Tag Archives: peat bogs

The Céide Fields: The World’s oldest known field system

A Pine tree that lived in Mayo 4,300 years ago

A Pine tree that grew in Mayo 4,300 years ago and lay preserved in bogland.

In Ireland we have an annual celebration of our Heritage during National Heritage Week, part of the European-wide ‘European Heritage Days’, that promote every aspect of our wonderful, varied heritage. During this week there are hundreds of events showcasing the richness that we have inherited in our natural surroundings, our landscape our buildings and in our literature, history legends, and culture. This is an excellent time to make new discoveries and to revisit favourite places.

This year I will mark Heritage Week by recalling my visit just a few weeks ago to one of the most unique landscapes anywhere in the world that is to be found in North County Mayo, along Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way. This place is called The Céide Fields, (pronounced Kay-Ja), a one thousand hectare monument that is the world’s largest dated Stone Age or Neolithic site. 5,500 years ago, a farming community lived, loved and worked here, raised their children, reared cattle, made pottery, grew crops, built homes, made gardens and buried their dead.

Blanket bog protects the site

At first sight, there appears to be very little here on this barren landscape –  all the more bleak on the morning of my visit with strong wind and driving rain! The land that stretches up over the hill seems to be flat and featureless, and will be recognized by Irish people as ‘just bog’. Bog is an emotive type of wetland landscape here in Ireland.  For centuries peat bog has provided fuel for our homes  and in recent times efforts to conserve some of this type of endangered habitat have become politically charged and confrontational. But here near Ballycastle in Mayo, this very landscape has protected a way of life for thousands of years, covering features of times past with metre after metre of protective vegetation.

In Ireland we have two types of peat bogland covering 1/6th of our land mass – smaller scale ‘Raised bogs’ which are the subject of conservation restrictions, and the more ubiquitous ‘blanket bogs’ found in much of the West of Ireland and here at the Céide Fields. These wetlands have evolved over aeons as can be seen in the diagram below demonstrating the evolution of blanket bog from the past, when the land was farmed; bog formed and enveloped the area; then peat removal for fuel resulted in the ground being used for growing again.

image

Peat is formed from dead plants that have not fully decomposed due to the lack of oxygen in very wet soil. Sphagnum which has water retention properties is a key component of bogland as it keeps oxygen levels low and steadily the dead plant matter of the sphagnum accumulates. The bog can grow to many metres in depth as the vegetation keeps building up. Here at the Céide Fields, the blanket bog covered over the remnants of the prehistoric farms to a considerable depth, smothering trees and other vegetation that once grew there.

The bog covered and concealed evidence of early life.

The bog covered, concealed and protected evidence of early life

In this representation of a turf bank below, it can be seen that over the centuries the depth of the bog increase. Today where is 1.5 metres high; 2,000 years ago, at the time of Christ, it was 0.9 metres high; 4,000 years ago at the time of the Egyptian pyramids it was 0.3 metres deep and a thousand years earlier people lived and worked in this fertile area.

A model of a turf bank showing evidence of turf cutting

A model of a turf bank showing evidence of turf cutting

This remarkable landscape was first noticed by a local man in the 1930s when he was cutting turf for his home fire. He noticed piles of stones as he cut deeper into the turfbank and felt that they were so orderly that they must have been placed there deliberately by humans. Years later his son, Séamus Caulfield an archaeologist, conducted  an investigation and discovered the series of walls, houses and tombs deep below the bog. The site has now been extensively explored and excavated to a limited degree, enough to show that the community of farmers who lived here 200 generations ago had reclaimed their ground by clearing vast expanses of pine forest. Seeds and pollen found at the site have been identified and dated and this with other dating methods has enabled scientists to determine the age of the site, the type of crops grown and the implements used.

Reconstruction of a plough used by these ancient farmers

Reconstruction of a plough used by these ancient farmers

There is a splendid award winning interpretive centre here, with guided walks available. There is a wealth of flora and fauna at this site unique to the habitat.  Unfortunately on the day of my visit inclement weather prevented such exploration, but by studying  the excellent exhibits I was able to et a great understanding of the treasure that is here.

Céide Fields Award Winning Interpretive Centre

Céide Fields Award Winning Interpretive Centre

The centre has a viewing platform that on better days than this, affords fabulous 360 degree views of the entire area.

