Friday, April 27, 2018

Corlea Iron Age Trackway

Detail of Corlea Trackway, County Longford, Ireland
Photo: Flickr

Ancient Origins website featured the Corlea Trackway in County Longford on 14th April 2018.  This important archaeological site warrants wider publicity because of its unique nature and the excellent visitor centre built on the site.
The Corlea Trackway, known in Irish as Bóthar Chorr Liath, is a timber trackway dated to the Iron Age. This ancient trackway is located near Keenagh, a village to the south of Longford, in County Longford. It was discovered during the 1980s, when it was exposed during the harvesting of peat. Today, the Corlea Trackway is on permanent display in a specially constructed exhibition centre built at the site of the discovery. 
This trackway is composed of oak planks resting on a foundation of birch rails. Based on tree ring dating (known also as dendrochronology) conducted at Queen’s University Belfast, it was determined that the trees used to build the trackway were felled either in late 148 BC or early 147 BC. 
Largest Wooden Trackway in Europe
Corlea is the largest wooden trackway or togher discovered in Europe, spanning about one kilometre of bogland and is about three and a half meters wide. It is estimated that three hundred large oak trees were felled to create the planks and about the same amount of birch was needed for the rails. This equates to about a thousand wagon-loads of construction material.
The first routes in Ireland were prehistoric trackways, some of which were later developed into roads suitable for wheeled vehicles. Trackways typically date to the early to middle Neolithic period, the Middle and Late Bronze Age, early Iron Age (c. 500-300 BC) and throughout the early medieval and late medieval periods.
Detail of preserved section of Corlea Trackway
Photo: Wikimedia
The Corlea Trackway is unique in Ireland due to its large width and smooth surface, suggesting that it was used for wheeled vehicles such as carts or, perhaps, even chariots. Two massive block-wheels, dating to about 400 BC, which were found in 1968 and 1969 in Doogarymore, Co. Roscommon, are the earliest direct evidence at present known for wheeled transport in Ireland.

Wooden Wheel, Doogarymore, County Roscommon
Further Trackways Discovered
Research carried cut by Dr. Barry Raftery of University College, Dublin, over the five-year period 1985 - 1989, in the Mountdillon complex of bogland, 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. Excavations up to 1991 in Corlea bog discovered 59 toghers in an area of around 125 hectares while further work increased the total to 108 with a further 76 revealed in the nearby Derryoghil bog.
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. 
 Theories of Use
It is unclear how the Corlea Trackway was used by the Iron Age people living in the locality. Some archaeologists, for instance, have argued that our ancestors used the trackway to cross the bog. Others, however, believe the trackway allowed people to travel into the bog, where rituals could be carried out.
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.
Corlea Visitor Centre
              Photo: Longford Tourism
Peat bogs, provide an ideal environment for the preservation of organic remains, including wooden artefacts. The acidic conditions create an environment which is low in oxygen. This prevents the growth of microorganisms, which helps to preserve organic remains, such as wood, leather, and even the soft tissues of humans or animals. 
Hundreds of ancient bog bodies have been discovered in the boglands of Europe over the last few centuries, of which about 130 have been found in Ireland. Most of bog bodies date from the Iron Age. Experts believe that many of the Irish Iron Age bog bodies are the remains of former kings who were sacrificed.
Today, some 18 meters (60 ft) of the Corlea Trackway is on permanent display within the Visitor Centre. A boardwalk, which follows the course of the remaining trackway that is still buried under the bog, was constructed to allow visitors to have a sense of how the Corlea Trackway may have looked during the Iron Age. The Corlea Trackway ended on a small island from which a second trackway, also radiocarbon dated to 148 BC, connected to dry land on the far side of the bog. This second trackway was also around one kilometre long. 
The Corlea Trackway was built from trees felled either in late 148 BC or early 147 BC  giving us a precise date for its construction. It was a major building project for its time requiring a high level of both skill and social organisation. The trackway was preserved by the unique conditions which exist in our boglands. While we cannot say for sure why the Corlea Trackway was built all those years ago, we can marvel at such an achievement. The visitor centre housing the trackway provides a wealth of information on this and other bogland discoveries but do check the opening times if you are planning a visit.
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