adventures in Irish prehistory
The last decade or so has been a time of great expansion in Irish archaeology. The booming economy of the south in particular has led to a tremendous upsurge in development and infrastructure renewal schemes which have in turn led to a substantial increase in the number and scale of developer-funded excavations. The results of this work inevitably challenge many long-held assumptions about Ireland's prehistoric past and force us to re-examine established frameworks of thought. The four volumes reviewed here each attempt to address aspects of this brave new world of Irish prehistory.
Irish prehistory: a social perspective, by Gabriel Cooney and Eoin Grogan, is not a new publication, but rather an interim update of their 1994 volume in advance of a planned 2nd edition. The publication of this book first time around may be seen in retrospect to mark something of a watershed in the study of Irish prehistory, ushering in a period of greater reflection and deepening debate. The book is by no means a comprehensive introduction to Irish prehistory (which is well served by a series of textbooks, most recently Waddell 1998), but rather a commentary on the social dimensions of otherwise familiar evidence. As such it draws heavily on a series of broadly post-processual perspectives which had previously been little explored in an Irish context.
This updated version comprises the unamended text of the original, with the addition of a new 17 page chapter ('New perspectives') in which the authors survey the mass of new data and research which has accumulated since the book was first published. It says much for the speed of current developments in Irish archaeology that such an exercise was felt necessary after only five years, but Cooney and Grogan's brief re- survey demonstrates how much important new work is taking place. For example, the secure dating of the Céide Fields, Co. Mayo, to 3700-3200 cal BC, and the recent work at Roughan Hill, Co. Clare, have demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt the existence of settled and bounded Neolithic landscapes (at least in parts of Ireland) in contrast to the dominant perceptions in much of Britain.
Cooney and Grogan also restate and expand upon some of their original themes, for example the persistence of local and regional identities and social practices across conventional period boundaries, and the socialisation of particular landscapes. Long-lived practices such as hoarding and the special attention accorded to rivers and other watery places are also viewed as part of the way in which people embedded their social lives within specific landscapes and localities. Thus the strong regionality apparently marked by the construction of formal linear boundaries and routeways in the Later Bronze Age and Iron Age may reflect much deeper bonds between people and place stretching back into early prehistory. Overall, this a useful if rather limited update, of what has become an essential book for anyone with a serious interest in Irish prehistory. The full 2nd edition is eagerly anticipated.
Gabriel Cooney's Landscapes of Neolithic Ireland reprises many of the themes set out in Irish prehistory: a social perspective, but here he has more space to develop his ideas within a tighter chronological framework. Again this is not straightforward textbook, and a basic familiarity with the material is more or less assumed. Instead Cooney structures his discussion of the various categories of Neolithic material expression, such as houses, tombs, enclosures, sacred landscapes, stone axes, pottery etc, around a series of unifying themes. He is explicit in attempting to redress the perceived imbalance of descriptive over interpretative approaches which has characterised much previous writing on the Irish Neolithic.
Familiar from his earlier book are Cooney's concerns with the socialisation of the landscape and the importance of seeing regional variation as the expression of distinct identities (as opposed to obstinate divergence from notional 'island-wide norms'). In this study, Cooney is more explicit in his consideration of the multiple layers of time with which archaeologists deal. Acknowledging a debt to the annaliste school, and Braudel in particular, he considers the interplay of human actions and social change at a range of temporal scales, from the human lifetime, through the 'public' or social time of monument building, oral tradition and ritual observance, through to the longue durée of conventional archaeological periodisation.
In his last chapter Cooney incorporates a series of fictionalised narratives to express more fully how he sees the long term development of Neolithic landscapes (specifically the Brú na Bóinne complex). These will not be to everyone's taste in the often conservative world of Irish archaeology, but they do provide a concise encapsulation of much of the more straightforwardly academic argument of previous chapters. In many ways this book represents a realisation of the potential flagged up in Cooney's earlier work. It is a stimulating and absorbing read, though as Cooney admits, by no means the last word on the Irish Neolithic.
While Gabriel Cooney distils a wealth of evidence from across the island, Excavations at Ferriter's Cove 1983-95, by Peter Woodman, Liz Anderson and Nyree Finlay, focuses on a single corner of Co. Kerry. South-west Ireland has often been marginalised in accounts of early Irish prehistory, regarded as almost an 'empty landscape' prior to the Bronze Age. The work reported here explodes that particular myth and will have ramifications for the way we look at the Irish Mesolithic as a whole and the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition in particular.
Work at Ferriter's Cove was triggered by the discovery, by a local amateur archaeologist, of part of a distinctive (rather ironically) Neolithic plano-convex knife associated with a series of eroding coastal deposits. Woodman and his team subsequently initiated excavations which eventually encompassed around 400m2 of a Later Mesolithic land surface fortuitously protected from later disturbance by a deep blanket of sand. These excavations revealed innumerable, individually slight traces of human occupation which combined to suggest repeated human activity over a lengthy period, probably from around 4600-4000 cal BC. The substantial lithic assemblage seemed also to indicate the on-site production of tool types similar to those of the Later Mesolithic elsewhere in Ireland, notably the north-east, but constrained by the range of intractable raw materials, such as rhyolites, sandstones and siltstones.
One of the most significant findings, however, was the presence in the faunal assemblage of cattle bones dating to perhaps as early as 4500 cal BC. This is well before the appearance of anything resembling a Neolithic 'cultural package' in Ireland, around 4000 cal BC, and forces us to examine the possibility of the introduction of domesticated animals to Ireland in a Mesolithic context.
