adapting the hillside exactly indeed as described in the Vita Sancti Mochullei Episcopi, a text recovered from an Austrian archive at the close of the nineteenth century.

On excavation, a break of slope of anything between 200 and 350mm happily began to present itself, more or less where Westropp has drawn the western edge of his central assemblage of squiggles. So far so good. This potentially defined the activity we were beginning to encounter uphill, which for the time being appeared to consist of drainage channels cut from the modern surface to bring rain water (of which there is some sufficiency hereabouts) down the hill.

One such drain presented as a linear smear of dark silt about 1500mm wide, very evident against the yellow subsoil with a few large stones helpfully thrown in to the fill, to aid the more visually challenged digger along the true path of stratigraphical enlightenment. Unlike the other drains running down the hill, this one lacked a formal cut: when the dark silt and the stones were removed, the yellow subsoil was there underneath. Or was it? When trowelling off the silt, a slight variation was evident in the texture of the material below; however it made little sense in plan or section. By this stage, the drain was being excavated at two locations and within 10 minutes small voids began to appear in what we thought was the subsoil underneath. Fools.

In fairness though to both myself and Elaine, the possibility of there being a souterrain underneath us was quickly established: the slight remains of a foundation trench curving away at a tangent to the drain had already suggested an early medieval structure, often associated with souterrains. The water draining off the hill had simply found the path of least resistance and was channelled along something that had been there previously. There were no upright stones lining the sides of this particular souterrain and it took a while to find the ‘cut’, the formal sides of whatever underground imperative was directing the water. And herein the problem with the redeposited…

You see, it’s like this (probably): at some stage in the seventh century, the hill at Tulla is selected for monastic purposes. Soil is introduced at the upper levels to create a platform within an enclosure that’s much older. How much older? I’ll keep you posted but it’s not exactly impacting on my sleep patterns at the moment. There’s an internal ditch there, ok? You’ll know what I mean. Anyway, a church is built on the summit and a bit further down an inner enclosure is constructed and revetted with stone. Where we are, a round structure is built in association with an earth-cut souterrain. This has collapsed in on itself, leaving tiny voids and a semblance of parallel sides, some distance down it must be said from what we’d taken to be the surface of the subsoil.

Now here’s the crunch: the thing has been cut through the redeposited subsoil, which has been deposited on the natural subsoil which has also been penetrated by the souterrain cut and of course, it’s backfilled with re-redeposited subsoil to boot. They’re all bloody hard to tell apart. Usually, this type of distinction is established by a combination of visual and tactile perception, the sort of shit they don’t teach you in college. The ‘natural’ natural shouldn’t have flecks of charcoal within; it should be ‘stiffer’ and at the (in this instance vertical) interface with the redeposited, it should be harder. Of course, things aren’t always quite that simple…

Further up the hill, underneath a nineteenth-century field boundary, lies a linear feature comprising loose stones in a deep, well-defined trench. I had this as some sort of revetment holding back the dhoib-bhuí, visibly higher in section just further back, demarcating an inner enclosure evident closer to the eighteenth-century church at its northern and eastern sides. More experienced eyes saw a corn-drying kiln and I was happy to acquiesce until we started to dig it. Again, the subsoil below was nothing of the sort. However, as luck would have it, the redeposited has yielded a large chunk of charcoal which should provide a date for the activity.

Digging redeposited is disheartening at the best of times. Here, where there is hardly any discernible difference between the subsoil and the material above, it’s a murky nightmare, a hall of mirrors sketched out by Lewis Carroll or Kafka on a 3B pencil on the back of a packet of 20 Major. Westropp’s hachuring has however saved the day and we now know what we’re dealing with. Sort of. There remains nonetheless the possibility of more activity beneath, predating this particular phase of activity. I just hope the cavemen didn’t have the idea first, leaving us with more of this heavy, wet, sterile muck to shovel off and pointlessly ruminate over on- line.

St. Kevin of Mountjoy

Ghost signs, obsolete graffiti and structural interventions in the medium of lead and high explosives tell us more about our recent, nay contemporary past than any trawl through the newspapers or Reeling in the Years. They all point to a different past, yet one as valid and as immediate as anything you’ll come across in the academic tomes or indeed in the books on Dubalin in the rare auld times. The Liberties continue to be a good stomping ground for anyone interested in this sort of thing and one example here will suffice to show what I’m getting at.

