H@R! : Heritage at Risk


Archaeological Heritage

Since 1996 the Heritage Council has commissioned a series of reports on inter-related topics to obtain baseline data on the state of Irish archaeological heritage and a number of reports commissioned by the Heritage Policy Division of the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands have also become available. These reports detail a heritage resource that is under greater pressure than at any time in history.

Up to 34% of the State’s identified archaeological monuments have now been levelled and the rate of destruction has increased to an unprecedented 10% per decade. The National Monuments Acts, statutory Record of Monuments, etc appear to be having no effect. This material is being destroyed at an alarming rate of about.1500 sites per year, without any attempt to rescue the data being lost.

Dúchas, the State Heritage Service, which is responsible for dealing with many of these issues, has insufficient professional staff to operate the Record of Monuments and the manner in which the Record is applied to urban archaeological zones has never been adequately defined by regulation or guideline. Planning authorities and land and building owners and occupiers have not been adequately informed of the legislation and there is no adequate guidance for them to comply with its provisions. There is no continuing monitoring of the sites and monuments in the Record.

The statutory Record of Monuments mainly deals with upstanding, or previously known monuments. There has been little systematic aerial survey carried out and by and large the evidence of artefact find spots has not been included, even where they may indicate prehistoric sites or monuments. An equally large proportion of these low visibility sites are also being destroyed without record.

Of the sites that are receiving attention, which are mostly in urban areas, there is still no co-ordination of activity between the planning authorities who have been allowed to develop a range of differing and sometimes contradictory responses. Few local authorities have access to professional heritage advice and this puts an additional burden on Dúchas. There are no Guidelines for minimum standards of Environmental Impact Assessment, and these need to be put in place as a matter of priority. In general the quality of the pre-development archaeological work being carried out is variable. Excavations are not being inspected, nor do the archaeological planning conditions appear to be enforced. The quality of the written reports is also variable. There are no guidelines for the organisation or contents of excavation reports and very few are produced with eventual publication in mind. Publication is now rare and there are now more than 3000 unpublished excavation reports in the archives of Dúchas and the National Museum of Ireland, so that the practice of peer review does not function. On top of this more than 900 reports are now being added to this list annually.

Associated with these reports are hundreds of thousands of artefacts, the majority of which have never been conserved, as there are not even enough conservators and insufficient facilities to deal with newly excavated material. Dúchas alone is estimated to have a backlog of some 250,000 unconserved artefacts, some of which have been stored for over 20 years. The National Museum may have a backlog of over a million unconserved acquisitions. Despite this situation, policy remains to continue to allow the excavation of this material under current conditions, despite the likelihood that part of it will eventually decay without being studied.

Almost all archaeological projects now produce digital datasets, however there are currently no standards for the production or archiving of this data. Geophysical investigation has now become a standard practice in Archaeological Assessment as well as an accompaniment of archaeological excavation, yet there are currently no standards for the production, dissemination or archiving of geophysical data.

State sponsored companies, with the exception of Bord na Mona, are still not required to manage the archaeology in their ownership. Coillte, for example, owns 6.5% of the state and is responsible for thousands more archaeological monuments than Dúchas, but still does not employ a professional archaeologist to manage these sites. Despite the massive rate of planting there is still no pre-afforestation archaeological survey, so that the total number of monuments owned by Coillte can not be accurately estimated, and their condition is unknown.

Case study 1 - illustrates a threat/risk to heritage

In 1999, a nation-wide Stone Monument’s study was commissioned by the Heritage Council. The aim of this research was to gather information on the degree of degradation and erosion of stone monuments in the Republic of Ireland. The output from this study was to provide the Heritage Council with objective and up-to-date factual data gathered through fieldwork and laboratory analysis in order to assist the Council to identify policies and priorities for the preservation of monuments, and to prioritise it’s limited resources. A wide range of monuments, dating from the Neolithic to the 19th century were examined including megalithic tombs, castles, tower houses, post-medieval buildings, churches, abbeys, round towers and other ecclesiastical remains.

The project based its investigations on the analysis of the decay of some of the most important stone types in Ireland – limestone, sandstone, granite and a number of metamorphic rocks. A standard methodological approach, including fieldwork tasks and laboratory techniques, was applied. The methodology was designed for its’ applicability to any stone monument, of any stone type, of any period.

All monuments studied showed some form of decay. The intensity of decay does not increase with the age of the monument, but is primarily determined by the type and origin of the stone, and the stress it has undergone through the years. A total of 112 monuments were assessed:

  • 12.5% of the monuments suffered structural damage, involving a danger of collapse
  • 22% exhibit intensive stone decay
  • 27% showed mild structural damage
  • 33.3% displayed significant loss of carved detail
  • Biological colonisation was found on 97% of examined sites
  • 32.5% were repointed with modern Portland cement mortars; reacting chemically with the original masonry and inducing damage in 46% of these cases
  • 4.5% exhibit mild vandalism

Case study 2 - illustrates a solution/initiative which has been developed to counteract such a threat/risk

The solution to counteract the threats and risks identified during the investigation is the study itself. This wide-ranging study provides the necessary factual baseline data with which to base any decisions regarding the future of and any potential interventions to Irish stone monuments.

The study identifies the causes of the decay of a monument. It analyses the causes of harm, decay or loss, to stone monuments providing fundamental baseline data in order to discern suitable conservation strategies. The study identified and quantified the causes and mechanisms of stone decay of Irish monuments. It also determined the degree of structural damage, vandalism and maintenance problems. This investigation provides a concise, accurate account of the current condition of the studied monuments, and sets a standard for the methodical analytical recording of standing stone archaeological monuments.

This Heritage Council programme laid the foundation and the methodology to identify the current condition, potential threats and conservation solutions for the monumental stone heritage of Ireland. In an ideal situation, the existing Irish Sites and Monument Record (SMR database) should hold information on monumental fabrics, type of stone, stone decay and current condition for all recorded monuments in the Republic of Ireland. Currently, large sections of the country, and important stone types remain unexamined. However, a continued assessment as established in this study would enable control over monumental sites and the careful management of our standing stone heritage.


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