Wednesday, October 14, 2009

EXTENSIVE NEOLITHIC SITE IN IRELAND

Céide Fields: an extensive Neolithic site in Ireland


Schoolteacher Patrick Caulfield was digging peat in a bog near this western Ireland hamlet in the 1930s when his spade struck rocks two meters down. He cleared the immediate area and discovered that the rocks formed part of a wall. "He had the feeling that it was a significant find and he wrote telling about it to the
National Museum in Dublin," says Gretta Byrne. "He received an encouraging letter back, but explaining that they [the museum] couldn't investigate because they didn't have the resources." Ireland, especially the western counties, was facing hard economic times between the world wars.

What had that peat spade struck? The riddle fascinated Patrick's son Seamas. He grew up and became an archeologist, and as Ireland came out of the economic doldrums he led an archeological expedition to the peat bog on what's called the Céide Fields.

What they unearthed has been called one of the most extensive Neolithic sits in the world, a farming community dating back to before 3,000 BCE. Now a state-of-the-art visitor center has been built on the site to showcase the Céide Fields dig. Gretta Byrne, the manager, takes a visitor on a walk over part of the site, on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, pointing out stone-walled fields, livestock enclosures, dwellings and tombs used by people at the dawn of recorded history.

Archeologists think the Stone Age community covers 10 square kilometers. Because the bog it sits under is 90 per cent water, they've been able to push iron rods through the peat and locate dozens of kilometers of stone field walls. But only a fraction of what's believed to be there has been excavated, so the curious get a much better 'feel' of the ancient settlement from the galleries in the visitor center.

These explain that the people who lived here were farmers and fishermen. They were peaceful people, it appears, for the community is well spread out, "not huddled together as they would be if they were fearful of attack," archeologist Caulfield says in an introductory video.

"We believe they lived here for about 500 years," says Byrne. Why they left is a mystery (global cooling is one theory). But after they went, forests and other vegetation grew, then died and decayed, creating, through the eons, the two- to four-meter [six- to 12-foot] deep blanket of peat bog. "Radiocarbon dating indicates the date of about 4,200 years ago," says Byrne. "It was blown over and preserved by the bog."

The visitor centre, an award-winning steel-and-glass pyramid, welcomes 35,000 to 40,000 visitors a year. Visit www.museumsofmayo.com/ceide.htm

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