Archaeology and Ireland

15675Today we have a guest post from Peter Bogucki, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Affairs at the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Princeton University and co-editor with Pam J. Crabtree of European Archaeology as Anthropology: Essays in Memory of Bernard Wailes. Bernard Wailes was a strong advocate for the importance of later prehistoric and early medieval Europe as an alternative model of sociopolitical evolution who trained generations of American archaeologists now active in European research. The essays in Bogucki and Crabtree's volume celebrate Wailes' legacy by highlighting the contribution of the European archaeological record to our understanding of the emergence of social complexity. Here, Bogucki relates his experiences traveling in Ireland to the ample archaeological insights that the country can provide.

The cover of European Archaeology as Anthropology is an aerial photograph of Dún Ailinne by Frank Coyne. Bernard Wailes excavated this Irish royal site for eight years in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Susan Johnston’s chapter describes it in detail, and several of the contributors participated in the Dún Ailinne excavations. Other papers in the book address themes in Irish archaeology, including the transition from foraging to farming, monastic settlements, and the bioarchaeology of medieval communities. For someone seeking to engage with European archaeology for the first time, and to connect with many of the themes in our book, I can think of no better introduction than an archaeological visit to Ireland.

Before 2002, I hadn’t set foot in Ireland, for my archaeological research had been done elsewhere in Europe, mainly Poland. A conference in Sligo provided a reason to visit, and my wife was able to accompany me. She is of Irish descent, but other than a brief stopover many years before, she had not visited Ireland either. The organizers of the conference made sure there were opportunities to visit several of the great megalithic cemeteries of the fourth millennium BCE near Sligo. We were enchanted. Our daughters then studied abroad in Dublin, so we became avid visitors. Since then, we have returned to Ireland over a dozen times, and archaeology is always a central theme of our visits.

A visitor to Ireland encounters archaeology everywhere. Along the River Bann in Northern Ireland, interpretive displays in a park explain the hunter-gatherer settlement at Mount Sandel, the earliest evidence for human settlement about 7700 BCE. Later, at sites like Ferriter’s Cove on the Dingle Peninsula, hunter-gatherers collected shellfish, fished, and hunted game around 4300 BCE, but somehow a bone from domestic cattle made its way there as well. The question of how the hunters and fishers of northern and western Europe turned to agriculture is the topic of my paper in this book, and I suggest that a novel technology picked up from farmers in continental Europe, such as the making of dairy products, disrupted their comfortable lives.

Neolithic farming settlements were established just after 4000 BCE, and dozens have been found in the last two decades thanks to highway construction. Around 3000 BCE, great megalithic chambered tombs were built from huge stones. Newgrange and its neighbors Knowth and Dowth are probably the most celebrated and touristy, but there are many others to visit. At Loughcrew near Kells and Carrowmore near Sligo, visitors can wander around the cairns and into the chambers.

Stone monuments are everywhere. One March day, I took my wife and daughter on a trek up a mountain near Sligo to visit the Deerpark tomb, an unusual early example of megalithic architecture. Rain turned to sleet, and the track was muddy, but Deerpark was spectacular. When we reached the tomb, the weather cleared and rays of sunlight illuminated the giant cairn (probably a chambered tomb as well) on top of Knocknarea mountain known as Queen Meave’s Grave, nine miles away, with the wild Atlantic beyond.

Over the years, we have learned that proper raingear, including waterproofed shoes, is essential for exploring Irish sites. A hiking stick will keep you steady on a gorse-covered hillside. Detailed maps published by the Ordnance Survey, the Irish national mapping agency, can be bought in many shops, and they show the locations of ancient monuments. If sites are on private land, they usually can still be visited, so long as the visitor remembers to close the gate. Signs saying “Beware of Bull” should be taken seriously, however. Others are administered by national or local agencies and have parking and a visitor center. There is usually a pub nearby where you can get a warm bowl of soup and pot of tea after tromping through mud and rain.

Bernard first told me about the Céide (pronounced “Kay-Juh”) Fields in the 1980s, and 20 years later, my wife and I visited the site on the northern coast of County Mayo. Neolithic farmers 5,000 years ago cleared the forests and laid out fields, using stones to make walls. Over time, the walls were covered by peat. Archaeologists discovered they could trace the lines of the walls by sticking iron poles into the peat and marking where they hit stones, then connecting the dots. Among the fields are enclosures containing farmsteads. A visitor center that inexplicably looks like a glass pyramid tells the story of the society that made the Céide Fields.

For visitors who do not find the early farming communities of Ireland as interesting as I do, there are many other archaeological places to visit. The Corlea Trackway was a wooden road built across a bog near Longford in 148 BCE, and a visitor center explains the site and preserves a section of the road. Although access to Dún Ailinne is restricted, the reconstruction of a similar royal site at Navan Fort in Northern Ireland provides a glimpse of life during the Iron Age and Early Christian periods. In the National Museum on Kildare Street in Dublin, you can see spectacular gold ornaments made during the Bronze Age, along with Clonycavan Man and Oldcroghan Man, two bog bodies from the Iron Age.

Irish religious life and civil society formed around great monastic sites in the middle of the first millennium CE. Glendalough and Cashel are two important examples often visited by tourists, but archaeologically, I think Clonmacnoise near Athlone is the most interesting. Lying where an ancient bridge crossed the River Shannon in central Ireland, Clonmacnoise includes the remains of several churches, two round towers, three high crosses, and a graveyard and became a center of learning, crafts, and trade between the 8th and 12th centuries CE. In our book, Irish Medieval sites figure prominently in the chapters by Rachel Scott and John Soderberg, while the emergence of early states in the British Isles during this time is addressed by Elizabeth Ragan and Pam Crabtree.

You can reach Ireland in six hours from the East Coast of the U.S. Driving on the left can be an adventure, but after a couple of minutes you get the hang of it. It helps to have a person next to you to remind you to stay left and call out exits from roundabouts. Get full insurance coverage since there is always a stone wall to nick your bumper. Go to Ireland and see firsthand how its archaeology can be related to questions that anthropologists pose about the past!