Irish Peatland Archaeology - Past, Present and Future
Updated: Jul 27
Ellen O Carroll, Post Doctoral Researcher in Archaeology, UCD School of Archaeology and foodcult.eu writes about the amazing discoveries within Irish peatlands that have opened a window to the daily lives of our ancestors. With major thanks to consultant archaeologist Cathy Moore, and Ben Gearey & Rosie Everett from University College Cork for their additional input.
The wealth of archaeological sites and artefacts that have been found in Irish peatlands is unparalleled anywhere else in the world. Whilst exceptionally preserved human remains (‘bog bodies’ ) are perhaps the best known, these are actually very rare discoveries. The trackway (or togher) is the most frequent class of site encountered (see Figure 1 - Bronze Age trackway, Lemanaghan, Co. Offaly) and the earliest of these structures date to the Neolithic (c. 6000 years before the present (see Figure 2 – EDC Neolithic trackway, Roscommon). The great Iron Age ‘roadway’ of Corlea 1 in Co. Longford is the only peatland archaeological site that has its own dedicated museum.
Many trackways were built to facilitate the safe crossing of an otherwise treacherous bog and were constructed using a variety of materials such as oak planks, hazel/alder/birch/willow rods, gravel or flagstones. However, it is clear that bogs were not only regarded as obstacles to be traversed, but as places of rich resources and sometimes of veneration.
Flora, such as reeds and rushes and fauna, such as peatland wild fowl, have probably been exploited since prehistory, particularly in the Medieval period. Evidence for this comes in the form of small wooden platforms (See Figure 3 above - Iron Age Hurdle, Lisheen, Co. Tipperary), possible hunting blinds (see Figure 4 below - Neolithic stone hut, Co Offaly), which were constructed in the raised bog environment. Thousands of archaeological objects have also been uncovered from our peat bogs and some of these are on display in our National Museums (Figures 5 and 6, wooden Pallasboy vessel and bog butter).
Irish peatlands (both raised and blanket) are an integral, important and irreplaceable part of our historic environment. A peatland review in 2013 of raised bog archaeological remains show that 4,358 archaeological sites have been identified in Bord na Mona peatlands alone.
Peat extraction has destroyed the majority of our peatland archaeological heritage, and they are at further risk without considered management during the peatland rehabilitation process. An active discourse of preservation of the surviving sites during the next phase of peatland restoration, which includes all surviving physical remains of past human activity, whether visible, buried or submerged is integral to the future of our peatland historical archives. The risk of loss of these sites would be considered high without this in place.
As outlined in the DCHG Built and Archaeological Heritage Climate Change Sectorial Plan (2019), a commitment has been made by the government to the protection of peatland archaeology and the associated environmental archives, during the national restoration of Ireland’s peatlands during the Just Transition. The archaeology community hopes to see this commitment translated into active engagement and management from those investing in peatland restoration.
Ellen will be giving a talk to the Rathmichael Historical Society on the Archaeology of Raised Bogs on August 16th, 2021 - link here: