6.4 Rathgall, Co. Wicklow E84
Site location: NGR 29020/17310
6.4.1: Location map of Rathgall, Co. Wicklow [OSI]
Rathgall, a multivallate hillfort, consists of three more-or-less concentric stone ramparts enclosing a fourth, well-preserved wall of polygonal masonry (Plate 6.4.1). The last is clearly a two-period construction and at least in its primary phase is likely to date to the medieval period. The enclosing ramparts are probably prehistoric, but it is not clear if they represent a single phase, or several phases, of building activity. The total area of the hillfort is 7.5ha. (18 acres).
6.4.1: Aerial view, Rathgall, Co. Wicklow
The area within the central enclosure was fully excavated (Fig 6.4.2) and extensive investigation also took place in the zone outside it immediately to the east. Test cuttings were carried out to the north, south and west within the second enclosure and in the south a narrow cutting was excavated through the principal ramparts (2 and 3) to the exterior. Two brief seasons investigation were conducted on the slopes outside the hillfort further to the south. In all about 3000m2 were excavated.
6.4.2: Late Bronze-Age Ceramic Vessel, Rathgall, Co. Wicklow
Within the central stone enclosure an annular, V-sectioned ditch, with internal diameter of some 35m, enclosed a circular bedding trench, 15m in diameter. The latter was partly doubled and had a narrow entrance gap in the east. The bedding trench enclosed and was surrounded by, a range of pits and post-holes. Though originally regarded by the excavator as the foundation of a large circular house the possibility that this circular feature was, in fact, an unroofed enclosure must be seriously considered. Unfortunately, the almost total absence of any useful stratigraphy here rendered it impossible to recognise with confidence meaningful patterns in the post-hole spread.
A number of large charcoal-filled pits occurred in this area, one of which had clearly been cut through by the palisade trench. Some, or all of these pits thus belong to an early phase of activity at the site.
Large quantities of artefacts were found, both scattered in the plough-soil and in the fill of many of the pits. The great majority of this material dates to the Middle and Later Bronze Age and includes large quantities of coarse potsherds (Plate 6.4.2), glass beads, fragmentary lignite bracelets, a few bronzes and clay mould fragments. The moulds were concentrated in two discrete zones, one near the centre of the enclosure, the other within and immediately outside the ditch in the south-east.
Among the more spectacular finds was a small, penannular, gold-plated copper ring which came from a carefully dug, centrally-placed pit in association with a deposit of burnt human bones. This is either a burial or, perhaps more likely, a ritual deposit.
The site was abandoned for upwards of a millennium before small-scale Iron Age period activity took place. This is represented by an iron-smelting furnace dated by radio-carbon to the second or third centuries AD. Bronze belt-fittings of sub-Roman character from the site (but not associated with the smelting pit) are probably linked with this activity. After a further period of abandonment a phase of medieval occupation took place which may well be associated with the inner stone enclosure. This is represented by green-glazed and cooking wares of medieval character and two silver coins, one of Edward I the other of Edward III, indicate dating in the later twelfth and the thirteenth centuries. A rectangular construction of upright posts, enclosed by a shallow drainage ditch, might date to this period.
Immediately to the east of the central enclosure evidence for extended and intensive human activity came to light. The earliest phase here was represented by some scattered fragments of decorated Neolithic pottery of Linkardstown type and a spread of flints in this area probably also belong to this phase. Overwhelmingly, however, it was again the later phases of the Bronze Age, which were most clearly evident including extensive indications of domestic, funerary and industrial activity.
A complex stratigraphical sequence was recognisable and radiocarbon dating, well in keeping with the archaeological evidence, indicates that the principal period of activity was between about 1200-900BC with a certain amount of activity dating some centuries after this. The occupation here was both earlier than and related to, the central activity described above. Spatially it was possible to recognise two zones, a northern area that involved domestic and industrial activity and a southern area that appears to have been predominantly given over to funerary activity. Arcs of substantial post-holes separated the two areas and these arcs continued intermittently around the burial area in the south. There were also numerous pits and post-holes scattered across this outer zone but again the stratigraphy was, for the most part, unhelpful in recognising phases or meaningful patterns.
Oddly, in view of the density of human activity here, no clearly recognisable house structures were uncovered. Nonetheless it is difficult not to assume that something of this sort existed for, in the northern zone, extraordinary concentrations of pottery, clay mould fragments and glass beads, as well as items of bronze (including a conical rivet, probably from a cauldron), lignite, stone and gold were found. At least three discrete zones of metalworking were recognisable here which, allied to the two metalworking areas referred to above, indicates an exceptional intensity of metalworking at Rathgall. Indeed, further mould fragments were found scattered on the slope outside the fort in the south (see below). More than 2500 fragments were brought to light and it was possible to recognise evidence for the casting of swords, spearheads, tongued chapes, axeheads (including at least one palstave) pins, and a possible sickle. Radiocarbon dating again indicated that this period of intense activity took place in the centuries spanning 1000BC.