A few doors up from the now defunct Liberty Head (a shop dating to the period when quaint expressions from the ‘sixties attained a brief popularity) can be found the Catholic church of St. Catherine’s. The church is probably unique in that in October 1971 hosted a who’s who of the European revolutionary left (and the firebrand Charlie Bird) all attending the funeral of Peter Graham, a Trotskyite activist and Saor Eire fellow traveller who was assassinated by persons unknown in his Stephen’s Green flat in 1971. What the mourners probably didn’t realise was that their grief was being silently observed from above by another young Republican martyr who’d been executed some fifty years previously. It seems that when the church was being renovated in the 1920s a decision was made to place facial impressions of the country’s litany of saints at the base of each of the plaster ribs extending up to the ceiling. They’re all there, St. Paddy, St. Brigid and all the rest of them but when it came to St. Kevin of Glendalough they couldn’t find a suitable image of the man — by all accounts a notorious misogynist — to put up on the wall with his peers. Fortunately there had been a death mask of Kevin Barry made after his appointment with the hangman which provided a suitable compromise. He’s the one without the beard.

What are we to make of this? Does it point to a subversive republican past in the parish, one which has entered the popular imagination through shite songs such as I Remember Dublin City in the Rare Old Times which namechecks ‘the rebel Liberties’? Does it fuck. Through the clear lens of hostalgia (hostility to nostalgia), I can only see it as an attempt to compensate for the reception which greeted the defeated Citizen Army and Volunteers who were paraded through Thomas Street after 1916. For far from being a hotbed of revolutionary activity, the Liberties housed a good proportion of the city’s Separation Women who were paid off by the government as their men died in great numbers on the Somme and along the shores of Sulva Bay. As recorded on many of the witness statements collected in the 1940s, those marching to Richmond Barracks in Inchicore or indeed to their extra-judicial deaths in Kilmainham Goal were left in no doubt as they passed through the Liberties as to the unpopularity of their actions among the populace. It gets worse.

At the height of the Civil War a dubious body known as the ‘Neutral IRA’ established their headquarters on Thomas Street. This was a decent scrap this time, brother, evidently, against brother. Bitterness that would last for years and colour the political development of the country to this day. Yet here in the heart of the Liberties assembled a gang of killjoy do-gooders who set out to break the whole thing up and deny future cultural theorists and other interested parties the opportunity to parse and analyse the whole business.

So anyway, I’d reckon that St. Kevin of Mountjoy was put up there to salve the Catholic consciences of the good parishioners of St. Catherine’s, where the Prods of course had Robert Emmet in the other St. Catherine’s on Thomas Street. Now there’s one for you, Kevin Barry vrs. Robert Emmet. Neither of them afraid of a scrap of course but both equally shite when it came to finding a hiding place.

Robert 'Camel Toe' Emmet

Look, no beard!

The great Ina Martell

One of the pitfalls inherent in writing about the admittedly few positive aspects of life in the DDR is the sad fact that you leave yourself wide open to allegations of ‘Ostalgie’, nostalgia for life in the former East Germany. A whole industry has grown up around this in recent years where it’s now possible on the web  to buy anything from branded sweets to stockcubes, a bizarre post facto celebration of the limited choice available to the average consumer prior to the arrival of what has passed for democracy. Indeed, hip German pop pickers will probably recognise the name Ostzonensuppenwürfelmachenkrebs (Eastern block stock cubes give you cancer), a now defunct indie band of the ‘90s.

Strangely enough, it’s only in the past year or so that the musical output of the DDR has been considered seriously and not as part of some ironic construct. The Amiga imprint was the record label of the state and its (as yet unwritten) history is surely as significant as Anna Funder’s work on the Stasi or any on the hundreds of books which have explored the counterculture of the DDR, be it political or social. Amiga vinyl itself is a wonder to handle, seeming dust-resistant and impervious to scratching. Lps and singles picked up secondhand over the years still play ‘as new’, where the sleeves demonstrate the ravages of time and the owner’s insistence in playing them post-pub to captive audiences, where cds would’ve perhaps been the more sensible option.

