Archaeology on the M4 Motorway PPP Scheme

Archaeological Consultancy Services were appointed in 2001 to carry out the advance archaeological testing and excavation on two of the three pre-construction archaeological contracts for the M4 Kinnegad-Enfield-Kilcock Motorway Scheme which runs through Cos Kildare, Meath and Westmeath. This work involved the preliminary testing of the route and the full archaeological excavation of 36 sites identifed as a result. ACS were also retained by the Main Contractor Siac/Ferrovial JV and Eurolink to carry out the archaeology works during the construction phase. By far the most significant of the sites excavated was an early medieval enclosure and burial complex at Johnstown, just outside Enfield, Co. Meath.


The site was excavated by Linda Clarke and excavations revealed an Iron Age/early medieval burial, settlement and industrial site that was reused up until the last century as a cillín burial ground (i.e. a burial ground mainly used for the interment of unbaptised children).There were three successive phases of enclosure activity, which formed oval and D-shaped enclosing ditches. Over 398 burials were located within the area demarcated by these enclosing ditches, while the 63 cillín burials were located outside the enclosure.


The earliest burials were located in a small burial mound covering a charnel pit that contained the disarticulated remains of a minimum of three individuals. Following the construction of the mound, successive enclosing ditches were constructed. Several hundred burials were then continuously interred within this area up until the 16th-17th century AD.These burials consisted of extended inhumations and with the exception of nine that were inserted in possible stonelined graves, were contained within simple grave cuts and probably buried in simple shrouds. Analysis of the burials has given us an insight into health, living conditions and life expectancy of the people at Johnstown. Female burials appeared to have a higher life expectancy than males with four times as many females surviving beyond their late forties. Dental health in general was poor. A variety of diseases and disorders were evident such as rickets, scurvy, osteomalacia, osteoporosis and tuberculosis. Three cases of possible congential syphilis were also identified. Four individuals appeared to have suffered from a weapon wound. Several blade wounds were identified; produced from the slashing or stabbing of a sword. Injuries and pathologies identified on one of the burials suggest that the person may have been a professional soldier. It is also of particular interest that many of these individuals did not die immediately from their wounds and injuries but survived.


There was also evidence for settlement and industrial activity. Settlement evidence was identified in the form of refuse pits, animal waste and small finds. The remains of a watermill were found within a ditch. Industrial activity was identified from 12 smelting pits, four bloom smithing hearths and over two tonnes of metallurgical waste.This industrial activity has been radiocarbon dated showing continuous iron working on-site from the 3rd to the 13th-century AD. Radiocarbon dates also prove that settlement and industrial activity took place alongside burial activity at the site as late as the 14th-century.


Several articles have been published on the excavations carried out and more details can be found on the Publications page. A summary account of the excavations was published in Archaeology Ireland (Winter 2002) and can be read here. A full account can be found in The archaeology of life and death in the Boyne floodplain, the linear landscape of the M4 which was written by Neil Carlin, Linda Clarke and Fintan Walsh and details the results of all the excavations carried out along this scheme.

Reconstruction Johnstown