Thursday, August 7, 2014

Lough Gara - Why is this Lake Important?

Lough Gara Lake
The recent initiative to promote tourism in the Ballaghaderreen and surrounding area, using the theme Lough Gara Lake and Legends, is to be welcomed.  Whilst the lake straddles the border between Counties Sligo and Roscommon, this should not be allowed to be an obstacle to the development of the area’s potential. Lough Gara’s rich archaeological heritage can only be beneficial to the future economic well-being of both counties.

People have lived on or around this lake off and on for several thousand years leaving behind evidence of their presence in the form of stone axes, arrowheads, swords, spearheads and such like remnants. It is noted for the large number of crannogs and artefacts found following drainage in the early fifties.

Estimates of the number of crannogs on Lough Gara range from 145 to 369. According to Christina Fredengren (2002), the Swedish archaeologist who carried out an extensive survey of the lake, the highest number of crannogs that can be claimed for Lough Gara is 190. There are 61 definite crannogs in the lake, and 123 possible and unlikely sites.

The archaeological evidence suggests that crannogs were built in this lake in the Late Mesolithic around 3500 BC. The practice of building on the shallow shores increased during the Late Bronze Age, 1200–800 BC, and again in the Early Medieval period around 600 AD. Some crannogs were also used as late as the 17th century. Most islands in Lough Gara are stone built and many look like cairns. Some have small causeways leading out from the shoreline some of which zig-zag to deter unwanted visitors.

According to Fredengren’s research over 133 stone axes alone have been found along the shores of the lake. These are normally ascribed to both the Mesolithic and the Neolithic. It has been suggested that the lake could have been a gathering-place for small groups during the late Mesolithic period.

Archaeologists have excavated three of the crannogs in the lake - Rathtinaun on the eastern lakeshore, Tivannagh on the Boyle River and Sroove on the western side.
Rathtinaun Crannog

The foundations of Rathtinaun date from the late Bronze Age and the site was reused in the early medieval period. It is possible that the site also had a later medieval phase. At Tivannagh the earliest layers are believed to date from the Neolithic or, possibly, from the Mesolithic period.  A hoard of various items, including:  a necklace of amber beads, rings of bronze, of pure tin and three of lead with gold-foil cover, a pair of tweezers, bronze pin and six boar tusks, was found during the excavation of Rathtinaun crannog.

The excavation in Sroove showed that crannog use was not confined to people from the richer parts of society. People of lower social standing also built and lived on crannogs at this stage. Many of the items found on the site in its first phases were connected with personal appearance - a comb fragment, bone pins, iron pins and lignite bracelets. The discovery of a sewing needle suggests that people may have worked with textiles at this site.
Archaeologists also found a small bowl-shaped depression that may represent the shape of a small bowl-furnace for iron-smelting. Nearby, was found remains of slag, some pieces of which had the red clay remains of the furnace attached to them. There was also a large heavy stone that may have served as an anvil.

Crannogs at Inch Island, Derrycoagh, and at Derrymaquirk, have yielded finds such as bronze rings or swords found off or at the edges of the sites. A polished horn was found at the crannog in Sroove.   

Fredengren’s survey of the lake, radiocarbon-dating, together with the artefacts recovered, shows that Lough Gara was used during the Mesolithic period. People were already building artificial islands on the lake in the in the late Bronze Age. Most activity, however, is to be found in the early medieval period, leading into the high medieval period. Some of the earlier crannogs pre-date Stonehenge and the Egyptian Pyramids and provide testimony to a bygone age. Today, they form the centrepiece of a local landscape rich in archaeology and history.

It is regrettable that there is still not a re-constructed crannog for visitors to view or an interpretive centre to bring the rich heritage of this area to life. As an interim measure, urgent efforts need to be made to establish an archaeological ‘trail’ around the lake consisting of suitable signing and information displays at appropriate points.

The current Lough Gara Lake and Legends initiative deserves our full support.

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