Amiga was established in 1947 by Ernst Busch, a life long party member who fought in Spain with the International Brigades. Prior to fleeing Germany in 1933, Busch was a well-known actor and singer and he was later a frequent contributor to Radio Madrid, recording two very hard to get albums of Civil War songs. His performance of Peat Bog Soldiers is particularly haunting. The song, covered by the Dubliners on ‘Revolution’ (1970), was written by Nazi political prisoners in the Bögermoor concentration camp and first performed there in 1933. Busch obtained the permission of the Soviet occupation authorities to establish a label to provide music for the masses, however, it took a decade or so before the label realised that the masses were getting tired of an anaemic diet of Brecht, Hans Eisler, bad jazz and Kindermusik. They were now tuning their dials to the American Forces Network stations not subject to the jamming and interference inflicted on Radio Free Europe, the broadcasts of which were unequivocally political. Thus began the golden age of East German pop and thanks to Youtube, one can now appreciate one of its effervescent stars of the ‘60s, the truly great Ina Martell.

Born Dorothea Polzin in Berlin in 1944, Ina worked as a laboratory assistant before being spotted by lyricist and arranger Dieter Schneider. She quickly hung up the labcoat and in ’65 recorded a cover of Petula Clarke’s Downtown which was followed quickly by Zwei Küsse beim Nachhausegeh’n, the opening bars of which will probably be familiar. There were no charts as such in the DDR, however both songs received extensive airplay and sold by the bucketful. Ina, not surprisingly, received further exposure on TV and the availability her music on Youtube appears to be a function of the insatiable hunger for this sort of bad Ostblock TV on the part of the German public.

Ina wasn’t just a solo artist and she cut several recordings with beat groups such as the Theo Schuman Combo and Thomas Natschinski & seine Gruppe. The beat group phenomenon was effectively stamped out in the DDR after a 1965 Berlin gig by the Stones which resulted in a minor riot. Indeed, terms such as teenager and party (no, not that one) were apparently erased in the state-controlled media, to the extent that a 1964 recording by Ina’s stable-mate Ruth Brandin ‘Teenager Party’ is possibly the most expensive lp on the German secondhand market. Natschinski was the son of Gerd Natschinski, possibly the country’s best known post-war classical composer and the continuation of Natschinski junior’s career in showbiz fell on his changing the name of the combo from Team 4 to the obviously less seditious ‘Gruppe’.

As an aside (and again available today thanks to Youtube), an earlier salvo by the state in the war against rock’n’roll was somewhat less successful than its proscription of the beat groups. In an intervention that might possibly have been approved by John Charles McQuaid, the state ‘invented’ a dance, the Lipsi Schritt — named after Leipzig, apparently a hipper spot in 1956 than the rather drab Berlin. If jiving is beyond today’s yoof, this state-approved combination of the rhumba, boogie and cha cha cha will appeal only to the most athletically extrovert and a revival is not expected soon.

One website dedicated to the genre has observed that ‘in general German singers reflected the Teutonic ideals of the time: not as overtly sexy as the French mademoiselles, but more wholesome, prim and proper, like the quintessential German hausfrau’. It’s perhaps apposite to consider the type on indigenous music making the Irish charts during this period; given the choice between Kathleen Watkins and Fraulein Martell, I myself would’ve been straight down to the IWP, the party sub in my sweaty paws.

Ina cut several more singles for Amiga in the late ‘60s, all of which to my ears at least stand up to anything recorded in the European west. The tunes are good, the arrangements fantastic and the less said about the lyrics the better. It’s interesting though that despite the dominance of AFN on the eastern airwaves, soul music, the girl groups and solo artistes of Tamla Motown were not as obvious an influence here as they were in West Germany, where, as we all know, disco was invented in Munich. Was it the case that the DDR was unwilling to tolerate black music in any of its obvious guises?

Ina’s star was on the wane by the early ‘70s and bowing to the inevitable, Amiga began to licence western labels on cassette although they maintained a local rota. As was the case with many indigenous industries, the label was bought out by BMG in 1994 and is now part of the Sony group. Amiga nonetheless put out over 2000 lps and about 5000 singles over the years with in excess of 30,000 titles, a few of which are also posted here for fans of erratic dancing. Something of a compilations re-release schedule began last year, however most of Ina’s output remains unavailable, with her one cd now deleted. Unfortunately an Amiga hunt in any German secondhand shop these days will only result in the purchase of recordings by The Puhdys, a band even I wouldn’t inflict on readers of the blog.

