Saturday, January 28, 2017

Doogarymore to Ljubljana: wheels of time

Doogarymore Wooden Wheel - 400 BC
In the early 1960s, an ancient wooden trackway, built to carry people walking in single file, was discovered close to the Lung River in the Callow Bog, North County Roscommon and dated to 1165 BC. A wood and stone trackway from the same locality has been dated to 1100 BC. Myself and some friends had the privilege of assisting the late Professor Etienne Rynne in the excavation of both trackways (See Blog Post – 8th September 2008).
This ancient roadway was traced continuously over a distance of a quarter of a mile. Today, it lies largely undisturbed beneath a blanket of soft bogland, hidden from the world but is depicted on the Lough Gara and its Hinterland map of the area. It seems unlikely that the wood and stone trackway was used for wheeled transport as it was only about one meter wide. Perhaps, some time in the future, evidence of wheeled transport will be discovered in the area.
The first routes in Ireland were prehistoric trackways, some of which were later developed into roads suitable for wheeled vehicles. Usually, most surfaced tracks from this period were made with wood and were designed to facilitate travel through or into bogs. In prehistory and the early medieval period, before the construction of major roads, rivers and lakes would often have provided a means of travel and transport through a wooded landscape.
Corlea Trackway, Co. Longford
Trackways typically date to the early to middle Neolithic period, the Middle and Late Bronze Age, early Iron Age (c. 500-300 BC) and throughout the early medieval and late medieval periods. For example, the Corlea Trackway (Irish: B√≥thar Chorr Liath) is an Iron Age trackway, or togher, near the village of Keenagh, south of Longford town, County Longford. It was known locally as the Danes' Road and was constructed from oak planks in 148–147 BC.
Two massive block-wheels, dating to about 400 BC, which were found in 1968 and 1969 in Doogarymore, Co. Roscommon, are the earliest direct evidence at present known for wheeled transport in Ireland. Several features of the Doogarymore wheels are also found in wheels from widely scattered areas in Europe which include one-piece and three piece types.
The wheel found in 1968 was left on the surface of the bog and, unfortunately, only two warped fragments survived. Dr. Lucas from the National Museum of Ireland investigated the 1969 wheel which consisted of three lengths of thick plank fastened together edge to edge by means of two large dowels. The wood of the planks has been identified as alder and that of the two dowels as yew.
The Doogarymore wheel revolved on the axle which passed through a circular opening in the central piece. This hole was provided with a long wooden sleeve which projected some distance on each face of the wheel and housed the end of the axle.
The oldest wheel in the world was found in Slovenia and is 5,150 years old. The Ljubljana Marshes Wheel is a wooden wheel that was found some 20 km south of Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, in 2002. The people who made this wheel lived by hunting and gathering in wood pile lake settlements like the crannog dwellers of Ireland.
Ljubljana Wooden Wheel and Azel
5,150 years old
The wooden wheel belonged to a prehistoric two-wheel cart thought to be a pushcart. Similar wheels have been found in Switzerland and southwest Germany, but the Ljubljana Marshes wheel is bigger and older. It has a diameter of 72 centimetres (28 in) and is made of ash wood, with 124 centimetres (49 inch) long axle made of oak. The axle was attached to the wheels with oak wood wedges, which meant that the axle rotated together with the wheels, unlike the later Doogarymore wheel.
Must Farm Wheel - 1100-800 BC
Cambridgeshire, England
In 2016 archaeologists working on the Must Farm Bronze Age site in Cambridgeshire, England, discovered the largest, most complete, and earliest example of a Bronze Age wooden wheel in Britain. It has been dated to 1100-800 BC, and measures one metre in diameter. This wheel is so well preserved it still contains its hub and is thought to be from a chariot or cart. It was made of three different kinds of wood: alder for the outer rim, oak for the axle and braces and ash for the dowels. This wheel bears many similarities to the two large block wheels found at Doogarymore.
The invention of the wheel arose out of man's trial-and-error efforts to move loads from place to place. The wheel of the Western world is a direct descendant of the Egyptian wheel, records of which go back to at least 2000 BC. Mention of the wheel is made in the Old Testament (the ark of the covenant was carried on a cart drawn by oxen) and it is possible that the ancient Hebrews derived their wheel from the Egyptians.
One of the reasons why the wheel was invented relatively late in human history is that metal tools were needed to chisel fine-fitted holes and axles. The ends of the axle, as well as the holes in the centre of the wheels had to be almost perfectly smooth and round. Failing to achieve this would result in too much friction between these components, and the wheel would not turn.
Whilst County Roscommon cannot claim credit for inventing the wheel, the earliest evidence at present for wheeled transport in Ireland comes from Doogarymore in the county. The oldest wheel in the world was found in Ljubljana in Slovenia and is over five thousand years old.  The axle of the Ljubljana wheel rotated together with the wheels, unlike the later Doogarymore wheels which were free moving. The Doogarymore, Ljubljana and Must Farm wheels share some common features and highlight developments in wheel/axel technology over some 5,000 years.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Migration is not Something New

