Author: achillfieldschool

About achillfieldschool

Achill Archaeological Field School was established in 1991 and is Ireland's oldest field based archaeological training institution. We provide courses of between 1 week and 10 weeks in duration and cater for University students, high school students, and interested members of the public.

A visit to Keem Bay

In this Blog, we will take a quick look at Keem Bay that is located at the very western end of the island  and has been  rated as one of the most beautiful places in County Mayo, perhaps even in the whole of Ireland!   It is a favourite spot of our students and we always try to ensure that they get to spend some time there to relax, have a swim or just enjoy the scenery. Keem Bay also contains a number of interesting historic buildings and some really intriguing archaeology.  The research carried out by the Achill Archaeological Field School at these sites over a number of years will be published by the Field School, in monograph form,  in late 2014.

Keem Bay is reached by a high and winding road cut into the south western flank of Croaghaun, Achill’s tallest mountain which peaks at 688m. The views during the descent into the bay are spectacular, a curving beach of pale yellow sand, the sea an alluring green and beyond the ground rising steeply up to the cliffs at Moyteoge Head. Behind the beach there is a steeply sloping valley that rises up to a high pass; to the west is Achill Head, the rocky peninsular that forms the most westerly point of the island. A series of small streams drain the valley of Keem, running in steep sided gorges before spilling out onto the beach where they provide endless entertainment for children during the summer. From the vantage point of the road two buildings stand out, the huge white mass of a Coast Guard Station overlooking the beach and the silhouette of a Look-Out Post on the summit of Moyteoge Head.

 

The view from the approach to Keem Bay. The Coast Guard Station is the white building at the far right and the Look-Out Post is at the top of the headland in the distance

The view from the approach to Keem Bay. The Coast Guard Station is the white building at the far right and the Look-Out Post is at the top of the headland in the distance

 

The Coast Guard Station was constructed around 1910 and is actually a small terrace of houses for four separate families who would maintain the watch in shifts. There is a large levelled garden to the front of the building and a row of out buildings to the rear. It was constructed as a replacement for a simpler building believed to have been constructed in the 1830’s, the ruins of which can be found near to the stream running down the western side of the valley above the beach.

The early 20th century Coast Guard Station, one half of which is still used as a summer house by a local family

The early 20th century Coast Guard Station, one half of which is still used as a summer house by a local family

 

The look-out post on Moyteoge Head is a favourite destination for visitors looking to get a view of the rugged cliffs that fall away into the Atlantic to the west. This building was in use during World War 2 to track the movement of ships and aircraft along the coast, and to take meteorological observations. Similar sites were used all along the Irish Coast generally located on exposed headlands and promontories. The vital information gathered by this network of Look-Out Posts was surreptitiously passed onto the Allies, an extremely risky undertaking for officially neutral Ireland. Typically these buildings were constructed using a pre-fabricated kit of 137 concrete blocks, but this example seems to have been modified from an earlier building used by the Coast Guard.

 

The earlier Coast Guard Station towards the west of the valley that is thought to have been constructed in the 1830’s

The earlier Coast Guard Station towards the west of the valley that is thought to have been constructed in the 1830’s

 

 

The Look-out Post overlooking the cliffs at Moyteoge which seems to have been an earlier building partially rebuilt during World War 2

The Look-out Post overlooking the cliffs at Moyteoge which seems to have been an earlier building partially rebuilt during World War 2

 

Down at the Beach there are several small buildings associated with the fishing industry in Keem Bay. The most famous aspect of this industry was the hunting of Basking Sharks which began in the 1940’s and continued into the 1970’s. After ensnaring these plankton eating giants in nets the local fishermen would approach in Currachs and dispatch the sharks using harpoons which according to one of the surviving fishermen, Michael Gielty, were fashioned out of the leaf springs from car suspension systems. The sharks were essentially inedible but the massive livers contained oil that could be refined and exported whilst the fins were sold into the oriental food market. The shark fishing halted due to over fishing but thankfully numbers have slowly recovered and occasionally large groups can be seen in Keem Bay during the early summer.

