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Some time ago, Stuart Rathbone (he of Campaign for Sensible Archaeology fame) posed the question of ‘what was it like on archaeological excavations in pre-Celtic Tiger Ireland?’ I’d meant to reply at the time, but – as these things do – it slipped my mind. Before I forget again, I thought I’d set down a few notes about way back then as a record of that time.
I began my study of archaeology in UCG in September 1988. The way that the 1st Arts course was set up then (and I believe it still is) was that you had to pick four subjects for first year, reducing that to two in your second year for your degree. Rightly or wrongly, archaeology was seen as something of a ‘soft option’ to fill the requirement of what to take as a fourth subject. That was the primary reason that the first year class habitually had about 200 students – enough to fill the Cairns lecture theatre (named for the economist, John Elliot Cairns) – and, in my time at least, this evaporated down to about 20 for 2nd and 3rd year. Back then the entirety of the required coursework for the year were four essays. I remember one being on the Neanderthals and another on Early Christian monasteries. Based on one’s scores on these essays the Department made the selection as to who was invited to go on the university training excavation. At any rate, that was the official story. I have a feeling that this was relatively loosely interpreted, relying as much on a student's enthusiasm for the subject as anything else. It was coming close to the end of term when I was approached by Tom Fanning and invited to join him on the excavation of Rinnaraw, Co. Donegal. I use the word ‘invited’, but the real dynamic of the situation could be better summed up in words like ‘told’, ‘informed’, or ‘ordered’. I was given the strong impression that this would be ‘a good thing’ to do, it ‘would look good on the CV’ … and that refusal was not an option. That said, it had been all I’d wanted all year, so there was no way I was going to refuse.
So, one fine morning in July 1989 Tom loaded up myself and two other students into his car and we began a sedate drive to Donegal. On campus, we always addressed him as ‘Mr. Fanning’ – he’d not gotten his PhD at that stage. Now he instructed us to call him ‘Tom’, though it felt as much of a formal salutation as before. Even when we got back to college, and long after, I always called him Tom. Usually he didn’t seem to mind, but every so often I received a slight glare of rebuke for my ‘field informality’. Tom had a number of reputations at UCG. One was that he had no sense of humour. Time after time he’d wander along the blackboards, furtively looking for chalk only to come away empty-handed. Invariably, he’d mutter ‘chalk appears to be at a premium’ and chuckle to himself. He appeared to be largely alone in seeing the humour in such situations. However, once away from the university and installed in a pub with a whiskey he was witty, humorous, the life and soul of the party, and told amazing stories. However, his other reputation was harder to shake. He was widely known as … somewhat sparing of his financial assets … to the point of parsimoniousness. I just have to say it plainly: he was mean! The best description of him – though I won’t name the source – explained: ‘he has a paralysis of the elbow that prevents him from dipping too far into his own pocket’. That said, we were a bunch of students on a training dig and were getting paid £30 a week, with accommodation included. As we were resident in Rinnaraw and had no means of transport, this effectively amounted to a somewhat less than princely £4.30 a day. I know it was a long time ago, but not so far back that you would have thought yourself rich with a fiver in your pocket! A further downside to the situation was when lunchtime came around Tom would make his way across the road with us to our accommodation (he had a house to himself slightly further away) and expect to be provided for. He sometimes even complained if the offered viands were not to his liking, instructing us to purchase better quality or different brands in future. I’m reliably informed that on one excavation of his, long before my time, the crew got so fed up of this mooching off their limited assets that they resolved to eat lunch only when he wasn’t around. We never took it that far, but were sorely tempted.
Tom had dispatched one further graduate student to Donegal a few days ahead of us to begin desodding of the area for the new season. After we finally arrived at the site – Tom never broke the speed limit on any occasion I ever travelled with him – we walked up to the newly uncovered area to inspect the progress. I still remember standing there in the dimming light, the warm breeze rustling the grass, and just feeling so incredibly excited that tomorrow I was going to start my first ever archaeological excavation! Tom and the post-graduate were in deep conversation about the desodding and the potential for discovering features by the time my mind wandered off. Something on the ground had caught my attention and I reached down and picked it up. It was a small piece of what I now know to be metallic slag. However, as I was in the process of examining it, the post-graduate was saying ‘… possible metallic object … have left it in situ for the moment … where did it go? …’ It was at this point Tom caught my eye and angrily spat ‘Chapple! Put that down!’ Perhaps not the most auspicious of starts.
