Vinegar Hill battlefield, Co. Wexford

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In August 2017 a small team from CA’s Andover office travelled to County Wexford in Ireland to undertake a licenced metal detector survey on the Irish Rebellion battlefield of Vinegar Hill (1798). The project was an international collaboration, funded by Wexford County Council and working with archaeologists from Rubicon Heritage, Earthsound Geophysics and IT Sligo to research this important and iconic Irish site. The research project is the largest and most comprehensive ever undertaken on an Irish battlefield, and a great privilege for CA to be a part of.

Surveying underway

The survey methodology involved the application of systematic metal detecting techniques that have been utilised to great success on many British and European battlefields. This enabled a consistent and comparable recovery of unstratified scatters of metal objects that had been fired, used or dropped during the battle across different parts of the site. As objects were recovered they were allocated unique finds numbers and plotted with a sub-cm GPS, enabling a complete digital plot of the artefacts to be built and the identification of trends and patterns within the assemblage.

Within five minutes on day one the first musket ball appeared! By the end of the week a large number had been found, some dropped during reloading in the middle of the battle and some heavily impacted from striking something solid after firing. Other recovered finds included a number of pieces of ‘weapon furniture’ – broken fittings from muskets and pistols perhaps suggestive of close combat, shrapnel from shells used to bombard the hill, and numerous buttons and coins which may have originated from the Irish camp on the hill in the weeks leading up to the battle.

A small selection of the recovered musket balls
A small selection of the recovered musket balls

By the end of the week, the team had covered a large part of the battlefield and by examining the relative concentrations of material across the surveyed area, it is tentatively possible to identify the location where one of the main British assaults advanced up the hill. A great deal of additional research is still to be done on the finds assemblage, in order to identify and isolate different calibre weapons and understand the scatter of material in greater detail. However, it is already clear how important the results are for Irish battlefield archaeology. By participating in the project, it has been possible to demonstrate the huge benefit of applying a systematic archaeological approach to the study of these sites in Ireland and the new information battlefield archaeology can reveal for even a well-studied site. As the first major project of its kind, it represents a huge leap forward for Irish battlefield archaeology, and is a site we hope to return to in the future.

Sam Wilson

A piece of anti-personnel grape shot
A piece of anti-personnel grape shot
A recovered musket 'hammer' compared to a modern display musket
A recovered musket ‘hammer’ compared to a modern display musket
Ramrod guide, probably from a British brown bess musket
Ramrod guide, probably from a British brown bess musket
Mortar bomb fragment with fuse hole
Mortar bomb fragment with fuse hole