Gathering communities: locality, governance and rulership in early medieval Ireland

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This article explores the role that gatherings and temporary assembly places played in creating communities and manufacturing early polities and kingdoms. Whereas the archaeological dimension to polity building has often focused upon monumentality in programmes of political articulation, the role of more ephemeral activities is equally meaningful but nevertheless under-appreciated. With new research into assembly culture in first-millennium AD Europe developing apace, the role of gatherings of various types has come into sharper focus. This article explores the changing nature of temporary gatherings in Ireland and what the changing material signature of these practices says about developing hierarchies, emerging kingdoms and the nexus that local concerns formed with regional practices of rulership.

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... In Ireland, the seminal 'royal' places or old historic centres like Tara have been a pre-eminent focus in research, but assembly places were located at a remove from sites of inauguration. The (OIr) óenach (óenaig pl.) is a term that derives from a root word meaning 'one', and connotes a concept of unification and these meetings may have operated as the principal assemblies of the Irish kingdoms (Gleeson 2018). They operated as fairs and included legal proceedings, games and sports, and seem to have operated as provincewide assemblies perhaps on a par with the shire assemblies of Anglo-Saxon England (Gleeson 2018, 103;Simms 1987, 62). ...
... In Shetland, thing sites have been subject to research in past and present, that has valorised a distinct ancestry and political identity separate from Scotland and Britain and placed emphasis on a close association with Scandinavian practices (Coolen 2016;Smith 2009). Despite intimations of cross-national similarities and trends, and broader Scandinavian influence on the assembly practices of Britain and Ireland, archaeological studies have largely remained national in focus (but see Semple and Sanmark 2013;Sanmark 2017a;Gleeson 2018;Semple 2018;Reynolds et al. 2019). ...
... As Elizabeth FitzPatrick has clearly stated, there is 'no apparent basis for presuming a continuity of distinctive Irish kingship practices from late prehistory into and throughout the medieval period' (Fitzpatrick 2004b, 51). Indeed increasingly drawn similarities between the attributes of early medieval Irish, Scandinavian and English kingship and royal ceremony suggest that 'the experience of early medieval Irish kingship was not singular' (FitzPatrick 2004b, 52;Sanmark and Semple 2008;Semple and Sanmark 2013;Gleeson 2018). ...
... Neither is fully excavated, so whether contemporary non-funerary activity is present is not known (James 1987;Murphy and Murphy 2015). Comeau's work demonstrates the value of detailed interdisciplinary investigation, and her findings suggest that structures of secular governance in early medieval Wales were comparable with those in contemporary Ireland and elsewhere in northern Europe (Comeau 2014;2020;Gleeson 2018;Reynolds 2018). In the context of the present discussion, such research shows how early medieval cemeteries and their environs might repay investigation aimed at identifying further landscapes of assembly in Wales. ...
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Burial grounds and secular settlements in early medieval Wales (fifth to eleventh centuries AD) are understood to have been in geographically separate locations. In contrast, it is known that in England and on the Continent during this period burial began to be integrated within settlements. Changes in burial practice also occurred in Ireland, where early medieval ‘cemetery settlements’ with integrated burial and non-funerary activity are a relatively recent discovery. This paper presents a reassessment of the archaeological evidence from five published early medieval Welsh cemeteries and one recently-excavated example. It will demonstrate that these Welsh cemeteries share a number of attributes with Irish cemetery settlements and will critically evaluate the significance of this for our understanding of early medieval Wales. The paper will conclude that such sites are better conceptualized as ‘multifunctional cemeteries’, rather than ‘cemetery settlements’.
METHODOLOGICAL ADVANCES IN STATISTICAL MODELLING of chronological data have enabled fresh perspectives of the past to be gained from the analysis of large numbers of radiocarbon (¹⁴C) dates. A new analysis of radiocarbon dates associated with craftworking activities — handicrafts like antler-working or wood-working and metalworking technologies — from Irish sites of early medieval date is presented using a bootstrapped kernel density estimation (KDE) method. These models are used to assess whether the arrival of urbanism to Ireland in the 10th century brought about a major change to craftworking traditions, and to build a new and nuanced understanding of long-term trends at both secular and ecclesiastical sites of the period. These are shown to have differed, especially in the 8th century, at a crucial point in time. The findings add to the emerging narrative of demographic ‘decline’ from similar data-driven investigations of Ireland’s early medieval past, which pinpoint the beginning of the 8th century as a seminal moment of change. Crucially, however, they also reveal a more complex pattern of change involving a combination of processes, independent of urban development, but related to demographics, socio-economic re-organisation, changing settlement patterns, and the influence of the Church.
