What ancient secrets lie beneath this little-known Irish bog?
Flanked by dramatic cliffs and the Atlantic Ocean, a five-square-mile stretch of bogland in County Mayo blankets a field between Ballycastle and Belmullet in west Ireland. It is empty and has few trees. But it contains one of Ireland’s most important archaeological discoveries.
Several bogs in Ireland have revealed glimpses of societies long past. Treasures found have included religious chalices, hordes of gold, a medieval psalter, 2,000-year-old “bog butter” (chunks of butter made from milk fat and buried in the bog to preserve it), and “bog bodies” (preserved human remains, such as Cashel Man, the oldest found bog body, which dates to 2000 B.C.).
But it wasn’t until the 1930s when a schoolteacher from Belderrig, Ireland, was cutting peat for fuel that the first remains of the largest Neolithic site in Ireland were revealed. The discovery led researchers to uncover some of the oldest known stone-walled fields in the world, dating from about 3800 B.C.–older than the pyramids of Egypt (2550 B.C.) and Stonehenge (3500 B.C.).
Known as Ceide Fields–or Achaidh Cheide, meaning “flat-topped hill fields”–the site may not be as famous as the Burren, but a new immersive visitor experience, opened in June, might change that. At this tentative UNESCO World Heritage site, interactive exhibits delve into the history of the walls, the ancient farming fields they enclosed, and what we can still learn about the people who lived there.
Millennia of decaying plant matter and waterlogged soil slowly erased any proof that Ceide Fields existed until schoolteacher Patrick Caulfield, who was out on the bog cutting peat (removing and drying turf to burn for fuel), came across large stones piled in long lines deep within the muck. He wrote to the National Museum in Dublin in 1934 to alert them of his discovery. The museum didn’t have the resources to investigate the discovery, even though they considered it significant.
Nearly three decades later, in 1963, a team of archaeologists, led by Patrick’s son, Seamus, used traditional iron probes–normally employed for finding fallen trees under areas of deep bog–to search the land. The team discovered foundations for domestic dwellings, Neolithic tools such as scrapers and arrowheads and acres of collapsed walls. Carbon dating later proved the site existed nearly 6,000 years ago, revealing an organized, agricultural community developed the land.
“In terms of early farm landscapes, [Ceide Fields] is an outstanding example at a global level,” says Gabriel Cooney, emeritus professor of Celtic archaeology at University College Dublin. It provides evidence of the interaction between people and their environment. It’s critical to our understanding of farming and how it happened and the context in which it happened across the world.”
Patrick’s grandson, Declan Caulfield, continues the family’s legacy at his company, Belderrig Valley Experience. He leads private, two-hour-to-two-day tours around the bogland, where the walls were first discovered. Visitors will learn how to grind grain using ancient quarn stones, how local grains were milled, as well as how buildings were constructed using stone and timber.
“My grandfather had the insight into something very ancient. Declan states that he believes his discovery is an important part to the story.
Guiding me through patches of tiny pink bell heather and yellow potentilla (rare finds in this oxygen- and nutrient-poor wetland), Declan explains how Irish myth and scientific discoveries can often intertwine, sometimes unknowingly creating sacred spaces.
For decades locals and farmers had avoided a stone circle in the area due to superstition that it was a fairy ring or fairy fort that might bring bad luck if tampered with. Archaeological excavations revealed that this “fairyfort” was a Bronze Age house built with stones from Ceide Fields’ original development.
Probing the bog
While parts of Ceide Fields have been excavated, there are still hundreds of acres of history submerged under bogland that may never be explored. “We know there is a huge amount of material that is still out there,” says Gretta Byrne, an archaeologist who joined the Ceide Fields excavation team in 1981 as a student and now manages the visitor center. “But, a lot will remain out there. It’s impossible to explore every inch of this. We’d be here for another 5,000 years.”
Still, travelers can attempt to solve the mysteries of the people who lived and farmed on the land at the newly renovated, $2.6 million immersive visitor center, a lesser known stop on the 1,600-mile Wild Atlantic Way, one of the longest defined coastal routes in the world.
With state-of-the-art audio-visual exhibits, artist reconstructions, and an observation deck offering sweeping views of the sea-cliff landscape, the center gives visitors a deeper understanding of Stone Age Ireland.
The center offers a deeper understanding of Stone Age Ireland. It features replicas of log boats, illustrations that show how first farmers arrived in Ireland, and interactive displays that explain how stone monuments were built by farmers to remember the dead.
Roberta Richiero, a tourist from Turin, Italy, says that visiting the center is “like being on the edge of both time and space because you are on the cliffs [which] is like the ‘end’ of the world, and at the same time you step back into history, like the beginning of the world.”
To give further insight into how vast the site is, Byrne leads guided tours through the bog, explaining the geography, ecology, and importance of rain in the area. “You need 50 inches of rain around 225 days of the year to form blanket bog,” she says. “We get rain on about 250 days.”
Walking over soft peat, Byrne guides me to sections of the bog where the turf has been cut away to show how deep archaeologists had to dig to unearth the walls. One section shows where the ground would have been when the farmers started building and then how the bog rose more than 13 feet over the settlement. After a short demonstration by Byrne visitors are invited to use iron rods similar to those used by the researchers to make their own discoveries.
Despite there being much more to explore, Byrne says it’s good that a lot of Ceide Fields remains untouched. She says that excavation is not a good way to remove soil from the ground. However, it can be used to uncover new techniques in the future. “That’s the thing about archaeology, there are new discoveries being made all the time.”
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.