The gold items included a second copper ring with gold-foil cover, a biconical bead, a tiny length of finely twisted gold wire and a superbly made composite pendant of gold and glass. Most intriguing, and of great potential importance, is a small, perforated bronze disc bearing mercury-gilding. The object continues to be the subject of considerable discussion as conventional wisdom regards such gilding as no earlier than the last centuries BC.
In the burial zone south of the area just described numerous pits and post-holes occurred not all of which were necessarily associated with the burial complex. Some useful stratigraphy here, which had been preserved under the later stone wall, showed that the burial complex belonged to a late phase of the Bronze Age activity. It consisted of a circular, V-sectioned fosse similar to that already described above, but with an internal diameter of 19-20m. Within the ditch-fill the ubiquitous coarse potsherds were found and among other items, were two amber beads.
An unaccompanied cremation, probably of a male, had been centrally placed on a slab in a small, stone-lined pit. The latter had been dug into a reddened, burnt area which was in turn surrounded by a more-or-less horseshoe-shaped zone of about 1500 stakeholes. No pattern could be recognised apart from the fact that they were all but absent in the east. Though the stratigraphy here was again poor, it is likely that the stake-holes belonged to a single phase of activity. Apart from the assumption that the latter were in some way related to the central cremation this feature remains, however, enigmatic.
A spread of pits was concentrated in the southern area of the burial enclosure. Many contained domestic rubbish including the usual sherds of coarse pottery. One pit, however, was particularly important as it contained a deposit of three items of bronze, a small chisel, a spearhead and a fragmentary sword blade that had been cut at each end.
A short distance to the west of this, a second carefully dug pit was discovered containing an upright vessel of coarse pottery within which were the cremated remains of a female and an infant. The bones were mixed with black, burnt material, almost certainly from the pyre, and similar material had been tightly packed around the vessel to fill the pit. A stone slab had been placed directly on the rim of the pot and a second, larger stone filled the upper zone of the pit.
As well as the intensive Bronze Age activity within the central enclosure and to its immediate east, the test cuttings revealed that in the north and south contemporary activity of some considerable intensity also took place. Especially important was the northern cutting which revealed the remains of a low yellow bank, clearly upcast from the central ditch, lying directly on a dense occupation layer that contained the usual coarse pottery, glass beads and other items. Traces of this yellow bank were also observed elsewhere, overlying the main occupation layer. It was thus clearly evident (as noted above) that the central enclosure is not the primary phase of later Bronze Age activity.
A cutting through the defences in the south revealed a substantial rampart of dump construction (Rampart 2) with a deep V-sectioned ditch around its immediate exterior. Outside this, remains of Rampart 3 occurred. This was considerably smaller than Rampart 2 and was much denuded. It appears to have been entirely of stone.
Investigations on the southern slopes outside the outer rampart were, to a considerable extent, random. Nonetheless, significant evidence of Later Bronze Age activity came to light. The cultural horizon present here, which included the ubiquitous coarse potsherds, several clay mould fragments and one glass bead, was identical with that present on the hilltop and it may be taken that the external and internal occupation phases were broadly coeval.
The features uncovered included a range of pits and post-holes and two small ditched enclosures, one annular and 5.5m in diameter, the other penannular with an internal diameter of 3.5m. A central post-hole occurred within the larger enclosure, while in the smaller enclosure there was a zone of post- and stake-holes which, yet again, failed to yield any clearly recognisable arrangement. The purpose of these two features is unclear.
Nearby, the bedding trench of a small hut, sub-rectangular and with rounded corners, was found. Its internal width was little over 2m but there was a carefully constructed entrance feature, in the form of two deep post-holes joined by a small, narrow threshold groove.
Raftery, B. 1970a ‘The Rathgall Hillfort, Co. Wicklow’, Antiquity 44. 51-54.
Raftery, B. 1970b ‘A Decorated Strap-end from Rathgall, Co. Wicklow’, Journal Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland. 100. 200-211.
Raftery, B. 1971 ‘Rathgall, Co. Wicklow: 1970 excavations’, Antiquity 45. 296-298.
Raftery, B. 1973 ‘Rathgall: a late Bronze Age burial in Ireland’, Antiquity. 47
Raftery, B. 1974 ‘Rathgall’, In Delaney (ed.) Excavations 1974: Summary Account of Archaeological Excavations in Ireland. Association of Young Irish Archaeologists, Ulster Archaeological Society and Group for the Study of Irish Historic Settlement. 40.
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Raftery, B. 1981 ‘Iron Age Burials in Ireland’ in D. O Corrain (ed.), Irish Antiquity, 173-204.
Waddell, J. 1998 The Prehistoric Archaeology of Ireland, Galway University Press. Galway. 270-273.