The port town of Carrickfergus has been the subject of archaeological examination for the best part of six decades.
When Belfast supplanted Carrickfergus as Ulster’s principal town in the early eighteenth century, further investment was impeded, which has ensured the remarkable preservation of the latter’s post-medieval archaeological deposits.
Excavations throughout Carrickfergus during the 1970s yielded an impressive collection of thousands of artefacts, now housed by the National Museums Northern Ireland.
These offer insights into the daily life of the people that lived in the town, telling the story of Carrickfergus from its beginnings as an Anglo-Norman stronghold through its reinventions as a sixteenth century military garrison and a seventeenth century Atlantic port.
This Collection Story includes a selection of these finds.
Natives & Newcomers: The People of Carrickfergus
Natives & Newcomers: The People of Carrickfergus
Carrickfergus in the early-modern period was a melting pot of cultural identities and political allegiances. It was home to English settlers; native Irish; Gaelicised Irish or Old English and Scots, both Lowlander and Highlander. Carrickfergus had a strong Scottish connection. The narrow inlet of the Irish Sea between the north Antrim coast and the Scottish Isles had facilitated a constant trade of goods and people throughout the medieval period. This intensified during the plantation of Ulster. The township was also surrounded by Gaelic lordships, notably the Clandeboye O’Neills and the Scottish Highlander MacDonnell clan based at Dunluce Castle, their kinsmen and retinues moving freely in and out of Carrickfergus.
Archaeological evidence reflects the presence of each of these identities and their cultural and social intermingling: Scottish made ceramics like Reduced Greyware pots and jugs; Irish style footwear and hand built Ulster coarse earthenware pottery and imported English material culture like cooking utensils, tobacco pipes, shoes and personal effects.
Also in the social mix of Carrickfergus was a host of peripatetic merchants, sailors, pirates, soldiers, skilled tradesmen, adventurers, craftsmen, not to mention Sir Arthur Chichester, the Lord Deputy of Ireland from 1605 to 1616. He chose Carrickfergus for his residence, building a large stately mansion Joymount. Each brought with them their own experiences, attitudes, behaviours and conversations, adding a cosmopolitan and multicultural dynamic to the town.
Trade & Commerce
Documentary records and import and export accounts tell us that Carrickfergus by the early seventeenth century had firmly established itself as a prosperous port town, engaging in the Atlantic trading world. According to Sir Henry Sydney in 1583: “In Carrickfergus twice a week a good market was kept, where, out of the English Pale, the Isle of Man, and Scotland came much merchandise, victuals, and other commodities out of France and in one summer 3 barks of 40 tuns apiece discharged their loading of excellent good Gascony wine, the which they sold for 9 cowskins the hogshead”
In 1637, the Surveyor General of Customs issued a report of the customs accounts of Ulster Ports and their ancillary creeks. Of all the Ulster ports, Carrickfergus, whose customs rights ran from Groomsport to Larne, came top followed by Bangor, Donaghadee and Strangford.
The diverse range of artefacts reflects the cosmopolitan nature of Carrickfergus in the seventeenth century. Products from Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, and even sherds of Chinese porcelain all speak of Atlantic interconnectivity and Carrickfergus’ position within that sphere. However, we must remember that simply because products from these countries are found in Carrickfergus, does not necessarily mean that they were all trading directly with Carrickfergus. Nevertheless, what it does show is the diffusion of commercial goods throughout the town and knowledge of and desire for up-to-date and fashionable items.
Coins, Tokens & Jettons
Coins, jettons and tokens found at Carrickfergus all indicate commercial activity, trade and exchange networks. Coins found at Carrickfergus included groats of Henry VIII and Phillip and Mary, turners of Charles II, and coins portraying William and Mary. Also discovered were Scottish placks and bawbees of Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabethan Irish pennies depicting the Irish harp. Ireland during the sixteenth and seventeenth century was typically a depot for devalued and decommissioned English coins, thus providing English coin for use in Ireland but retaining valuable silver in England.
Foreign coins from France and Spain were also discovered during excavation such as French double tournois, which reflects the continental trade Carrickfergus enjoyed with these countries. European currency would have been acceptable in seventeenth century Carrickfergus due to the value of their weight in precious metals.
