Looking back in time
As a team of UCD students continues to dig in the bogs of Belderrig, a picture of an ancient civilisation is emerging
FORTY years ago, a team of archaeologists from UCD, led by Professor Seamus Caulfield, first started to come to the remote north Mayo village of Belderrig, to uncover and study the ancient stone-walled field systems there. Forty years on, the link between UCD and Belderrig continues, with teams of student archaeologists continuing to come to the village to progress the work local man, Professor Caulfield, started.
For three weeks last month, the latest group of 20 students and archaeologists from the Dublin college, led by Dr Graeme Warren, stayed in Belderrig where they excavated a section of a bog and studied the lay-out of the walls. Thanks to funding received from the Royal Irish Academy, for the last five years Graeme has been able to lead a team to Belderrig to continue the study of the area, which has become one of the most important archaeological sites for the study of the hunter-gatherers and the early farmers who lived in the region 6,000 years ago.
The landscape at that time in Belderrig could not have been more different from what it is now, with the area then characterised by light and mixed woodland of pine and hazel. Bog was just being formed and, over time, much of the woodland was eventually cleared by the Neolithic people to make way for their fields.
Last week, with the Atlantic crashing against the windswept landscape close to Belderrig pier, Graeme and his team recorded the findings they had uncovered over the weeks, before they prepared to back-fill the site trench. Close to them were the reminders of past digs but, even without excavating the trench, the existence of 6,000-year-old life in the area is clearly evident. The erosion of the sea’s edge reveals evidence of 6,000-year-old fish bones and pieces of quartz, which was the dominant stone used by the Stone Age farmers in making stone tools.
Over the weeks, the soil which was removed from the site was brought to the nearby Belderrig Research and Study Centre where students painstakingly sifted through the dirt and looked for signs of hazelnut, charcoal, fish bones and other items which could be analysed and dated. Deposits of material up to five metres deep, from a nearby river, were also taken, which, when analysed, they hope will tell them more about recent changes in climate.
The discovery of such a wealth of material over the years is one of the main reasons why Graeme has been coming back to Belderrig to carry on the research.
“This phase of work was supposed to be to evaluate what was here and the original grant was given for the evaluation of the last few years. But, what we found is much more complicated and as a result we have taken on much more work, but, luckily, the [Royal Irish] Academy has been sympathetic to us.
“The little white flecks in the material of soil are fish bones and are very degraded and broken. To have that organic preservation is very rare in hunter-gatherer period sites in Ireland. Whilst we might find lots of their stone tools, we don’t really know what else was going on. What were the main foods they used for subsistence is one of the basic questions. The idea that there was fish bone here was very important and it gave us a reason initially to come back and say ‘We got the stone tools and the fish bones, there is potentially something important here’,” he explained.
The lack of good agricultural land in the Belderrig region is one of the main reasons why the stone-walled field systems stayed relatively intact under the bog for nearly 6,000 years. A few miles over the road, in Ballycastle, where the agricultural land is better, there are no walls because the likelihood is that they were destroyed by generations of agricultural use. The discovery of the walls in Belderrig has allowed archaeologists the opportunity to understand how the walls were constructed and to map out where they appeared on the landscape. The discovery, according to Graeme, also gives them the chance to learn more about ancient Irish agricultural methods.
“The walls were constructed by laying a cobbled bank and setting large stones in them. Some of the larger ones would be up to a metre and they would be stood upright and on top of that would be dry stone. We have removed all of the dry stone and put slices through the wall in order to look at soils on which they were constructed. This allows us to think about things like soil erosion and ask ‘was agriculture in this area in Neolithic times associated with soil erosion?’.
“One of the biggest questions in Irish archaeology is ‘what happened during the transition from hunter-gatherer to agriculture?’. You can say that the hunter-gatherers turned themselves into farmers or that the farmers came from overseas.
“Even if it was local hunter-gatherers who turned them into farmers they had to have done it through contact with outside people because they did not have the raw materials to do it.
“There are generations of archaeologists who say it was either colonisers landing or indigenous folk changing themselves. We don’t know but the truth probably lies somewhere in between and that is why this site is so important,” he explained.
Carrying on the work of the Caulfields
THE PRESENCE of the Céide Fields and the stone-walled fields was first discovered in the 1930s by a local school teacher, Patrick Caulfield, who noticed piles of stones which were uncovered as he cut turf. He noted that the stones had to have been placed by people, because their configuration was clearly unnatural and deliberate. Furthermore, they were positioned below the bog, which meant they were there before the bog developed, implying a very ancient origin.
It was not until 40 years later that the significance of the discovery was unravelled when Patrick’s son, Seamus, having studied Archaeology, began to investigate further. Using a simple method of probing the bog with an iron rod, he was able to locate and map hidden walls and the ensuing excavation revealed a complex pattern of fields, houses and megalithic tombs. It showed a unique picture of a highly-organised community of farmers who worked together on clearing hundreds of acres of forestry and dividing the land into regular field systems.
Graeme explained that he first came to Belderrig in 2003 and was taken on a tour of the village and the archaeological sites by Seamus Caulfield (pictured), and was honoured to carry on his work.
“The continuity of tradition of the 40 years of UCD research in Belderrig is really important and I am honoured and lucky to be able to draw on that length of association. This would not have happened without the work of Seamus and he visits us most days, so we have a ready way of picking his brain and asking if he has ever seen anything like this or that.
“Generations of UCD students have been coming to Belderrig and I certainly intend to keep coming for the next few years. I want to come here for some weeks in the summer because there are an enormous number of important questions to try and deal with,” he said.