At Know Thy Place we specialise in producing an archaeological wall chart of your townland or town so you can learn about the archaeology of your ancestral home. It also serves as a guide to help you find the monuments of the area, if (and hopefully when!) you get the opportunity to visit it. For those people lucky enough to know the very house their ancestors lived in we can take this work a step further, producing plans and elevations of the building on request, and highlighting its main features.
As professional archaeologists we have often encountered homesteads, often now in a semi-ruinous state, which prompted questions in our minds about the people who once lived there. One particular house which we recently worked on stands out from the crowd, however. A chance encounter transformed what was a routine archaeological building recording job into a much more rewarding experience, and reinforced the fact that ruinous houses are not the domain of feral animals and overgrowth, but the past focus of vibrant communities and a physical reminder of the humanity which is integral in all archaeological sites.
As part of a research project in the townland of Ballyshane, near Inch, in east County Cork, we were commissioned to carry out an historic building survey of a ruinous complex of 19th century farm buildings. The complex consisted of a single storey rectangular structure typical of the vernacular architecture of rural Ireland in the 19th century. The building was constructed of stone walls and had a thatch roof, and was subdivided into four bays or rooms. An adjoining range of byres were also located on the south end of the range which would have held animals. The building was constructed before the 1840s as it is depicted on the first edition of the Ordnance Survey map which was surveyed in 1841. The building showed signs of significant modifications through the 19th and 20th century, and new windows were introduced as per changing trends in architecture in the early 20th century. The thatched roof was also covered with corrugated iron which was again typical of the 19th century.
The survey produced an accurate, technical drawing of the building both in plan and elevation which as was required by our brief. Then, as we were packing up the equipment to leave the site, we bumped into an elderly gentleman on the road, in what turned out to be an extremely fortuitous encounter. He asked us what we were doing, so we filled him in on the work we were carrying out. Amazingly, he revealed to us that he had been born and lived in the house when it was still in use. Here was a living connection to the history and archaeology of the building, a man who did not see the house as a ruinous and dilapidated structure- he saw it as the home of his youth, filled with the memories and sense of place that such a connection imparts.
The man started to tell us about the house from his childhood memories. He told us that animals were kept at one end, while his family lived cheek by jowl with the stock in the other. Apparently the fire was always lighting, the kettle was always on and visitors were always welcome. He then produced two family photographs of the last occupants of the house standing outside it on a fine summer’s day. He went on to tell us his story of the townland back in the not too distant past. It was a busy landscape filled with animals and populated by local ‘characters’ working the fields. The black and white technical drawings which we had produced as a requirement for planning suddenly became coloured with the memories of a former resident.
We left the job with a renewed interest in this archaeology of place. Archaeology is not just about recording derelict buildings and grassy earthworks. It is about understanding the past through study and research of past landscapes and communities, and reconstructing the past through the clues left by our ancestors; it is about putting people back into the place.