When one thinks of Stone Age archaeological sites, Stonehenge, Altamira and Newgrange may come to mind. Most likely The Céide Fields will not. But it should.
On the way to Ballycastle, County Mayo I was not sure what to expect. Neither was I sure, given the treacherous nature of the cliff-side Irish road, that I would arrive.
My experience in archaeology lay with the ancient Mediterranean world - the colossal monuments of Greece and Rome. I had visited marble temples stretching into the sky and seen vast cities of intricate stone streets. The idea of field walls did not conjure up images of importance or grandeur.
The Fields were not featured in a single book I had read nor were they covered in any class I had attended (not even "Neolithic and Bronze Age Farming Communities"). I was skeptical of what might be so significant on the cliffs of Mayo. I shouldn't have been.
For this is not just another archaeological monument or visitor center, it is the world's most extensive Stone Age Monument - the remains of a highly skilled and organized agrarian Neolithic society, which has been preserved undisturbed for nearly 5,000 years.
The Fields are almost completely concealed underneath a blanket bog, which has safeguarded the site from both natural and human destructive forces, being that it is hard to erode or loot something under four meters of densely packed plant matter. This is both a blessing and a curse for the archaeologists, including my guide, Gretta Byrne. The bog and size of the site make conventional archaeological techniques, such as the use of trenches, largely infeasible.
Patrick Caulfield, a local schoolteacher, first discovered the site during the 1930s. While cutting peat bog for fuel, Patrick came across piles of dry-mortared stone stacks that he concluded were man-made and due to their location deep under the bog, ancient. Patrick's son, Seamus, grew up to be an archaeologist, and it was he who began the first true excavation of the Céide Fields in 1970.
Seamus discovered an oval enclosure within which there were a number of postholes for roof supports. The enclosure, probably a domestic structure, was replete with an outside hearth and what conceivably had been an animal pen. Pottery shards and other domestic materials were found within the enclosure.
Through cross comparison with pottery found in tombs and Neolithic sites in Western Europe, the Céide Fields' shards, along with radiocarbon dating from the hearth, placed the occupancy of the enclosure at around 3000 B.C. A primitive plough head was also discovered within the enclosure, which gave additional evidence of animal husbandry, probably cattle, as the horse was not yet introduced to Ireland.
Much of the rest of the site remains underneath the bog. The Céide Fields workers rely on probing, an inventive yet rudimentary way of mapping the site adapted from a traditional practice of finding ancient trees deep beneath the bog. An archaeologist (or like-minded volunteer) pushes an iron rod down into the bog until met with resistance such as a stone wall. The wall position is then marked and followed in its presumed direction, much like a game of Battleship. In this way, the main plan of the Céide Fields has been discerned. A number of sectional cuts have also been made into the bog, unearthing segments of these stone walls. Primarily, this has been done for the benefit of the visitors. Interestingly, the bog is already reclaiming these sections.
The Céide Fields, as understood today, is a network of parallel stone enclosures with a number of those walls running up to two kilometers in length. The site has been mapped up to ten square kilometers or four square miles but it is clear that the site is much more expansive than these numbers suggest. Although there is one known domestic structure (Seamus' oval enclosure) found, there must be others.
The sheer scale of the site is an indication of the size of the population and the degree of organization that it would have taken to construct such fields. The area, at the time of the stone enclosures' construction, was a dense primeval forest filled with animals that today can only be found in Ireland's museums, including wolves, brown bears and boars. To clear this landscape for agriculture, let alone move the over a quarter of a million stones used for the enclosures, would have taken a great deal of cooperation from a sizable community. This society would also have to have had a source of food production independent of these new fields and independent of the population working on them.
No evidence has yet been found of any fortifications at the Céide Fields. This has prompted many into believing that this agrarian society lived peacefully without thought or threat of war. Although this is a tempting and agreeable hypothesis, it is argued from a position of lack of evidence rather than proof positive.
The Céide Fields' society did not live in isolation. We know that the population participated in trade and therefore certainly had contact with various other peoples, as evidenced from a number of flint and Porcellanite (used for stone axes) finds from County Antrim in the north. It is certainly possible that their interaction with neighboring groups was completely peaceful, but it is unlikely. Just because defensive structures, such as protective walls (which would be larger and thicker than the farming walls) and tower foundations, have not been uncovered is not reason enough to presume that they do not exist. The Céide Fields is such an expansive site that these structures could lie undiscovered deep beneath the bog miles away.