Tracking the Past

Guiding the oxen

Bogs are mysterious and dangerous places now, and they were even more so for our ancestors. The raised bogs of the midlands were laid down after the ice age and covered vast areas of land, creating difficulties and opportunities for prehistoric peoples.


The top photo and this one are of the imaginatively assembled diorama showing how the trackway was built

Turf cutters find things in bogs all the time – last year we wrote about the extensive field systems under the blanket bogs of the Ceide Fields of Mayo. Bog bodies are the most fascinating finds no doubt, but all kinds of organic materials can be preserved in the acidic and anaerobic environment of the bog.

Section and Pegs 2

A long section of trackway has been conserved and is on view in a climate-controlled room

In  Corlea, County Longford, what was found turned out to be the longest and largest Iron Age trackway ever discovered. It was excavated by Dr Barry Raftery in the late 80s/early 90s and a whole section of it is conserved and on display in an attractive visitor’s centre in Corlea, which is located exactly where the trackway was found. Noel Carbery was our guide on a recent visit and we couldn’t have asked for a more enthusiastic and knowledgeable person to answer our questions and show us around. 

Visitor Centre

Building the road was a massive undertaking and must have taken hundreds of people working together. Using dendrochronology to date the oak, archaeologists determined that the trackway was constructed in 148BC, placing it in the Iron Age. It is speculated that it provided a routeway from the Shannon to the royal inauguration site of Rathcroghan in Co Roscommon, allowing wheeled vehicles to cross the bog. We can picture warriors in their chariots and full regalia following a ceremonial way to some great feast at Cruachain.

The trackway was held in place by means of wooden stakes

Ironically, its very magnitude proved its undoing – it was so heavy it sank into the bog within ten years of being built. Oak planks were laid on runners, occasionally supported by additional brushwood, and fixed in place with stakes which served to peg the boards to the underlying peat and keep them from moving around. A layer of peat on top may have helped to even out the surface.


Gaps are filled in with branches and saplings of oak, ash or birch

The builders showed considerable skill in splitting the logs to form planks and in whittling the stakes and boring the sockets, using metal axes and adzes. Gaps were filled in with round saplings  and brushwood.


Top left – 2000 year old silver birch bark, beautifully preserved. Top right – some shrinkage of the interior wood is visible. Below – is this woodworm?

The excavation and conservation was as large an effort as building the road. Once the planks were revealed they had to be kept dry, then immersed in special substances and freeze dried. Finally, they were returned to Corlea, to the new visitor centre where they are kept in climate-controlled conditions. Nevertheless, some deterioration is inevitable and on our visit we observed shrinkage of one runner away from its bark, and some signs of what looked like woodworm in one of the planks, indicating the difficult task of conserving two thousand year old timbers.


There is lots of fascinating information at the Visitor Centre about other trackways (including some from much earlier) and about building methods. I particularly loved the little diorama that an artist had made showing the trackway under construction. We also learned a lot about the bog itself, which surrounds the Visitor Centre on all sides.

Modern Bog Trackway

Top – a modern bog trackway, in the form of narrow-gauge railway tracks. Below left – this bog is being ‘milled’ to provide fuel for a power station. Below right – a more traditional cutting to provide domestic fuel

The Corlea Trackway deserves to be much better known than it is. I highly recommend a visit if you’re anywhere close by – it’s not everyday you get to walk beside a 2000 year old royal road!

Home sweet home

Irish Farming – 6,000 Years Ago

The Céide Fields Visitor Centre

The Céide Fields Visitor Centre

How did we farm in Ireland in Neolithic times? Turns out, much as we do now!

We’re just back from an inspiring trip to Mayo, the highlight of which was a visit to the largest Neolithic site in the world – the Céide Fields (pronounced Kay-jeh, for our non-Irish readers).

