|I was feeling a bit better this morning & thought I might as well be out driving instead of being home feeling miserable. My car is nice & warm & I chose mostly major roads so it was easy driving. I headed north-west to the coast of County Mayo & a place which had sparked my interest called The Céide Fields. I didn’t know what to expect, the brochure said “Beneath the wild highlands of North Mayo lies Céide Fields, the most extensive Stone-Age monument in the world”. It sounded different & it was.
The whole area is covered in Blanket Bog, up to 5 metres deep in places & farmers kept coming across groups of stones as they were cutting the peat. In the 1930’s a local schoolteacher started to understand their significance when he realized they formed very regular patterns.
Nothing much happened until his son Seamas who had become a trained archaeologist started mapping the area in the 1970's using an old technique of probing the bogs with metal rods. Remarkably they probed the whole 10 square kilometre area on a 30 cm grid & located a pattern of enclosed farmland divided up into regular field systems bounded by dry-stone walls.
It’s all been dated to between 5,000 & 6,000 years ago. The fields are quite large so it’s probable they were used for grazing cattle, rather than crops although there is some evidence of oats, barley & old varieties of wheat in the core samples from some of the smaller enclosures.
They’ve also found outlines of dwellings scattered among the fields so assume this was a peaceful community with no need to band together for defence against enemies. So what’s here shows a very large community, up to 1,000 people who were well organised, well governed & peaceful. For some reason, they left the area, maybe for more fertile land because there’s later evidence of Bronze Age & Iron Age inhabitants.
They don’t know why but the climate became much wetter so the bog, which already covered the low-lying areas started to expand & the stone walls defining the fields began to collapse & were quickly hidden under the bog vegetation. The bog forms when the soil is leached of iron & becomes an impermeable layer that the water can’t drain though, then the waterlogged soil doesn’t contain enough oxygen for the plants to decompose so they rot & each year’s growth becomes another layer in the peat.
The amazing thing is that very little has been excavated. There’s a few areas where the stones have been exposed but most of the area is still covered in bog with white posts marking the outlines of the stone walls. The big question is whether these field systems were unique at the time or simply unique in their preservation.
There’s a new Visitor’s Centre here & for €3 I got to see a 20 minute film, an interpretive display area on 3 levels with a viewing platform at the top & a ½ hour guided tour, so I definitely got my money’s worth.
I spent about 2½ hours there so didn’t have time to continue on my circular drive. I backtracked along the main roads & tried to find a couple of abbeys marked on my map but in both cases I was confronted with a locked gate before I got anywhere near them so I gave up & came home.
As usual, John came by to feed the horses this evening & brought me some more peat. We had a good long chat – he’s been to Australia & spent time on the Atherton Tableland. He was telling me a great-uncle did very well with a shop in Maclean, just inland from Grafton & was one of the few Irishmen who came back for a visit. He kept a diary of his journey by sailing ship which John is going to bring down for me to see tomorrow (plus the wi-fi dongle, I hope).