The Céide Fields
Liam Moriarty explores the Stone Age archaeological wonder in Co. Mayo
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.