Crannogs: a study of people’s interaction with lakes, with particular reference to Lough Gara in the north-west of Ireland by CHRISTINA FREDENGREN
Wordwell. 2002. 332 pages, 12 colour plates, 74 figures, 8 tables, CD-Rom. ISBN 1 869857 56 9

This book is a significant addition to research on that diverse group of sites popularly termed ‘crannogs’ - artificial islands built at various points throughout prehistory and into the historic period. Fredengren presents the results of a substantial programme of research undertaken at Lough Gara on the border of Counties Sligo and Roscommon. She uses this material to challenge traditional explanations of why people built crannogs in the past. In doing so, she draws on contemporary theoretical developments in landscape archaeology to develop a persuasive argument for the social and symbolic significance of these places. Although it focuses exclusively on the Irish literature on crannogs, this volume will be of interest to those working on similar sites elsewhere, as well as to researchers in wetland archaeology generally.

In Part I, Fredengren reminds the reader that building an artificial island is not the simplest way to defend property or to provide a suitable location for fishing - two of the primary reasons given in the archaeological literature for the construction of crannogs. The people who built these structures, she argues, chose to do so not only because they would prove useful for the exploitation or protection of economic resources, but also because of what islands meant to them. In our own society, islands provide a source of metaphor and imagery. They conjure up visions of independence and social isolation; their inaccessibility renders them objects of mystery - destinations to which we long to travel; at the same time, their manageable dimensions makes them potential utopias - places in which it might just be possible to create an ideal world in miniature. The author suggests that we must look to equivalent systems of meaning in the past to understand why it was that ancient societies considered the construction of crannogs to be the best solution to certain social, economic and religious requirements.

Part II outlines a history of crannog research and sets out the author’s own theoretical perspective. The history of crannog research is carefully contextualised in relation to contemporary meta-narratives. For example, much of nineteenth and early twentieth century work on these sites was concerned with the ethnicity and origins of crannog builders and whether the occupants of these sites could be considered crude savages or civilised and independent peoples. The answer, of course, depended as much on the writer’s political stance as on the nature of the archaeological record itself. More recent writings on crannogs have tended to favour functional explanations for their construction and use. In contrast, the Fredengren expands on recent postprocessual discussions of landscape to suggest that watery places and the islands within them have meanings that transcend the purely economic. The symbolic significance attached to places such as islands have a fundamental impact on how people perceive and use these parts of the landscape. However, the author wisely steers away from approaches which explain all human action in terms of ritual or symbolism. Instead, she argues that both economic and social concerns would have played a role in the building of crannogs. She draws on studies in anthropology, sociology and economics to argue that economic activities are always socially embedded. In other words, social structures, cultural aspirations and value systems are the major factors which shape the economic choices people make. As such, the construction of crannogs would not simply have provided people with a place from which to access the resources of lakes and wetlands; their use would also have helped to maintain certain social relationships and to reproduce ways of viewing the world that served particular political ends.

Here, Fredengren’s own stance as an ‘anti-capitalist’ archaeologist is made clear. She rightly points out that archaeologists have all to often projected modern western economics onto the past. The idea of the goal-oriented individual setting out to maximise economic production with minimum risk and effort is one that pervades contemporary thought; however, people in the past may have had quite different reasons for choosing to build crannogs. Unfortunately, the theoretical discussion in this section is rather dense and assumes considerable prior knowledge on the part of the reader. This means that many of the arguments that Fredengren puts forward do not come over as clearly or as strongly as perhaps they could. At other times, she makes points that have been already been the focus of considerable discussion within archaeology (for example, the need to move beyond the Cartesian dualisms inherent in much post-Enlightenment thinking), although she does not always give due recognition to previous work. This means that certain ideas are presented as if they were quite new; while this may be so in the context of Irish archaeology, this is not necessarily so for the discipline in general.

