In October 2013 I made a trip to County Mayo, northwest Ireland, ostensibly to visit friends, but also to visit the Céide Fields visitor centre. Céide has a wonderfully extensive landscape of prehistoric coaxial field systems, which has been preserved so effectively by several metres of peat and blanket bog that have developed on top of them. Field walls were first unearthed in the 1930s by the local school teacher, Patrick Caulfield, as he was digging peat in his garden in Belderrig, 7km west of Céide. Years later, his son, Seamus, went on to become an archaeologist (and eventually professor) and returned to investigate the Belderrig and Céide field systems (Caulfield 1978, 1998). Years of research ensued, which included tracing the lines of the field boundaries for kilometres under the peat by using an iron rod to probe the ground: when the metal rod is driven into the soft peat, the operator can feel whether or not there is a stone boundary at the bottom which can then be mapped to reveal walls, buildings and tombs.
Over the years more than a thousand hectares of fields have been traced in this way, revealing an expansive managed landscape. Radiocarbon and pollen dates obtained from materials across the site indicate that the field systems were already abandoned and covered in peat by 2500BC (Caulfield 1998) making them the earliest known field systems of this type in the world. The remains of the walls – which must contain many thousands of tons of stone – indicate a coherent and structured Neolithic society, with sufficient labour resources to clear woodland, divide up and maintain the land in an organised manner. The large area and extent of the fields suggest they were used for pastoral farming, although the team have discovered some early plough marks in the vicinity of settlement.
All this is particularly interesting in the light of the Yorkshire Dales field systems, given that the Irish examples appear so similar in form yet date several thousand years earlier than the presumed date of their Bronze/Iron Age Yorkshire counterparts.
The arrangement of archaeology and visitors’ centre at Céide is fantastic – definitely a lesson in presenting ancient archaeological landscapes that could potentially be so uninspiring. The undertaking comes under the jurisdiction of the Office of Public Works and appears to be a success, attracting numerous visitors in a location where it is very difficult to be ‘just passing’. The centre itself is a striking pyramid cut into the blanket bog; inside, it is built around a large, gnarled scots pine tree trunk, around 5000 years old, that was preserved in the local peat.
One of the most notable aspects of the Céide visitor centre is the emphasis that is put on the field systems as a landscape, as opposed to just a site. This is underlined by the large proportion of the exhibition that is dedicated to the regional geology, geography and the local formation of peat and blanket bog. The exhibitions spiral up to the top of the building, where a viewing gallery (incorporating a glass-covered all-weather option – this is Ireland, after all) affords extensive views over the centre and beyond, placing the fields firmly in the context of the dramatic cliffs and expansive panoramas of the north Mayo coast. Definitely worth a visit!
Caulfield, S. 1978. Neolithic fields: the Irish evidence. In Bowen, HC & Fowler, PJ (eds) Early land allotment in the British Isles. A survey of recent work: 137-144. British Archaeological Reports 48. Oxford: Archaeopress.
Caulfield, S. 1983 The Neolithic settlement of North Connaught. In Reeves-Smyth, T & Hammond, F (eds) Landscape Archaeology in Ireland: 195-215. British Archaeological Reports 116. Oxford: Archaeopress.
Caulfield, S., R. O’Donnell & P. Mitchell. 1998. 14C dating of a Neolithic field system at Céide fields, county Mayo, Ireland. Radiocarbon 40, 629-40.