Early Skulls
Until recently, the earliest evidence archaeologists had for human occupation in Ireland was dated to around 8000 BC. However, scientists have recently dated a fragment of butchered bear bone from a cave in County Clare to 10,500 BC, thereby, pushing back the date for human settlement in Ireland by 2,500 years. At a time of mass migration in the world it is, perhaps, timely to consider our origin as a species and how humans went on to inhabit the globe.
Humans and chimpanzees are very closely related and separated about 7.4 million years ago.  There is only a 1% difference between the chimpanzee genome and our own suggesting that we have a common ancestor.
Today, modern humans or Homo sapiens, inhabit the whole earth. Looking back over the last half a million years, the picture was much more diverse, with three distinct lineages appearing: Homo erectus in Asia; and Homo heidelbergensis giving rise to Homo neanderthalensis in Europe and Homo sapiens in Africa.
Image of Neanderthal Man
The Neanderthals thrived in Europe for around 300,000 years before modern humans arrived. The reason for the demise of this successful species remains a mystery. Neanderthals occupied Europe for at least 100,000 years during a period when glacial cycles dominated the climate. Excavations in Ibex, Vanguard, and Gorham’s Caves in Gibraltar have revealed evidence of Neanderthal occupation dating to possibly as late as 28,000 years ago. This makes Gibraltar the most recent Neanderthal occupation site yet discovered.
By 200,000 years ago, many innovations had been made in stone tool technology. For example, large handaxes became less common and were replaced with a range of smaller tools in more diverse toolkits. Tools made of flakes were favoured over large cores. Humans use tools to a much higher degree than any other animal and are the only existing species known to build fires, cook their food, wear clothes, and create art.
The first fossil evidence for any modern humans outside Africa comes from the Middle East, from  the archaeological sites of Skhul and Qafzeh in Israel, dating to around 120,000 years ago. However, this early expansion of modern humans was not maintained. A change to a colder climate may have driven those pioneers back into Africa. The expansion of our own species out of Africa that eventually led to the colonisation of the globe would start later – after 100,000 years ago.
Map showing the spread of humans
This dispersal out of Africa is believed to have started from Northeast Africa. Modern humans later spread worldwide, replacing earlier ancestors either through competition or interbreeding. They inhabited Eurasia (Europe and Asia) and Oceania (a region centred on the islands of the tropical Pacific Ocean) 40,000 years ago, and the Americas at least 14,500 years ago.)
Around 50,000 years ago, an improvement in the global climate, leading to the appearance of habitable lands where once there was desert, may have provided the opportunity for modern humans to spread into Europe.  Evidence from early modern human sites in Europe suggest that these early people moved into the continent along coasts and rivers, as they had done elsewhere.
Until about 10,000 years ago, humans lived as hunter-gatherers living in small nomadic groups, often in caves. Agriculture began independently in many parts of the world with different domesticated species. Hunter-gatherers already knew a great deal about plants and animals and often manipulated them or the environment to increase productivity. Farming entered Europe around 7000 BCE and was the main way of life across Europe by 4000 BCE.
Farming communities spreading into Central Europe around 5600 BCE had to adapt to bitter winters, heavy rainfall, and dense forests. They kept mainly cattle and farmed open river terraces. Farming spread through Western Europe and into other parts of Central, Northern, and Eastern Europe by 4000 BC.  Animals were initially kept for meat, hides, bones, and manure. Feeding animals on crop surpluses made them a food reserve, and large herds signified wealth and prestige. Domestic animals became far more important when people began using them also in other ways: for milk, wool, eggs, traction, and transport.
Examples of early metal working
The social importance of metals for making prestige objects with which people could show their status, led to the early development of metallurgy. Only later, with the development of alloys, did metal also become significant as a material for tools and weapons. Smelting copper and lead ores began in West Asia after 7000 BC, and by the sixth millennium BC casting was possible. By 2500 BC, metallurgy had spread through Europe. Bronze-working became widespread after 1800 BC with trade routes linking much of the continent circulating metals, particularly tin.
Prehistoric religion reflected people’s need to understand the world and explain disasters. Through rituals and offerings ancient societies sought to bribe or appease the divine forces controlling the world or its individual components. Since Neanderthal times, people have practised rites that showed concern for their dead, perhaps linked to a belief in an afterlife.
Newgrange Stone Age Passage Tomb
Burial in graves or tombs or under house floors, was common. Many societies practised other rites, including cremation, exposure, or disposal in watery places. Some thought it important to preserve the body and undertook mummification (for example, in Egypt and South America). Monumental tombs, such as tumuli, pyramids, and megaliths, could link the living and the dead to ancestral lands or sacred places.  
Humans and chimpanzees are very closely related and separated as recently as about 7.4 million years ago. Our ancient cousins, the Neanderthals thrived in Europe for around 300,000 years before modern humans arrived and may have survived until around 28,000 years ago. Innovation in stone tool technology aided the development and eventual spread of modern humans throughout the globe. Later developments in metal working and agriculture assisted this dispersal. Since Neanderthal times, people have practised rites that showed concern for their dead, perhaps linked to a belief in an afterlife.

