Research

All archaeological investigation can be described as a form of research, however, in addition to the compliance-led archaeological works on national road and light rail schemes, TII has funded and contributed to a number of formal research projects. Further information about these can be found at the bottom of this page.

The first of these projects, the Ballyhanna Research Project, was established in 2006 in partnership with Donegal County Council, Queen's University Belfast, and the Institute of Technology, Sligo. Through the application of a suite of scientific analyses this project aims to learn as much as possible about the population of one of the largest medieval Gaelic cemeteries ever excavated in Ireland, which was discovered at Ballyhanna, Co. Donegal, on the N15 Bundoran–Ballyshannon Bypass. A new book—The Science of a Lost Medieval Gaelic Graveyard—showcasing the fruits of this research was published in December 2015.

In April 2007, a Fellowship Programme was initiated to enable universities and institutes to apply for financial support for PhD and post-doctoral programmes covering subjects relevant to the construction, operation and maintenance of national roads. Funding was awarded for two archaeological research projects in 2008 and 2010, both of which facilitated doctoral research. These research projects were conducted by the Botany Department of Trinity College Dublin and the Division of Archaeological, Geographical and Environmental Sciences, University of Bradford, respectively.

In 2008 the NRA became a research partner in the Cultivating Societies INSTAR project led by the School of Geography, Archaeology and Palaeoecology at Queen’s University Belfast. The INSTAR (Irish National Strategic Archaeological Research) Programme is an archaeological research fund administered by the Heritage Council, which supports thematic research contributing to a better understanding of Ireland’s archaeological heritage. The NRA has contributed to a number of INSTAR projects and, as TII, is currently an industry partner in the Settlement and Landscape in Later Prehistoric Ireland—Seeing Beyond the Site project.

These projects have allowed TII to further build and develop research collaborations within the academic sector, participate in internationally significant research projects, and ensure that our excavation work is informed by current research thinking, providing value-added benefit to the archaeological work of TII.

Research assistance

TII regularly facilitates researchers by making excavation reports, images and other data (e.g. LiDAR) available. Please contact Michael Stanley (Michael.Stanley@tii.ie) or Lillian Butler (Lillian.Butler@tii.ie) for assistance.

In late 2003, on the route of the N15 Bundoran–Ballyshannon Bypass, an archaeological excavation commenced at Ballyhanna, outside Ballyshannon, Co. Donegal, where test excavations a few months earlier had revealed the presence of human bone. The work carried out here over the next six months by Irish Archaeological Consultancy Ltd (under the direction of Brian Ó Donnchadha) led to the discovery of a substantial medieval cemetery containing more than 1,000 burials and the foundations of a stone building, thought to be the remains of Ballyhanna Church. Following the excavation it was clear that the large amount of skeletal material, with its excellent state of preservation, could provide a wealth of information on the lifestyle, diets and causes of illness and death within a medieval Irish population. Accordingly, a cross-border research team was established in 2006 with the aim of identifying the areas of scientific research that would glean the most information from the Ballyhanna material. The result of that collaboration was the Ballyhanna Research Project, funded by the NRA through Donegal County Council.

The project’s academic partners are Queen’s University Belfast (QUB), and the Institute of Technology, Sligo (ITS). The QUB component of the project involves the osteological and palaeopathological analysis (the study of bones and ancient diseases) of the skeletal remains. Catriona McKenzie, under the supervision of Dr Eileen Murphy and Dr Colm Donnelly, undertook doctoral research on the adult skeletons from the site. Dr Murphy studied the skeletons of the children buried at Ballyhanna and along with Róisín McCarthy’s analysis of the disarticulated remains, a huge amount of osteoarchaeological data has been catalogued on the burials. In addition, Phillip McDonald and Naomi Carver of the Centre for Archaeological Fieldwork, QUB, have undertaken a reconstruction of the Ballyhanna burial sequence to show how the cemetery evolved over time.

Two additional doctoral research projects are based in ITS. Tasneem Bashir, under the supervision of Dr Ted McGowan, has been reconstructing the palaeodiet and environmental conditions of the cemetery population through analysis of trace elements (substances, such as iron, that cannot be resolved by chemical means into simpler substances) in a representative sample of male, female and child bones from Ballyhanna. Sheila Tierney, under the supervision of Dr Jeremy Bird, is attempting to extract and amplify ancient DNA from the human remains.

