Category: Archive

Bogged down

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Dubbed the “Iron Age David Beckham” because of his hair gel, the 5-foot-2 Clonycavan Man lay in a bog for 2,300 years after his brutal ritual murder. And so did another victim, 6-foot-6 Old Croghan Man in County Offaly until he, too, was found a few months later in 2003.
The well-preserved duo had a major documentary about them air on both sides of the Atlantic in January and they’ll go on display soon at the National Museum of Ireland.
Archaeologist Springs, who’s 42, has long had an interest in Irish bogs, but he’s specialized in a period that is a couple of millennia further into the past, the Late Neolithic to Early Bronze Age (2500 – 1800 BC).
For his Masters thesis at the National University of Ireland, Galway, the New Hampshire native studied wedge tombs, a type of megalithic chamber tomb found throughout Northwest Ireland. And now he wants to test new technology to see if it can be used to tell us more about communities that lived 5,000 years ago at the famous Ceide Fields on County Mayo’s coast.
So why are the two men from about 300 BC potentially useful to Springs?
“Raising public awareness at this stage of archaeology’s development is becoming more and more important,” he said. “It protects the sites. It makes people want to know more about them.”
And very different sites from different millennia can provide good media hooks for each other — particularly if they’re in close proximity, argued Jennifer Shaffer, Springs’s fellow graduate student at SUNY, Buffalo, who has joined him on the project. They may not be linked in archaeologists’ minds, but that’s not important. “We need the public to be behind us,” she said.
Then there’s the question of money. Springs’s own venture will only be possible if he get can sponsorship to rent equipment, purchase satellite images and maintain himself and his colleague while there.
Springs wants to test the usefulness of remote sensing and geophysical survey techniques in Irish bogs. “The geophysical methods I want to explore are ground-penetrating radar and S-wave seismic reflection,” he said.
“Ground radar has been round for a while, the better part of a decade or longer,” Springs said.
“It’s been used extensively with good results in other areas,” he said. “It’s just starting to be used in Ireland.”
Indeed someone has already tried ground-penetrating radar (which sends low-level microwaves into the ground) at Ceide Fields but the results weren’t particularly impressive. Having consulted with other experts, however, Springs believes that by also using S-wave seismic reflection (technology used for example on submarines), he could make a breakthrough.
Ireland is not particularly lagging behind in the field, according to Shaffer, a native of Pennsylvania. “The lack of technology is a product of the environment,” she said, pointing to Ireland’s damp soil conditions, which can stump the newest methods.
As for the process itself, she added: “You are there. You are controlling the machine as you go over the ground.”
There are inevitable hazards of working in bogs. Springs said: “I have stepped in soft areas. You have take your foot out of the your Wellington and then pull it out of the bog.
“It can be treacherous. Sometimes you have to put a track of 2x4s over a soft area,” said Springs, who got his first Masters degree at the Harvard Extension School.
His first encounter with Irish archaeology came after he answered an ad about a site in the Burren, Co, Clare, several years ago.
Shaffer, a 24-year-old graduate of Cornell, has worked at sites in Honduras, Denmark and England, but it was a bus trip of Ireland (her mother’s family is from Cork) that sparked an interest in its archaeology. She developed a particular interest is the Late Iron Age-Early Medieval period, which coincides with the transition to Christianity.
She is excited, nonetheless, by Springs’s proposed 5,000 leap back in time.
But just what are the differences between Clonycavan Man’s time, for example, and much further back in Ireland’s prehistory?
“In the Bronze Age, we just don’t know what family of languages they spoke. Some scholars talk about pre-Celtic Ireland – Ireland before Celtic languages were spoken,” Springs said.
“There was the change in technologies, of course,” he added.
“And there was a significant cultural change. Burial [communal] monuments that were used in the Neolithic and Early Bronze age, by the Iron Age, have given way to single burials,” he said.
As for the shift to Celtic Ireland, New Hampshire native Springs said, it raises one of the great questions archaeologists face worldwide: “Is it a change of people or a change of ideas?” he said. Was there a massive influx of Celtic speakers or just a few?
Generally, the “invasion hypothesis” has been downgraded, he said, but not completely debunked.
And the change-of-ideas hypothesis gets support from geneticists such as Prof. Dan Bradley and his team at Trinity College. Bradley has argued that 98 percent of farmers in the West of Ireland are directly descended from the original settlers who farmed there several thousand years ago.
The Museums of Mayo Web site stresses the continuity, too, commenting that the excavation is “yielding a unique picture of the way of life of our ancestors 250 generations ago.”
The significance of Ceide Fields was discovered in the 1930s by a schoolteacher, Patrick Caulfield of Belderrig. Often when cutting turf, he noticed formations of stones that could only have been assembled by humans, yet they were under several feet of bog, indicating a very ancient settlement.
Decades later, his son, archaeologist Seamus Caulfield, surveyed parts of the area, putting metal rods into the peat. When a rod impacted with something solid, a bamboo rod was inserted into the hole — and this was just the beginning of the long process leading to an excavation.
Studies of the Ceide Fields have been rather general up to now, said Shaffer. “There hasn’t been a big history of asking more social questions: How did they live? What was their subsistence system? What were their religious beliefs?” she said.
Springs said they don’t know what kind of social and family structure they had.
“But we do suspect strongly that they were a pastoral economy, in another words they were raising cattle or sheep,” he said.
From burial patterns, “we know that there were different levels in their society,” Shaffer said.
Making it easier to pinpoint things that answer the various questions that archaeologists want answered would save a considerable amount of time, Springs said.
“This technology is going to help us find megalithic structures: field walls, foundations of a house structure. Knowing where things are, is in and of itself information we can use,” he said.
“It saves so much time and money for everyone involved. And you’re less likely to damage something of cultural significance,” Shaffer said.
In the past, things were found out of their immediate context. They were devalued from a research point of view, even if they made interesting museum artifacts, Springs said.
“Archaeologists are trying to get away from digging up everything, once you’ve dug it up, you’ve destroyed it,” he said. “But we will still do excavations.”
“I hope so, Kurt, or we’re out of a job,” Shaffer said.

Kurt Springs can be can be contacted at SUNY Buffalo at (716) 645-2414 ext 150.

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