The following morning we gathered on site and I had resolved not to touch anything I was not specifically instructed to. From memory, the newly opened portions of the site (quadrants C & D), to the north of the house, were nominally (but not actually) gridded out in 2m blocks. Some of the others were tasked with investigating these new areas, myself and another student were instructed to clean down part of the house wall (on the southern end), partially excavated during the previous season. Tom set about erecting the plane table and orienting last year’s site plan. My companion, working diligently with trowel and brush, uncovered a furnace bottom within the first twenty minutes. For those not familiar with the term, a furnace bottom is just that – the material left in the bottom of the furnace after the good iron has been drawn off. It is composed of all the impurities along with quite a bit of the remaining iron. It retains the shape of the rounded base of the bowl furnace and part of the tuyère, used to blow air up through the furnace. On the other hand, if you’ve never seen one before (and are possessed of a peculiarly juvenile sense of humour) it looks like a giant metal breast replete with nipple. So, more a furnace boob than a furnace bottom. But I digress. My friend excitedly called Tom over, explaining that he’d found something metallic, but didn’t know what it was. Tom then spent some time instructing us on the origin and formation of furnace bottoms – he may have been mean in other ways, but sharing knowledge was not one of them! My friend was then instructed to approach the plane table and retrieve the brass-ringed end of the site measuring tape. This was gently reeled out to the artefact and held in position while Tom calculated the angle and scaled the length onto the site plan. It was only half an hour later, when I found an artefact of my own, that I realised that there was a delicate etiquette at work here of which I had not been fully aware. I uncovered an interesting looking stone, gave it a bit of a brush down and realised that it was a shattered portion of a rotary disc quern. I may not have had much experience in archaeology, but I could recognise this! It had a smoothed underside where the grain had been ground against the base stone. It had a coarser, curving surface, and at its thickest edge, I could just make out the curvature of the central perforation where the grain was fed in. I was well chuffed with my discovery. I got up from my kneeling position and walked over to Tom, standing sentinel-like at the plane table. ‘I need the measuring tape!’ I said ‘I’ve just found a piece of a quern stone’. Tom – physically and metaphorically – looked down on me (he was very tall … and I remain quite Hobbit-like) and, with a brief sigh, replied ‘Let me see’. I took him over and showed him the fragment. He looked down at me some more and said ‘No’. I couldn’t believe it! How could he not recognise this for what it was? Admittedly, it had broken in a slightly unusual way, so that it resembled a slightly squashed ‘Z’ that has been left out in the sun. Astonished at his lack of perspicacity, I began to enlighten him, but I was silenced with another swift ‘No’. He sighed and explained ‘Until I confirm your suspicion, you’ve not found anything. It is only for the site archaeologist to say what has been discovered’. Well, that was me told! After that, I couched my descriptions of what I’d found in appropriately vague language and only approached the plane table to retrieve the end of the tape measure when beckoned.
In terms of the general work on the site, we were instructed to only excavate in our designated 2m square. I found this particularly problematic, as Tom required that we all work at the same pace, with the entire surface being brought down at exactly the same rate. Thus, there could not be any steps or steep inclines between your square and your neighbour’s area. Any enthusiastic trowelling that lowered your area more quickly than those around you brought Tom’s wrath and the accusation that you were ‘creating features’. The site was on the edge of a slight drop, and we were instructed to dump our spoil over the edge to the west. Tom wanted us to carefully hand sift our spoil to ensure that no artefacts were inadvertently overlooked. However, the wind always seemed to conspire to turn any attempt at careful examination of the spoil into a swirling, choking dust cloud. It was for this reason that we frequently attempted to wait until Tom was otherwise engaged, and then just fling the spoil over the edge and run for it. Thinking back on that excavation, I remember that I had the same ‘charcoal addiction’ that many newly minted excavators suffer from. Simply put: it’s a near-unshakable belief that a) anything even remotely black is charcoal; b) all charcoal is of the highest importance and must be bagged and retained. Thankfully, Tom was remarkably patient on this point and gave careful tuition on what should (and should not) be saved. I clearly remember my first encounter on this topic, when I’d called him over to suggest that we bag some wonderful, important charcoal … charcoal that was actually a piece of a rotted briar and of no particularly great vintage.
