Is there more to coprolites than meets the eye?

This blog post comes from current undergraduate student Seoda Matthews who took part in the Summer 2020 SPUR programme. She worked on the Moynagh Lough Project with Dr Michael Potterton

This summer I had the opportunity to work with my history lecturer, Dr Michael Potterton, on the Moynagh Lough project, as a part of the SPUR programme in Maynooth University. This project is the excavation and analysis of a multi-period wetland site, Moynagh Lough, at Nobber in Co. Meath. George Eogan and John Bradley conducted the first excavation of the site in 1980 and excavations continued under Bradley’s direction until 1998. The excavation archive is now housed in Maynooth University. The process of sorting and analysing the finds and samples is ongoing and is directed by Dr Michael Potterton.

Moynagh Lough was a site of metalworking, glass-working, dairying and occupation. Beautiful finds have been excavated from the site, such as a gold filigree mount, jet and lignite bracelet fragments, chips of amber and beads. My work, however, was mostly concerned with the samples retrieved from the site. The term ‘samples’ refers to the natural finds from an excavation site. They include coprolite, insect remains, vegetation, soil, wood and bones. My main responsibility was to organise the data of the various samples found at the site, particularly the coprolites. For non-archaeology experts, coprolites are fossilised faeces. The organisation of these samples was important as they are to be sent to specialists for analysis and this data will be key to their research.

I was particularly interested in the coprolites and so I focused my research on them. I found that the diet of individuals, the diseases they came into contact with and the environment surrounding the individual can be investigated from the close examination of coprolites in a lab. The testa in a seed, for example, is resistant to human digestive processes and so is defecated almost unchanged. Therefore, scientists can learn about both the diet of ancient animals and people and the plants that were growing in its habitat at the time. Some small animal bones, such as snakes, rodents, birds, and fish, have also been found in coprolites. They provide evidence for some of the wildlife present in the habitat.

Coprolite found at Moynagh Lough

The coprolites from Moynagh Lough will be analysed by Jessica Hendy and Eleanor Green in York University. This work will uncover much more information about the occupants of the crannóg and the earlier landscape. One hundred and ninety-two coprolites were discovered over the course of the excavation. This is a considerable amount to be found at one site. The majority of the coprolites are said to have been from the Early medieval period, yet, one has been noted as from the Mesolithic and another from the Early Bronze Age. Hendy and Green’s analysis will provide further information about Moynagh Lough and its previous inhabitants. 

Coprolite sample from Moynagh Lough

I think that more study should be done on the analysis of coprolites. Archaeologists can make assertions when they discover artefacts at a site, however, the analysis done in a lab on coprolites can provide concrete information about the lives of previous inhabitants of sites. I thoroughly enjoyed my time working on my SPUR project and I would recommend it to all students with an interest in research.


Coprolite Analysis: A Biological Perspective on Archaeology:

The what, how and why of archaeological coprolite analysis:

If you like this you might be interested to hear about a talk that is being given by Dr Potterton on Moynagh Lough Crannog

Virtual seminar Thursday 5th of November at 4pm, hosted by UCD Archaeological Society

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, research excavations at the remarkable multi-period crannog site at Moynagh Lough in Co. Meath were directed by the late John Bradley, at first through the (then) Department of Archaeology at UCD and later through the Department of History at Maynooth University. Work has now recommenced on this fascinating project, with collaboration between UCD, MU and the Royal Irish Academy, among others. In due course, the publication of the full report will make a very significant contribution to the archaeological record. Only a handful of Irish excavations have yielded such a breadth of information, covering almost every major period from Mesolithic to Medieval. This illustrated lecture will take the audience through some of the most intriguing discoveries, the history of the excavation, current research and future plans. Both John and Michael were staff in our School in UCD and we are delighted the Archaeological Society are welcoming Michael back to speak on this remarkable site.

If you are interested, please email for a ZOOM link.

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