Heritage Day

Brian Mac Domhnaill

On Heritage Day, the 20th of August 2016 we were at Cork Public Museum in Fitzgerald Park, Cork. We asked the help of visiting children to untangle the mystery of the Pallasboy Vessel through drawing and colouring. Presented with our replica vessel I asked them what they thought it might have been used for in the Iron Age. There was a prize for the best engagement with the interpretive process; a week at kids club at the Mardyke Arena.

Some of the children, like Sufy May Elkabets (Age 8) and Luke Kenneally (Age 4), believe the vessel was a trough for cattle to drink out of. Our competition winner Ben Keneally (Age 7) and Irene Martin (Age 6) were certain it was a bath, indoors and al fresco respectively. Dermot O’Flynn (Age 3) produced a colourful abstract composition. However one of the most popular theories was that the vessel was a boat. Reina (Age 5) saw it as a boat for a little girl. Tadhg O’Flynn (Age 5.5) depicted the vessel big wave surfing and Anna Amk Keogh (Age 5) was perhaps suggesting some sort of cargo. Shane Pahern (Age 5) may have been trying to help us figure out the withy system used to both carry and pin down the vessel.

At 3pm, with the help of archaeology post graduate students Kevin Kearney and Thomas Talbot, Ben and I carried the vessel over to the northwest corner of the park using some blue ropes, which wasn’t very comfortable and further highlighted the need to figure out the configuration of withies and/or poles used with the original. The launch site for our ‘floating’ had been well prepared by Clare Hayden and our colleagues from Meitheal Mara, and volunteer Martin O’Donaghue had his wetsuit on, fearing the worst.

The vessel floated fine upon contact with the water but we immediately noticed some water seeping in where the heartwood had developed radial splits. However it wasn’t so bad that we couldn’t carry on with the experiment. We added a bag of tiles and applied downward pressure at various points along the rim. The vessel rocked side to side with little encouragement due to its rounded base.

Martin started to get the measure of the vessel by attempting to kneel in it. The downward pressure of his weight put the vessel very low in the water and any favoured distribution of weight at one end or the other brought water very close to the rim. For this reason, sitting himself comfortably and effectively in the middle of the vessel was practically impossible without the use of a winch. There were also humorous attempts at surf paddling and riding the vessel upside down.

We then decided to take advantage of our support currach and tow the vessel around in both directions on the river to see how it behaved. We did not add our bag of tiles or any other cargo as it could have easily ended up at the bottom of the Lee given the instability of the vessel. Without cargo the vessel still sat relatively low in the water and put up considerable resistance at any speed because of its flat ‘bow’. This was naturally exaggerated when travelling against the current.

So what does this experiment tell us about the vessel? The original vessel was 51 inches long, 17 inches high and 20 inches wide compared to our replica which is 53 inches long, 14 inches high and 17 inches wide. So although ours is slightly longer it is narrower and not as deep. Despite these slightly different proportions our replica was still a suitable test subject. It seems the vessel is not designed to accommodate a passenger unless comedic effect is the intention. Yes, it is possible that the vessel could have bee used to carry a light cargo whilst being towed by another craft or a wading individual but I think it is unlikely. The vessel is relatively heavy even when empty. It doesn’t take weight well and because of its very round profile it is very unsteady in the water. Irish prehistoric craftsmen knew how to build boats. They used a different type of timber, a longer length of trunk and the design was very different. In short Irish dugout canoes were designed to function effectively as boats, the Pallasboy Vessel was not. We know how significant, precious and rare a large specimen of alder is and was. We also know how much hard work and skill were invested in the making of the vessel. Its design is very distinctive and decorative. I find it hard to believe that our Iron Age craftspeople would go to this much trouble to produce an object not ideal, or even fit, for purpose.

The symmetry of the vessel’s ends and handles suggest (to me anyway) that it was a land-based object that was carried when necessary, by two or four people (to be explored further). One could argue that a vessel that was meant to contain something should sit flat on the ground and therefore have a flat base. I would suggest because of the liquid holding properties of the tree species and a preference to maximise the interior volume, an almost rounded base was the inevitable result. How would such a thing sit on various surfaces? Strangely enough we haven’t gotten around to testing that properly yet, but we will. I have no doubt it would be quite stable especially if there was bedding, a depression in an earth floor or supporting wedges or stands. The weight of liquid within would also stabilise it further. Alternatively it may have been strung up with withies. How it was positioned and supported may have depended on the exact usage.

Ben and I had the pleasure of visiting the site of discovery at Pallasboy, Westmeath on the 16th of August under clear blue skies. After tracking down the right people to give us the necessary permissions we accessed the edge of the bog via a farm to the south. Either side of a nearby field boundary we encountered a familiar site in Ireland, bathtubs repurposed as water troughs for cattle. One of the baths had ornate clawed feet, whilst the other was propped up on a truncated earth base. I also took note of the disturbed and worn ground around both troughs. Would it be advantageous to easily move the trough to a new spot? Without plumbing to fill these troughs it might be necessary to carry the vessel and/or water to a site away from a natural water source? One thing is for sure, a vessel with a rounded base would probably be very easy to tip and empty. It is generally agreed that the Pallasboy Vessel was a high status object, so would an initial or secondary use as a drinking trough contradict this? There is no doubt livestock were extremely important to our Iron Age ancestors. Ben’s proposition that the design of the vessel might be zoomorphic, more specifically ovine, continues to grow on me. If there is even a tenuous direct connection to cooking or feeding sheep, then this should be tested. Given the height of the original vessel it might be a physical and theoretical stretch for it to have been a drinking trough for sheep at the outset or in subsequent usage. It would however suit cattle just fine.

If the vessel was a bath or cooking/brewing vessel then it would make sense to test one or more of these uses. Our replica isn’t quite deep or wide enough to function effectively as a bath for an adult, but one or two small children might fit? Our replica has now been in the River Lee so if we are to use it to make any consumables we will have to sanitise it effectively. Without experimentation we know that once our leaks are sealed the vessel will be perfectly suited to holding and heating water using the hot rock procedure. Testing one of the hot water uses would suffice but there might be more fun to be had in testing a few uses.

My thoughts now turn to making withies, prehistoric outdoor home brewing in a cave-like alcove at my house, bathing a small person in an Iron Age roundhouse and giving some cattle and sheep a drink…of water, not beer.

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