Where label-mate Ruth Brandin famously refused to sup with the Stasi and was forced out of the business in 1974, there’ve yet to appear any revelations concerning Ina. I wonder so if there’s a similar story to tell here? In an interesting change of direction, she left the music industry by 1974, becoming a funeral director in a small town in Saxony. Ina’s still around however and she sings every Sunday with the local church choir. If I ever get married again, I’ll certainly have Der schönste Tag on the playlist at the afters.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sUMbLjth4ZA

Downtown

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aJlcbVzJjoQ&feature=related

Zwei Küsse beim Nachhausegeh’n

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V8bo-1raGAg&feature=related

Ich war allein

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=542RdCZuFTc&feature=related

Liebe kann man nicht erzwingen

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=070HUdFpjp0&feature=related

Der schönste Tag

And purely for comparison purposes…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aIfaYsxO5V0&feature=related

Oh, and the Lipsi Schritt:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Od_gRfdr4Ww

A few thoughts on excavating skeletons.

I think it’s fair to say that many non-archaeologists consider the excavation of skeletons to be quite central to their perception of what an archaeologist ‘does’. Google archaeologist and cartoon and you’ll get the picture.

B3, Smithfield

I’ll explore the reasons for this later but for the moment I’d like to consider the results of a rather unscientific poll where 10 random archaeologists and former archaeologists – for most Irish archaeologists are de facto former archaeologists – were asked how many skeletons they’d excavated over their careers. The results confirmed this writer as ‘king of the leaf and spoon’ as one respondent put it: where 6 had never gone near a skeleton (and a few of those were in archaeology for over 10 years), 2 had excavated five inhumations or less with 2 more having excavated five or more over the course of their careers. One of them had actually excavated over 30 burials in somewhat unusual circumstances having worked on the excavation of a large cemetery population.

B1South, Haymarket

It would therefore seem that excavating a skeleton is not considered a ‘normal’ activity on an archaeological site, unless of course a cemetery or a monastic foundation is being excavated. Indeed, many diggers show an initial reluctance to excavate a skeleton. Some feel they mightn’t be experienced enough, although the process is relatively straightforward and perhaps actually easier than looking for a differentiation in soil texture or colour indicative of a new archaeological stratum (which we refer to as ‘contexts’ or ‘features’). I have maybe come across one or two diggers who refused to dig a skeleton for other reasons, but on the whole, most will take the opportunity when presented.

In my own case, I certainly saw my first skeleton on my initial outing as a General Operative but wasn’t let near one until I worked in London in 1988, where I slowly and painstakingly (yes, I was trying to avoid that word) excavated two badly-preserved medieval burials close to Barking Abbey, perhaps taking as long to fill out the Museum of London skeleton recording form which appeared to require a knowledge of dentistry well beyond my own. Along with Conor Newman, I excavated a few more seventeenth-century skeletons in the full gaze of the public just under the cobbles at the entrance to Castlederg Bawn in ’92 and began to realise something of the public fascination with the human form reduced to bare bone. Here, our labours were interrupted by a British army foot patrol emerging gingerly from the morning mist off the River Derg. If they were aware of the diggers’ dictat that discourages walking over a cleaned-off surface, they were certainly ignoring it that morning: breaking cover was presumably considered safe – if you could stride backwards through an open space occupied by a few archaeologists. Conor at this stage had become something of a local celebrity and a badly aimed round from either side would have engendered some controversy. One soldier briefly took a beady eye from the hedgerow across the river and without pausing looked at the skull and ribcage in front of me and said ‘wouldn’t do your job mate!’ I assured him I could make the same observation regarding his own circumstances as he disappeared up towards the town.

St. Mochulla's Church, Tulla

It seems though I was to have more than my share of skeletons. A couple of disarticulated crania in a ditch off Castle Street said something about thirteenth-century jurisprudence in the city and indeed, it was rare outside of a graveyard to find an intact skeleton within an urban area. The ceallunach (or children’s burial ground) at Illaunloughan off Portmagee in Kerry produced many tiny skeletons which I washed and bagged over a few weeks in my parents’ house. I thus became even more intimate with the many minute particles of bone which make up the human form. There were a few more still on High Island and in St. Mochulla’s Church in Tulla however, it seemed as you ascended the ladder towards the venerable licence – enabling you to direct assessments and excavations – your time was spent mostly recording rather than digging. The one body we excavated along the Luas beside the Law Library was given to a supervisor, while I for my part looked on anxiously in the background, intent in keeping the drawing to myself.