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This article explores the nature of royal residences in early medieval Ireland. Through the excavated evidence, it examines key themes of long-term dynamics, architectures and networks of power. It presents a synthesis of excavated evidence for often overlooked residential elements to provincial capitals, and subsequently, interrogates the development of several key royal sites regarded as archetypal residences. It argues that there are important distinctions between the earlier and later phases of many such sites that relate to their role in diverse strategies of rulership. In particular, ritual, ceremony and violence are key early characteristics, whereas a residential element often only appears relatively late. While these changes may be related to wider realpolitik, it is suggested that they also embody the crystallization of residential foci within new strategies of rulership during the seventh to ninth centuries AD.
This volume challenges previous views of social organization focused on elites by offering innovative perspectives on 'power from below.' Using a variety of archaeological, anthropological, and historical data to question traditional narratives of complexity as inextricably linked to top-down power structures, it exemplifies how commoners have developed strategies to sustain non-hierarchical networks and contest the rise of inequalities. Through case studies from around the world – ranging from Europe to New Guinea, and from Mesoamerica to China – an international team of contributors explore the diverse and dynamic nature of power relations in premodern societies. The theoretical models discussed throughout the volume include a reassessment of key concepts such as heterarchy, collective action, and resistance. Thus, the book adds considerable nuance to our understanding of power in the past, and also opens new avenues of reflection that can help inform discussions about our collective present and future.
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Corn-drying kilns are becoming increasingly recognised on rchaeological sites in Wales, the charred grain and seeds they contain providing valuable evidence of dating, agricultural practices and economic activity. These multi-functional features were used for different stages of crop processing as well as for malting grain for ale-making, and their presence alone, on early sites at least, is suggestive of processes associated with social complexity. This paper examines the form, dating, function and location of recorded Welsh examples dating from later prehistory up to the sixteenth century AD and considers priorities for future research. A gazetteer lists all known examples and is published in conjunction with an online dataset which provides greater detail and is intended to be updated as new information becomes available.
THIS ARTICLE CRITICALLY EXAMINES medieval¹1 Archaeology and Palaeoecology, School of Natural and Built Environment, Queen’s University Belfast, Belfast BT7 1NN, UK. archaeology’s relationship with myth. A surge of research examining pre-Christian belief has seen mythology, place names and folklore increasingly utilised to reconstruct mentalities and cosmologies. As a wider global phenomenon, this trend comes with pitfalls that must be addressed more systematically. This article examines these issues through early medieval Ireland, beginning with an overview of recent trends in cognate disciplines, before proceeding through case studies of Tara, Brú na Bóinne (both Co Meath), and Nenagh (Co Tipperary). Far from being relics of prehistoric cult practices, many deities populating these landscapes may have been consciously invented for political, allegorical and exegetical reasons during the medieval period. This creative process had a marked 8th-century monumental dimension, contemporary with the floruit of saga literature. This precludes such evidence being utilised to reconstruct pre-Christian cosmologies. This has broad implications for research across European medieval archaeology that would seek to access ritual, belief and religion.
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Hill-and mountain-top cairns and mounds in Ireland are often viewed as epiphenomenal features of the medieval landscape. In recent years, research on early medieval ferta, ancestral burial places cited in the legal procedure of taking possession of land and invoked during disputes over land, has highlighted the role of some sepulchral cairns and mounds in boundary maintenance. This paper proposes that particular cairns and mounds, imagined at least as early as the tenth century as Finn’s Seat (Suidhe Finn), acted as territorial markers in boundary formation and continuity and signified royal marchlands (mruig ríg) where Gaelic kings went to hunt and to fight. It is argued that such lands were essentially forests, where a range of natural resources were available. A window onto royal marchlands is provided by the medieval Finn Cycle of Tales (fíanaigecht) which encode knowledge of medieval territorial boundary zones in the names of the places where the quasi-mythical warrior-hunter and border hero, Finn mac Cumaill, works for the king of Ireland, hunts with his fían (wild band) and accesses the Otherworld.