The fourth volume, New Agendas in Irish prehistory represents the proceedings of a conference held in Cork in 1999 in memory of Liz Anderson (co-author of the Ferriter's Cove monograph). It comprises fifteen essays on various aspects of Irish prehistory which aim to 'identify and review a range of current problems in Irish prehistory'. Peter Woodman's opening contribution tackles the problem of 'new agendas' head on, by identifying what he sees as some of the most deep-rooted and insidious problems affecting the way Irish prehistory is studied. These include a rather too deferential attitude to the 'canon' of traditional thought which Woodman sees as hampering progress across the discipline. Like Cooney and Grogan, Woodman cites the problems of artificial period boundaries and monument/artefacts classifications which can prevent the identification of long-term processes and create circularity of argument. Similarly, the tendency to frame our questions in a rather narrow way (for example, to consider the appearance of La Tène art in terms of the 'origins of the Irish') leads to a certain insularity of approach. Instead Woodman suggests that we should be identifying those areas where the rich Irish data-sets can enable us to make contributions to archaeological problems on a European scale. Woodman also sees the tradition of typologically-driven research as responsible for the continued down-playing of those periods which lack characteristic suites of artefactual material (most critically perhaps the Later Mesolithic and Iron Age).
Several other contributions, such as those by Monk, Kimbal and Shee-Twohig, provide useful summaries of the state of play in various aspects of Irish prehistory, especially the Later Mesolithic and Neolithic. Others draw upon the mass of emerging data from recent rescue excavation to elucidate particular issues, e.g. Martin Doody's analysis of the evidence for Bronze Age houses. Elsewhere Maher and Sheehan present a comparative analysis of Dowris period and Viking hoards which raises some useful issues regarding the different assumptions applied to essentially similar data-sets by workers in different periods. In doing so they also provide a small but telling example of the potential benefits of breaking free from traditional period specialisation.
Of particular interest to this reviewer is Barra Ó Donnabháin's contribution on the thorny question of the Irish Iron Age. Much more than in Britain, the Irish Iron Age has long been dominated by questions of Celticity, specifically the 'coming of the Irish', and it is in this period that the inter-twining of contemporary politics and archaeological interpretation is at its most marked. The Celts have been used, for example, both to bolster colonial attitudes (Celts as incoming 'cultural improvers') and to proclaim an Irish identity in opposition to English colonialism (Celts as the original 'Irish'). Ó Donnabháin reviews the 'Celtic paradigm' in Ireland in the light of the recent vigorous debates over the existence and utility of the 'ancient Celts' (e.g. Megaw and Megaw 1996; James 1999). In his view, it is only with the establishment of alternatives to this Celtic paradigm that progress can be made in our understandings of this most elusive slice of Ireland's prehistory.
Questions of regionality are much to the fore throughout the volume, most notably in the contributions by Gabriel Cooney and Sinead McCartan, for the Neolithic and Mesolithic respectively. Both question the tendency to project modern perceptions of regionality, whether based on modern socio-political boundaries or perceived environmental 'zones', onto the prehistoric past. The striking divergence in Later Mesolithic chipped stone traditions either side of the North Channel, for example, seems to defy both the close geographical links and the marked cultural contacts of later times, such as the Neolithic or Early Historic periods.
The volume closes with a general review by John Coles, which echoes some of those issues raised by Woodman. In particular Coles laments the ways in which Ireland is often marginalised in wider accounts of European prehistory, reduced to a check-list of key sites, 'Mount Sandel, Newgrange and Knowth'. In Coles' view, the tendency to treat Irish prehistory as a purely Irish 'story' has been unhelpful in drawing out the wider potential of Ireland as a virtual island laboratory for the study of some of the key cultural transformations in Europe's prehistoric past.
The 'agendas' dealt with in this volume are predominantly academic ones, and there is relatively little coverage of issues relating to the more 'practical' agendas of data acquisition, management and dissemination. The exceptions are Denis Power's update on the work of the Archaeological Survey of Ireland and Caroline Wickham-Jones' discussion of her experiences of publishing on the Web. Given the publication crisis in Irish archaeology, which is perhaps the single most pressing issue facing the discipline (O'Sullivan 2001), this area might have been given rather more coverage. As John Coles points out, it is wonderful to see so much exciting new work unfold in the pages of Archaeology Ireland, but how many of these projects ever see anything approaching full publication? It might also have been useful to have had a rather wider overview of palaeoenvironmental issues, which surely must represent one of the most central areas of future research. There is nonetheless a good deal of important work here which will certainly push the debate further forwards.
The publication of all four volumes demonstrates the flourishing state of Irish prehistory at the transition from the 20th to the 21st century. The last ten years have seen the appearance of major works of syntheses, notably Waddell's Prehistoric Archaeology of Ireland (1998), the realisation of internationally significant research programmes initiated through the Discovery Programme (e.g. Newman 1997, O'Sullivan 1998), publication projects targeting major unpublished excavations, such as Lynn's completion of Waterman's work at Navan (Waterman 1997), and the consolidation of Archaeology Ireland as a vehicle for the swift dissemination of the preliminary results of fieldwork. There is more excavation and survey being carried out now than ever before. The challenge for the next ten years is to design and build the conceptual, academic and management frameworks with which to accommodate the results.
Review Submitted: July 2002
The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.
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