Archaeology Festival 2020

How old is your home? Virtually Exploring the Hidden Heritage of your Locality

While key parts of archaeological research involve excavating sites, dating and analysis of material that comes out of the ground, as well as much, much more, before a spade is ever laid in the ground, a huge element of research is archival analysis, survey using drones, geophysical survey, laser scanning, standing buildings survey. This means that cartography, using old maps, as well as placenames and other historical documents are vital elements in understanding the archaeology and heritage that exists in a given place. Much material comes from excavations, and the major monuments or tourist attractions that you will no doubt have visited are the most visible and tangible elements of cultural heritage, but hidden all around us are traces of the past, some tangible and visible, but others not, and all of this is waiting to be discovered and studied.

In many senses, the entire landscape of the earth is an archaeological palimpsest, built up through layers of human activity, individual and collective actions and the major events of human history. All of these relics of past activities are important for understanding the human past and unravelling the mysteries of past societies, but also, because those relics are themselves cultural heritage that needs to be preserved, curated and managed for future generations. Many archaeology graduates go on to work in the cultural heritage sector, for instance, using the research skills that they have learned through their degree to work in museums, heritage organisations and other statutory bodies to ensure that the heritage that surrounds us, and gives the places that we live in their unique character, is properly understood, curated and managed. Museums are one vital element central to archaeological research, but what we see in a museum is only ever a fraction of its collections. Equally, in Northern Ireland many other state and voluntary bodies maintain databases and archives that help to curate and preserve the past. These databases and archives also invaluable tools that for researching and understanding different periods and places, with many of them readily accessible and available online.

This resource outlines how to use these resources to research a particular location; this might be your home, a place you are passionate or interested in, or perhaps a place that you have never heard of or been to but want to know more about. Using these archives, you will be able to look at how these places have changed through time, what we know about them in the past, and what registered monuments can give you an insight into the unique archaeological character and heritage that defines your chosen place. Using old maps and placenames, we can also think about how these places changed overtime, and what they meant to people at different points. Placenames allow us to think about the degree to which the ways we think about and name places reflects different values in categories of activity in the past; perhaps they remember an important family, a royal place, or perhaps they encode evidence for the character of the landscape and how it has changed through time. This world, its past and heritage, are yours to examine, and these resources present key tools for doing so, providing the first steps of any element of archaeological research.


The first resource you can look at is the Placenames of Northern Ireland database. To do so, click on the weblink to the search function below, and enter the name of the place you are interested in:

If you would like to do this for a place across the border or in the Rep. of Ireland, please us this database instead:

Your search results will give you a list if there is more than one related name in Northern Ireland. Normally these will be townland, parish or barony names, as opposed to streets, estates or fields. You will need to figure out which place is yours by using the search tool, and selecting the barony, parish or county that your place is located within. Make a note of these parish and boundary names, as you will need these later. Once you do so, you can view the placenames on a map to see what it refers to, or what the extent of a townland is (see Show the Map link on the top left). Once you do this, you can also examine adjacent placenames, and re-enter these in the database. Together this will give you an idea of how the landscape around your chosen area has been named, and perhaps even why. Sometimes these names can be very ancient, 1500 or 1000 years old. Sometimes they can be more recent, and the changes in spelling or even the name overtime tell us an enormous amount about the shifting use of place and their significance.


Next up, we look at cartography: old maps that contain important information about archaeological features, as well as the character of the landscape itself. Sometimes archaeological features may no longer survive, and could have been destroyed by development or farming, for example. As well as telling us about how the landscape has changed as towns, cities or farms have grown and contracted over the years, these maps are vital records of monuments and features that would otherwise be lost to us.

First we start with The Down Survey. This was a series of maps compiled between 1655 and 1658 in the aftermath of the Ulster Rebellion. Maps are always tools for something and never objective representations of a place or landscape. They are deeply political pieces of material culture, and as such, have an important context in the political and social turmoil of the time, with The Down Survey here is no different. You can read more about it and its context here:

To access the maps themselves, follow the below link and select the county, barony and parish that your chosen placename(s) are located within (above). You can zoom in and out on the parish or barony you have selected, and you will have to try and identify the placename you have selected on the map. Note that the orientation of the maps is not always north/south, as we are used to today, but also, that the townland or placename you have chosen may not actually be on this map. If so, this is likely because the placename you have chosen was not yet a unit of land in itself, or it may not have existed; it could have been coined more recently. You can cross reference the oldest example of the placename from the placenames database to see whether the placename was a sub-denomination previously, or whether it rather appears to be a name (and perhaps place) that only developed after The Down Survey. This is an important piece of information either way, but if your placename is present, then you know conversely that the place you are interested in is an old unit of land and denomination. Examine the map to see what it can tell you about any potential archaeological features (i.e. monuments or significant places like castles can sometimes be marked), and look too to see if there are any other significant features marked, like woodland or forest, for instance.

Next, we move to the Ordnance Survey maps. Like the Down Survey, the Ordnance Survey was founded in the early 19th century to map at an unprecedented high detail the landscape of Britain and Ireland. This was a huge and extraordinary undertaking, and when you look at these maps bear in mind that everything was measured with metal chains, rather than the drones or laser scanners that we use today! If you have ever climbed a hill or mountain, and come across a large pillar on the summit, this is very possibly a trig station from the early Ordnance Surveys. The Ordnance Survey was founded in a period during the 19th century when archaeology was not yet really a discreet discipline, but beginning to emerge as a discipline and science. Archaeology was still very much tied to antiquarianism, and the Ordnance Survey offered a professional career for some of the foremost scholars of the period. For Ireland, the principal protagonists from an ‘archaeological’ perspective were people like John O’Donovan or Eugene O’Curry. Many of these individuals went on to be formative scholars of prehistoric and medieval Ireland. O’Curry was an antiquary and a philologist, for example, as was O’Donovan, and indeed, if you search back to your placename in the placenames database, most townlands will have an entry around 1834, with JOD marked against the spelling; this is John O’Donovan, who tried to understand the origin of each placename as a part of his work with the Survey.

