Friday, March 6, 2015

Lough Gara - A Glimpse into the Past

Stone Implements - Irish Stone Axe Project
Recently, I came across a list of artefacts found on the shore and in the vicinity of Lough Gara, on the border between County Sligo and County Roscommon. It makes impressive reading and highlights the archaeological importance of the lake which is renowned for its large number of crannogs. 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.

The archaeological evidence suggests that crannogs, or at least platforms, may have been built in this lake in the Late Mesolithic around 4,000 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. 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.

Lough Gara is not a particularly accessible lake for the casual visitor and the crannogs can be difficult to find. It is in the nature of wetland archaeology that such sites do not have much of a visible presence. In a sense, the lake’s past only comes alive when we consider the vast number of ancient tools, weapons and other objects discovered here over the years.

The Early Mesolithic period in Ireland runs from 8000 to 5500 BC and the Later Mesolithic from 5500 to 4000 BC. Radiocarbon dating of samples of wood show that there was human activity on Inch Island around 7330-7050 BC. The Lough Gara collection of Mesolithic artefacts is regarded as the largest in the West of Ireland.

Artefacts recovered from Lough Gara include:
Bann flakes 1053, Stone axes 133, saddle querns 3, rotary quern stones 6, stone discs 49, chertflakes 599, chert scrapers 14, chert arrowheads 9, flint flakes 7, hammer stones 22, bone pins 5, bone needles 2, human skulls 6, bone points 11, flint arrowheads 9, bronze rings 8, bronze pins 10, bronze sunflower pins 3, bronze spearheads 3, bronze daggers 4, iron spears 7, iron axe heads 19, bronze trumpet end 1, bronze swords 3, bronze axe head flanged 4, iron swords 6, blue glass bracelet 1 and copper coins 15.

5,000 year old axe with a wooden handle from Denmark
Over 133 stone axes alone have been discovered along the shores of Lough Gara with the largest concentration found along the Boyle River. Another large concentration of ten axes come from Inch Island in the middle of the lake. A small number have also been retrieved from other townlands such as Falleens, Tawnymucklagh, Ross and Derrymore Island.

Stone axes are normally ascribed to both the Mesolithic and the Neolithic periods. Polished stone axes, however, seem to appear first in the Neolithic while ground axes can belong to the Mesolithic. These tools were used for cutting, shaping and dressing wood. Perhaps, one of those axes was used to cut timbers for the nearby 3,000 year old togher or trackway in the townland of Creggan? 

It is likely that the lake waters, and especially the running waters of the rivers, were seen as places where depositions or offerings of suitable objects could be made. It has been suggested that the lake could have been a gathering-place for small groups during the late Mesolithic period.

Archaeologists’ use the term ‘lithic’ to refer to flaked stone tools such as arrowheads, scrapers, ground and polished stone axes and such like items. Killian Driscoll (2006) carried out a reappraisal of the lithics from Lough Gara excluding finds from excavations. He claims that the number of artefacts found in and around this lake has been underestimated. For example, the actual number of lithics recorded for the townlands of Tawnymucklagh and Lomcloon alone should be in the region of 928 - over twice the original estimate.

The discovery of quern stones from Lough Gara shows that these early inhabitants of the area around the lake were grinding corn to make bread and porridge. The presence of a bronze trumpet end points to the playing of music at gatherings and celebrations. Pins and broaches were used to fasten or adorn garments.

The Drumanone portal tomb was excavated by archaeologists in 1954 and was found to contain a considerable amount of cremated bone, indicating that the tomb was used to bury several individuals. A small polished stone axe was also found which archaeologists believe came from the Tievebulliagh Axe Factory in Co. Antrim. Other finds from this site include two flint flakes and a chert core scraper.

An Amber Necklace from Lough Gara dated to c 800-700 BC
Excavation of Rathtinaun crannog produced 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.

Many of the items found during the more recent excavation of the Sroove crannog 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.

The large and diverse number of artefacts from Lough Gara help to paint a picture of a people going about their everyday lives striving to survive with meagre resources. They speak to us through the items they left behind giving us a tantalising glimpse of life in the area long ago.

Christina Fredengren (2002) Crannogs: A study of people's interaction with lakes, with particular reference to Lough Gara in the north-west of Ireland
Killian Driscoll (2006) The early prehistory in the west of Ireland: Investigations into the Social archaeology of the Mesolithic, west of the Shannon, Ireland

No comments: