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Céide Fields’ Stone Age status defended


QUESTIONED The Céide Fields, with the interpretative centre in the background, has long been considered one of Ireland’s most important archaeological sites.

Áine Ryan

THE Céide Fields expert, Professor Seamus Caulfield, has challenged the conclusions of new research claiming the north Mayo field system is 2,500 years younger than previously thought. He has also criticised the fact that monies promised by the Government two years ago for the upgrade of its visitor centre have not come on stream.
Deemed the ‘oldest enclosed field-system in Europe’, the Neolithic site (hitherto dated to almost 6,000 years ago), was the subject of recent Phd research by Dr Andrew Whitefield. Challenging the Ceide Fields’ Stone Age status, the NUI Galway archaeologist claims the system may, in fact, date from the Bronze or Iron Age. Dr Whitefield gave a public lecture in Galway’s Town Hall Theatre on the subject on Friday last, while his findings have also been published in the European Journal of Archaeology.  
Back in the 1930s, Seamus Caulfield’s schoolteacher father, Patrick Caulfield, discovered patterns of stones below the bog which he unearthed when cutting turf. Scientific probing through radiocarbon dating and mapping subsequently uncovered a fascinating way of life from over 200 generations ago.
Prof Seamus Caulfield has long been associated with and credited for a significant body of archaeological work around the Céide Fields, which many consider to be an archaeological treasure of Ireland.
Reporting over the weekend on Caulfield’s reaction to the recent research, The Irish Times wrote that Dr Caulfield said he had been subjected to ‘a silent ambush’ over his life’s work.  
Speaking to The Mayo News last night, Caulfield, a retired Professor of Archaeology at UCD, explained: “The sole evidence for Dr Whitefield’s dating is based on a cutting through one wall under which the pollen is compared with the pollen from beside the wall. This method of ‘supposed precise dating’ has been discredited for 50 years.”
Caulfield confirmed that he plans ‘to publish a full response to Whitefield’s claims’.
“In the meantime, I will be welcoming archaeology staff and their masters’ students from NUIG on Friday, February 17 and 18, to visit the Stone Age walls in Belderrig and the Céide Fields,” he said. He added any issues he had with the NUIG Archaeology Department in the aftermath of last Friday’s public lecture had now been resolved.

‘Uncertain relationship’   
Dr Whitefield’s research argues that: “The problem with dating ancient structures such as these is that the age of the construction materials – rocks and stones – gives no indication of when the structures were built. The dated organic materials recovered from the slopes of Céide hill have an uncertain relationship with the stone boundaries.”
According to Whitefield, the low straight piles of stones are an indication of ‘the land having been cleared for ploughing’, and there is no evidence of boundaries for livestock management’. Rather, he posits, they are a ‘textbook example’ of a wider European tradition of Celtic-type fields common in north-western Europe, and in existence from the later Bronze Age (about 1,500 BC) through to the 400AD. He further believes that placing the Céide Fields in their proper place in ‘the archaeological chronology’ will shed new light on the interconnectedness of Europe and will continue to ensure their ‘great international importance’.
Whitefield’s conclusions have also been questioned by Associate Professor Graeme Warren, Head of UCD’s School of Archaeology, who has collaborated with Prof Caulfield in the past.
Professor Warren has argued that Dr Whitefield has failed to contextualise the Céide Fields with the other Neolithic sites in the area and, moreover, that his evidence for Bronze Age dating was insufficient.

Funding for centre
CRITICISING the fact that the Céide Fields Visitor Centre had not been upgraded for 25 years, Dr Caulfield told The Mayo News that ‘there was now 25 further years of research awaiting inclusion’ as part of the facility.
“One would hope that the monies announced will follow through. My offer, with colleagues, to contribute our expertise still stands,” he said.
It is almost two years since the Taoiseach Enda Kenny announced a major funding injection of €100,000, through the Office of Public Works, for the centre, but no developments have been implemented as yet.
“The Céide Fields offers us an unrivalled glimpse into the history of Ireland, and it is a hugely important location along the Wild Atlantic Way. Today’s announcement builds on the improvements we have been making along the route, including funding for a Signature Point at Keem Bay in Achill and the upgrade to Downpatrick Head, close to the Céide Fields. The announcement is also welcome for local schools, many of whom travel to the site to learn more about our history,” the Taoiseach said at the time.