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Ceide Fields, Co Mayo
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The Ceide Fields, Co Mayo

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The Ceide Fields of Co. Mayo is an area that is indistinguishable from the miles of bogland that stretch far to the west on the Belmullet peninsula. The Ceide Fields site, in County Mayo, covering more than four square miles of ordinary farmland, comprises the oldest enclosed landscape in Europe. Buried for almost fifty centuries, Ceide Fields is a snapshot of the Irish countryside from five millennia ago. One of the qualities that distinguishes Ceide Fields from other settlements is that, unlike places in Europe that have been under continuous cultivation for centuries, agriculture stopped 5,000 years ago.

The plants which grew there did not fully decay and piled higher and higher through the centuries. These partially decayed plants buried this region of North Mayo under as much as four meters of bog. Ceide hill is covered by mosses, heathers, purple moor grass and plants not found in the normal landscape. The bog is very wet and this is the reason it has formed. No living things can survive - the normal plant cycle in which plants grow, wither, fall over flat on the ground and are returned to the soil by the micro-organisms which devour dead plants is disrupted. The sequence changed to grow, wither, fall over for almost 5,000 years. The undecayed plant material now covers the entire landscape over hundreds of square miles.

There are several theories on what caused the bog to grow. One is that human impact on the environment caused the soil to deteriorate and allowed the bog-forming plants which require minimal sustenance to proliferate. The other is that the high number of rain days (over 225 per year) along the west coast leads to the inevitable formation of bog because the rain washes out the minerals in the soil and provides the saturation conditions required for a bog. Another theory is that man was indirectly involved by removing the forest. The rain-water would previously have been trapped and evaporated from the canopy of the coniferous forest. The total removal of the forest allowed a grassland economy to thrive for a few generations before the inevitable decline began.

A site this large cannot be fully excavated but archaeologists have been able to trace the ancient walls by using iron probes driven into the bog. A bamboo pole is placed wherever the probe strikes a solid object, such as the stones that made up the walls, and by repeating the process across the fields, the Stone Age enclosures can be clearly defined.

Using this simple method, the Ceide Fields have been traced and mapped over an area of four square miles though it is known that they extend even further than this. The residents of Mayo 5,000 years ago were not afraid to get their hands dirty. The primeval forest had to be cleared before agriculture could begin and dividing the landscape into fields required a sizeable community cooperating in putting a quarter of a million tons of stone into the walls. Excavation gives archaeologists an opportunity to look at a landscape of fields as they were. It is a countryside of regular rectangular fields almost certainly for cattle though some smaller fields have been found where wheat and barley would have been grown. The walk through the bog follows the boundary of one field of five acres, less than a quarter of one percent of the area of Ceide Fields.

Remains of early civilization have been found on the site. In an oval enclosure, with a low wall, a small amount of domestic material was discovered. A radiocarbon date for a hearth beside the house indicated that the family lived here a few centuries before 3000 BC. A few broken pieces of pottery vessels in use at the time is similar to that found in Stone Age tombs and in western Europe generally and occasional flint objects such as arrowheads show that these people who built the fields were part of the community of early European farmers. However, the people moved away from the location when the climate changed a mere 2 degrees Centigrade, became wetter and less fertile.

No cataclysm brought it to an end, just a gradual decline over maybe one or two centuries. Those who left probably went no further than a few miles down the road. The bog never grew and farming continued around Ballycastle and eastwards along Killala Bay. Even though prehistory and history show new peoples coming into the region, they would not have wiped out the native population. It is very likely that there natives of North Mayo today who have the genes of these first farmers, twenty generations later.

The cutting part of a primitive plow has also been unearthed at Ceide Fields, a clue to its significance as an early, but stable, agricultural community. A small oval enclosure, which was at first thought to be a house, was later determined to have been a pen for small animals, such as calves. The sizeable community appears to have lived in peaceful conditions; otherwise individual families could not have lived in this dispersed pattern scattered over the landscape without any defensive walls. The Stone Age dwellings indicate a developed social order for hundreds of families at Ceide Fields, and thousands throughout North Mayo. They belong to a common west European farming tradition which began before 6000 BC in the Near East.

The Office of Public Works has opened an outstanding interpretative center at Ceide Fields, open every day year round, with reduced hours in winter. It is not well signposted. Interpretative guides are available for the outdoor exhibit.

Submitted by CelticKnot, from trip to Ireland

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