During the Celtic Tiger economic boom, Ireland experienced a period of prosperity which led to an unprecedented ‘golden age’ for commercial archaeology. In a four-part series, Brendon Wilkins examines the top sites, finds and controversies that defined over a decade of discovery.

Excavations in Twomileborris, Co. Tipperary

Imagine a place where the term ‘millionaire archaeologist’ would not sound ridiculous, and where young archaeology students could look forward to excellent career prospects with salaries equivalent to any other profession. Imagine hundreds of excavations up and down the country crying out for help, willing to pay handsomely, even for inexperienced diggers; imagine also that these excavations were fiercely regulated to control their quality. This sounds like an archaeo-utopia: but for a short time it existed. This was Ireland’s Celtic Tiger archaeology.

Current Archaeology last published a special issue on Irish archaeology in September 1970 (CA 22). The sites reported on then by Andrew Selkirk (Knowth, Newgrange, Navan Fort and Ballyglass) remained state-of-the-art for the following 30 years. The eminent archaeologists interviewed in that issue, and the sites which they excavated, eventually came to dominate Irish archaeology. Now, the sheer scale of work undertaken during the boom has challenged the accepted wisdom of many key site types and periods.

During the Celtic Tiger prosperity, the world became aware of the contentious Irish sites that made international headlines; sadly, this bad publicity seems to have been Ireland’s biggest archaeological export. Few will have heard news of the multitude of fantastic sites found during these years, both nationally and internationally significant, which have revolutionised accepted knowledge of Irish archaeology.

Boom and bust

There is a strong argument to be made that Ireland’s archaeology boom began at precisely 9.00am on 22 February 2002, and finished at exactly 2.00pm, 6 November 2008. Seminars were held on both days by the National Roads Authority (NRA); although they did not feel like turning points at the time, hindsight shows these meetings book-end a period during which Ireland was the best country in the world to be an archaeologist. The first seminar, riding the wave of European funding, was intended to open the doors to international archaeological consultancies as construction-led demand for archaeologists far outstripped supply. The second was the harbinger of doom as Ireland’s Department of Finance unveiled a new archaeological contract template, introduced in the wake of steep public spending cuts.

Archaeologists have never quite shared in society’s wealth, no matter how successful the wider economy. In Ireland, however, the archaeology boom was fuelled by longer-term trends: generous European structural funding, attractive tax incentives and, crucially for archaeology, a comprehensive National Development Plan designed to fix the country’s inadequate infrastructure. With an annual budget of €1.5bn, the road building programme in Ireland initiated some of the largest infrastructure archaeology projects undertaken anywhere in the world. Irish archaeology benefitted significantly from this unprecedented investment, underwritten by a cast-iron legal framework designed to protect the historic environment from development impact — a situation that differed from Britain, where the post-war reconstruction boom happened long before such restrictions were commonplace.

Weighing up the legacy of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ economic boom, it is clear that it was a golden age for archaeologists; however, was it also a golden age for archaeology? And, what insight does that give us into how archaeology is practised in the UK?

See Issue 247 of Current Archaeology for the original unabridged version of this article; a series of features seeks to redress the balance, by profiling the ‘best of the best’ of the work that has electrified archaeology in Ireland.  Subjects broached range from ‘Rumsfeldian archaeology’ to ‘The Anglo-Irish Disagreement’, in addition to what the future holds.

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