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This paper discusses some consequences of the state-formation processes on the thing organization in the Borgarthing law province in southeast Norway, between the 11th and 14th centuries. The aim is to identify and discuss thing sites in relation to social organization and regionalization processes related to power structures and the emerging supra-regional kingdom. The study explores two spatial levels—a regional level and a lower administrative level—through a case study of an Old Norse skipreia unit. Questions about territoriality, stability, and change will be discussed, particularly regarding the king's shifting influence in the Borgarthing law province.
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This article deals with the geographical organization of the thing system of Northern Europe prior to the processes of supra-regional kingdoms in the 8th to 10th centuries, re-evaluating the early written evidence. It is argued that at least three interrelated geographical judicial units (referred to as civitas, pagus, and centena) existed prior to the 6th century within the historic areas of Austrasia, Frisia, and Saxony. Parallels to such a tripartite system are found in Scandinavia and Iceland in the 10–12th centuries.
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The court sites situated in the coastal areas of Norway have been the theme of discussion in several publications, including Norwegian Archaeological Review. So far, however, none of the authors has succeeded in gaining overwhelming support for their interpretation. Based on case studies of North Norwegian court sites and comparisons with Icelandic evidence, this paper endorses a long-standing, but still widely disregarded, interpretation suggesting that court sites represent thing sites. It is furthermore suggested that the established variation in age and use periods, number of house foundations and layout of court sites indicate consolidation processes similar to, although chronologically different from, processes presumably taking place across Northern Europe during the first millennium ad.
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How do ordered political societies come about – and what can archaeology offer to the debate? New research by a team at the UCL Institute of Archaeology is investigating the origins of English governance by exploring the impact on landscape of legal structures, law and order, and places of political assembly. Far from being shadowy and elusive, we argue that there is much that landscape archaeology can provide to understand the ways in which pre-modern societies were governed.
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Dún Ailinne is one of the major ceremonial sites of the Irish Iron Age (600 bce–ce 400), a time when society was becoming increasingly centralized. We argue that these sites were a focus for the process of centralization, facilitated by performance though the site’s construction and use. Physical movement in the context of ritual has been shown to affect the perception of social relationships. These would have been experienced through performance, including movement through the landscape, the visual dominance of the hill and the site located on it, the hierarchical arrangement of spaces within the bank and ditch, and the resulting ways in which movement and access are gradually more constrained through time. Experienced through the medium of ritual performance, these various aspects would have reinforced ideas of power and elite status, providing a context in which such constraints could have been created, justified, maintained and perhaps resisted.
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New analysis explores Tech Midchúarta (the ‘Banqueting Hall’) from the point of view of a sacral, processional approach to the summit of the Hill of Tara, the pre-eminent cult and inauguration site of prehistoric and early medieval Ireland. It is suggested that aspects of its architectural form symbolize the liminal boundary between the human world and the Otherworld of Tara, and that in so far as Tech Midchúarta is also designed to control and manipulate how the ceremonial complex is disclosed to the observer, it assembles the existing monuments into one, integrated ceremonial campus. It is argued that Tech Midchúarta is one of the later monuments on the Hill of Tara and that it may date from the early medieval period. Using the evidence of documentary sources and extant monuments, a possible processional route from Tech Midchúarta to Ráith na Ríg is described.
This book provides a fully documented history of Ireland and the Irish between the fourth and ninth centuries AD, from St Patrick to the Vikings - the earliest period for which historical records are available. It opens with the Irish raids and settlements in Britain, and the conversion of Ireland to Christianity. It ends as Viking attacks on Ireland accelerated in the second quarter of the ninth century. The book takes account of the Irish both at home and abroad, including the Irish in northern Britain, in England and on the continent. Two principal thematic strands are the connection between the early Irish Church and its neighbours, and the rise of Uí Néill and the kingship of Tara.
Until very recently Viking Age and Old Norse assembly (thing) sites were essentially unknown, apart from a few select sites, such as Thingvellir in Iceland. The Vikings are well-known for their violence and pillage, but they also had a well-organised system for political decision-making, legal cases and conflict resolution. Using archaeological evidence, written sources and place-names, this book provides a comprehensive analysis of their legal system and assembly sites, showing that this formed an integral part of Norse culture and identity, to the extent that the assembly institution was brought to all Norse settlements. Assembly sites are analysed through surveys and case studies across Scandinavia, Scotland and the North Atlantic region. Alexandra Sanmark moves the view of assembly sites away from a functional one to an understanding of the symbolic meaning of these highly ritualised sites, and shows how they were constructed to signify power through monuments and natural features. This original and stimulating study is set not only in the context of the Viking and Norse periods, but also in the wider continental histories of place, assembly and the rhetoric of power.
