One of the most signiﬁcant sites excavated for years in the county has revealed that Claregalway marked the beginning of the urbanisation of Galway.
The archaeological discovery was made during the flood relief works undertaken by the County Council and the Office of Public Works (OPW).
The excavators discovered the remains of 25 bodies—23 full skeletons and two skulls—in a medieval graveyard outside the enclosed grounds of the late 13th century Norman church to the south of the river, some 40 metres adjacent to the Arches Hotel.
In an area north of the river, a dig uncovered 515 artefacts left by people living in shanties between the Abbey and the Castle, which included what is thought to be the original set of keys to Claregalway Castle. For archaeologists, the site represents “a once or twice in a career opportunity”, enthused project archaeologist Martin Jones.
“The scale and size of the site is not unusual, but the intensity of the archaeology and the location is what makes it out of the ordinary and exceptional. Opportunities to excavate sites like this in an urban setting are quite rare—very close to a church, abbey and castle and at a river. While there was nothing hugely wealthy found, it’s the everyday stuff that tells more than a pot of gold.”
It took a team of twenty workers from the Galway City company, Headland Archaeology, to carefully remove the skeletons, which have been preliminarily dated back to 700 years ago. Most are in very good condition. Some of the bodies had been laid on their backs, others laid on their sides.
One person, probably a male, was found lying face down with the arms bound to the back with some sort of metal string.
As well as the large set of keys among the haul of over 500 artefacts, the dig uncovered arrow heads, pottery, bone pins used for darning clothes and holding cloaks in place and coins issued by King Edward l Longshands, who was William Wallace’s greatest adversary.
“Claregalway was founded by the Norman incursion into the west of the country. It is quite modern. It is the beginning of the urbanisation of Galway.”
Overall the dig took nearly three months of field work in very difficult weather conditions. It delayed the installation of the two temporary pontoon bridges which were built to allow Claregalway Bridge to be closed completely while a new flood eye is installed.
However, the excavation was necessary to ensure the preservation of the remains the the artefacts, which would have been destroyed by a road taking up to 25,000 cars a day. It had also been anticipated that skeletal remains may be found in such a sensitive site which would require excavation.
Ross MacLeod of Headland Archaeology explained that it would take at least six months to complete its carbon dating of the finds, analyse soil samples and produce a final report on the site.
It is impossible to identify any of the remains as there were no nameplates uncovered.
“The land owner used the land for cattle. You just don’t know what’s underneath your feet,” he mused. “There’s not an awful lot of medieval cemeteries that have been excavated. It’s a nationally significant monument—to have the quantity of the small finds is very unusual, certainly in Galway.”
Once the analysis is completed, the discoveries are officially the property of the National Museum of Ireland.
It is hoped locals will get a chance to attend a presentation by the archaeologists involved on the dig, including an exhibition of the artefacts. The owner of the refurbished Claregalway Castle, Eamonn O’Donoghue, has already offered the Castle as the location for such an event.
The works on the bridge are expected to prevent the back-up of flood waters by creating greater capacity for the water to flow through in order to prevent a repeat of the devastation in the village and much of the hinterland caused by the floods in late 2009.
The bridge is expected to open in June.