Migration is not something new and, in a sense, we are all migrants whose ancestors were black and lived in Africa a long long time ago.

Further reading: Evolution - The Human Story (2011) by Dr.Alice Roberts
See also BBC DVD The Incredible Human Journey

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Sunken Cities: Egypt’s lost worlds

Photo: Christoph Gerigk (c) Franck Goddio/HILTI Foundation
In previous posts, I have looked at archaeological sites preserved in water. Over 450 logboats or dug-out canoes have been recorded in Ireland mainly in lakes and rivers. For example, a remarkable assortment of 14 logboats has recently been discovered in Lough Corrib, Co. Galway, dating from the early Bronze Age (c. 2,500 BC) to the eleventh century AD.
Estimates of the number of crannogs found on Lough Gara, Co. Sligo, range from 145 to 369 although a maximum of 190 is more realistic. The archaeological evidence suggests that crannogs, or at least platforms, may have been built in this lake in the Late Mesolithic around 4,000 BC.
Across the Irish Sea, the Must Farm settlement in Cambridgeshire, England, is one of the most complete Late Bronze Age examples known in Britain. The settlement consists of five circular wooden houses, built on a series of piles sunk into a river channel below and seems to have been built around 1300 – 1000 BC.
The discoveries of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus have challenged our perceptions of ancient Egypt. These two ancient cities thrived on the exchange and flow of people, goods and ideas, from around 300 years before Alexander the Great arrived in Egypt (332-331 BC). The cities sank beneath the sea over twelve hundred years ago. A large multinational team is studying the finds and the cities they came from and is slowly piecing together what life was like on the Canopic coast of ancient Egypt.
Thonis and Heracleion are mentioned as apparently separate cities in ancient Egyptian and Greek sources including the trilingual Decree of Canopus, issued in Egypt in 238 BC. Excavations on the site, however, provided evidence to prove that Thonis and Heracleion, were the same town. The underwater excavations uncovered the remains of a large sanctuary located on the central island, built from limestone blocks. Archaeologists recovered a pink granite naos (shrine) from which they established that the principal god of the temple was Amun-Gereb and that the name of the town was Heracleion.
Stele commissioned by Nectanebo 1 - Thonis-Heracleion
Photo: Christoph Gerigk (c) Franck Goddio/HILTI Foundation
A second discovery around the temple was an intact stele (a stone or wooden slab) bearing a decree by pharaoh Nectanebo 1 (r. 380-362 BC.) The stele indicates the Egyptian name of the town where it was erected: ‘The-hone-of-Sais’, that is, Thonis. The discovery of these two inscribed objects – the shrine of Amun-Gereb and the stele of Thonis-Heracleion – solved a mystery of historical geography. The archaeological site that archaeologists had located was both the Heracleion of the Greeks and the Thonis of the Egyptians.
Thonis-Heracleion was active from at least the seventh century BC, rising in primacy as the major trading centre in the fifth to fourth centuries BC. The excavations have revealed a sizeable collection of pottery and coins, the study of which reveals that supply of both to the city abruptly stops at the same time at the end of the second century BC. Shortly afterwards the main temples on the central island were destroyed in a catastrophic natural event. After the destruction of its major temples, the city appears to have been largely abandoned. Core samples taken from the sediments under the bay identified the characteristic signs of ‘liquefaction’, whereby the ground surface literally turns from a solid into a liquid.
Significant quantities of metals including copper, tin and iron, are listed among the imported goods brought to Egypt on Greek and Phoenician ships in a fifth century BC tax register, together with wine, oil, wool and wood. Egyptian exports to Greece included vital supplies of grain, but also natural resources such as alum and natron, which were especially important in dyeing. Egypt was well known for semi-luxury goods such as papyrus, perfume and amulets.
Religion and religious spaces (sanctuaries) played an important role in the lives of Egyptians and Greeks, as well as in their relations with each other. Religion could help in retaining one’s own identity and culture or provide a means of adapting to a foreign environment.
Pink Granite Garden Tank: Thonis-Heracleion
Photo: Christoph Gerigk (c) Franck Goddio/HILTI Foundation
Other significant artefacts were found around the temple. Close to the shrine of Amun-Gereb, a large basin of red granite was discovered, known as the ‘garden tank’ intended for the secret rituals known as the Mysteries of Osiris. Three immense red granite statues over five metres high, representing a king, a queen and Hapy, god of fertility, abundance and the flooding of the Nile, provide clear evidence of the temple’s scale and importance.
Excavation in the Grand Canal along the north side of the temple has revealed a substantial collection of artefacts that appear to have been ritually deposited in the waters. Many of these artefacts such as bronze ceremonial ladles, known as simpula, and ritual lead models of barques (boats), were associated with the Mysteries of Osiris, and help to illustrate the sacred character of this great waterway.

