New campaign to protect archaeological heritage encourages landowners to “check before you dig”

Check Before You Dig: landowners and farmers are being urged to check for archaeological monuments on their land before undertaking any groundworks, land clearance or land reclamation.
Check Before You Dig: landowners and farmers are being urged to check for archaeological monuments on their land before undertaking any groundworks, land clearance or land reclamation (pic: © dimitrisvetsikas1969 via Pixabay.com; edited IHN).

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The “Check Before You Dig” campaign urges landowners and farmers to utilize the Historic Environment Viewer to identify archaeological monuments on their land in order to safeguard the archaeology and avoid legal ramifications for non-compliance with the laws protecting Ireland’s rich archaeological heritage.

Check Before You Dig

On 4 December, the National Monuments Service (NMS), part of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, launched a new campaign: “Check Before You Dig”. Targeted at landowners and farmers, it aims to safeguard our heritage by encouraging the public to check for archaeological monuments before carrying out any groundwork.

With over 145,000 recorded monuments throughout the country, Ireland boasts a rich archaeological heritage representing 10,000 years of human activity. These include Stone Age megalithic tombs, Bronze Age and Iron Age barrows, early medieval ecclesiastical sites and ringforts, late medieval tower houses, and many other types of monuments and sites.

Not all archaeological monuments are immediately recognizable in the landscape; some have low visibility or survive as sub-surface remains, such as fulachta fiadh and souterrains. Though more easily identifiable, field systems, earthworks and various types of enclosures are also particularly vulnerable to damage by human activity.

Check Before You Dig, a new campaign launched by the National Monuments Service.
Check Before You Dig, a new campaign launched by the National Monuments Service (pic: © Government of Ireland, CC BY 4.0).

The Check Before You Dig campaign hopes to raise awareness of Ireland’s archaeological monuments so we can all play our part in protecting them. This campaign urges those planning to undertake groundwork to first check their property for the presence of archaeological monuments using the handy online Historic Environment Viewer.

How to use the Historic Environment Viewer

The Historic Environment Viewer online mapping tool is free to use and can be accessed on desktop computers, tablets and smartphones. It displays the locations of all known archaeological sites and monuments, predominantly pre-1700 AD in date, which are recorded in the Archaeological Survey of Ireland (ASI), along with all post-1700 historic buildings, structures and architectural features recorded in the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage (NIAH).

Historic Environment Viewer.
The Historic Environment Viewer can be accessed here.

Once you access the Historic Environment Viewer, zooming in on the map allows you to easily navigate to your property; the zoom controls are in the top left corner or you can double-click on the screen. Alternatively, click the “My Location” button in the top left corner; for this tool to function, you must permit your device to share your location with your browser. Unfortunately, we’ve found this option unreliable, with our location sometimes being several miles off.

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Another option is to enter an address, townland name or Eircode in the search bar in the top left corner of the screen to the right of the zoom controls. You can also search for a townland in the “Query” widget in the top right corner (the widgets are in the header on mobile screens). It’s important to be aware that the Historic Environment Viewer uses the official Ordnance Survey (OS) spellings of placenames.

Given the possibility of multiple townlands sharing the same name, it’s essential to double-check that you’re viewing the correct location. You should be able to confirm this by zooming out or by switching to a different map. Various editions of historical OS maps, as well as aerial and satellite imagery, are available in the “Basemap Gallery”, another widget.

Every archaeological site and monument in the Republic of Ireland that is listed in the “Sites and Monuments Record (SMR)” is marked with a red dot on the map, while the blue dots represent the historic buildings and features listed in the NIAH. By clicking on a red dot, a pop-up will appear providing a concise description of the archaeological monument, as well as detailing its monument class, SMR number and coordinates. The information provided is subject to change as the system is continually updated.

Historic Environment Viewer snapshot displaying an SMR record for a ringfort.
Snapshot from the Historic Environment Viewer displaying information relating to an archaeological monument, a ringfort, listed in the Sites and Monuments Record or SMR (© Government of Ireland, CC BY 4.0).

If you’re still finding it difficult to navigate the Historic Environment Viewer, scroll down to watch a promotional video produced by the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage to raise awareness about the Check Before You Dig campaign. The NMS has also published a detailed step-by-step user guide for the map viewer. However, if you remain in any doubt regarding the existence of a monument on your land or the level of protection it holds, you should contact the NMS directly for guidance.

Who should check before they dig?

We all have a responsibility to identify and protect archaeological monuments on the land we own and use in order to avoid damaging or disturbing the archaeology.

Farmers are collectively the largest owners of archaeological monuments in the country. Within a European context, the remarkable preservation of archaeological monuments in the Irish landscape is partially attributed to our historical farming practices. Yet, the implementation of new farming techniques – increasingly adopted by Irish farmers in response to climate change and the challenges associated with the cost-of-living crisis – could pose risks to our archaeological heritage.

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Therefore, the Check Before You Dig campaign targets, in particular, farmers intending to conduct land clearance and reclamation. Specifically, it’s focused on those who have recently acquired property or those aiming to improve their land or change their farming practices, such as transitioning from pasture to tillage. These individuals are urged to check the Historic Environment Viewer and to thoroughly inspect their property before carrying out any work. If you identify a new (unrecorded) archaeological monument, you must notify the NMS.

>>> READ MORE: Recent archaeological discoveries along the M28 route in Cork

Minister of State for Heritage and Electoral Reform, Malcolm Noonan TD, at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage commented:

“The Irish countryside is exceptionally rich in archaeological monuments, and we are rightly proud of their rate of survival, which is due in no small part to the role played by the custodians of these monuments for generations. We all have a role to play in ensuring the protection of our archaeological and architectural heritage and I encourage the use of the online tools provided by my Department, to be informed about the monuments that surround us.”

Legal protection for archaeological monuments

The National Monuments Acts ensure the protection of all recorded archaeological monuments, so landowners and land-users must comply with these laws to avoid prosecution, fines or even imprisonment.

Michael MacDonagh, Chief Archaeologist with the NMS, said:

“The aim of this campaign is to prevent damage to archaeological sites and monuments, particularly during land reclamation. The National Monuments Service investigates cases of damage to monuments, such as ringforts and enclosures, arising from groundworks and we feel that sharing the details of our comprehensive online resource will help landowners to avoid any impacts on these sites. All recorded archaeological monuments are protected under the National Monuments Act 1930 to 2014 and further details on how to be in compliance with the law protecting monuments can be found at
www.gov.ie/CheckBeforeYouDig.”

Under the National Monuments Acts, it is an offence to dig, excavate or use a metal detector anywhere with the aim of uncovering archaeological features or artefacts without a license or consent issued by the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage.

Anyone intending to undertake work in proximity to a recorded monument must give written notice to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage two months before commencing that work. This advance notice period allows the NMS time to consider the proposed work and determine how best to protect the monument. Further information on this process can be found here and more details on the legislation protecting Ireland’s archaeological monuments are available here.

Click here to find out more about the Check Before You Dig campaign.

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