Part of the Smithfield population

As a site director my first serious engagement with a burial population came at Smithfield, where 25 individuals appeared to indicate the presence of a gallows in the immediate vicinity. Another individual had been carefully buried just to the south in the foundation trench of an early eighteenth-century house on Haymarket. We’ll probably never know their names, however the work undertaken by Laureen Buckley gives some indication as to how they had lived their lives. It would appear that fighting and smoking were popular activities in Smithfield however I myself became fascinated by the former occupants of two grave cuts where the bodies had been removed in antiquity. Had there been a seventeenth-century Mary Magdalene on hand to remove the bodies after their burial? A grieving parent or perhaps a political disciple? We’ll never know.

B4, Smithfield

The excavation of human skeletons is obviously a time consuming business: the cranium is usually encountered first of all; the excavator then exposes it a little to catch the orientation of the body and then cleans the soil back with a trowel to expose the grave cut, an area where a slight difference in soil colour indicates the burial soil within which the body lies. Working from the edge of the cut, we usually go for the femurs, the long upper bones of the legs, to give an indication of the size of the individual being excavated before starting again from the skull. In good conditions it can take up to a day to fully expose an adult skeleton. A child takes longer: the bones are much smaller and more difficult to clean off and expose. It is necessary to clean off as much soil as possible using smaller tools such as plastic cable ties, plasterers’ leafs and make-up brushes, getting in under the long bones which are then held in position by a thin platform of soil. Exposing the bone to the air hardens it slightly and makes it easier to ‘lift’ once the skeleton has been recorded.

B6, Smithfield, located under a wall dating from the 1660s

This initially involves drawing the skeleton, usually at 1/20 although I’d record smaller remains at 1/10 to make as detailed a drawing as possible. The skeleton is then photographed, with more detailed shots recording the position of the hands on or beside the pelvis or any unusual features of the skeleton noticed by the excavator. A pro-forma sheet is then filled in, recording the detail of the bones present and any stratigraphical information which might assist the phasing of the burial during the post-excavation analysis. The burial is then ‘lifted’, which involves transferring the remains from the ground into transparent plastic bags which are pre-labelled to identify the bones within. Many bags are used: the skull and mandible are given separate bags, as are the upper arm bones (right and left) and so on, with both feet usually getting a bag of their own unless they separated cleanly after burial.

B20, Smithfield. Note the fused rib

I’m looking across now at the bones of two individuals excavated on May Lane, between Smithfield and Church Street, skeletons I removed last week with the help of Ruth Johnson, Dublin City Archaeologist. A drainage pipe was being brought along about 2m under the road in the vicinity of St. Michan’s church, where the basement of a large empty NAMAed building alongside had been excavated by Giles Dawkes several years previously. Here, a total of 224 articulated skeletons and disarticulated skulls were excavated, including infant and juvenile burials and numerous wooden coffins. The two individuals in my office were part of this population and can probably be dated to the second half of the seventeenth century on the basis of pottery and clay pipe fragments recovered from the burial soil.

Adult burial on May Lane

The first had lost its upper body perhaps in the nineteenth century, leaving the legs and the hands resting below where the pelvis had been. The doctor called in by the Gardaí to issue a death certificate was unsure of this orientation and had convinced himself that the hands were actually feet. The second body was that of a child, perhaps 4 or 5 years of age, who had been carefully covered in a shroud before being placed in the coffin. The timber and material did not survive, however the tiny shroud pins had transferred their copper patina onto the cranium and the ribs, with another pin located just below the pelvis. The hands had been placed on the pelvis, the thumbs and forefingers poignantly forming a diamond shape where the tips made contact, perhaps the final action of the parent before a last glimpse was taken of the child’s face.

