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Oldest Bridge in Ireland May 6, 1998
by Ben Keene

In the first large-scale underwater excavation in Ireland, archaeologists have found remains of the country's oldest bridge, the largest wooden structure from early Christian Ireland. Built in A.D. 804, the 533-foot-long, 17-foot-wide oak span supported a roadway leading to the nearby monastery and village of Clonmacnoise. The size of the bridge suggests technical know-how and a large, skilled workforce. It also indicates the area was more economically and politically advanced than previously assumed.

An underwater team led by Aidan O'Sullivan found the remains in 1996 after reading about the bridge in twelfth-century Irish annals. Dives in the Shannon River revealed large piles driven 12 feet into the clay river bottom. O'Sullivan believes as many as 20 or 30 beams and planks could still lie on the riverbed.

The team also uncovered nine dugout canoes, four axes, a sharpening stone, and a bronze liturgical basin decorated with ribbing and dating from the eighth or ninth centuries. About 12 inches across, the basin was badly damaged. It was possibly lost on the bridge during a raid on the monastery, perhaps by the Vikings, says O'Sullivan. The four or five known basins of similar design were all uncovered in Viking graves. This summer divers are searching for more evidence; O'Sullivan hopes to find jetties and other boats upstream that would associate commercial activity with the Clonmacnoise monastery.

© 1998 by the Archaeological Institute of America