Hidden Depths and Empty Spaces? A remote sensing approach to the exploration of settlement patterns, identity and social hierarchy in early medieval Ireland (AD 400-1100)

PhD Candidate: Susan Curran
Supervisor: Dr Stephen Davis
Funded By: Irish Research Council Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholarship



This project will investigate the organisation of early medieval settlement in social and ideological terms through the comprehensive application of multiple remote sensing techniques. The study will also engage with a range of primary documentary and mapping resources in conjunction with existing excavation evidence.

Ireland is home to perhaps the richest and best-preserved early medieval settlement archaeology in Europe (O'Sullivan 2011, ix). Traces of settlement associated with this important period can be found throughout the landscape in the form of ringforts, crannogs, cashels and ecclesiastical sites. This project will utilise the wealth of divergent evidence already available for this period, and build on it by employing a range of non-invasive remote sensing techniques to further enhance our knowledge and understanding. With a significant decline in the number of research and development-led archaeological excavations in recent years, remote sensing has become an essential part of archaeological research and comprises a range of non-invasive techniques including aerial photography, lidar (Light Detection and Ranging, also known as ALS or Airborne Laser Scanning), multi-spectral satellite imaging, and geophysical survey. Lidar enables us to identify subtle topographic variations in the landscape which are not normally visible to the naked eye, while geophysical survey looks beneath the ground to reveal sub-surface archaeological remains. These techniques are particularly applicable to the study of early medieval settlement, for example, the bank-and-ditch morphology of both secular and ecclesiastical enclosures makes them ideally suited to lidar survey.

This PhD constitutes one of the first genuine landscape archaeological studies in Ireland to use lidar as its core dataset. While lidar has been applied to archaeological research, its primary function has been to prospect for ‘new’ monuments or examine already well-known archaeological landscapes, such as the World Heritage Site of Brú na Bóinne (Davis et al. 2013), or the Hill of Tara, Co. Meath (Corns et al. 2008; Corns & Shaw 2009). Lidar has a proven track record of being used to successfully identify ‘new’ archaeological monuments, yet although lidar survey data has been flown for much of Ireland (usually as a precursor to road building etc.), it still remains a largely untapped resource for landscape archaeology. It is critical that this extant data is put to use and that we apply it to archaeological research where it can be of enormous benefit. 


Corns, A. et al. 2008 “More than Meets the Eye”. Archaeology Ireland, Vol. 22 (3). 34–38.

Corns, A. & Shaw, R. 2009 “High Resolution 3-Dimensional Documentation of Archaeological Monuments & Landscapes using Airborne LiDAR”. Journal of Cultural Heritage, (10S). e72–e77.

Davis, S. et al. 2013 “Lidar survey in the Brú na Bóinne World Heritage Site” in R. Opitz & D. Cowley (eds) Interpreting Archaeological Topography: 3D Data, Visualisation and Observation. Oxford: Oxbow Books. 223-237.

O’Sullivan, A. 2011 “Foreword” in C. Corlett & M. Potterton (eds) Settlement in Early Medieval Ireland in the light of recent archaeological excavations. Dublin: Wordwell. ix – xi.