Spade 1969.678

Length 58cm, Width 16.5 cm, Depth 3.4 cm.

Spade 1966.32, found in a bog in Carnatreanagh townland, Donegal. Adapted from Lucas 1966, Fig.8.

Spade 1966.32, found in a bog in Carnatreanagh townland, Donegal. Adapted from Lucas 1966, Fig.8.

SEM image of sample collected from 1969.678.

SEM image of sample collected from 1969.678.

Find Location

This spade from the collection of the National Museum of Ireland, was found in 1968 on a layer of gravel, 'beneath the fourth sod'(about one metre deep), in a bog in the townland of Ballynakillew Mountain, Co. Donegal.

The Irish translation for  Ballynakillew is Baile na Coilleadhwhich translates as town, or townland of the wood.  The ordnance survey map for the townland does not indicate any substantial woodland at the time of production (1842), and with the exception of a few small holdings, the region appears to have been otherwise devoid of built features.  

The townland of Ballynakillew Mountain, lies some 8 km west of St Patrick's Purgatory, an ancient pilgrimage site on Station Island in Lough Derg, County Donegal. Aspects of the region are recorded in the journals of European pilgrims throughout the late medieval period. 

References in the Literature

The discovery of the spade is published by O'Sullivan (1972), where it is reported as having been broken in antiquity, and having shrunken slightly during drying from its initial waterlogged condition. O'Sullivan notes that a taper in thickness from the step to the bottom of the blade has been achieved by paring the wood, which has also given one side of the blade a convex curve from side to side.

A raised band running side to side, near the bottom of the shoe, is noted as evidence of the cutting edge having been replaced after the original surface was worn.  Nail holes along the sides of the blade and lower shaft, and on one step indicate that the straps of the shoe extended beyond their current length at one time. The author notes that one of the steps has signs of wear as if it were used for a time, unprotected by a strap. This suggests that one of the straps may have been lost for some time before the spade was retired. The author notes greater wear on the right step, and on the left side of the shoe as evidence of the user favouring the right foot for digging.  

O'Sullivan goes on to draw comparisons between this and another iron-shod oak spade, 1966.32, recovered from a bog in Carnatreanagh townland, County Donegal. The spade,  published in Lucas (1966:111, 112), and pictured left, has nail holes along the sides of the blade, and on one side of the shaft,  indicating that the straps on the iron shoe were longer at one time. O'Sullivan (1972:245) supports this idea by reference to the lack of wear on either of the steps for this spade, but challenges Lucas' original assertion that the shoe on 1966.32 was formed from two pieces of metal, arguing that the 'point of junction' identified by Lucas relates to the renewal of a worn cutting edge, as on spade 1969.678. The replacement of the cutting edges on both of these spades may suggest something of the scarcity, or relative value of iron, during the period in which the spades were made and used.

Technical Analysis

The scanning electron microscope (SEM) image on the left was produced from a small sample of wood collected from spade 1969.678. The presence of the feature at the centre of the image, a sclariform perforation plate, indicates that this spade is not made from oak, and is more likely of birch or alder. The remainder of the wood sample will be submitted for radio carbon dating in summer 2018.


  1. Lucas, A. T. (1969). National Museum of Ireland: Archaeological Acquisitions in the Year 1966. The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 99(2): 93-115.

  2. O'Sullivan, J. C. (1972). Iron-Shod Wooden Spade from Ballynakillew Mountain, Co. Donegal. The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 102(2): 244-246.

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