David Mullen visits one of Europe’s most important archaeological treasures.
It’s bleak and windswept this part of Mayo. Ruggedly beautiful might, perhaps, be a more generous term, especially on this stretch of road between Ballina and Belmullet with sea cliffs on one side and miles of hills and blanket bog on the other. Beneath the heather though, these bogs hide secrets — the secrets of ancient, dark-skinned, blue-eyed ancestors who, though their lives were very different to ours, in some ways were more similar to us than we might first think.
Footing turf isn’t as common these days as it was back in the 1930s when local schoolmaster, Patrick Caulfield, used to take to the bogs. One of the things he began to notice was that when he’d dig down far enough, he would come across long lines piled-up of stones, not dissimilar to the kind of stone walls used to mark out hundreds of thousands of fields across Ireland. Considering, however, that blanket bogs take some thousands of years to form, if these were man-made, he thought, they must be very ancient indeed.
Although Caulfield wrote to the National Museum in Dublin about his discovery, by 1939 the Emergency had been proclaimed due to the war in Europe, and, with rationing in place, the museum couldn’t spare the petrol to send someone out to investigate. It would be another forty years before someone would look further into the archaeological treasure that was the Céide Fields. It just so happens that that someone was Patrick Caulfield’s son.
Clearly the tales of the remains of ancient civilizations hidden under the peat had had an effect on Seamus Caulfield; after he left school, Seamus studied archaeology eventually becoming a professor of the discipline at UCD.
In the 1970s, Seamus began to look more closely at the area where his father had reported the stone walls below the bog.
It would have been far too time-consuming and damaging to excavate the whole area, so he and his students began to map what lay beneath the ground by using iron rods which were traditionally used to search for bog oak and pine. When he inserted the rod and felt rock below the surface, he could get an idea of the line of the wall and was, as such, able to correspondingly map where the walls ran.
Caulfield’s investigations in the area turned up a vast complex — covering thousands of acres — of what appeared to be a very ancient field system with some of the field walls running for more than two kilometres. The fields appeared to be roughly rectangular in shape and, as well as the walls, the remains of circular and rectangular houses were also discovered nearby, not far from several megalithic tombs about which much was already known.