The Summer Fieldwork Season – The wilds of Kerry, Cork & the Orkneys

Benjamin Gearey is lecturer in Environmental Archaeology in the Department of Archaeology at University College Cork. He is a member of the Editorial Board for Open Quaternary and has research interests in the areas of peatland palaeoecology and archaeology. In this week’s post, he outlines his field trips to peat bogs in Ireland and Scotland during the Summer of 2014.

The departure of the undergraduates in the early Summer means two things for many of us based in University departments: the beginning of the fieldwork and conference season. Actually, it really means three things but I’m not going to discuss my summer holidays in this post (Portugal, for the record). Instead I’m going to provide a short retrospective of the ‘fields’ that I visited in the Summer of 2014. With my teaching loaded heavily into Semester 2 (January to March) and subsequent exams and marking, I try to cram most fieldwork (and as many conferences as possible) into the summer months. I suppose this short post is the academic’s equivalent of those old ‘what I did in my summer holidays’ reports we used to have to do when we went back to school in September.

Figure 1. The Imlagh Basin, Valencia Island (Photo: Brian Mac Domhnaill)

Figure 1. The Imlagh Basin, Valencia Island (Photo: Brian Mac Domhnaill)

I’m not long in my new post in the Department of Archaeology at UCC (Cork) and my first foray of the summer was a local jaunt with two colleagues into the wilds of County Kerry in southwest Ireland. I wanted to scope out a few sites and landscapes over that way and headed west to Valentia Island, the far southwestern edge of Ireland [map]. I was keen visit an area of peatland on Valentia that had originally been investigated by the late, great Professor Frank Mitchell. In particular, I wanted to see if I could relocate two prehistoric sites he had identified in the peatland of the Imlagh basin: a possible Mesolithic-Neolithic site described as a ‘platform’ and another potential Bronze Age ‘slab trackway’. Despite the pitfalls of crossing a much overgrown, cut-over bog surface, this proved a half-successful trip on a beautiful June day (Figure 1): we found the Bronze Age site but the prehistoric platform is located in a the face of a drain which is now much overgrown, not to mention half full of uninviting looking peaty water.

Figure 2.  Prehistoric rock (Coomasaharn) Co. Kerry, Ireland (Photo: Ben Gearey)

Figure 2. Prehistoric rock (Coomasaharn) Co. Kerry, Ireland (Photo: Ben Gearey)

The next couple of days included a hike up into the Kerry uplands to look at the extensive areas of eroding blanket peat and a visit to some of the wonderful Co. Kerry prehistoric rock art. Some fantastic examples of this are located in areas of now cut-over peatland (Figure 2). For an environmental archaeologist with a particular interest in peatland palaeoecology and archaeology, the west of Ireland is a cornucopia of possibilities for research. I have an M. phil. student who has just started a project based in West Kerry; given the extent of peatland round those parts, his biggest problem now is to identify exactly what sites will be best for his particular research interests.

The trip to the far west of Ireland was followed by a trip to the far north of Scotland: The Orkneys. I’d never ventured that far into the Scottish wilds before and an invite to visit Professor Colin Richards‘ excavations at Smerquoy [map] was too good an opportunity to turn down. I spent just over a week there, managing in that time to visit the iconic prehistoric sites such as Skara Brae [map] and the Tomb of the Eagles [map] and also to carry out some exploratory coring of a small peatland located close to Colin’s excavations. Despite continued palaeoenvironmental and archaeological work and thought, the debate concerning the precise question of the character and extent of early Holocene woodland on Orkney, the timing of its clearance by Neolithic peoples and relationship to the stone-built Neolithic domestic and monumental structures shows no signs of being definitively settled one way or the other. Hopefully analysis of the core we took this summer may provide further palaeoenvironmental data to allow us to weigh into this particular fray.

Figure 3. Inter-tidal peats on the coast of east Cork.

Figure 3. Inter-tidal peats on the coast of east Cork.

The summer tends to fly by rather quickly – by the time I’d attended two conferences: In The Bog in Sheffield, and the European Association of Archaeologists meeting in the rather more exotic surroundings of Istanbul, September was looming large. There was time for another couple of short trips into the field, including another memorable day out under blue skies, looking at inter-tidal peat deposits on the coast close to Cork. Intertidal peat deposits (Figure 3) were launched into the public consciousness in Ireland following the exposure of previously buried deposits that resulted from of the battering the coast took during the storms last winter. There is much potential for further palaeoenvironmental and archaeological study of these deposits. With the advent of semesterisation here at UCC, students re-appear early in that month and before you know it, summer is a distant memory and teaching takes over. Now begins work on the samples I collected in the field and planning of field trips and conferences for Summer 2015. . . hopefully the skies will be just as blue next year.


About downwithtime

Assistant scientist in the Department of Geography at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Studying paleoecology and the challenges of large data synthesis.
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