There are a lot more archaeological sites in the Republic of Ireland than we thought

Ringfort at Cam, Co. Roscommon


How many archaeological sites are there in the Republic of Ireland? This is an obvious question but not an easy one to answer. If we consult the statutory Record of Monuments and Places (RMP) established under the National Monuments Act (1930-2004) the answer is about 140,000 ( But we now know that the RMP only lists a fraction of the potential surviving sites. During the Celtic Tiger period (1995-2008) thousands of previously unknown sites were identified during the course of development. This is because archaeological remains may be buried beneath the ground or later structures and are not visible to the naked eye. Archaeological remains that are standing above ground may be obscured by overgrowth, may be covered by later structures or may have been partly removed or altered to make them unrecognisable. Archaeological remains that are standing above ground may be in plain view but may not have been recognized or mapped or noted in surveys or reports.

So how many sites are there? A quantitative approach would appear to be the most useful approach to answering the question. The land area of Ireland is 6,888,900 hectares (ha), dividing this by the roughly 140,000 sites included in the RMP results in a ratio of one site per 49 ha. Using this as a starting point the general number of potential sites can be estimated by using information now becoming available from the recent large-scale archaeological investigations of infrastructure projects like motorways and pipelines. All the large-scale infrastructure projects developed during the Celtic Tiger period have resulted in the discovery of large numbers of archaeological sites. For example the Bord Gáis “Pipeline to the west” construction corridor was 335 km long and impacted an area of 1,005 ha. During the course of the development 190 previously unknown archaeological sites were identified, one site per 5.3 ha (See Grogan et al. 2007, 5- 9). Similarly, during the construction of the Cork to Dublin gas pipeline 96 monuments were impacted over a distance of 222 km, an area of 489 ha, one site per 5 .1 ha (See McQuade et al. 2000, xiii). During the construction of the M8 Motorway from Ballycuddahy, Co. Laois to Dunkettle, Co. Cork 249 sites were indentified in an area of 1,494 ha, or one site per 5.6 ha (Also McQuade et al. xiii).

Using these figures we can calculate an average ratio of sites to hectares of one site per 5.6 ha. Scaling this up to the total land area of the Republic  suggests that as many as 1.23 million sites potentially remain to be identified. Of course the infrastructure projects tended to be situated in the fertile lowland areas, where sites cluster, and sites may be potentially less likely to be found in upland areas, so this figure should be adjusted a little. However, these comparisons suggest that the RMP represents somewhere around 11% of the total potential sites. These quantitative figures suggest on the one hand that almost any development has the potential to impact archaeology with those impacting 5.6 ha or more approaching an almost certainty. The risk of impacting archaeology cannot be ruled out without the deployment of field-based assessment methods such as archaeological testing or geophysical investigation. On the other hand acknowledging that there are probably more than a millions potential sites should cause archaeologists to question some of their assumptions about managing the resource.


Grogan et al. 2007. The Bronze Age landscapes of the pipeline to the west. Dublin, Wordwell.

McQuade et al. 2009. In the shadow of the Galtees: archaeological excavations along the N8 Cashel to Mitchelstown Road Scheme. Dublin. NRA Scheme Monographs 4.

Mount, C. There are a lot more archaeological sites in the Republic of Ireland than we thought. The Charles Mount Blog, May 18, 2011.

What is the Cultural Heritage of Ireland?

Barnderg Tower House

The cultural heritage of Ireland includes a wide array of monuments, objects, landscapes and structures that were produced by the inhabitants of Ireland over the last nine to ten thousand years. The Heritage Act 1995 defines the national heritage of Ireland as including monuments, archaeological objects, heritage objects, architectural heritage, flora, fauna, wildlife habitats, landscapes, seascapes, wrecks, geology, heritage gardens and parks and inland waterways. When we exclude the natural heritage categories such as flora, fauna, wildlife habitats, seascapes, geology and the natural inland waterways (but not the engineered examples) we are left with: archaeological objects, heritage objects, architectural heritage, landscapes, wrecks, heritage gardens and parks and engineered inland waterways such as canals. Landscapes are included because the landscape of Ireland, since the arrival of people in the Mesolithic and especially since the Neolithic farming revolution, has been totally altered by people and is now a cultural artefact.

Looking at each category of cultural heritage we see that each has its own definition, some more legally based than others. The legal definition of a Monument is defined in section 2 of the National Monuments Act 1930 as any a) artificial structure or group of structures, b) any cave, stone or other natural product, that has been carved, sculpted or worked upon or appears to have been purposely arranged, c) any part of any prehistoric/ancient tomb, grave or burial deposit, ritual, industrial or habitation site, and d) any place comprising the remains or traces of any structure, erection, cave, stone or natural product of any tomb, grave, burial deposit or ritual, industrial or habitation sites situated on land or in the territorial waters of the state. This definition is very broad and overlaps with a number of the other categories of cultural heritage such as architecture.

Archaeological objects are defined in section 2 of the National Monuments Act 1930 as any chattel whether in a manufactured or partly manufactured or unmanufactured state which by reason of the archaeological interest attaching thereto or of its association with any Irish historical event or person has a value substantially greater than its intrinsic (including artistic) value, and the said expression includes ancient human, animal or plant remains”. The Irish State has legal ownership of all archaeological objects as a result of the Irish Supreme Court judgement in relation to the Derrynaflan hoard which was applied retrospectively to all archaeological objects found after the enactment of the Irish Constitution in 1922. Section 2 of The National Monuments Amendment Act (1994) gave the judgement a statutory basis.

Heritage objects are all portable examples of material culture that are not covered by the definition of archaeological object. This category can include agriculture tools, papers and archives, clothing, photographs, paintings, pottery, glass, etc.

Architectural heritage is defined in the Architectural Heritage (National Inventory) and Historic Monuments (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 1999 as “(a) structures and buildings together with their settings and attendant grounds, fixtures and fittings, (b) groups of such structures and buildings, and (c) sites”.

Landscape comprises the visible features of an area of land, including physical elements such as landforms, living elements of flora and fauna, abstract elements like lighting and weather conditions, but from a cultural heritage viewpoint it is the human elements and the built environment that are most significant.

There are estimated to be about 15,000 shipwrecks lying in Irish coastal waters dating from the prehistoric to the modern period. These wrecks in turn contain archaeological and heritage objects. Notable examples include the remains of the Spanish Armada as well as the Lusitania.

Heritage gardens and parks refers to the historic gardens and designed landscapes that became a feature of the Irish landscape after the arrival of the Anglo-Normans in the twelfth century when demesnes were laid out around Lord’s manor houses. They became most common in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and are usually associated with country houses, although there a number of urban examples.

Engineered inland waterways include the canals such as the Grand Canal (Dublin to Shannon Harbour, Co. Offaly), the Royal Canal (Dublin to Cloondara, Co. Longford) and the Shannon Erne-Waterway (Leitrim to Lough Erne, Co. Fermanagh) as well as smaller examples such as the Boyne navigation (Oldbridge to Navan).

Cite this post as:

Mount, C. What is the cultural heritage of Ireland? The Charles Mount Blog, May 18, 2011.