Bog

Investigating the peat bogs of Ireland

I am the Bord Na Móna Project Archaeologist and this year we are inaugurating a new 3 year campaign of archaeological and palaeoenvironmental investigations in the peatlands of Ireland.

Re-locating sites in peatland

Re-locating sites in peatland, Cloonshannagh Bog, Co. Roscommon.

The Irish peatlands because of their waterlogged anaerobic environment are an internationally important repository of archaeological sites and artefacts as well as ancient environmental and climatic biofacts. They preserve evidence ranging from human remains, settlements and trackways and platforms to food and artefacts, plants, pollen, insects, amoeba and even the fallout from ancient volcanic eruptions.

Bord Na Móna is the state sponsored company with interests in energy, fuel supply, horticulture, waste management and the environmental markets, and has the responsibility to manage a large part of Ireland’s peat resource. The company owns and manages some 80,000 hectares of lands, the majority of which are peatlands. Archaeological survey of the peatlands over the last 30 years has resulted in the discovery of many archaeological sites and structures preserved within peat. Bord Na Móna has the responsibility to organise and finance the archaeological investigation of its peatlands in advance of peat harvesting. My role as Project Archaeologist is to work, under the terms of the Code of Practice between the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, the National Museum of Ireland and Bord na Móna and identify the archaeological sites to be investigated. I am responsible for developing a programme of investigations and assisting with the selection of archaeological consultants to carry out the work through the EU tender framework. I also manage the implementation and delivery of the project investigations including analysis and reporting. Over the next 3 years we will be investigating more than a hundred archaeological sites in bogs in counties Longford, Offaly, Roscommon and Westmeath.

Medieval leather shoe from  Toar Bog, Co. Westmeath.

Medieval leather shoe found in Toar Bog, Co. Westmeath.

This week we are advancing the work by precisely re-locating and marking sites to be investigated. This will allow us to identify the best places to open excavation cuttings. The work involves finding the coordinates of the monuments identified during earlier surveys with GPS, checking their condition and deciding on the optimal placement of excavation trenches. The work is physically demanding and requires walking long distances over the bog and jumping across dozens of deep water-filled drains. The monuments include trackways and platforms that range in date from the Neolithic to the Medieval period and are visible at various depths in the faces of the drains and sometimes on the surface. Sometimes in the course of the work we make a new find, like the Medieval leather shoe illustrated above, that was identified by a keen-eyed member of the team earlier in the week. The moccasin shoe had a leather sole and was probably lost when an earlier bog walker stepped into a bog hole. Unable to retrieve it they had to make the long trudge back home with only a single shoe. Luckily we made it back with all our boots and equipment intact! The shoe will be conserved and analysed and sent to the National Museum for permanent curation.

ADS Peatland Excavations – some highlights from the season on the Final Day…..

The 2011 Day of Archaeology marked the final day on site for the ADS Peatland Team after a six week season.
Despite a late night last night the full compliment of 18 were out at Killaderry Bog, Co Galway at 8am this morning to carry out the final sampling, recording and tracing of sites. Led by myself, Jane Whitaker, Peatlands Project Manager with support from a second site director Nicola Rohan and a fantastic team of experienced archaeologisst we excavated 20 trackways ranging in date from the Bronze Age to the Medieval Period in three Bord na Mona Bogs in Co Galway.
Gowla Bog was first on the list and here our excavations were located within a small cluster of brushwood trackways, hurdles and platforms. A couple of different hurdle constructions were noted in very close proximity and as levels in the drained industrial bogs can be deceiving we will be relying on dating to assist us in untangling this particular spaghetti junction.

Some dates were already available to us following our fieldwalking survey a couple of years ago which is always a bonus when heading out on site.

Meanwhile, across the road in Killaderry Bog our team had been joined by 10 Field School students from the University of Florida and Prof Florin Curta. While bemused by the joys of a typical Irish ‘summer’ the students got stuck in and were let loose on the excavation of a plank, gravel and stone trackway dating to AD660-770.

