Community Archaeology - The Context for the Medieval Bray Project
One of the major developments in archaeology in Ireland in recent years has been the rapid growth of community archaeology. This provides the context for many local groups that have been established over the last number of years, including the Medieval Bray Project.
Community archaeology involves modern communities engaging with the physical remains of the past in their own area, using the established techniques of archaeology, including geophysical survey, field walking, building surveys, excavation, etc. As well as these practical outdoor activities, it also involves carefully researching written historical sources. The work of community archaeology groups often complements that of local history groups, but is distinctly different in its approach, with its focus on ‘material culture’, i.e. physical objects, buildings, etc.
Community archaeology is difficult to define precisely but, at its core, it involves a partnership between local people and professional archaeologists. The nature and origins of this partnership can vary. In some cases, the initiative may come mainly from the local community, who then engage the necessary expertise from professionals. In other cases, professional archaeologists living in their local community have taken the initiative to set up groups, while, elsewhere, local authorities have taken the lead role, through the work of heritage officers and, more recently, dedicated community archaeologists. The Medieval Bray Project was started by local archaeologist, David McIlreavy, following his involvement with community archaeology groups elsewhere.
Working carefully and professionally
No matter what the nature of the partnership between community and professionals, you can rest assured that all of the actual archaeological investigations are supervised by trained professionals. Licences are needed to carry out excavations and geophysical surveys in Ireland and these can only be obtained by suitably qualified persons. This ensures that the quality of the work of community archaeology groups is high and there is no risk to the archaeology from well-intentioned but unprofessional interventions.
What the local community do bring, however, is interest, motivation and physical resources. In fact, it is unlikely that the valuable archaeological investigations carried out by these groups would take place without the volunteer element of community archaeology. Much of the archaeology sector’s activity in Ireland is in commercial archaeology, i.e. investigations required before the development of buildings, roads, etc., while the funding for purely research excavations is limited. By raising local awareness of archaeology, it is also likely that the practice of community archaeology has a protective effect on the archaeology itself, i.e. if people are more aware of local archaeology, they will generally act to protect it.
As well as simply finding out more about the past, community archaeology has other positive effects. Working on an excavation or a graveyard clean-up helps to connect the community. The activity itself creates bonds among the people actually doing the work, but also within the wider community. Local people will typically come to see what is happening at an event, talk to the participants, read signage put up by the group, attend talks about the findings, participate in children’s art competitions, and visit Facebook pages or websites, like this one. If you look around this website, you will find evidence of all these activities by the Medieval Bray Project. In many ways, community archaeology is about helping to build the community of the present, as much as finding out about the past.
A quick glance at the images on this site will also reveal that an interest in the past is not the preserve of any particular demographic group. All ages, sexes and backgrounds seem to be fascinated by it (see Figures 1 to 7). In another post on this site, one of our members gives her experience of being part of an active community archaeology group. You might like to read this, particularly if you are interested in joining the group.
Community archaeology in Ireland
If you want to read more about community archaeology in Ireland and about the activities of various groups around the country, then a recently published book, edited by Christine Baker, community archaeologist with Fingal County Council (see Figure 3 and reference below), is a very useful source. Among a range of articles, it contains one about the Medieval Bray Project by David McIlreavy. The article concentrates on our excavations at Raheenacluig but it also serves as an introduction to the group generally.
Links with other projects
In practice, community archaeology groups do not exist in isolation. For example, some of our members participate in other projects from time to time, such as the excavations at Beaubec in Co. Meath (see Figures 4 and 5), Drumanagh Promontory Fort (Figure 6) and the Naul in Fingal, Glendalough in Co. Wicklow (Figure 7) and the Blackfriary in Trim. If you would like to get a good sense of what a volunteer dig is like on a day-to-day basis, there is an online ‘dig diary’ available for the Beaubec excavations. Most of these other projects consist of repeated excavations at the same site over succeeding summers. In contrast, the Medieval Bray Project is a permanent group with ongoing activities in the local area. Two of our current projects are the cleaning up of Old Conna graveyard and the planning of a Medieval Fair to be held at some point in the future when conditions permit. If you would like to find out more about the group and its work, you can email us at email@example.com.
Further Reading: Baker, C., ed., (2020) Partnership and Participation: Community Archaeology in Ireland, Dublin, Wordwell Ltd.