UPLAND LANDSCAPE ALTERATION IN SOUTH EAST IRELAND.
Jan 29, 2012, 20:52
The following is a report of over 2,000 hours of fieldwork, in the Comeragh and Knockmealdown mountains of counties Waterford and Tipperary.
This work was undertaken between 2003 and 2011, and involved the detailed examination of unusual quaternary features in areas of the mountains over 400 metres above sea level.
The areas in question contain anomolous formations of stone which have no known geological provenance.
All known processes have been examined, and after extensive research, the only conclusion possible is that this landscape alteration was caused by man.
The extent of restructuring in these stone covered uplands is considerable although it is difficult to decide what is beyond doubt an altered landscape. The destructive effects of livestock and people has caused much to have been disturbed.
It has only been possible to date this restructuring by reference to existing records. Recent documentation of it exists in Britain. It has been found in Cumbria and Wales(Cummings 2002) and on Bodmin moor(2007 Tilley, Bender and Hamilton). Older records however, make no reference to it. Over 5 square kilometres of altered stonefields have now been found in the Comeraghs and Knockmealdowns. For this widespread practice to have been lost from both the historical records and wider cultural memory suggests it ceased in antiquity.
An assesment based on the denudation of the structures, along with lack of historical records, places the restructuring during the pre Christian era.
The last permafrost event, which produces similar features in Arctic regions, occured 8,000 years ago in Ireland. Taking all things into account, the structures are too well preserved to be of such an age.
The most important factor in determining which areas have undergone alteration is extensive fieldwork. It is only by examining as much as possible that repetition of structure and theme become apparent. Awareness of this repetition is crucial in deciding which areas were altered, and can only be achieved by many hours in the field.
Areas with the most exposed stone contain the most formations. As much as fifty per cent however, is so badly damaged that only the faintest traces of alteration exist. There are areas where the the rocks have been left in their natural positions, but these are the exception. They do however provide a comparison to the restructured areas of stone, and indicate the anomolous nature of them.
The most common theme is the angled slab or propped stone. As with all the features examined, these can range in size. Whilst some consist of only 3 or 4 book sized stones, others use rocks weighing many tons. The majority of the propped stones are long and tapering, or flat and lozenge shaped. In the majority of cases, the stones are supported with the longest taper, or corner of the rock, pointing skywards. Study of these propped stones in February 2010 showed no link between the angles at which the rocks are supported, or the direction they point. All points of the compass are covered, as are all angles. Many hundreds of propped stones have now been documented.
(The Irish dolmen is a larger version of a propped stone. Its visibility in the landscape was important. It is doubtful therefore that any were covered with mounds, evidence of which has never been produced.)
The second most common theme is the bowl shaped depression. These range in size from less than 1 metre across, to the extraordinary example at Glendalligan.(Grid ref.22780/10215). Some of the smaller bowls are badly denuded, although larger examples remain clearly defined, consisting of saucer shaped hollows of small rocks encircled by larger stones. In some cases a crudely formed back wall or single propped boulder may occur, or a nucleus of small to medium sized pieces of quartz can be found.
Pits are more obvious but less numerous features, being clearly defined and often surrounded by upcast. Most are around a metre in depth and diameter.
The pits are the most obvious man made features, and their presence in the landscape with the propped slabs and bowls suggests that none are the result of natural process. All 3 themes are in close association, and form part of the same restructuring process.
The condition of the landscape before alteration is unclear. The stone patches can be found on level and steeply sloping ground. Whilst having the appearance of scree, the patches are not scree in the normal sense as there is rarely an exposed rockface upslope to souce such material. Most of the stones occupy hollows, making the removal of the surface layer a pausible explanation for their exposure.
REASONS FOR CONSTRUCTION.
There seems to be no strict code of construction, and although many of the formations are similar in theme or design, none are identical. It appears that the aim of the builders was to create individual structures which could be identified personally. This suggests that the formations were to be revisited, and that recognition by groups or individuals was necessary.
Possible evidence to support this was found in April 2008, when burnt stone was found at the centre of several bowls. Excavation may provide the reasons for these bunt stones, although it is possible they were burnt elsewhere then deposited in the bowls.
Outside the grouping of propped stones, pits and bowls, there are many other structures with no geological explanation. The crescent at Glendalligan(Grid ref.22812/10218), the stone ring in Coum Mahon(Grid.ref23240/10855) and the balanced boulder at Foilanprisoon(Grid.ref23296/10903) are among the most obvious.
There are hundreds of finely balanced boulders within the Comeraghs. Until recently, most would have been regarded as glacial erratics, but their number alone makes this doubtful. Glacial erratics require a precise set of circumstances which makes them infrequent. In addition, many of the balanced boulders within the Comeraghs are supporetd on small chocking stones, such chock stones being present within many recognized monuments. The probability of such chocked boulders occuring once naturally is small. The chance of them occuring in a cluster, as at Kilcooney(Grid.ref23290/10990) is highly remote.
If the balanced boulders are glacial erratics, they must have been in place for around ten thousand years. Many however, are so finely balanced, that the slightest earth tremor would dislodge them. Therefore has there been no seismic activity in Ireland since the last ice age, or were the boulders raised more recently?
Taking all factors into account, the evidence points to the widespread alteration of the upland landscape of south east Ireland. Much of the this alteration is very subtle, with the various structures and formations blending so well into the landscape that they are almost invisible. if this was intentional on the part of the builders, then it is a remarkable undertaking.
Preliminary work in west Cork and Galway has failed to find evidence of similar alteration. That documented so far is confined to the south east of the country. This area extended northwards in January 2009, with the discovery of similar features in the Wicklow mountains.
Rockfield alteration was also discovered in the Prescelli mountains in Wales in November 2011, confirming that the practice was undertaken in two seperate countries.
This landscape alteration represents a previously overlooked aspect of Irish archaeology. Many thousands of individuals must have participated in it, over many centuries. It evidently played a major role in the lives of those involved, with the most plausible, but not the only explanation being related to the disposal of the dead.
The formations occur at high altitudes, on land unfit for cultivation. The disposal of the dead, or their cremated remains in such areas would be logical in terms of land use.
"Reading the Irish landscape", the book by Michael Ryan and the late Frank Mitchell, states the following on the subject.
"Even allowing for what may have been destroyed, the cemeteries so far documented do not account for the whole population, and other forms of burial or disposal were practised which left little or no trace on the landscape....What we have in the burial record therefore, represents only a tiny fragment of the whole picture." (1986, Mitchell and Ryan.)
The Comeragh/Knockmealdown stone formations have deteriorated over time, but they have left a trace. The best preserved examples are to be found in the most remote areas of the mountains. Many of the structures are fragile, with the smaller stone patches susceptible to trampling. Where forestry operations commence, all traces of the practice large or small is obliterated.
This previously forgotten and evidently important undertaking raises many questions, not least the reason for it. Other issues relating to population levels and density may also arise.
With similar features having been found along western Britain, the question of origin remains. Were the stone formations a cultural export from Britain, or did they originate in Ireland and travel east? If answers to these questions can be found, then a major advance in the cultural understanding of our ancestors is possible.