Jettons are coin-like objects also known as Reckoning Counters somewhat like a modern day poker chip. These were used as a type of counting currency on reckoning tables or counting boards or cloths, moved backwards and forwards like an abacus to calculate accounts. Although some French jettons were also examined, most of the identifiable Carrickfergus jettons were made in Germany, by the Nuremburg jetton maker Hans Krauwinckel and his descendants between 1562 and 1635. These often featured a rose and crown design.
Seventeenth century coins often show evidence of hole punching so it could be worn round the neck or snipping in order to give change and even clipping of excess metal, presumably to make new counterfeit coins.
Cooking & Eating
Many of the ceramic artefacts from Carrickfergus are associated with cooking and eating which can give us insights into the foodstuffs the inhabitants of the town ate and how they consumed it.
Flat, elaborate tableware like decoratively incised North Devon or Donyatt plates and painted Portuguese and Dutch bowls suggests fine dining.
Small pipkins and pots might indicate small portions or one pot meals.
Gravel-tempered earthenware cooking pots and baking trays, with blackened exteriors denotes long and slow cooking of meats, stews and pottages over or in the embers of a fire.
French chafing dishes, used to keep small plates of food warm at the dining table were popular as were Dutch skillets, frying pans and colanders.
The abundance of artefacts associated with the partaking of alcohol clearly indicates that drinking was an essential part of everyday life and socialisation in early-modern Carrickfergus. Discovered in the collection were vessels such as tankards from Staffordshire, jugs from Scotland and North Devon and fragments of expensive Venetian-style wine glasses.
Tygs, a type of mug with three or more handles from the Staffordshire potteries, were popular in the seventeenth century and were clearly common in Carrickfergus. Their many handles separated the rim of the mug into sections so that multiple drinkers could share the contents of the same cup, thus implying a communal consumption of alcohol. Sherds of French ceramic jugs reflect the strong trade in imported French wine, particularly from the Saintonge/ Bordeaux region. Spanish wine was also imported in vast quantities into the port at Carrickfergus in large oblong ceramic vessels known as olive jars.
Bartmann jugs, meaning ‘bearded man’, are globular shaped stoneware vessels which traditionally feature the face of an old man with a flowing beard. They derive from the Cologne area of western Germany and were used to transport, store and decant acidic liquids like wine, beer and vinegar, both at home and in at the tavern. They were very popular in Europe throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
An interesting find from the Carrickfergus collection is part of a Bartmann medallion which features a crest with two of the traditional three ‘triple crosses’ of the city of Amsterdam’s coat of arms.
Thousands of fragments of clay pipes for smoking tobacco were found across all sites excavated in Carrickfergus. Pipe smoking developed in the later sixteenth century when tobacco was introduced to Europe from the New World.
Originally touted as a medicine, by the early seventeenth century, tobacco smoking had become a recreational and social activity. The shape and size of smoking pipes give a good indication of their date - very early pipes can be identified by their small bowl size and short thick stems, reflecting the expensive cost of tobacco as a luxury commodity. The lowering of price throughout the seventeenth century is reflected in the enlarging of the bowl and longer, thinner stems so that the heat of the pipebowl, containing more tobacco, could be kept further away from the face when smoking.
The early tobacco pipes found in Carrickfergus come from England. Bristol was particularly famous for its pipe industry and the trade of pipes between Bristol and Ireland is recorded as early as 1597. The port books for Carrickfergus c.1614-15 show regular shipments of pipes from Barnstaple and Chester in the West Country.
A small number of unusual red clay pipes were also discovered across many of the Carrickfergus sites excavated. These date to c.1680-1710 and geological examination of the clays suggest that they were locally produced in Carrickfergus, perhaps as a result of disrupted trade caused by the Williamite wars in 1690.
Amusement & Entertainment
Jaw’s or Jew’s Harps
The Delaney excavations unearthed numerous artefacts associated with socialising and entertainment. The large quantities of material culture associated with smoking and drinking, like the tobacco pipes and ale tankard fragments, indicate that the local alehouses or taprooms served much of the town’s entertainment.
A common object amongst the finds of the town was the Jaw’s Harp, also known as a Jew’s Harp. This is a small musical instrument made of iron, often with a steel or brass reed, held against the lips or the teeth and plucked with the fingers to make sounds. Their presence in the archaeological record suggests that music was a popular past time and singing was also common.