The steps to the viewing platforms.

The steps to the viewing platforms.

In spite of the inclement weather I did venture outside on to the viewing area and was very happy to have a rail to hang on to in the very blustery wind and driving rain!

 

Steps leading to the Heart of the Céide Fields.

Steps leading to the heart of the Céide Fields, from where the guided tours begin.

It was a real thrill to finally visit this incredible site with an extraordinary and unique history. Irish Heritage at its best!

 

References

Home

Irish Peatland Conservation Council. http://www.ipcc.ie/

The graphic on the evolution of bogland is from the website http://www.irelandstory.com, which at time of writing is no longer available.

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Digging up the Ancestors from Irish Bogs

We have news of another Bog Body found yesterday (11 August 2011) in Ireland by a worker harvesting peat.
The body was found in Cashel Bog in County Laois, and unlike many earlier bog body discoveries, this one was actually seen before it was ripped from the ground by the harvesting machine, so it has been possible to examine it where it lay. First indications are that it may be over 3,000 years old!

NMI and Bord na Mona workers examine the body in Laois. Picture RTE TV

There have been hundreds of bog bodies discovered in the peat wetlands of Europe over the last few centuries, about a hundred of which have been in Ireland. The cold, acidic and anaerobic conditions in peat bogs ‘pickles’ bodies so that they resemble brown coloured mummies. Skin and internal organs are preserved, but the bones are dissolved by the acid. The body discovered in Laois seems to have been placed in a leather bag. The legs are protruding and have been preserved, while the remainder of the body protected by the leather has not been preserved to the same extent, if at all.
It is estimated that about 1/6th of Ireland is covered in bog. As children, we were constantly warned about the dangers of ‘falling into a bog hole’ and often heard stories of people who vanished without trace,the assumption being that they had not heeded the warnings of parents!

When a bog body is discovered it is a truly unusual event. The question invariably arises as to how it got to be there in the first place. It is unlikely that someone whose head and torso is inside a leather bag  was an errant traveller who fell in. That leaves the possibility that the bog was used as a burial-place. However, some of the human remains discovered have signs of torture and or execution, with evidence of hanging, strangulation, stabbing and bludgeoning. So were they people who had been put to death for crimes against society, were they murdered by vagabonds, or could they have been ritually  sacrificed?

Clonycavan Man at the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin. Picture Sven Shaw Commons.Wikimedia.org

In 2003 two bog body discoveries were made in Ireland: In  February near Clonycavan on the Meath/Westmeath border and, just weeks later in May some 25 miles away, at Old Croghan in County Offaly. Known as Clonycavan Man and Old Croghan Man, neither body was intact. Both these bodies were subjected to an array of tests and analysis using modern medical imaging techniques, pathology and other scientific methods, and were carried out by an international group of experts. Radiocarbon dating showed that both had died about the same time, some 2,300 years ago.  Clonycavan Man appears to have suffered a blow to the head that smashed open his skull, while Old Croghan Man showed signs of having been stabbed, beheaded and dismembered.  Ropes made from hazel were threaded through his arms.  Ned Kelly of the National Museum of Ireland, in researching locations of bog bodies found in Ireland reported that there were some 30 to 40 instances of such remains found on or near ancient borders or boundaries. This would indicate the likelihood of human sacrifice. ‘My belief is that these burials are offerings to the gods of fertility by kings to ensure a successful reign’ he told the BBC.  ‘Bodies ‘ he said, ‘are placed in the borders immediately surrounding royal land or on tribal boundaries to ensure a good yield of corn and milk throughout the reign of the king’.

The results of the investigations into this latest discovery are eagerly awaited so that we might know how or why she or he died. In the meantime, we can say for sure that Cashel Man or Cashel Woman was someone’s child, may have had brothers and sisters and may have been a parent themselves. Who knows, he or she may well be one of our own family ancestors!
Kingship & Sacrifice is the title of an exhibition in the National Museum of Ireland that  is centred on the theory of bog burials on political or royal boundaries and has exhibits from Ireland and beyond. It is in Dublin, Kildare Street and admission is free.
Further Reading
Ireland’s Peat Bogs How Bogs are made.
The Bog Bodies  A Timewatch Documentary on the National Museum investigation into the Bog Bodies.

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