STEP Reflection

I used my STEP funds to travel to Ireland to participate in the Trim/Blackfriary Archaeological Expedition. The Education Abroad Program partnered with the Irish Archaeological Field School (IAFS) to excavate a medieval Franciscan monastery. I worked five days a week from 9-5 pm in a specialized dig site called Cutting #7. Cutting #7 was located above where the original the monastery kitchen was thought to be.
I learned a great deal of what archaeologists do and how they work on site. As a biology major, my idea of an archaeologist does was based off of what I have seen in movies (like the Indiana Jones‘ Series). I learned that an archaeologist finds physical evidence to either aid written text or use the physical evidence to put together a piece of history that was not recorded. I thought that I would immediately come to site and find something significant. After working with the field school and with a trained archaeologist, I learned that more often than not, what you do not find says just as much as a find. Just because an artifact was not found, does not mean that the dig was pointless. In fact, not “finding anything” can give an archaeologist an idea of what the area was not and give insight to the layout of the monastery. I did not end up finding anything, but animal bones in my cutting.
I have continued to follow the progress at the site. After we had left Ireland (about a week later after heavy rain), a lead decorative piece that was probably applied to timber furniture was found in my cutting. This was the first lead decorative piece that had been found in whole. Even though my group did not “find it,” we aided in by removing dirt (about two tons of dirt from the 16th and 17th century) that covered this artifact.
I also learned to appreciate the time it takes to fully excavate ruins. The site we were at had been opened about six years ago and currently, only about five cuttings exist. A cutting is about forty by forty feet (give or take). The the rest of the monastery is still buried in a field. In actuality, only very small parts of the monastery are exposed. Archaeologists removed dirt, layer by layer, in a cutting. The work was extremely tedious. They do not know what they might find in each layer. So, you cannot just bulldoze the field. I have a new found respect for the physicality that is involved in archaeology. Excavating “quickly” is not necessarily the aim of archaeology.
The relationships that I formed with the faculty at the IAFS played a key role in my transformative experience. The resident Director, Finnola O’Carrol, has been on site since the beginning. She is an archaeologist who has excavated many pre-historical and medieval sites in Ireland. She was the one person that really emphasized the importance the OSU group played on site. She always said that if we found an artifact that was a great contribution, but if we did not find an artifact, we were still excavating. We were still showing what was not there and in doing that, we were helping create a better picture of what life was like in the monastery. She aided in my understanding of what archaeology is and why it is important. Before this experience, I would say that if an archaeologist did not find anything at the site then the excavation was pointless. Director O‘Carro l helped me realize that maybe what was expected to be found and was not could provide greater insight than a finding.
In addition to Director O‘Carrol,another faculty member at IAFS, Barbra, also helped put into perspective what we were excavating. It is hard to imagine people that lived so long ago and really think of them as people. We saw skeletons, plates, jewelry, etc., but none of those things really put into perspective that these people were real to me. Barbra showed us an artifact that was found years ago that made me think about the medieval people as humans was a tiny broken off piece of what the archaeologist believed to be a comb. That little comb made me realize that we were excavating real people and their homes. A comb which is so tiny and insignificant made me realize that the people and things we were digging up were someone’s reality thousands of years ago. It was very surreal moment to think that I was a small piece in helping piece together the lifestyle of friars and common people that lived so long ago. Especially since some of the townspeople of Trim have ancestors that are buried in the monastery graveyard.
Lastly, my immediate supervisor, Ian played a huge role in explaining what an archaeology does and how building/cultivating community awareness is important to a site. Ian was a site instructor. I worked closely with him on a daily basis. He was a working corporate archaeologist that took time in the summer to be an instructor at IAFS. He emphasized the importance of the community that surrounded the site. When the site was first being excavating, teens would come and loot/vandalize the site.One time they even started a fire on site. He explained that through community outreach programs like an open site day where students and town’s people could come excavate or take tours that people could gain understanding of the site. If people understood the site and understood that this was a part of the town’s history, then they would appreciate and respect the site. Since embracing the community outreach program, there had been less and less destructive behavior each year. The site was relatively open and people could come and go as they pleased. There was even a garden on the part of the field that the monastery did not extend to. I learned the importance of having the community’s support on the project. Archaeology is about teaching people and if the IAFS took the approach of cutting off the public from the site, then there would be no point in the findings, because the town’s people of Trim would not feel that they were a part of the excavation. The history of the Blackfriary belongs to the people of Trim.The open and welcoming approach the IAFS took to the site shows the true meaning of archaeology. It is to give an insight to the history of the people who lived there to the people that now reside there.
The Trim/Blackfriary education abroad experience has opened my eyes to what archaeology is and why it is important in society. In studying the past, we can learn about how we got to where we are, what events/items were of positive and/or negative influences and learn from this to make a better future. I learned that archaeology is important in academia, but it is also very humbling. It really made me think about people’s lifestyles thousands of years ago and how they managed to survive without the technology we have today. Medieval people lived in a very simple time, but often faced many of the same struggles we do today like war, sickness, and poverty. It made me think about how money, power, and salvation are ideologies that are timeless.
I had the opportunity to learn about Irish culture through my interactions with the archaeologists on site and people in Trim. I also learned about ancient Irish culture through field trips and the excavation. As an outsider, learning about two different time periods in Ireland, it was interesting to see the bits of culture that existed in medieval Ireland that many Irish still believe to this day. One of the biggest parts of this culture that transcended through time is folklore and storytelling. Folklore played such a huge role in where and how Irish farmers planted and grew crops. Some of those traditions are still firmly believed today. I found it very insightful how the Irish culture has maintained many of these traditions throughout time.
Moving forward from this experience, I have a greater appreciation for archaeology, Irish culture and medieval history. I have always liked learning about American history. The Trim/Blackfriary program has opened a new area of interest for me. Since returning home, I have started to read not only on medieval Irish history but also 20th century Irish history. Overall, I really enjoyed the program and it opened my eyes to archaeology as a field of study and Irish history.

One thought on “STEP Reflection

  1. Mackenzie – Thanks for your reflection. I enjoyed reading how your prospective changed during the excavation period. When excavating, I could understand how one may feel underwhelmed if an artifact was not found, but I am thankful there were faculty members with you would added a different outlook. Enjoy learning more in your readings!

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