|The delicate art of 'back spading'|
|Tom unfolding his measuring stick|
|Fragment of trough quern with stylistic links to Scotland|
|One of the shell middens|
|Shell midden during excavation|
Looking over these photographs reminds me that this was the last time I saw Edward. Edward was from Raphoe in Donegal, about 30 miles away from Rinnaraw. I’d met him during my time in the Boy Scouts in our early teens and, along with one or two others, had a number of adventures (and misadventures) across various Irish hillsides and mountains. These generally included getting lost and/or drenched. On one occasion, it even involved a six-pack of beer (illegally sold to three underage Scouts) which exploded inside a small tent somewhere near the Barnesmore Gap – but that’s another story! Somewhere along the way, Edward’s name got mentioned to Tom, together with the fact that he was ‘interested in history’. My memory was more that Edward’s interests lay in 20th century Russian history, but Tom still suggested that I give him a call and see if he was interested in coming along. The telephone call was made, Edward was interested, and was duly deposited in Rinnaraw a couple of days later by his mother. I took him up onto site, introduced him to Tom who provided some basic instruction and gave him a square to trowel. Tom then turned to me and said ‘and, of course, you’ll be taking care of his food out of your own allowance’ and then walked away. Such were the times and such were the trials of working with Tom!
While Tom completed the excavation, he didn’t survive long enough to write it up for publication. That task was eventually taken on by my old friend, and very talented archaeologist, Michelle Comber. She noted that “Upon removal from storage, the excavation archive was found to contain small ﬁnds, some of the quern fragments, iron slag and samples of soil, charcoal, bone and shell. Site records included a number of plans and excavation diaries, in addition to miscellaneous items of paperwork relating to funding, dating and licensing. Several of the small ﬁnds were deteriorating and all required cleaning and re-bagging, as did the bone and shell.” (2006, 68). So, not the pristine, well-organised, and complete archive that might have been hoped for!
|The 'anvil stone' during de-sodding|
In discussing some of these photographs a few years ago with Brian Dolan, then a PhD candidate at UCD, he noted that the this final publication makes no mention of the anvil stone. I was pretty surprised, as it had been quite an important aspect of the 1989 excavation. It’s location can be clearly seen in the ‘tang’ where we extended Quadrant C to the south-west, just to include it (Comber 2006, 78, fig. 7). The very same stone was used as the site datum for the re-survey of the site carried out by Liam Hickey (another old friend and companion on assorted misadventures/misdemeanors)(Comber 2006, 86, fig. 11). On site, Tom had expressed an opinion that this particular stone – flat-topped and standing about 0.5m above the field surface – may have been used as an anvil stone. It seemed like a pretty reasonable suggestion. To test the hypothesis, we extended the grid area of the site and de-sodded around it. We recovered a pretty substantial quantity of rusted metalwork that seemed to be mostly nails and similar corroded pieces. The published report doesn’t list where all the iron pieces came from (unlike the slag and furnace bottoms), but there is certainly no explicit connection made to this stone. Looking at our haul of rusty iron bits and pieces, Tom decided that they did not constitute evidence that it had been used as an anvil – or anything for that matter. Reinforcing his dictum that it wasn’t a find until he said it was, he closed the matter and would allow no further discussion. I take his point that the evidence was not sufficiently robust to prove beyond reasonable doubt that this stone was used in this matter at the time the house was occupied, though I think it deserved more notice than it got in his notes and in his thinking – which is why I mention it here. Another find that did not make it into the publication was found – I think – by myself. It was an old-fashioned brass stud with a swivel head, for a detachable collar. It was recovered from the northern portion of the site, between the cashel wall and the house. It was found almost directly below a set of initials carved into one of the earth-fast boulders of the cashel wall. I can’t remember the initials, but my memory is that the second initial was the same as that of the surname of the current landowners. Tom seemed to extract considerable delight from the notion that the stud was lost there as part of what may be euphemistically described as ‘courting’. I can clearly see why this didn’t make it into the site notebooks, or the final publication. Comber (2006, 68) notes that “Some of the larger quern fragments are missing from the archive and are, therefore, represented by earlier photographs.” It’s merely a suggestion, but I wonder if they’re not still stored in the shed we used as a site hut. Google Street View shows a long, low set of white-painted buildings with black doors [here]. I can’t remember which one we used to store the finds and equipment, but there’s a chance that this is where the larger stone items remain.
|Napoleonic-period watchtower, Horn Head|
I don’t think I dreamt it, but I can find no trace of a pub or clubhouse of some sort near the pier at Portnablagh on Google Street View. The area appears to have been extensively redeveloped in the last quarter century, so it may have disappeared in a wave of modernisation. I know that I was never inside the building, but I remember being able to see it from the site and from the front of our house. They had an outdoor speaker system and, when they got set up for the evening, they played Bryan Adams’ Summer of '69 on full volume. In the quiet evening stillness, you could hear it clearly belting out across the bay. I’m sure they must have played other songs, but this is the one I remember. Whatever about the smell of cooking fish, hearing this track brings me back to that time and place (cf. Weddle 2012).
