The Time Team find their holy grail at Cairncastle

CLIMATE change ... Ulster-Scots culture and heritage ... trading commodities ... providing for the family out of meagre resources.

All issues on the political, economic and social agendas today and, apparently, 3,500 years ago as TV's Time Team discovered last week at Cairncastle.

Presenter Tony Robinson and a team of archaeologists headed by Phil Harding - he of the long grey hair and Indiana Jones hat - spent three days on the distinctive basalt outcrop that straddles the farms of Campbell Tweed and Tommy Stewart at Knockdhu, on the very edge of the Antrim plateau.

Progress was slow to begin with at one of the more challenging sites excavated by the Channel 4 experts. The long deserted remains of an ancient promontory fort, the foundations of a few unremarkable dwellings, some shards of flint.

It didn't look terribly promising, but with just a few hours of daylight remaining on the final day they found their holy grail; the find that will undoubtedly steal the show when the programme is broadcast next spring.

As regular viewers will know, a "holy grail" in Time Team terms usually amounts to something much more mundane. In this instance a seemingly non-descript, dirt-encrusted shard of pottery.

But it's the one find that made the whole expensive exercise very worthwhile because it may help the archaeologists to date the site, to put it in historical in context and from there, perhaps begin to answer some of the puzzling questions posed by the Cairncastle settlement.

Were the earthworks - a substantial civil engineering project in the late Bronze Age - accumulated as a defensive structure, perhaps topped with a palisade fence? Or did the site perform some mystical ceremonial function?

The most pertinent question from those who hiked to the 1,200 ft promontory was why build up there, seemingly in the middle of nowhere and exposed to the wind and rain that lash the site with almost predictable regularity.

As it turns out the site was actually right in the middle of somewhere because the tell-tale signs of 14 stone-and-earth round houses - foundations, cobbles, even hearths and charred animal bones - were excavated just a few feet away.

The existence of a nearby flint mine, thought to date to this era of pre-history, had already been documented. Could Cairncastle’s earliest inhabitants have been miners who traded their commodity with others in Ireland and Scotland, as has been theorised of similar sites in Co Antrim? Certainly the Scottish connection will excite the very active Cairncastle Ulster-Scots group that currently actively celebrates the common cultural heritage.

Archaeologists and historians have been aware for many years of the existence of the Knockdhu earthworks and there is no shortage of theory, but on arrival at the dig on Thursday afternoon it was clear that the site identified to Time Team by Queen’s University as one of the earliest settlements in Ireland was not living up to expectations on, or under, the ground.

Having explained the topography, the scale of the “huge earthworks” and the possibility that here was a fort, or a ceremonial site - or maybe both - Time Team archaeologist Raksha Dave concluded with a shrug of her shoulders, “We’ve dug a trench and found a few pieces of flint .. and that’s it really.”

While he waited for something worth filming, Tony Robinson was only too happy to help Times photographer Peter Rippon organise a few shots featuring the actor and some Larne Grammar School students against the background of “some diggy things”, as he called them. Self deprecation from the presenter who is actually an enthusiastic and knowledgeable archaeo-anorak who has collaborated on books on the subject.

Colm Donnelly, from Queen’s, was excavating a shallow trench at the foot of a dry stone wall, thought to date back to the 17th century and which, according to Mr Tweed, marked the boundary of the Knockdhu and Drains Bog townlands. The archaeologist was searching for signs of a post hole pre-dating the wall which might glean further information about the history of settlement in the area.

A few yards away Dr John O’Neill, from University College, Dublin, was concentrating on evidence of habitation. There were signs that a series of wooden platforms, probably dating from around 1500 BC, had been slotted into the steep terrain to provide a flat base on which to build the round houses and to ensure that water draining off the hill was diverted into the water courses.

Asked why people would choose to settle at such an exposed site, Dr O’Neill postulated that climate change might help explain it.

“Between 1600-1300 BC it was actually slightly warmer than it is today,” he said. “It was maybe a difference of only two degrees or so but in the winter that would have made an awfully big difference.”

With its commanding view over the Inver valley towards Larne Lough and out to sea across the North Channel, the site would have been ideal as a look-out post. If it was a fort, said the UCD man,people living on the lower ground might have been alerted to impending danger by means of beacons lit at Knockdhu, which might have been a rallying point, and an easily defended place of safety in times of danger.

Campbell Tweed is fascinated by the history of the land that he farms. “And the more I learn about it the more it’s brought home to me that really I’m only the latest in a very long line of people that have lived and worked here,” he said.

Now that the TV crew has gone, the university archaeologists are capitalising on Time Team’s exploratory work and will remain at Knockdhu for the next four weeks or so.

It may be that the ancient settlement has already given up all it has to offer in the way of evidence, but at least we know there‘ll be something interesting on the telly in the new year.