Part III discusses the importance of the lake and the monuments in and around it to the local communities living in the Lough Gara area today. Some crannogs remain in use today, for example as hides for duck shooting. This underlines the author’s contention that crannogs are not static entities which can be ascribed to a particular chronological period - in fact, they are still being ‘created’ today in the sense that people’s continuous re-use and ‘re-imaginings’ of these places turns them into something new. Fredengren goes on to describe the study area, her own programme of survey, and previous surveys of the lake and its environs. She presents a typology of Lough Gara crannogs and maps the distribution of different types around the lake. Three primary crannog forms are identified: platform crannogs, low-cairn crannogs and high-cairn crannogs. The results of the project’s programme of radiocarbon dating are presented here. These suggest that the types of crannogs constructed may have changed over time from platform crannogs (Mesolithic) to low-cairn crannogs (later prehistoric and early Medieval) to high-cairn crannogs (late Medieval). In fact, the potential Mesolithic dating of platform crannogs is based on two dates from a single site, so the author’s model for change over time may perhaps overstretch the evidence. The sequence of ten dates from the Late Bronze Age, on the other hand, certainly challenges recent assumptions that crannogs are primarily a feature of the early Middle Ages. Moreover, dates from three of the sites indicate episodes of rebuilding and re-use over considerable periods of time. This supports the author’s argument that crannogs can often be seen as places with lengthy histories - histories which might remain in people’s consciousness long after their original construction, and which may be part of the reason for their later re-use.

Part IV contextualises the survey data in relation to other sites in and around Lough Gara from the Mesolithic through to the Late Medieval period. It is perhaps surprising that this part of the book is laid out in chronological order given the author’s previous criticisms regarding the narratives of progress embedded in traditional archaeological accounts; as she points out elsewhere, this model of temporality rationalises modern western social and economic forms by situating them at the apex of human development. This criticism aside, it is refreshing to see a thorough consideration of the relationship between crannogs and contemporary dryland sites. During the Mesolithic, activities in the local area focused around the lake edges. Mesolithic crannogs were low-profile features that would probably have been covered by water during the winter months, and Fredengren suggests that there would have been a distinct seasonal pattern to their use. More tenuous, perhaps, is her suggestion regarding the link between the lake and the dead. Human remains dating to the Mesolithic have been found in water elsewhere in Ireland, and the author argues that this connection would also have held true for Lough Gara. She argues that some of the lithic material from the lake edges might once have formed part of votive deposits placed in the water. Red ochre has been identified on lithic tools from Mount Sandel and, as this substance is regularly associated with Mesolithic burials in Scandinavia and elsewhere, Fredengren proposes that stone tools could stand metaphorically for the ancestors. The lithic reduction process, for example, might have been likened to human reproduction and descent. Hence, the deposition of stone tools and waste in the waters at Lough Gara created a conceptual link between the lake and the dead. Certainly, it seems likely that the lake was a culturally significant place during the Mesolithic, but the interpretative links that Fredengren makes at this point seem to stretch the evidence a little too far.

During the Neolithic, the focus of activity moved away from the lake towards other parts of the landscape, notably mountains. However, the author makes the interesting suggestion that the Mesolithic use of islands (bounded spaces) pre-adapted people to a Neolithic lifestyle in which the process of enclosure (the delineation of houses, fields and sacred places) was a significant element of the new cultural package. With the building of tombs and other ritual monuments in the Neolithic, alternative foci of activity were created away from Lough Gara. These ‘tribal nodes’, as Fredengren terms them, remained important through the Bronze and Iron Age, creating a tension in the landscape between the lake and the newer ceremonial centres. In the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age, there was a new phase of crannog-building at Lough Gara, associated with the deposition of metalwork and human remains in the lake. The presence of particular concentrations of such ‘votive deposits’ at the edges of crannog sites leads Fredengren to suggest that during this period these structures were specifically built to facilitate deposition in the lake. Evidence for metalworking from crannogs of this period, she argues, need not run contrary to this suggestion. The transformative processes involved in the production of metal from ore or the recycling of broken objects to create new ones means that in many societies this activity is seen as both magical and dangerous. A conceptual association with death is not unusual, nor is the location of workshops at ‘liminal’ locations; just as metalworking involves the transformation of substances from one state to another, places on the boundaries between land and water, or between this world and the otherworld, provide suitable contexts for this activity. This is a convincing argument, but it could have greatly benefited from comparison with similar sites in other parts of north-west Europe, not least other Late Bronze Age timber ‘platforms’ such as Flag Fen and Shinewater in Britain.

