Celtic Tiger Archaeology – the view from afar

Like Vincent Vega in the opening scene of Pulp Fiction, describing to Jules Winnfield why he digs Europe, what has struck me most about working as an archaeologist in Britain and Ireland are the ‘little differences.’ Not just the differences in terms of the sites or artefacts that I actually found, but also the differences in how the archaeology is actually dug. Example: compared to the long-handled Irish shovel, the British shovel has a short handle barely three feet long, and they swear that anything different would break their backs. And in Ireland the archaeology cops (council archaeologists) can’t tell you what to do.

OK – so it’s legal, but it aint 100% legal. I mean you can’t just roll up to a field and start digging away. You’re only supposed to dig in designated places with a licence. But get this: as long as the paper works in order, you can’t get stopped no matter how badly you’re doing it. That’s a right the cops don’t have. And you know what else: at morning break they eat this thing from a gas station called a ‘breakfast roll’ with this mystery stuff called ‘white pudding.’ I’ve seen them drown themselves in that shit. What do they call a Whopper? Don’t know – I never went to a Burger King.

When scholars finally write the history of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ archaeology boom, there is a strong argument to be made that it began at precisely 9.00am on 22nd of February 2002, and finished at exactly 4.30pm on 22nd October 2008. Two NRA seminars were held on both days – the first seminar in 2002 flung open the doors to international archaeological consultancies as construction-led demand for archaeologists’ far outstripped supply. The second seminar in 2008 unveiled the Department of Finance’s new form of archaeological contract, drafted in the wake of cuts in public spending. Undoubtedly there were longer-term trends that fuelled the boom – generous European structural funding, attractive tax incentives and a comprehensive National Development Plan designed to countries inadequate infrastructure. But hindsight may show that these seminars were turning points all along, book-ending a period when Ireland was the best country in the world to be an archaeologist.

At the beginning of the decade, I was caught up in the first wave of immigrant labour, and eagerly joined the ranks as a journeyman archaeologist. By the time the second seminar rolled round, I had reached the dizzying heights of project management, and as I looked around the room, not only were there no international companies in attendance, only a handful of Irish companies had come to the table too.

If commercial archaeology is the canary in the coalmine – the first business to feel the faintest fluctuations in the health of the wider economy – then the prognosis for Ireland in 2008 was bleak. At best, archaeological companies were shedding jobs, at worst, they were going out of business altogether. Along with hundreds of other immigrant archaeologists, I made my way home, taking memories and stories that seemed to grow in the telling. The calibre of the sites, the scale of the projects and the international makeup of the teams had left me constantly amazed. ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive’ wrote Wordsworth, after witnessing the French revolution, ‘but to be young was very heaven.’

I have been commissioned by Current Archaeology Magazine to write a series of articles detailing the best 10 sites of the Celtic tiger, and over the coming months I will be hoping to explore exactly how revolutionary the results have been. Many readers will be aware of the contentious Irish sites that made international headlines for all the wrong reasons – Carrickmines Castle, Woodstown, and Lismullin on the Tara M3. Far fewer will have heard of the multitude of other sites that have challenged accepted knowledge of Irish archaeology.

What makes a top ten site? I’m not yet sure, but I’m hoping to get as many opinions on likely candidates as possible, from you my lovely readers. If you have any ideas yourself, now is the time to speak up and get in touch. Its surely time the world got to know…


  1. The Windy Miller says:

    Not to blow personal trumpets (or any other wind instrument for that matter), how about Kilbegly Mill for one of your top sites? It’s dated in the early medieval period and is one of the best preserved examples found in Europe. It’s also very photogenic for those that enjoy a nice bit of preserved wood, with some nice artefacts such as withy ropes, a perfectly preserved wooden spade, ringed pin, shale bracelets etc.

  2. Thanks Windy Miller (when blowing my own, I normally plumb for a Bassoon, but that’s by the by).

    Excellent choice of site, whatever your personal involvement!

    I’m going to have to go Simon Cowell here and say: good choice of site, pitch perfect performance, but… There are some strong contenders in your category: Raystown for one, Two Mile Borris for another… has KIlbegly Mill got what it takes to be a star?!? Can Kilbegly win the public vote…?

    Tune in after the news bulletin. From Camberwick Green.

  3. The Windy Miller says:

    Ahh both fine sites, however they are what I would call ‘megasites’ with loads of stuff going on – burials, industry, settlement, etc. Britain has a good few examples of those (such as Wharram Percy), but few to rival the woody wonder of Kilbegly. Yes it’s small but its perfectly formed! (Besides I’m nearly finished the publication so the extra exposure would be nice) ; )

  4. Megasites?! I see. Kind of like the spice girls effect (individually no chance, all five at once, now you’re talking!).

    Nearing publication you say? Well that makes it all the rarer. I’ve stuck it on the long-list, soon to be shortened down, and will keep you posted just as soon as we draw the final ten from the tombola.


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