The Science of a Lost Medieval Gaelic Graveyard (published in December 2015) draws together the various research strands to create a comprehensive overview of the graveyard and the life and times of those buried there. The following articles from Seanda magazine and papers from the proceedings of two NRA National Archaeology Seminars held in 2007 and 2010 provide further background and describe some of the results from the Ballyhanna Research Project. The publications are listed in chronological order and can be viewed by clicking on the individual titles.

MacDonagh, M  2006  'Ballyhanna Research Project', Seanda, No. 1, 60–2.

Murphy, E & Donnelly, C  2006  ‘The Ballyhanna Research Project at Queen’s University, Belfast’, Seanda, No. 1, 63.

McGowan, T  2006  ‘Multi-element analysis of human bone’, Seanda, No. 1, 64.

Bird, J  2006  ‘Amplification of ancient DNA and sex determination in human medieval skeletal assemblages’, Seanda, No. 1, 65.

Leamy, G  2006  ‘Showcasing the finds’, Seanda, No. 1, 66.

Leamy, G  2007  ‘A forgotten site: Ballyhanna Church and Graveyard’, Seanda, No. 2, 8.

MacDonagh, M  2008  ‘The Ballyhanna Research Project: an introduction’, in J O’Sullivan & M Stanley (eds), Roads, Rediscovery and Research, 127–31. Archaeology and the National Roads Authority Monograph Series No. 5. National Roads Authority, Dublin.

McKenzie, C  2008  ‘An overview of the palaeopathological analyses of the medieval human remains from Ballyhanna, Co. Donegal’, in J O’Sullivan & M Stanley (eds), Roads, Rediscovery and Research, 133–42. Archaeology and the National Roads Authority Monograph Series No. 5. National Roads Authority, Dublin.

McCarthy, R  2008  ‘Preliminary osteoarchaeological analysis of the disarticulated human skeletal material from Ballyhanna, Co. Donegal’, in J O’Sullivan & M Stanley (eds), Roads, Rediscovery and Research, 143–8. Archaeology and the National Roads Authority Monograph Series No. 5. National Roads Authority, Dublin.

Tierney, S  2008  ‘Amplification of ancient DNA and determination of sex in medieval human skeletal material from Ballyhanna, Co. Donegal’, in J O’Sullivan & M Stanley (eds), Roads, Rediscovery and Research, 149–54. Archaeology and the National Roads Authority Monograph Series No. 5. National Roads Authority, Dublin.

Bashir, T & McGowan, T  2008  ‘Multi-elemental analysis of human bone from Ballyhanna, Co. Donegal’, in J O’Sullivan & M Stanley (eds), Roads, Rediscovery and Research, 155–61. Archaeology and the National Roads Authority Monograph Series No. 5. National Roads Authority, Dublin.

McCarthy, D, McKenzie, C, Murphy, E, Bashir, T & Tierney, S  2009  ‘Ballyhanna Research Project 2009 update’, Seanda, No. 4, 22–7.

McKenzie, C & Murphy, E  2011  ‘Health in medieval Ireland: the evidence from Ballyhanna, Co. Donegal’, in S Conran, E Danaher & M Stanley (eds), Past Times, Changing Fortunes, 131–43. Archaeology and the National Roads Authority Monograph Series No. 8. National Roads Authority, Dublin.

In 2008 the NRA awarded funding from its Fellowship Programme to a PhD research project entitled Understanding environmental and landscape change in the midlands of Ireland through the cultural use of woodland. This research was conducted by wood specialist and archaeologist Ellen O’Carroll of the Botany Department, Trinity College, Dublin, and combined palaeoecological techniques and archaeological data (including information derived from excavations conducted on national road schemes) in order to quantify woodland use and its impact in the Irish midlands since the Mesolithic period (c. 8000–4000 BC).

A paper describing the aims and methods of the project was presented at the 2009 NRA National Archaeology Seminar and this paper, offering preliminary research results, was published in the subsequent seminar proceedings in autumn 2010. Ellen was awarded her PhD in summer 2012 and presented some of her findings at the 2012 Seminar. This paper, co-authored with Professor Fraser Mitchell, was published in the seminar proceedings in autumn 2013. Further papers will emanate from Ellen's research and news of these will be posted here as they are appear in print or online.