The Early Middle Ages provide most evidence for the construction and use of crannogs at Lough Gara. During this period, the tribal nodes established during the Neolithic continued to be important places in the local landscape. This section discusses the distribution of sites such as ogham stones, early churches and ringforts, and suggests that the location of crannogs is peripheral to most of these sites. The author also presents the results of the excavation of a small Early Medieval crannog carried out at part of this project (details of the excavation are provided on the accompanying CD-Rom). This work demonstrates how the meaning and use of such sites could change radically over even a relatively short period of time. During the early phases of its use, the crannog appears to have been a primarily domestic structure with a house and areas for craftworking activities such as textile production. Later, the house was abandoned, the crannog was covered with a layer of shattered stone and it became an open-air platform for the forging of iron. Interestingly, a Neolithic arrowhead and scraper appear to have been incorporated into the occupation layers near the centre of the house, and Fredengren argues that this was a way of deliberately referencing the past.

Contrasts between the finds from this site and those from contemporary ‘royal’ sites such as Lagore indicate that crannogs were built and used by both high and low status families. The author suggests that one of the reasons why crannogs were constructed in such large numbers during this period was because of an increasing desire for privacy. Changes in family structure and political organisation in the Early Medieval period meant that an ability to distance and even exclude other social groups through particular forms of architecture became vital to the functioning of the social order. Crannogs and ringforts provided two different ways of achieving this. However, Fredengren does not fully explain why certain groups chose to build their settlements on lakes which - on the basis of contemporary documentary sources - appear to have been places associated with monsters and demons from the otherworld.

The Late Middle Ages saw the construction of high-cairn crannogs. In contrast to older sites, such crannogs could have been a focus for year-round activity as they would not have been greatly affected by seasonal changes in water level. The more regular use of stone as the primary building material in crannogs of this period lends them a monumental character that earlier sites would not have possessed. There is some evidence for the pairing of crannogs with high status dryland sites near the lakeshore (including moated sites and castles), and Fredengren suggests that crannogs now acted as material symbols for the status, independence and stability of local Gaelic lordships.

To sum up, this is a well-researched book which contains a wealth of information on the Lough Gara crannogs as well as innovative interpretations of the changing role and significance of these structures over several millennia. Nonetheless, there are a number of minor problems which could be raised. It would doubtless have been useful to compare and contrast work on similar sites elsewhere in Europe, particularly in Scotland. At times, the discussion in section IV is very generalised; for example, Fredengren’s description of the Irish Mesolithic is extremely broad, and her interpretation of the Lough Gara material seems to depend as much on information from contemporary sites elsewhere in Ireland as on her own data (she does explicitly acknowledge this problem, however). Although the figures are in general very high quality, there are problems with some of them. For example, figure 12 does not match its in-text description on page 82, while figure 13 shows nine high-cairn crannogs rather than the twelve claimed on page 83. A more thorough integration of the theoretical content of Part II with the data presented subsequently would have been particularly valuable; the ‘anti-Capitalist’ stance which Fredengren espouses in Part II becomes a low-key subtext in later chapters of the book and the reader is left to work out for herself the influence of different elements of postprocessual thinking on the interpretations presented in Part IV. It was only in the final paragraph in the book that this was brought into focus again. Here, Fredengren argues that a primary role of archaeology in the contemporary world should be to make places meaningful. Archaeological knowledge of Lough Gara provides the local community with the resources to resist the commodification of their landscape. This is one way of giving archaeology a positive role in the present, and such an aim certainly sits well with the ‘anti-Capitalist’ aspirations of the author. Out of the entire volume, it was these few sentences that really made this reader sit up and think - providing an excellent and thought-provoking ending to what is overall a very interesting read.

Jo Brück

Review Submitted: September 2003

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

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