Beneath the boglands of Ireland we can find evidence of our ancestors’ past going back thousands of years.
An ancient wooden trackway, built to carry people walking in single file, was discovered close to the Lung River in the Callow Bog, North County Roscommon in the early 1960s and has been dated to 1165 BC. A wood and stone trackway from the same locality has been dated to 1100 BC.
The wooden trackway was originally several hundred yards in length but large sections had been cut away during turf cutting over the years. It consisted of two parallel wooden planks measuring approximately nine inches in width and eight feet in length. The ends of one pair of planks were placed over the ends of the next pair and they were joined together by two long pegs driven through holes cut in the timbers. In some parts a short piece of roughly cut timber had been placed underneath to provide additional support.
The second wood and stone trackway was discovered directly across the Lung River and measured three feet in width. It consisted of a foundation of brushwood over which was placed a layer of roughly cut planks laid edge to edge like railway sleepers but without any spaces in between. Two layers of stone or flags were placed on top. The structure was held in position by a series of pegs. A slightly different method of construction was used at the north end of the trackway where long poles were laid lengthways to support up to three layers of stone. This ancient roadway was traced continuously over a distance of a quarter of a mile. Today, it lies largely undisturbed beneath a blanket of soft bogland, hidden from the world.
The two trackways at Creggane and Callow, although very different in construction, formed a single roadway that may have linked the higher grounds towards Banada with that in Creggane to the north. It has been suggested that there may have been some form of crossing near where the two trackways met the Lung River.
Peatland once covered some 16% of the land surface of Ireland. Prior to modern drainage much of central Ireland consisted of soggy marshland interspersed with areas of dry land. This presented enormous problems for the ancient traveller whose existence involved moving about the land. The early inhabitants of Ireland lived on the uplands where they looked after their herds and cultivated the land, which would have been surrounded by large areas of wetland.
Looking out on the surrounding marshlands, these early people would have seen a vast area of reeds, sedges, mosses and stagnant pools glistening in the sunlight against the greens and browns of the marsh vegetation. Willow and Alder trees abounded and around the low-lying perimeters of the bogs there were hazel and birch. Ash trees were also to be seen while on the higher ground there were clusters of oak.
Research carried cut by Dr. Barry Raftery of University College, Dublin, over the five-year period 1985 - 1989, in the Fount Dillon complex of bog land, Co. Longford, has done much to increase our knowledge of this hitherto neglected aspect of our history. (Trackways Through Time by Barry Raftery - Headline Publishing). During this time some 57 tracks were excavated, some extensively, and more to a limited degree.
Some archaeologists have suggested that these ancient roadways were not structures designed to cross the bog but to get into the bog, perhaps, for ritual purposes. A seventh century sword, which may have been such a votive offering, was found close to where the two Creggane Trackways meet the river.
The life of these ancient roadways would have been short in view of the extremely wet conditions in the continually growing bog. The trackways would quickly sink into the soft peat and become covered in vegetation. Projecting pegs would have marked the route through the bog after the walking surface had become obscured.
The tool marks on the timbers recovered from these old roadways were perfectly preserved giving precise information on the size and shape of the axes used. Individual axes were recognisable because of the blemishes or imperfections on the blade, which left a distinctive ‘signature’ in the wood. Indeed, it is possible to point to the individual work of a craftsman in a particular track.
We owe much to our waterlogged boglands. To quote the words of John Lubbock, writing in 1865:
‘Few things can be more interesting than the spectacle of an ancient long-forgotten people, thus rising, as it were, from the waters of oblivion’.