Tuesday, November 16, 2010

As The Light Declines

This past Sunday I went on another archaeology field trip! You thought those posts were over, didn’t you? So did I. This was an optional trip for students taking Early Medieval and/or Viking archaeology classes, and I figured an inexpensive guided outing about Vikings was worth sacrificing a potential weekend for independent travel.

There was actually less Viking stuff involved than I thought when I signed up, but it was still interesting. We first went to Ardmore, which is a major early medieval church site overlooking the ocean. Sparing you a lesson on early Irish church sites, things that are there include, in chronological order: two ogham stones, a “shrine-chapel”* in the style of a very tiny early stone church and with an open grave in the floor that probably once held the bones of the site’s founding saint (St. Declan, if anyone cares), a really well-preserved (unless I missed or just wasn’t told something about it’s having been restored) round tower**, and a ruined Romanesque church with an interesting but badly worn frieze on the west wall.*** And of course the inevitable eighteenth and nineteenth century cemetery that’s taken over the entire site with its lopsided, haphazardly placed tombstones and built up the ground so much and so unevenly that the lintel over the original door to the shrine-chapel is almost at ground level from the outside.

After Ardmore was an early medieval ringfort, much smaller than the one at Garranes that my earlier class visited, but with an intact embankment. It still caught me off guard—we walked right past it before hopping the fence, and our teacher was standing in the entrance before I realized it was there. (Eyes-of-an-archaeologist fail.) Partly I was just not paying attention, but also, like the walls of James Fort at Kinsale, it’s so covered in vines and brambles that from the outside it just looks like a stand of shrubbery if you aren’t looking very closely. Once you spot the entrance, though, it’s painfully obvious, and inside, there’s no mistaking what it is. There’s nothing visible other than the embankment, but that’s A) still standing, and at a fairly significant height, no less, B) still surprising level, and C) almost perfectly round. I thought it was really cool. And after giving correct answers to several questions posed by the teacher, including one that was directed at me without my volunteering for it and to which I knew the answer without having ever been told before, I got to feel a little bit less unaware.

I also got a laugh out of one of the “mature students”**** when I got hung up at the fence because I’d failed to leave my purse on the bus and announced “This is why archaeologists don’t carry purses” after throwing it over the fence ahead of me.

We then moved on to Waterford city (possibly the least exciting Irish city I’ve yet been to) to see the collection of Viking artifacts at the Waterford Treasures Museum.

Said one boy in the class, after the fact: “The Waterford Treasures Museum, the foremost museum on Viking archaeology… in Waterford.”
Me: “Quite a distinction.”
Another boy: “Yeah, it’s also the worst.”

It actually wasn’t that bad. They have a pretty cool sword that was broken intentionally before being buried. And Waterford is an important area, Viking-wise; one of the most important sites in Ireland, Woodstown, is just a few kilometers away and was discovered quite recently. Also, they’re moving to a different building in the next few months, where they’ll have room to be able to display more of their collection. I think the vast amount of stuff recovered from excavation at Woodstown (despite the fact that it was only a teeny tiny percentage of the whole site) kind of overwhelmed what started out as a smallish local museum. Expanding will probably make it a bit more impressive. There are currently exactly 12 cases in the Viking exhibit right now, all quite small and several of which only contain one or two things.

Cool stuff other than the sword included a tiny weight with a face carved on it and a bird-bone flute. I think one of the most interesting things (for me to recount, anyway) was a medieval dog collar. It’s not really something you think about or expect to find in a museum, but if you look at paintings or tapestries from the Middle Ages, you do see them, especially on aristocratic hunting dogs. I laughed, though, because the label in the case said something like, “This collar may have graced the neck of an Irish wolfhound, but was more likely worn by a greyhound” because blah blah prized by the nobility blah blah blah. And I was looking at this thing thinking, prestige value be damned, has this person ever SEEN a wolfhound up close? That collar might fit around one’s leg…

Anyhow, that was that. It was a good day, although we didn’t spend as much time in Waterford as I would have liked and I’d kind of wanted to see other things. Something I did not take into account sufficiently when thinking about the timing of my travels (and how most of them should have been undertaken earlier to avoid the cold and rain) is that it gets dark really really early now—by about five, maybe a little after. (Not “sunset is underway” at five, but “the sun is a faint glow on the horizon” at five.) I’m not sure yet how I’m going to handle that while in Dublin this weekend. I mean, although I do take some basic safety precautions, total avoidance of walking alone at night, especially in familiar areas, is clearly not usually one of them. But also, the last time I was in Dublin I had more than three extra hours per day in which that just wasn’t an issue.

Also… that was three months ago. Holy crap.

I think just in the last week or so almost all of the visiting students had the sudden realization of how close this is to being over.

* term apparently coined by Tomás (who taught my Early Start archaeology class), which I think is pretty significant and which I did not know until now
** I don’t care how many of these things I visit or how often they’re discussed in my classes or even how closely they’re associated specifically with church sites, I cannot see one without thinking of Rapunzel. Especially if the pointed roof is still intact.
*** The one Biblical scene, other than the Adams & Eves and Adorations of the Magi that pretty much everyone recognizes, common in medieval art that I seem to be able to consistently identify is the Judgment of Solomon. I’m not sure whether it’s a particularly obvious scene or this says something about me. I’m also good at spotting Abraham Sacrificing Isaac, so whatever the explanation, it must have something to do with babies and knives.
**** This phrase always strikes me as a somewhat non-specific way of describing students who are older than the typical college age range (more of a non-description, actually), although perhaps part of its appeal is the subtle implied insult towards traditional undergraduates.

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