Colossal Statue of Pharoah
Photo: Christoph Gerigk (c) Franck Goddio/HILTI Foundation
Specially made lamps depicting deities spread across the Roman empire as far as Britain. A Roman lamp handle with Isis nursing Harpokrates (Horus-the-child) - c. AD 100-200), was found in Faversham, Kent, the Roman town of Durolevum. Faversham had a Romano-British temple and a Roman theatre. A temple of Isis was in use in London during the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD.
From at least as early as the Middle Kingdom (c.2055-1650 BC), the Mysteries of Osiris were the most important ritual celebrations to take place in Egypt each year. An effigy of the god, probably made during the Mysteries, emerged from the temple for a public procession in its golden barque (sailing boat), called Neshemet.
The excavations carried out in the towns of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus by the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology, brought to light ritual deposits and instruments linked to the Mysteries of the month of Khoiak. These objects reveal the sacred character of the Grand Canal, the waterway that flowed along the north side of the temple of Amun-Gereb.
An exhibition at the British Museum entitled ‘Sunken Cities: Egypt’s lost worlds’ ends on 27th November 2016.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Must Farm - England's Pompeii

Log Boat - Must Farm
In this post I cross the Irish Sea for a unique glimpse into the Late Bronze Age.

The Must Farm settlement in Cambridgeshire is one of the most complete Late Bronze Age examples known in Britain. The settlement consists of five circular wooden houses, built on a series of piles sunk into a river channel below and seems to have been built around 1300 – 1000BC.) Slightly later, between 1000 – 800BC, a wooden palisade was erected around the main platform.

At some point after the palisade was created a fire tore through the settlement, causing the platform to drop into the river below where the flames were immediately quenched. As the material lay on the riverbed it was covered with layers of non-porous silt which helped to preserve everything from wooden utensils to clothing. It is believed that when the platform burned down all activity at the settlement ceased and it was abandoned.
Pottery - Must Farm

Since the excavation began in August 2015, the Must Farm site has revealed everything from pottery to textiles and log boats to a wooden wheel. The settlement has one of the most complete Bronze Age collections of artefacts ever discovered in Britain, giving us an unparalleled insight into the lives of the people who lived there 3,000 years ago.