Collapsed field walls under the bog. The white stakes mark the line of the uncovered wall

Collapsed field walls under the bog. The white stakes mark the line of the uncovered wall

When we think of the Neolithic (or New Stone Age, or Early Farming) period in Ireland, we automatically think of the megalithic tombs – spectacular sites like Newgrange and Loughcrew, or the smaller portal tombs, like Poulnabrone or Arderrawinny. But how did these people make their living? What were their daily lives like? We found the answers, going back almost 6,000 years, at the Céide Fields.

The extent of the fields around the Visitor Centre

The extent of the fields around the Visitor Centre

The Céide Fields is an extensive system of enclosures, stretching for kilometres from the sea over the hills, used for livestock farming. Occasionally, besides grazing fields, there is evidence for corrals, grain-growing, and farmhouses. In fact, much like we see around us in West Cork nowadays, people lived in their own farmhouses, surrounded by their fields, within sight of their neighbours.

This enclosure surrounded a farmhouse

This enclosure surrounded a farmhouse

Society was cooperative – it had to be, in order for such an enormous network of fields to be constructed. And life was peaceful: there is no evidence of defensive structures. The weather was warmer than now – warm enough so cattle could graze outside all winter – and there was enough land and food for everyone.

They quarried rocks for fences and for structure like court tombs

They quarried rocks for fences and for structure like court tombs

They had a spiritual life, building their own version of megaliths – the Court Tombs. We were fortunate to meet the manager of the Céide Fields site, Gretta Byrne, who gave us directions to Rathlackan Court Tomb – a site she had excavated. Court tombs are a type of chambered tomb, generally oriented towards the east and featuring a forecourt at the front of a long mound that covered the chambers. Rathlackan is a fine example, with three chambers and a nicely preserved forecourt. It took a highly organised society to build a complex structure such as this.

In the 1930s a local schoolteacher, Patrick Caulfield, first discovered what were clearly pre-bog collapsed walls when cutting peat in the deep blanket bog that covers this part of Mayo. Decades later his son, Seamus, now an archaeologist, headed the investigations that led to the realisation of how extensive the field system was. Mostly this was done by probing – sending a thin metal bar down through the soft peat until it hit a rock. This technique was so successful that miles of walls could be charted without the need to excavate. Excavation focussed on uncovering small sections of wall and features like enclosures and house-sites.

I take a hand at probing

I take a hand at probing

About 5,200 years ago, a combination of climate change and forest clearance led to the development of the blanket bog that covers the land today and ultimately forced these Neolithic people, after 500 years of successful farming, to abandon their fields. The ecology of bogland and the conditions that create it are the subject of some of the museum exhibits and also of the excellent guided tour that covered two hectares behind the Visitor Centre.

A section of wall disappears under the bog

A section of wall disappears under the bog

If you find yourself in this part of Ireland, do plan a visit to the Céide Fields. Take some bug spray – although they weren’t in evidence when we were there, the Céide midges have a reputation for ferocity. Enjoy the display in the award-winning Visitor Centre first and fortify yourself with a coffee and cake.

This pine came from the bog

This pine came from the bog

Once outside, as you walk along beside the ancient stone walls, look across the valley towards Downpatrick, and marvel at the continuity of a way of life – small cattle farms among stone-walled fields – that began almost 6,000 years ago.

This scene, in Galway, could have happened 6,000 years ago in North Mayo

This scene, in Galway, could have happened 6,000 years ago in North Mayo

We’ll let Seamus Heaney have the last word. His poem, Belderg, was inspired by the Céide Fields:

When he stripped off blanket bog

The soft-piled centuries

Fell open like a glib;

There were the first plough-marks,

The stone-age fields, the tomb

Corbelled, turfed and chambered,

Floored with dry turf-coomb.

A landscape fossilized,

Its stone wall patternings

Repeated before our eyes

In the stone walls of Mayo.

Looking towards Downpatrick Head from the Visitor Centre

Looking towards Downpatrick Head from the Visitor Centre