Case studies of peninsular Kerry and Rathdown, Co Dublin, are used to illustrate the dense distribution of minor church sites in pre-Viking Ireland. New evidence for settlements with a burial component but without a church is also reviewed. It is suggested that, like many of the minor church sites, these 'cemetery settlements' were familial establishments. Both site types are indicative of the convergence of burial and living space that is evident throughout post-Roman Europe. Compared with Anglo-Saxon England, and to a lesser extent Cornwall and Wales, the density of minor ecclesiastical sites in Ireland is exceptionally high. Probably this was because of relatively diffuse power structures which meant that a large number of individuals had the freedom to establish churches. During the Viking Age, social, economic and religious changes led to the abandonment of many of these minor churches and cemetery settlements in favour of burial at community church sites which went on to form the basis for the parish system.
Excavation of a mound at the meeting place of Secklow Hundred, Bucks., suggested that it was built in the tenth century; the evidence from twelve other excavated meeting place mounds is discussed and it is suggested that mounds were often built specifically for that purpose.
The formation of parishes in medieval Ireland, their origin and date, and their relationship to other spatial entities (manor, cantred, tuath, lordship, lineage and earlier church estates) are matters that must be tackled by detailed local studies and reconstructions. Crichad in Chailli, a twelfth-century topographical tract, provides uniquely detailed information on the local kingdom of Fir Maige in Munster, its subdivisions, its lineages, and its churches. This local study of an area that has relatively rich records addresses much wider questions: the tuath and how it relates to lineage, parish, and manor; the interaction of these institutions, and the enduring nature of early medieval spatial entities.
This paper explores the nature of assembly practices in early medieval Ireland (AD 400–1100). It focuses specifically on the óenach, the pre-eminent assembly of each level of community and kingdom in Irish society, and it engages critically with how assembly as a topic has been traditionally understood and analyzed by Irish scholarship. Through analysis of the nature of the óenach, I suggest that the predominantly economistic interpretation of this institution by Irish scholarship is misplaced and that rather the óenach was an Irish equivalent of pan-European assembly practices. Accordingly, this paper explores the character of óenaig (plural of óenach) in the context of this pan-European phenomenon. Furthermore, some preliminary results from ongoing research offer insights into the archaeological manifestation of assembly practices, the spatial dynamic of assembly landscapes, and the implications of the same for our understanding of civil society, scales of identity, and the practice of assembly in early medieval Ireland.
The archaeological study of assembly practices in the medieval west is often met with scepticism. The reliance on late documentary records and place-names, and the difficulties inherent in defining what actually constituted an ‘assembly’, are just some of the issues that face researchers. This paper brings together some of the first collated and excavated evidence by the HERA TAP project1, and offers a cross-European perspective, drawing attention to the great variety of systems and types of structure created for the purpose of assembly in the late prehistoric and medieval eras. Selected case studies emphasize the chronological variations in the inception and life-span of assembly places and underline the diverse relationships of designated assembly sites to pre-existing landscapes, resource patterns, and social structures. Connections between the ‘architecture’ and location of these sites, and their role in the creation, maintenance, and signalling of collective identities are suggested.
In the Middle Irish texts Acallam na Senórach, Dindshenchas Èrenn and Triamhuin Ghormlaithe, moments of death, burial and ritual lamentation create sacred commemorated spaces. Such spaces were considered worthy of preservation in cultural memory via literary compositions, monuments, place-names and lamentation festivals. The present study investigates categories of burial and lamentation space embedded in the medieval Irish landscape and attempts to understand the historical and archaeological context surrounding the textual tradition, with particular emphasis on the re-use and re-interpretation of prehistoric and early medieval burial monuments. Literary texts most often emphasise the creation of sacred space rather than its re-use, and the original burial function of ancient commemorated spaces, highly visible in the historical and archaeological record, is significantly eclipsed. Instead of emphasising the ancestral past, writers of the lamentation texts actively reinterpret ancient burial landscapes in the contexts of ritual kingship and territorial claims of emergent dynasties.
This paper reviews the potential of complex cemeteries of the C6th to C7th AD as early places of gathering and assembly.
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