The roof of each round houses appears to have been made of rafters that joined in an apex over the centre of the building. It seems that turf was used to roof the homes owing to the large quantities of burnt turf deposited at the base of the channel. The presence of charred cereal roots in some of the turf suggests that the turf being used was cut from areas where crops had been cultivated.

The sediment also contained traces of clumps of burnt thatch which suggests the roof was made from reeds. This level of detail is something that most archaeologists would never expect to find when excavating a house of this period.

 Archaeologists believe that the floors of the roundhouses were made of large panels of woven, bundled willow-like wood supported by round wood. Several large well-preserved wattle panels were recovered from the site and archaeologists believe that these formed the walls of the structure.
3000 Year Old  Textile
           Must Farm

Among of the most delicate and striking items to survive are pieces of textile, which have remained intact for 3000 years. Bronze Age textiles from Britain are extremely rare and those that do survive are often in very poor condition and usually only tiny fragments survive. Incredibly, examples of textile from every stage of the manufacturing process have been recovered ranging from hanks of plant fibres, spools and balls of thread to woven textiles and twining.

The people who lived at Must Farm produced material of excellent quality. Some of the threads used in the creation of woven textiles are the diameter of a thick human hair. Each household seems to have been creating fabric and the preservation of these materials will provide a new level of understanding about textile production during the Bronze Age.

Very few of the artefacts found at Must Farm show any traces of decoration. All these artefacts have a very distinct style and appearance. This style appears to be a direct representation of the “fashion” of the day and were what people wanted in everything from pots to wooden objects.

The quantity and range of wooden artefacts found at Must Farm is undeniably astonishing. Large numbers of wooden objects have been recovered and many of these are unique and their purpose unclear. Very little of the wood seems to have been decorated or embellished in any way. For example, the dozens of wooden platters, buckets and vessels found are all undecorated and very simple in design but well-made and skillfully crafted.

Eight beautifully preserved prehistoric log boats were recovered during the excavation of Must Farm. Radiocarbon dating has indicated that the ages of these boats spanned a period of about 1000 years, with the earliest examples dating to around 1,750–1650 BC.
Wooden Wheel - Must Farm
In 2016 a large wooden wheel, measuring about 1 m in diameter, was uncovered at the site. The specimen, dating from 1,100–800 years BC, represents the most complete and earliest of its type found in Britain and reveals a high degree of craftsmanship.

Archaeologist found several buckets, also known as two-part vessels. These containers are made from hollowing out a section of log before inserting a base into the bottom of the log: creating a container. Alongside these finds archaeologists discovered a number of wooden “platters”, large and broadly flat objects carved from a single piece of wood.
Spear Head - Must Farm
Other finds from this site have included swords and spears which still had their handles intact. Bronze artefacts such as swords, spears and axes are often found in watery locations, such as lakes and rivers. There are many theories as to why metal is found in these locations, the most prevalent regarding it as a form of ritual, or votive, deposition. At Must Farm archaeologists have been fortunate enough to find metal artefacts still within their original use contexts inside the settlement.

Surprisingly, archaeologists have not found much refuse material at the site indicating that the settlement was fairly young when it was destroyed. Preliminary examinations of some of the timbers from both the palisade and the houses seems to show that the wood was still fresh when it was charred in the fire.

The Must Farm settlement in Cambridgeshire is one of the most complete Late Bronze Age examples known in Britain. The scale, quality and condition of the objects found at Must Farm have astonished archaeologists giving us an unparalleled insight into the lives of the people who lived there 3,000 years ago.

All photographs courtesy

Sunday, May 29, 2016

In Search of our Irish Roots

Today, we commonly refer to the Irish, Scottish and Welsh as Celts who were thought to have migrated from central Europe around 500 BC. Much of what we think we know about the Celts was actually created in the 19th century during the Celtic Revival. This version of history has, however, been challenged in recent times so where did the Irish come from?
The word ‘Celt’ (Greek Keltoi) was first used in writing in the 6th Century BC to describe the people who lived north of the Greek Colony of Massalia, modern Marseille in southern France. The Celts were a loose grouping of tribes that lived in an area north of the Alps around the Danube river in central Europe. Over the next few hundred years they spread east and west across Europe and arrived in Ireland about 500 BC. By the fifth century AD and the arrival of Christianity, the Celtic language was being spoken all over the island of Ireland.
The relatively modern concept of an identifiable Celtic identity tends to focus on similarities of languages, works of art, and literature. Earlier theories suggesting a common racial origin for all the Celtic peoples have been rejected in favour of a common cultural and language heritage rather than a genetic one.
The Celtic languages form a branch of the larger Indo-European family of languages. The earliest examples of a Celtic language are Lepontic inscriptions from the sixth century BC. Lepontic was spoken in Italy’s Po Valley at this time. By 400 BC there were Celtic language groups spread throughout Europe including Ireland and Britain.
Only a limited number of records written in the Celtic languages survive from pre-Christian times and consist mainly of inscriptions written in the Roman and Greek alphabets. Ogham script, an Early Medieval alphabet, was mostly used in early Christian times in Ireland and Scotland for ceremonial purposes such as inscriptions on gravestones.
Four Celtic Languages continue to be spoken in modern Europe: Welsh, Breton, Irish Gaelic and Scottish Gaelic. Two other languages - Cornish and Manx Gaelic - survived into recent historical times. While the Celts spoke similar languages and shared much common culture, Continental Celts and those living in Britain and Ireland were different in important respects.
The ancient Celts were not so unlike the ancient Greeks, Romans and Germans in their values and beliefs. It has been suggested that, given time, the Celts would have developed an urban and technological civilisation of their own. If the Celts had settled in Rome after they seized the city in 390 BC instead of withdrawing, the history of European and European civilisation might have been very different.
The Celts worshipped hundreds of gods and goddesses. Celtic gods included Lugh and Dagda. Goddesses were associated with natural features such as rivers. For example, Boann was the goddess of the River Boyne.
In Celtic religion, druids acted as priests but also performed such roles as judges, sacrificers, teachers, and lore-keepers. The druids were an educated priestly class who had to serve up to a twenty-year apprenticeship in law, history, magic, medicine, poetry, astronomy and divination.
Gold Torc - National Museum of Ireland
The Celts are noted for their beautiful works of art. They wore brooches and armlets including the torc, which was a neck collar made of metal and, sometimes, gold. Examples of Celtic art can be seen in the intricate and beautiful metal work recovered from burial sites throughout Europe including Britain and Ireland.
Tribal warfare appears to have been a regular feature of Celtic societies. The Celts had a reputation as head hunters. The human head was venerated since the Celts saw this as the soul, centre of emotions and life itself.  Slavery, as practised by the Celts, is thought to have been similar to the practice in ancient Greece and Rome. Slaves were acquired from war, raids, and penal and debt servitude.
Ireland's remote geographical position has meant that the Irish gene-pool has been less susceptible to change and the same genes have been passed down from parents to children for thousands of years. Research into both British and Irish DNA indicate the people of both islands have much in common genetically. In other words, most people in the British Isles are descended from the same Stone Age Spanish settlers.
The latest research into Irish DNA has confirmed that the early inhabitants of Ireland were not directly descended from the Keltoi or Celts of central Europe. The closest genetic relatives of the Irish in Europe are to be found in the north of Spain in what is now known as the Basque Country. We share this common ancestry with the people of Britain and, in particular, with the Scottish.
Researchers believe that the movement of people from the north of Ireland into Scotland in the period 400 – 800 AD has meant that Irish and Scottish people share very similar DNA. Not only did Irish invaders bring the Gaelic language and culture to Scotland, they also brought their genes.
The Welsh were found to be 'pure Britons', according to the research. Scientists were able to trace their DNA back to the first tribes that settled in the British Isles following the last ice age around 10,000 years ago. The research found that there is no single 'Celtic' genetic group. The Welsh, Scottish, Northern Irish and Cornish were found to be the most different from the rest of the country.

