The Study Area
The project study area covered an area of c. 7,000km², consisting of the lower catchment of the River Shannon, comprising the counties of Clare and Limerick and portions of counties Kerry and Tipperary. The main focus of the project was, using the known archaeological record as a foundation, to access the nature and range of settlement, economic, social and ritual patterning in a regional framework and in this way to achieve a detailed view of the processes and changes involved within later prehistory (The Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age, c. 1000BC-100BC). The landscape study draws on a wider time frame, however, spanning the Middle Bronze Age to the end of the Iron Age (c. 1600BC-400AD). Placing the archaeological record in its national and international context is another important element of the research.
The initial phase of work consisted of assembling and collating the relevant data from various sources. A preliminary analysis of the distribution patterns of the artefacts was also carried out as that evidence might assist in the location of unknown settlement foci. Three areas, called landblocks, were selected, each comprising c. 400km². These enabled the integrated study and interpretation of associated themes such as material, social, economic and ritual development. The individual landblocks are: south-east Clare in the area around the hillfort at Mooghaun; the Lough Gur area in east county Limerick (comprising three integrated landblocks totalling c. 1000km2) and around the Ballylin hillfort in west Limerick
This region was chosen for intensive research for a number of reasons. The archaeological data available for North Munster indicated that a complex and wealthy society emerged during the final phase of the Bronze Age. The area can be viewed as a distinct region but its identification as such relied on the study of artefacts. It had already been highlighted as a significant area in terms of the specialised bronze and gold work recovered, the high degree of craftsmanship involved in the manufacture of individual items, and the size of some of the assemblages of Late Bronze Age material such as the gold hoard from Mooghaun, Co. Clare. However, little was known of the regional settlement or economic background and there was only slight evidence for ritual (other than the probably ceremonial deposition of hoards).
Another important issue was the transition to the Iron Age. There is a concentration of metal objects of Late Bronze Age date in the core area and this contrasts with the distribution of the smaller quantity of Iron Age material. The latter mainly comes from the northern part of the area. These contrasting distributions provide a difficulty in assessing the nature of the Late Bronze Age – Iron Age transition in the region as well as in understanding the developments in the Iron Age itself.
Mooghaun and other hillforts
The hillfort at Mooghaun South is a large monument, enclosed by three ramparts of limestone rubble, defining an area of about 12 hectares (27 acres). The ramparts are up to 12m wide and survive to a maximum height of 2m. Excavation was carried out in selected parts of the hillfort. This has provided evidence for settlement during the Late Bronze Age after its construction around 1260-930 BC. There are extensive layers of occupation debris but evidence for structures was limited to two small circular houses. Its function may have been that of a great tribal stronghold of high status but one that was not permanently inhabited by large numbers of people.
Mooghaun appears to form the focal site of an important sub-regional territory in south-east Clare. Some 25 other hillforts have been identified in the course of this research within North Munster and of these Ballylin, Co. Limerick, Fermoyle, Co. Clare, Knockadigeen and Laghtea, Co. Tipperary seem, from their commanding locations, their size (all are over 7ha [17 acres]), and the nature and strength of their defences, to represent similar high status centres. The remaining hillforts are less than half the size of the more prominent ones and may form lesser sites within a settlement hierarchy.
As part of the settlement studies a number of fortified hilltop enclosures were also identified. Like the hillforts these concentrate in the core of the Late Bronze Age focus of the North Munster province. Their occupants might have belonged to a lower social rank than those of the hillforts. To test this hypothesis one such earthwork was investigated. The site at Clenagh, about 93m by 75m, consists of a ditch with an inner and outer bank. Evidence for occupation and possibly funerary activity was revealed but considerable damage had been caused in the interior by later agricultural activity. While further dating is awaited the site had been long abandoned by the end of the fourth century AD.