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Publication: Recreating an Antiquarian excavation in GIS using a legacy data archive

I’m a co-author on a new publication, led by Dr Marion Dowd. ‘‘Revisiting Alice and Gwendoline Cave, Co. Clare: new light on the 1902 excavations’, has just been published in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy Vol. 121C.

Alice and Gwendoline Cave, Co. Clare, produced the first evidence for human occupation on the island of Ireland during the Palaeolithic. A butchered brown bear patella discovered in the cave during excavations by the Committee Appointed to Explore Irish Caves in 1902 was recently dated by AMS to the Late Upper Palaeolithic (LUP) period. This paper presents hitherto unpublished legacy data on the archaeological and palaeontological context of the antiquarian discoveries based on detailed analysis of an unpublished notebook related to the 1902 excavation.

My role in the project was to reconstruct the original antiquarian grid system within a GIS, allowing visualisation of the spatial distribution of artefacts, human bones and faunal remains found at the cave.

The front cover of PRIA Vol. 121C. Excavation of the Catacombs (1903?). L to R: Alice Julia Stacpoole of Edenvale
House, Richard J. Ussher—excavation director, James Michael Duffy (NMI) pushing a
wheelbarrow, and Robert Griffin (NMI) sieving (Robert Welch, courtesy of the National Museum of Ireland, NMINA:225).

The 1902 excavation notebook contains a wealth of non-digital data. The authors transcribed, digitised and critically reviewed the notebook, before collating it within a GIS. Shapefiles for each 2ft long excavated grid across the width of the cave were created, allowing for distribution plots and spatial analyses that were integrated into a modern digital basemap of the cave floor acquired from a composite terrestrial Lidar and structure from motion survey. The confined geographic environment of Alice and Gwendoline Cave, and the small scale of grids, represent a unique opportunity to visualise legacy data. The GIS mapped all of the details recorded in the notebook (i.e. the strata, faunal assemblage, human bones, artefacts, heat-altered deposits, etc.) within the ‘cavescape’.

Key findings from the project:

  • The reassessment of legacy data from antiquarian excavations, in tandem with modern scientific analyses of the material recovered during such investigations, has the potential to return rich dividends.
  • The GIS provided a more nuanced understanding of human activities at this multi-period site and highlights the role of natural formation processes at the cave, particularly with regard to the bones of extinct fauna.
  • The information extracted from the unpublished notebook provides an essential foundation for any future investigations of the site or any re-evaluation of material recovered there in 1902.

For more information:

Dowd, M., Bonsall, J., Kahlert, T., Connolly, R. and Stimpson, C. 2021. ‘Revisiting Alice and Gwendoline Cave, Co. Clare: new light on the 1902 excavations’. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy Vol. 121C, pp1–53.

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