The interest of these individuals in archaeology as a part of the survey means that they spent much time trying not only to measure and map every feature of the countryside, but also to relate these monuments, landscapes and places to the different groups, kingdoms, stories and events of the past. They were beginning to decipher these too from researching the history, archaeology and antiquities of Ireland more generally. For these reasons, the Ordnance Survey maps contain a wealth of detail on archaeology that extends to most monuments that dot the countryside of Northern Ireland today. The notebooks used in compiling the survey are still an invaluable tool for research too, with correspondence, letters, notes and miscellaneous musings containing a wealth of archaeological detail. Even monuments and archaeological features that have been destroyed in the 19th to 21st centuries are included, which means that these maps are still an invaluable resource on how the cultural heritage of Northern Ireland and the landscape has changed. What is more, the Ordnance Survey is still in existence, and the maps remain periodically updated since the early 19th century. As the new editions of Ordnance Survey maps (1st, 2nd etc.) maintained the tendency to note archaeological features, these multiple maps from the 19th and 20th centuries allows us to understand how the landscape has changed, but also how cultural heritage has been impacted by the development of society through the Industrial Revolution, World Wars, or many other key events of the more recent past.

To access these maps, follow this weblink below and click on the ‘search map viewer’ icon:

There are a number of YouTube videos here that will give you more information on how to use this map-viewer:

If you would like to do this for an area crossing the border, or a place in the Rep. of Ireland, please follow this link instead:

Once you have accessed the maps, zoom in on the area you are interested in. On the top right hand corner of the screen the second from left button is a drop down menu where you can select which edition Ordnance Survey map you would like to see. This tells you the years the maps were composed in too:

  • You can untick or tick boundaries or points of interest to add them to the map as layers when necessary.
  • If you double click ‘points of interest’ while making sure it is ‘ticked’, you can also tick or untick different categories of ‘points of interest’.
  • Unselect everything except ‘sites and monuments’. These are archaeological features categorised according to their monument class and the type of protection they are afforded under law. These will appear in your map as blue dots.
  • Navigate the map and see how these ‘sites and monuments’ relate to the map in different editions.
  • Again, on the top right of the screen there is an ‘i’ icon for information. Select this and use it to select sites and monuments in your chosen area you would like more information on.
  • Once you have done so, make a note of these. Examine the maps to see the degree to which places have changed, and indeed, whether there are sites and monuments that disappear, or have been impacted by surrounding developments, by comparing multiple map editions.

This method of research is called map regression. Once you have examined how the landscape of your area has changed through time, we proceed to examining the sites and monuments you have identified in more detail, or even perhaps seeing what is not recorded on the Ordnance Survey maps. Together, these resources will give us an idea of how rich (or not) the cultural heritage of your area is in different periods.

Sites and Monuments Record

Now we will look up the sites and monuments you have identified for more information about their date, character and history. To do so, click on the link below:

If you would like to do this for an area across the border or in the Rep. of Ireland, please use this resource instead:

Here again you will see icons on the top left and right of the screen. Select the second from left icon on the top right, and you will get a drop down menu listing the layers that you can view. These can be turned on or off by ticking or unticking the layer you are interested in. Once you zoom in on the area you are interested in, you will be able to see layers highlighted here that are available for your area. You will also see on the bottom of the list the Ordnance Survey maps, and again, here you can select whichever map you would like to compare. Find the sites and monuments that you are interested in, but look out too for other categories of archaeological sites, like Battlefield, Historic Buildings etc.:

  • If you click on the first icon on the left hand side of the menu at the top right-handside of the screen, you will see a legend icon. Use this to figure out what the colour-coded symbols on the map mean.
  • The green icons are Sites and Monuments. If you click on these with the cursor, you will see a small pop-up screen giving you information on the feature. This will give you the class (e.g. rath, henge, barrow etc.) of monument that describes the characteristic of the feature and the period of human history to which it is assigned (e.g. e. Christian = early Christian, AD 400 to 1100).
  • At the bottom of this pop-up window will be a link to the entry for this feature in the Northern Ireland Sites and Monuments Record (NISMR). Click on this link and follow the instructions on screen. You will get a new window with the same information on the monument, but also, in most cases with downloadable PDF files that will contain information from surveys of the monument, any excavations, finds, dimensions, comments and sometimes photographs and plans.
  • You can access the Northern Ireland Sites and Monuments Record separately, and search by townland, monument type, etc. at this link:
  • Repeat this step for all of the sites and monuments you are interested in and use this resource to build up a picture of the archaeological character and cultural heritage of your chosen area.

You have now completed key stages in what is called Desk Based Research, a key preliminary stage to archaeological project or excavation. Normally you would follow this up with site visits, more survey work and then excavation and other scientific forms of analysis. Of course, you need the landowners permission in most cases to do so. All of these things are aspects of what archaeologists and other heritage professionals learn more about during their degrees here with us at Queen’s University Belfast. Between placenames, maps and monument records, hopefully you can see how rich the archaeological heritage of your area is, but also, just how much hidden history (and prehistory) there is to every inch of countryside and landscape of Northern Ireland. There is always something to discover about every corner of the earth as an archaeologist, and now you have taken the first steps onto your own path of archaeological discovery. Hopefully you have learned something new, and if you would like to know more, come visit us the ArcPal Website to learn more, or join the Ulster Archaeological Society.

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