Irish Peatland Archaeology in 2011: the Bord na Móna Archaeological Programme

Bronze Age trackway under excavation in Killaderry bog, Co. Galway July 2011

Part of my professional work involves providing archaeological advice to 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 lands, the majority of which are peatlands, that contain a wealth of preserved archaeological and palaeoenvironmental material. The archaeological survey of the peatlands in the ownership of Bord na Móna has been a huge task, carried out under the auspices of the Archaeological Survey of Ireland and funded by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. It has been continuing for two decades and has indentified thousands of archaeological sites that are not only near the bog surface but also quite deeply buried.

The Bord na Móna method of working is to harvest a few centimetres of peat each year from the top of the bogs that are in operation. This slowly reduces the height of the bog and as the work goes on, like an archaeological excavation that stretches across the landscape, the archaeological features close to the top are either excavated or a decision is made to preserve them in situ. Bord na Móna workers attend annual training seminars provided by the National Museum of Ireland and the National Monuments Service and are well aware of the types of features and finds that might be uncovered. The excavation of the archaeological features and the post-excavation and palaeoenvironmental work is funded by Bord na Móna, under a set of principles agreed with Government and is the subject of an annual excavation programme. Today the Bord na Móna archaeological programme is the largest ongoing archaeological excavation project in Ireland.

The Bord na Móna excavation project is let as a single Peatland Archaeological Services contract covering three years of operations. Archaeological Development Services (ADS) have been carrying out the programme since 1998, under the Direction of Operations Manager Jane Whitaker, and to date have carried out more than 250 excavations and surveyed more than 45,000 ha of bog lands.

The current programme, covering the years 2010-13, is focusing on the bogs of Littleton, Derryvella, and Longford Pass, Co. Tipperary; Cloonshanagh, Mountdillon and Edera, Co. Roscommon; and Castlegar, Killaderry and Gowla, Co. Galway. In 2011, investigations of the wooden trackways in Gowla, Killaderry and Castlegar bogs are taking place and ADS are joined by a group of students from the University of Florida at Gainesville lead by Prof. Florin Curta.

Google Earth image indicating the location of Gowla, Killaderry and Castlegar bogs. The River Suck, highlighted with a blue line, crosses the image from north to south.

Gowla, Killaderry and Castlegar bogs are situated just to the west of the River Suck, a tributary of the River Shannon, and in the past would have presented a barrier to anyone trying to cross the river over a substantial stretch between Ballyforan and Clooncoran. 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. For example trackway 5 in Killaderry bog, which dates to the period 660-770 AD, probably allowed travel from the area of Ahascragh, Co. Galway to Ballyforan, Co. Roscommon by crossing Killaderry bog at its narrowest point between Killaderry and Cloonshee. The interesting thing is that Killaderry 5 runs parallel to Killaderry 3 which dates from 910-820 BC. An earlier trackway, Killaderry 13, dated to 1380-1210 BC, also runs in a parallel direction a little to the east. 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 has the potential to identify ancient fording points and possibly the remains of bridges associated with this ancient routeway.

In nearby Castlegar bog trackway 1 links the lands around the Late Medieval Carmelite Monastery at Eglish, Co. Galway, founded in 1376, to an island of land in Dalysgrove townland next to the River Suck. This trackway dates to the historic period 1410-40 AD and indicates that the construction of wooden trackways continued almost to the post-Medeival period.

The bogs not only contain archaeological features but preserve a wealth of stratified environmental data. This is an integrated archaeological and palaeoenvironmental project with the environmental sampling and analysis work carried out by QUEST and ArchaeoScape. QUEST Quaternary Scientific, is part of the School of Human and Environmental Sciences in the University of Reading under the Direction of Dr. Nicholas Branch. The palaeoenvironmental investigations involve taking samples for pollen, plant macrofossils, insects and peat humification. Dr. Branch’s work focuses on the relationships between human activities, vegetation history and climate change. ArchaeoScape is part of Royal Holloway Geography Department, University of London, and is an environmental archaeological (‘palaeoenvironmental’ and ‘palaeoeconomic’) interpretation facility.

The excavation programme wil be continuing in 2012 and will be followed by post-excavation and palaeoenvironmental analysis and eventual publication of results.

Cite this post as:

Mount, C. Irish Peatland Archaeology in 2011: the Bord na Móna Archaeological Programme. The Charles Mount Blog, July 14, 2011.

4 thoughts on “Irish Peatland Archaeology in 2011: the Bord na Móna Archaeological Programme

    • Thanks Heather, full credit should go to Archaeological Development Services and Jane Whitaker who put together the project proposal and carry out the fieldwork.

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