Much of what we understand about our Celtic heritage derives from the so called Celtic Revival and has been challenged by scholars. The ancient Celts were a loose grouping of tribes that lived in an area north of the Alps around the Danube, sharing a common cultural and language heritage. They gradually spread east and west across Europe and arrived in Ireland about 500 BC. They were a religious, warlike people noted for their beautiful works of art. Research into both British and Irish DNA indicate the people of both islands have much in common genetically.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Irish Logboats

Callow Logboat, Lough Gara,
County Roscommon
Fifty years ago, while walking along the shore of Lough Gara with some friends, we were fortunate enough to find the remains of a logboat or dug-out canoe. The boat had broken into several pieces but we managed to put it together so that we could at least see what it would have looked like. Sadly, the sides of the vessel had completely disintegrated due to the ravages of time. The logboat had been brought to the attention of the National Museum of Ireland a few years earlier and is known as the Callow logboat. It was radiocarbon dated to the 9th century.

This boat measured 8.3m in length and was just under 1m in width, tapering towards the stern and bow which were inclined upwards. Four pairs of ‘D’-shaped footrests had been carved into the floor of the boat at intervals of approximately 1m. It was not clear whether the boat was propelled by oars or paddles. Interestingly, a 5cm round hole had been cut through the floor 58cm from the bow.

Two other logboats have been recorded from Lough Gara. The Clooncunny 1 logboat was found near the edge of the lake just across the border in Co. Sligo in 1968 and dated to 1026 AD or 11th century. Another logboat, known as Clooncunny 2, found near the River Boyle, Co. Roscommon, was dated to 1686 or 17th century.

Over 450 logboats have been recorded in Ireland mainly in lakes and rivers. They were an everyday means of conveyance as well as acting as ferries to cross unbridged rivers. Logboats were utilised to transport livestock and farm produce and were used for fishing and wildfowling.

A logboat discovered on the foreshore of Greyabbey Bay, Strangford Lough (Co. Down) points to the existence of seafaring logboats in the Neolithic period. The boat, which was 9.35m in length has been dated to 3,499 – 3,032 BC, making it over 5,000 years old.

Small Logboat from
Lough Corrib
Lough Corrib Logboats
A remarkable assortment of 14 logboats has recently been discovered in Lough Corrib, Co. Galway, dating from the early Bronze Age (c. 2,500 BC) to the eleventh century AD. The oldest and largest logboat reported, a 12m-long dugout canoe found near Annaghkeen, was radiocarbon dated to 2,500 BC. Archaeologists believe that it could have been paddled by a crew of ten or twelve, suggesting that it was, perhaps, primarily intended for formal or ceremonial purposes.

A 6m long logboat dated to the eleventh century AD was found near the townland of Carrowmoreknock. Four of the boats seats or thwarts made from planks were still in place. It was rowed rather than paddled as evidenced by the remains of four pairs of thole-pin holes, which would have held the craft’s oars. A selection of weapons found within the boat - three battleaxes, an ironwork axe, two iron spearheads and the remains of what may have been a copper-alloy dagger pommel - suggest that it may have been carrying warriors. 

Another boat from Lough Corrib, known as Lee’s Island 5 logboat, still had two intact roundwood seats or thwarts in place. The overall shape of the 7.3m-long boat is rectangular and tapers slightly towards the bow. The two seats are located near either end which may indicate that it was used to transport cargo or to ferry people, with middle of the boat kept free to carry its load.

This logboat still contained part of its original contents including a 2m-long steering oar or paddle, an iron spearhead and a socketed and loop iron axe which had its wooden handle intact. The iron axe appeared to have been deliberately fixed into the boat with the intention of making it a permanent feature. It has been radiocarbon-dated to 754-409 BC placing it in the early Iron Age.

The use of logboats on Lough Corrib was widespread from at least the early Bronze Age. People living along its shores or on one of the many islands in the lake required boats to fish, exploit the lake’s natural resources, ferry people and goods, travel and to communicate with other parts of the lake or further afield.

The Lurgan Logboat
National Museum of Ireland
The Lurgan Logboat
The Lurgan logboat from Co. Galway is, perhaps, among the best know examples of this type of vessel as it has been on display in the National Museum of Ireland for many years. It tapers from the rounded stern to the bow which is also rounded. This is a flat-bottomed craft with the bow inclined upwards. When it was measured in 1902 it was recorded as 15.24m long.

Although the external hull was finished, the interior was not completed. The average thickness of the floor is 24cm, far in excess of the average floor thickness (7cm) of completed Irish dugout boats. Archaeologists believe that the Lurgan boat was designed for speed and manoeuvrability and unlikely to have been used as a cargo boat. The available evidence suggests that it was paddled and may have had a crew of as many as 35 or 36 people. It would have been a very fast boat.