|12th century Tau Cross, Tory Island|
|Round Tower, Tory Island|
|Collection of carved stones, Tory Island|
|Portion of a cross slab, Tory Island|
|Possible bullaun stone and gravestone fragment, Tory Island|
|Cross slab with cursing stones, Tory Island|
When I left home to come to Donegal, my Dad had seen me off and slipped me some cash with the strict instruction that it was ‘for emergencies only’. In my two weeks on the site, I’d been remarkably well behaved and not dipped into it. However, on our last day we had been invited up to the Portnablagh Hotel for dinner. The hotelier was also the landowner of the site, co-funder of the excavation, and had a strong interest in archaeology generally. He had also been involved in setting up the Donegal Survey, which preceded the OPW-funded county survey. The fruits of this labour, Brian Lacey’s Archaeological Survey of County Donegal was on sale in the foyer. I decided that this was just the sort of emergency my father had wanted me to be prepared for and bought it at once. I never once regretted the decision, though I did regret having to explain to my Dad that he wasn’t getting his money back!
We had an equally calm and sedate drive back to Galway, never once troubling the speed limit. While I have berated Tom for his meanness, he could occasionally be generous too. He suggested that we stop in Donegal town for ice cream. I was entrusted with a five-pound note and delegated to purchase the four cones – and instructed not to forget to bring back change! In my eagerness to get the task accomplished, I realised only too late, that I’d not really paid attention to Tom when he said where he’d be parked waiting. That’s why one of our number had to be dispatched to find me, wandering lost in Donegal, with melting ice cream starting to run down my fingers.
Somewhere along the way home, I fell asleep, only regaining consciousness as we pulled up on campus, in front of ‘the quad’. I remember becoming aware of the grey limestone buttresses contrasted against the gently swaying leaves and branches of the trees in the avenue. Even then I felt that I was waking from a weird dream, as if two weeks sweating in the dust of Rinnaraw had been an elaborate, but short-lived, hallucination. I spent most of the remainder of the summer in purgatory, in a ‘real’ job, serving up fast food to Galway’s summer hoards. I hated every minute of it and longed to get back to an archaeological excavation.
In writing this piece, I firstly wanted to set down an account of a type of archaeological excavation that, even then, was an anachronism. The next excavation I was on (Athenry Castle for two weeks between August-September 1989) was much closer to what most current archaeologists would recognise, with individuals being responsible for producing plan and section drawings, along with filling in pro forma context sheets. Beyond that, it has stirred up old memories not visited for many years. I’ve been vastly conflicted about how much I could or should say about Tom’s personality – most especially his extreme parsimony. Eventually, I’ve gone with the fact that it’s an honest account and that to leave this aspect out would have created a portrait, though more flattering, that would have rendered the subject unrecognisable to those who actually knew and worked with him. For all that, I still miss him. After all the other excavations I’ve been involved in, I still hold this one as separate and special, and I’m still grateful for the experience.
I’m finding it hard to reconcile that enthusiastic, but socially inept, kid with this overweight, middle aged, still socially inept, veteran of too many years spent digging in cold fields for bad pay. That summer will be 24 years ago this coming July (2014). Tom was diagnosed with cancer and died 21 years ago (1993). After initial treatment in Dublin he had been moved back to Galway to be near his family when the end came. I went to the hospital to see him, but was turned away because he was too weak to receive visitors. I had simply wanted to say ‘thanks’. Thanks for the experience of digging a fantastic site in beautiful weather in an incredibly scenic part of the world. Thanks for taking the time to teach me how to hold a trowel so I didn’t remove my knuckles (at least not twice in a row). Thanks for explaining the functions and origins of the artefacts we found – such a generosity of knowledge and experience that should be as well acknowledged and celebrated as any other aspect of his character. Thanks for the company, the trust, and the friendship. Thanks for being allowed the mark of distinction of being able to say ‘I dug with Tom Fanning’.
Comber, M. 2006 ‘Tom Fanning’s excavations at Rinnaraw Cashel, Portnablagh, Co. Donegal’ Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 106C, 67–124.
Lacey, B. 1983 Archaeological Survey of County Donegal: A Description of the Field Antiquities of the County from the Mesolithic Period to the 17th Century A.D. Donegal.
Weddle, C. 2012 'The Sensory Experience of Blood Sacrifice in the Roman Imperial Cult' in Day, J. (ed.) Making Senses of the Past: Toward a Sensory Archaeology. Center for Archaeological Investigations, Occasional Paper No. 40. Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. 137-159.