In addition to these publications, the research findings also fed into the compilation of Palaeoenvironmental Sampling Guidelines (published in June 2015) for use on national road schemes.

Related publications

OCarroll, E  2010 'Ancient woodland use in the midlands: understanding environmental and landscape change through archaeological and palaeoecological techniques', in M Stanley, E Danaher & J Eogan (eds), Creative Minds: production, manufacturing and invention in ancient Ireland, 47–56. Archaeology and the National Roads Authority Monograph Series No. 7. National Roads Authority, Dublin.

OCarroll, E & Mitchell, F J G  2013  'Seeing the woods for the trees: unravelling woodland resource usage in the Irish midlands over the last five millenia', in B Kelly, N Roycroft & M Stanley (eds), Futures and Pasts: archaeological science on Irish road schemes, 111–20. Archaeology and the National Roads Authority Monograph Series No. 10. National Roads Authority, Dublin.

OCarroll, E & Mitchell, F J G  2015  'Seeing the woods for the trees: the history of woodlands and wood use revealed from archaeological excavations in the Irish Midlands', Irish Forestry, Vol. 72, 205–26.

OCarroll, E & Mitchell, F J G  (forthcoming)  ‘Quantifying woodland resource usage and selection from Neolithic to post Medieval times in the Irish Midlands’, Environmental Archaeology, The Journal of Human Palaeoecology.

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The use of archaeogeophysics on road schemes between 2001 and 2010 has been reviewed as part of a second archaeological research project funded through the Fellowship Programme. Archaeogeophysical survey consists of a range of methods for exploring below the ground surface by means of remote sensing. This study, awarded funding in 2010, was carried out by James Bonsall, Dr Chris Gaffney and Professor Ian Armit from the University of Bradford in the UK. Irish company Earthsound Archaeological Geophysics acted as the university’s industrial partner in the research.

Archaeological geophysicist James Bonsall was selected as a finalist to present his research at the prestigious Transport Research Arena 2012 conference and was awarded the silver medal in the environmental pillar for his presentation. James gave a preliminary review of progress in Issue 6 of Seanda magazine (published in December 2011) and presented a paper at the 2012 NRA National Archaeology Seminar. This paper, co-authored with Dr Chris Gaffney and Professor Ian Armit, was published in the subsequent seminar proceedings in autumn 2013. One of the key deliverables of the research project was an online database from which NRA-commissioned geophysical reports could be viewed. The NRA Archaeological Geophysical Survey Database was launched in April 2013 and an article about this important online resource was published in Issue 8 of Seanda. The research also delivered a set of guidelines (published in May 2014) entitled Preparing for the Future: a re-appraisal of archae-geophysical surveying on Irish National Road Schemes 2001-2010.

Related publications

Bonsall, J  2011  'Ten years of archaeogeophysics', Seanda, No. 6, 38–9.

Bonsall, J, Gaffney, C & Armitt, I  2013  'Back and forth: paving the way forward by assessing 10 years of geophysical surveys on Irish road schemes', in B Kelly, N Roycroft & M Stanley (eds), Futures and Pasts: archaeological science on Irish road schemes, 1–13. Archaeology and the National Roads Authority Monograph Series No. 10. National Roads Authority, Dublin.

Bonsall, J, Gaffney, C & Armitt, I  2014  Preparing for the Future: a re-appraisal of archae-geophysical surveying on Irish National Road Schemes 2001-2010. Report by the Division of Archaeological, Geographical and Environmental Sciences, University of Bradford.

Bonsall, J, Sparrow, T, Gaffney, C, Armit, I & Swan, R  2013  'Underground, overground', Seanda, No. 8, 14–15.

The INSTAR Programme is an archaeological research fund administered by the Heritage Council that supports thematic research and facilitates collaboration between archaeological consultancies, academic institutions, international academic and research bodies and State bodies. TII is currently an industry partner in the Settlement and Landscape in Later Prehistoric Ireland—Seeing Beyond the Site INSTAR project and, as the NRA, was also a partner in the Cultivating societies: assessing the evidence for agriculture in Neolithic Ireland and The People of Prehistoric Ireland projects.

The NRA contributed to a number of other INSTAR projects by facilitating access to excavation reports and other unpublished data derived from archaeological investigations on national road schemes. These projects included: