A day of archaeology in the peatlands of Ireland I & II

View across Killaderry Bog, Co. Galway


For those who missed it here are my two contributions to the Day of Archaeology 2011 combined as a single post. You can see the originals here and here  and the homepage here. There are more than 400 posts from 400 archaeologists which present a snapshot of archaeology in the

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.

Up with the lark
Today I will be travelling to Killaderry and Castlegar bogs in Co. Galway to have a final look at the results of this year’s fieldwork.  There’s no need to set an alarm as our toddler has the household awake at 5.30am and part of the morning has already been spent watching Jungle Junction!

The project
The archaeological survey of the peatlands in the ownership of Bord na Móna has been a huge two decade long task, that has indentified thousands of archaeological sites that are not only near the bog surface but also buried quite deeply. The Bord na Móna method of working is to harvest a few centimetres of peat each year from the top of the bog. This slowly reduces the height of the bog and as the archaeological features come close to the surface they are either excavated or a decision is made to preserve them in situ. To find out more about the project

The excavation work is being carried out by Archaeological Development Services (ADS) who have been carrying out the programme since 1998, under the direction of Operations Manager Jane Whitaker. To date ADS has carried out more than 250 excavations and surveyed more than 45,000 ha of bog lands. For more on ADS peatland click here. I’m going to be meeting Jane on site and she is going to show me around the Killaderry and Castlegar excavations.

This year the investigations are focussing on the wooden trackways in Gowla, Killaderry and Castlegar bogs and ADS were joined earlier in the month by a group from the University of Florida at Gainesville lead by Prof. Florin Curta. 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 (see Google Map above).

It’s time to hit the road!

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.

Thanks for organising the Day of Archaeology go to: Lorna Richardson, Matt Law, Jessica Ogden, Tom Goskar and Stu Eve for their inpsiration and hard work!

Cite this post as:

Mount, C. A day of archaeology in the peatlands of Ireland I & II. The Charles Mount Blog, August 14, 2011. http://charles-mount.ie/wp/?p=322