This site is one of several that traverse the narrow neck of the bog. In this particular case the site runs alongside and in some places crosses over a substantial Bronze Age plank and roundwood trackway.
As noted above, todays work involved the final tracing and linking of the excavated sites. Re-cutting of the drains to facilitate the peat harvesting process and indeed the harvesting itself revealed additional sightings along trackways identified during our initial fieldwalking survey works. These were all cleaned, recorded and a GPS reading taken while other team members were furiously lifting, bagging and logging the final samples. Bord na Mona Project Archaeologist Charles Mount came out for a final visit.
All too soon it was time to count tools, load the jeeps with samples, bid farewell to the team and the ever patient staff in Bord na Mona and hit the road for the long dive home.
While we are all looking forward to scraping the last of the peat out of our fingernails, after thirteen seasons, 250 excavations and thousands of miles of Bord na Mona bogs walked we’re still looking forward to the next season already!
Next task is to write up the preliminary reports, select samples for dating and patiently await the results from our paleo collegues from Reading University……..

A day of archaeology in the peatlands of Ireland II

The view across Killaderry Bog. Co. Galway.

You can find part I of this post here.

Getting to the site

It’s a two hour drive from my base in Kildare to Killaderry, part of the trip is on the new Motorways built during the Celtic Tiger period but once you cross the Shannon these roads run out and you are back on the old single carriageways and narrow bridges that characterise the country.

The excavations

I Arrived at Killaderry, Co. Galway just after 11am and Jane Whitaker of ADS showed me around. These are raised bogs, which means they developed from ancient lakes. The natural vegetation has been removed by milling so they give the impression of solidified dark brown lakes. The only visible features are the long and deep drains extending into the distance that break up the bog into long narrow fields. The figures of archaeologists in reflective yellow safety gear can be seen beside shallow excavation cuttings filling out recording sheets. The trackways are spread around the bog and it takes a long time to walk out to them and then from site to site. This year 13 sites were excavated in Killaderry Bog and 3 in Castlegar. Dan Young from Reading University is busily taking samples from around the trackways for environmental analysis. When it rains this can be a bleak place as there’s no cover. In a hot summer there’s no shade from the sun. The peat dries out and can become airborne and tractors and harvesters create mini-dust-storms as they pass.

A section of a trackway prepared for environmental sampling at Killaderry Bog. Co. Galway.

The trackways have a wide date range from the Bronze Age right through to the fifteenth century AD. The longer trackways tend to cross the bogs at their narrowest points linking areas of dryland. In a number of cases trackways follow the routes that were established at earlier periods. There are other alignments of trackway that are being investigated this season that will soon be dated and will provide more detail. At this stage the evidence indicates that this routeway through Killaderry bog was in use for at least two thousand years and is probably the preserved wetland part of an ancient road network that existed in this area. Investigation of the nearby River Suck also has the potential to identify ancient fording points and possibly the remains of bridges. There have been interesting finds, a Late Bronze Age wooden shovel, a rough-out for a handled bowl and a spoon that resembles a chisel. Now that the season’s fieldwork has come to an end the next part of work, the post-ex phase, begins.

Final recording of cuttings and samples at Killaderry Bog. Co. Galway.


A day of archaeology in the peatlands of Ireland


View Killaderry& Castlegar in a larger map

About me
As an archaeologist my work ranges widely from advising developers how to avoid impacts on archaeology and built heritage, to the preparation of the cultural heritage sections of environmental impact assessments, to the commissioning of field-based investigations such as geophysical survey and the traditional archaeological excavation. Part of my professional work involves overseeing the archaeological programme of Bord na Móna, where I act as Project Archaeologist. Bord na Móna is the commercial Semi-state body with responsibility for the development of the Irish national peat resource. Bord na Móna owns and manages more than 80,000 ha of land spread across Ireland. Most of this is peatland which has preserved a wealth of organic archaeological and palaeoenvironmental material. Once thought to be areas of wilderness we now know that the bogs were used by people for thousands of years.

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