Must Farm Logboats
Across the water in Britain, eight beautifully preserved prehistoric logboats have recently been found during a major archaeological excavation at Must Farm, near Peterborough, Cambridgeshire. The boats survived deep within the waterlogged sediments of a later Bronze Age/earlier Iron Age watercourse (1300-400 BC) in the Flag Fen basin. Radiocarbon dating has indicated that the ages of these boats covered a period of about 1000 years, with the earliest examples dating to around 1,750–1650 BC.

Logboat from Must Farm,
Peterborough, Cambridgeshire
Logboats or dug-out canoes have been used throughout the world for thousands of years and up to the present time in some places. Over 450 logboats have been recorded in Ireland alone mainly in lakes and rivers. They were an everyday means of transport for people living near lakeshores or on islands to fish, exploit the lake’s natural resources, ferry people and goods, and travel to places further afield. Today, logboats provide us with a window on the past and we marvel at the craftsmanship of these ancient peoples.

For further information, please see:

Archaeology Ireland – Winter 2014 (Issue No. 110)

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Re-writing Ireland's Ancient History

Fragment of Bear Bone from Cave
County Clare
The recent announcement that scientists had dated a fragment of bear bone to 10,500 BC, thereby, pushing back the date for human occupation in Ireland by 2,500 years, has caused quite a stir in the academic community. Until now, the earliest known human activity in Ireland was dated to the Mesolithic period around 8,000BC at Mount Sandel in Derry.

Remarkably, the bear bone was discovered in a cave in County Clare in 1903 but lay for over a century in a storage box in the National Museum of Ireland. Dr Marion Dowd of IT Sligo and Dr Ruth Carden of the National Museum decided to examine the bone and subject it to radiocarbon dating. Dr Dowd is a lecturer in Prehistoric Archaeology at IT Sligo’s School of Science and is a specialist in Irish cave archaeology.

Excavation in 1903
Tests revealed that the patella or knee bone of the brown bear – which showed clear marks of the animal having been butchered - dated back to the Palaeolithic period around 10,500 BC. Brown bears are believed to have become extinct in Ireland around 1,000BC. This incredible discovery is set to re-write Ireland’s settlement history showing that humans were hunting in Ireland much earlier than previously thought. A second round of radiocarbon tests confirmed that the bear died circa 10,500BC.

“Here we had evidence of someone butchering a brown bear carcass and cutting through the knee probably to extract the tendons. Yes, we expected a prehistoric date, but the Palaeolithic result took us completely by surprise,” said Dr Dowd.

Further analysis of the cut marks on the bone by experts from the British Museum, University of York and European University in Hungary revealed the marks were made on fresh bone and dated from the same era. Repeated attempts by early hunters to cut through the tough knee joint left seven marks on the bone surface. Experts think that the implement used would probably have been something like a long flint blade.

As the bone was in fresh condition it is thought that these early hunters were carrying out activities in the immediate vicinity - perhaps butchering a bear inside the cave or at the cave entrance. Dr Dowd believes they were extracting the tendons for use as string or for sewing, while the bear carcass would also have provided food and fur.

Some 12,500 years ago the last Ice Age was coming to an end in Ireland. As the ice retreated northwards, humans followed the thaw from central and southern Europe. Ireland was still connected to Britain at this point, as was Britain to mainland Europe. Ireland became an island about 8,700 years ago, as the last land bridges between here and Scotland were washed over.

It appears that archaeological text books may have to be re-written to reflect these new findings. This is particularly exciting given that experts have only recently started to appreciate the extent of human occupation in Ireland during the Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age (8,000 – 4,000 BC) with about twenty important sites identified around Ireland. It has been argued that evidence for the Mesolithic Period in Ireland has gone largely unrecognised and where this exists the extent of the evidence has been overlooked.

Where did the first Irish settlers come from? Scholars believe that the most likely ‘homelands’ of the earliest human colonists in Ireland are Scotland, Isle of Man and Wales.

Archaeologists now hope to conduct a detailed examination of the cave itself using modern forensic equipment. Meanwhile, we wait with bated breath for the National Museum of Ireland to give up more of its fascinating secrets.