For 13 summers, St. Louis University history professor Thomas J. Finan has visited a remote field near Galway, Ireland, to play in the dirt.
Put another way, he’s been taking groups of students for four weeks to help him with his archaeological work.
And this summer’s trip has left him happier than, well, an archaelogist in dirt.
“I think we hit the jackpot,” Finan said last week, several days after returning to the U.S.
The site Finan and his students work on is called Purt Na Carce (“Port Nah Carr-rick”). It is in County Roscommon in northwestern Ireland, about 60 miles north of Galway. These days, it’s commonly known as Rockingham. Finan first told the Post-Dispatch in late 2013 that the site could be important because it appeared to be a secular settlement of about 250 people dating back to about 1200. Finan said then that this would be important because it would dispute the long-held notion that the Irish were nomads and did not live in communal settings back then.
“Our dig produced some pretty clear evidence. We’ve managed to build the skeleton, and now we can start filling that skeleton out,” he said of the artifacts uncovered.
The Irish were not especially known for city-building, Finan has noted. The major Irish cities in the south — Waterford, Dublin and Cork — actually were established by Viking settlers in the 800s and 900s.
“In 2013, we were excited about finding this town, but it was pretty much supposition on our part. But now we have clear evidence that this was an important market town, a town engaged in the industrial market, metal-making and grain-processing, and trading with the English,” said Finan, who also is the associate director of the university’s Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.
Finan said the well-preserved artifacts gleaned from the main excavation site also held the promise of providing evidence as to how already-documented global climate changes affected Ireland in the 1200s.
The site has become such a hot historical dig that the local Higher Education Channel also just returned from a month of filming at the site. An air date of early 2017 is planned, and producers hope to also find outlets to air it in Ireland and Great Britain. Finan also noted that the U.S. ambassador to Ireland, St. Louis native Kevin O’Malley, has become interested in the progress of the research.
Finan’s St. Louis connections go back to his beginning. A self-described “hoosier from south St. Louis who managed to get a Ph.D,” Finan graduated from St. Louis University High School and earned two bachelor’s degrees from the University of Missouri before moving on to graduate work in Chicago and Washington.
Kathy Bratkowski, producer of the HEC documentary, and her crew were with Finan for a month. She loved the experience but said there were two problems with shooting at the location: weather, and weather.
“It rains a lot in Ireland, and even (natives) said it was awfully rainy. It rained every single day,” Bratkowski said. “So that was the challenge.”
Bratkowski also noted that Purt Na Carce is a bit secluded. “There’s no Wi-Fi and very little cellphone reception, so checking emails and voicemail was a big problem,” she said.
The documentary, which has a very rough working title of “The Irish Dig,” will be 60 minutes long, and Bratkowski said she planned to have it ready no later than St. Patrick’s Day.
Finan said he found it amusing to watch the documentary-makers watch the archaeologists.
“They’d look at us and wonder what we were getting so excited about. I think they were waiting for us to pull up some golden chalice,” Finan said.
“But it’s actually more like pieces of unprocessed bronze, pollen, seeds and insects.”