12 January 2021 – Romans, Rumours and Ramparts: Excavations at Drumanagh Promontory Fort

by Christine Baker

Look at Drumanagh and what do you see? Forty-six acres of tussocky grass guarded by a triple banked earthwork, some very steep cliffs, and Martello Tower no. 9.

Those of us fortunate enough to attend Christine Baker’s Zoom presentation this month on ‘Romans, Rumours and Ramparts: Excavations at Drumanagh Promontory Fort’, can now see quite a bit more. As  Heritage Officer with Fingal County Council, Christine directed the excavations, and so was able to pull all the evidence together to give us a flavour of life in Drumanagh in bygone days.

Let’s look first at those features that relate to the Martello Tower. The area was occupied throughout the 19th century, long after the threat of a Napoleonic invasion had receded. But the troops that lived at no. 9 became part of the embryonic Water Guard which merged with the Coast Guard in the early 20th century.

Whether they were there to keep the French out or to put a stop to smuggling, the soldiers needed a way in and out of their cylindrical home. Excavations in 2018 and 2019 uncovered a 4 metre wide road with raised banks to either side complete with deep wheel ruts where the laden wagons had sunk into the road surface. Up close to the tower, there was a large turning circle metalled with hard packed stones to make sure those wagons didn’t get stuck.

Amongst the lost buttons, belt braces, and clay pipes that littered the road surface, was a small phial of what appears to be an opium-based medicine: Dr Bateman’s Pectoral Drops. This was ‘the most valuable medicine ever discovered for Colds, Coughs, Agues, Fevers… and for Most Complaints where Colds are the Origin.’ Let’s hope the sufferer, who shelled out more than a shilling for this panacea, had good use from it before it was lost on the road.

But you really want me to stop shilly-shallying around in the nineteenth century and take a real plunge back in time, don’t you? We jump straight from 2 centuries ago to 20 centuries ago. Iron Age Celts rubbing shoulders with Romans.

And, yes, it does appear that there were friendly relations – well, as friendly as cut-throat merchants determined to secure the best deal can be. There’s no evidence that Drumanagh was the jumping off point for Roman invasion. It was all about trade.

What was there to trade? Cattle, grain, animal hides, metals (Iron Age peoples were surely exploiting the nearby copper mines) and hunting dogs. Amongst the many fascinating finds dating back to the 1st to 3rd centuries, were fibulae brooches, glass beads, hair and weaving combs.  Spanish pottery imports include fragments of amphorae which probably contained olive oil originally but may have had subsequent use for storing grain. Some of the grain seeds found in various locations on the site was from spelt – a form of wheat common in Roman Britain but not usually found in Ireland. This is further evidence that the community on Drumanagh was a truly multicultural society.

Two seasons of excavation have revealed a huge amount about Drumanagh – get more detail at https://www.fingal.ie/digging-drumanagh – but there is so much more to discover. Let’s hope we soon get back to some sort of normality so the community archaeologists can return to the promontory to uncover more secrets.