Infant burial on May Lane

I was fortunate that I wasn’t given much time to consider these thoughts as I cleaned off the ribs and tiny fingers with a plastic spoon and cable tie. I had started to count the passers-by who’d stopped to look at me working and had given up by about 500 after the lunchtime rush had dissipated on Day 1. The questions were many and varied and ranged from the mundane to the extraordinarily thoughtful and prescient. I did my best to answer anyone who posed a question and was gratified somewhat by the genuine interest shown. For the past number of years health and safety regulations have effectively barred the general public from archaeological excavations on construction sites, forcing a disconnect between what we do and what the public thinks we do, creating a vacuum which is filled by Time Team and other programmes which hurriedly explore our physical past. Many colleagues (and I’m referring here to field archaeologists, rather than those who teach or who concentrate on landscapes and legislation) have expressed a jaded dissatisfaction with the way our work is presented in the popular media, with there being little focus on the more mundane aspects of our job, whether that be in the field, or indeed preparing a final report for planning compliance or, God forbid, publication. I was somewhat glad I wasn’t spotted wielding a mattock or shovelling spoil off the area of excavation and was happy to present a public persona as someone down on my knees with filthy hands, seriously undertaking a necessary job and willing to engage with whatever was thrown at me from a cross section of the population gathered in a social Panavision. Barristers, junkies, tourists, office workers school kids and their parents all stopped to consider the spectacle, many staying for up to half an hour.

Detail of infant's legs

Some pointed out an adjacent line of plastic ducting put in by the ESB several years ago. The ducting had truncated the lower left leg of the adult, leaving the kneecap surprisingly in situ. Had they not seen this when they were digging? Presumably not, however would they have bothered to stop the job until an archaeologist was summonsed? I would doubt it, but I left it to my observant audience to make up their own minds.

The discovery of the child early on the Saturday morning brought many more people down to May Lane. Here was something perhaps beyond what many would expect from a skeleton. Had the child been murdered? Probably not. The copper from the shroud pin had left a green smear on the skull crushed by the weight of the soil above, indicating that despite the obvious distressed appearance of the skeleton, that some care had been taken in the final moments prior to burial. I had one interesting discussion regarding the child’s religious confession. The cemetery by that was stage was exclusively Church of Ireland, although this can not be a given. How had the child lived? Again, not being an expert in skeletal pathology I was only able to assume that the child was afforded a ‘proper’ burial and therefore could possibly be from at least the middling stratum of society. There did appear to be a pre-mortem break in the right radius, but then again, that’s children for you. I began however to notice that many more people were silent in their contemplation of the small body before them, where some even refused to accept it was that of a child. Their denial underlined for me the sad fact that child mortality rates in Dublin were among the highest in Europe until well into the twentieth century.

One person blogged the excavation at http://abigailrieley.com/wordpress/index.php/2011/10/15/the-past-under-our-feet/ providing a thoughtful and empathetic account of the proceedings. Many seem to have Tweeted the excavation and many more took photos with their phones, which brought even more onlookers down to the site to see for themselves. For the most part their curiosity did not appear ghoulish and a casual interest transformed itself into something more nuanced as I continued exposing further the remains.

B19, Smithfield. This burial had been placed in a shoud and accidentally buried face down

Skeletons present perhaps more of a vision of the future than a snapshot of some past anonymous life, in this case a life briefly lived. We see what we’ll all eventually become and perhaps appreciate our own potential as human beings now as we grope our way through a world emerging from modernity, one as inequitable and perhaps as barbarous as anything experienced in the past. While this might appear to be an obvious, even a vacuous point to make, it’s brought home when considering the work undertaken in former Yugoslavia and in Spain where archaeologists continue to investigate the mass graves of Francoist repression. In this regard I’m looking forward to reading Layla Renshaw’s Exhuming Loss: Memory, Materiality and Mass Graves of the Spanish Civil War (Left Coast Press, 2011). This book, according to the blurb, examines the contested representations of those murdered in two small rural communities as they undergo the experience of exhumation, identification, and reburial from nearby mass graves. Based on interviews with relatives of the dead, members of the community and forensic archaeologists, it examines the role of excavated objects and images in breaking the pact of silence that surrounded the memory of these events for decades afterwards. The book also assesses the significance of archaeological and forensic practices in changing relationships between the living and dead.

One of the bodies in this Smithfield grave (left) had been drawn and quartered

What separates the bodies I’ve excavated over the years from those in Spain and the Balkans is their very anonymity; the recent creation of the Spanish grave sites implies a specifically political purpose, making identification of the bodies a crucial element of the investigations. Yet it is difficult to avoid imagining a young life lived within the seventeenth-century parish of St. Michan’s, it is difficult not to compare this child’s life with that of your own children and to extrapolate their hopes for the future from the future denied the bones now drying out here beside me on the table.