Flat pieces of bone, metal and slate discs might be interpreted as gaming counters for tactical board games such as draughts or ‘tables’ (backgammon). Dice and chess were also popular seventeenth century games and a possible chess piece made of bone or wood may be found in the collection. Card games were another standard form of amusement for all levels of society - although items of this sort do not survive archaeologically, their presence and popularity is indicated in documentary records such as the Ulster port book accounts 1612-1615. Dice and card games both suggest gambling was prevalent.
Industrial Activity & Occupations
Hundreds of artefacts including tools and waste material are indicative of skilled craftsmen and trades in early-modern Carrickfergus. Industrial tradesmen were a necessity for urban centres like Carrickfergus: blacksmiths, carpenters and coopers, masons, leatherworkers and tanners, tailors, bakers, butchers, brewers, millers, fishermen, inn keepers. Many of these occupations are reflected in the archaeological record. Copious amounts of leather offcuts and shoe fragments point to the presence of a local shoemaker or cobbler in Carrickfergus. That Irish style leather brogues are found in the town might also suggest a broguemaker or a shoemaker skilled in making both Irish and European style shoes.
Horseshoes and fiddle-key or shoeing nails implying blacksmithing and horse grooming. Hand-built bricks indicate brick makers and bricklayers and finished Cultra stone found in both ecclesiastical and domestic contexts suggest skilled masons. Needles and thimbles might reflect tailoring, either as a profession or simply within the home, as might fishing hooks indicate fishing as an occupation.
A local pottery and pipe making industry in Carrickfergus is apparent in the later seventeenth century, evidenced by imitations of West Country-style sgraffito decorated dishes and plates in local Carrickfergus clay. It is possible that this local venture and copies of English products were a response to the curtailing of trade between south-western England and Ireland. This is due due to the upheavals of the Williamite wars coupled with the well-documented end of the North Devon pottery trade at the end of the century.
Numerous artefacts in the collection attest to Carrickfergus’s continued military involvement throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries such as arrowheads, cannonballs, musket balls, and caps for gunpowder bandoliers or tubes.
The town and castle at Carrickfergus were regularly attacked and plundered by the surrounding Gaelic Irish and Scottish lords such as the Clandeboye O’Neills and the MacDonnells of Dunluce, justifying a military presence to protect Crown interests in Ulster.
The seventeenth century saw many armed skirmishes at Carrickfergus. The effects of the English Civil War (1642-1651) and the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (1639-1651) were felt in the township, when it was repeatedly won and lost by the Parliamentarians and the Royalist forces.
In 1642, during the Irish Confederate War, General Robert Munro landed in Carrickfergus in order to quell the Irish Catholic rising in Ulster. Munro captured the castle and took control of the town. By 1648, Carrickfergus’s Royalist sympathies for Charles II initiated an assault by Parliamentary forces during which the garrison supposedly surrendered without a fight. The Royalists again took the town in 1649 before being lost again to Colonel Robert Venables and the Parliamentarians a few months later.
In 1689, the Jacobite garrison stationed at Carrickfergus Castle was besieged by the forces of William of Orange, under the command of General Frederick Schomberg. After a week of heavy assault, the garrison surrendered. King William landed in Carrickfergus in June 1690, thus commencing his campaigns in Ireland.
The remains of a large cast-iron projectile shell were discovered during excavations in the Irish Quarter of the town.
Trinkets & Adornments
Amongst the vast collection of artefacts recovered from eight years of excavation throughout the town were small personal belongings, trinkets or ornamental possessions. Personal adornment and displaying wealth were important aspects of sixteenth and seventeenth century culture and society. It is therefore not surprising that copper and gold gilded buttons were a common find throughout the excavations as were buckles and belt fittings. Other elements of clothing embellishment included items such as copper dress pins, brooch fasteners, brass aglets to seal the ends of shoe laces or ties and metal protective tips for the ends of leather belts.
Spurs with small spikes or wheel rowels, worn on the heel of leather boots were a common accessory in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and suggests activities such as horse riding in addition to adherence to current European fashions. Also present in the collection were an assortment of iron keys and fragments of padlocks for securing chests or strongboxes which denotes a desire to protect valuables and personal property.
Further insights into household items and furnishing may be found in fragments of ceramic and metal candlestick holders for burning tallow or wax candles, chamber pots, elaborately decorated ceramic plates and glass goblets. Scissors, shearers, tweezers, thimbles, needles and pins were also frequent discoveries offering insights into domestic activities and past-times.