The Currach is a traditional wooden boat covered with tarred animal hides to keep them waterproof. A couple of examples of these distinctive black vessels can usually be seen behind the modern life guard hut on the way to the beach from the car park. A rusting orange boiler used to refine the Shark Liver Oil can be seen at the back of the beach close to where one of the small streams reaches the sands.

A late afternoon shot of Keem Bay in 2011 with the fin of a basking shark clearly visible

A late afternoon shot of Keem Bay in 2011 with the fin of a basking shark clearly visible

 

One of the Currachs that can normally be seen on the way down to the beach

One of the Currachs that can normally be seen on the way down to the beach

The rusting remains of a boiler used to refine the Shark Liver Oil with one of the fishery buildings in the background

The rusting remains of a boiler used to refine the Shark Liver Oil with one of the fishery buildings in the background

 

 

Achill Archaeological Field School runs a variety of archaeological courses that are suitable for archaeology and anthropology students, professional archaeologists and inquisitive members of the public. Courses range from a one-day archaeological research taster course to advanced and specialist courses including a highly-regarded trainee archaeological supervisor course. Visit our website at http://www.achill-fieldschool.com for details of all of our courses and information about the many exciting projects we have undertaken. Residential and non-residential options are available throughout the summer. We also specialise in Guided archaeological tours of Achill and the Corraun Peninsula.

Email: info@achill-fieldschool.com

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Slievemore; geology and ecology

The first post on this blog briefly described the range of archaeological sites that are located on and around Slievemore Mountain on Achill Island. Having set the archaeological scene it seems like a good time to take a brief look at the geology and ecology of Slievemore.

An unusual view of Slievemore from the remote northern side of Achill Island

An unusual view of Slievemore from the remote northern side of Achill Island

Slievemore is one of a series of notable mountains that form a very important part of the landscape of the west and north west coastal region of County Mayo, a group that includes the well-known pilgrimage Mountain of Croagh Patrick near Westport, Knockmore on Clare Island, and Nephin Beg near Ballycroy. This part of County Mayo is a mixture of low lying coastal plains, inland bogs and rolling hills separated by large steep-sided and highly visible mountains. As you move around the area these distinctive summits form a familiar backdrop, recognisable landmarks that allow you to identify your relative position on the ground. Whilst the low lying plains and bogs can be a little lacking in distinguishing features, each of these prominent hills has a very particular character making them instantly recognisable whenever they come into view.

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Looking towards Clare Island from Achill

Slievemore is the second highest mountain on Achill at 671m OD and dominates the western half of the island. The mountain is very much a discrete entity, with low valleys at the east and west separating it from the adjacent lower ridges, whilst on the northern side it plunges steeply down into the Atlantic Ocean. To the south there is a low-lying bog that stretches out to the coast at Keel and which contains the large fresh water lake, Keel Lake. Slievemore has reasonably gentle lower slopes stretching up to around the 250m contours. Above this height the ground become considerably steeper and is dominated by large scree slopes. At the north east, just behind the village of Dugort there is a substantial glacial corrie that provides a view that is stunningly beautiful and frankly rather intimidating. Along the northern side of the mountain there are low but steep cliffs that drop into the Atlantic and numerous deep inlets that have been cut into the mountain by strong wave action. Above the scree slopes there is a wide ridge that slopes up from the west towards the summit. The ridge is covered by exposed boulders, broken up and eroded peat formations and shallow pools of crystal clear water. As the summit is approached the ridge becomes increasingly narrow and the summit area itself is very small and flanked by very steep drops to the north and south. Views from the summit are quite magnificent, with huge areas of Mayo visible to the north, east and south and the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean visible to the west beyond Croaghaun Mountain and Achill Head. A small circular cairn and a trigonometry point mark the summit.

One of the deep inlets cut into the northern side of Slievemore

One of the deep inlets cut into the northern side of Slievemore

The geology of the mountain comprises quartzite and schist that descend towards the lower contours close to the Deserted Village. There are frequent veins of milky white quartz running through the mountain and a massive quartz boulder, known, as ‘The Star’ lies high up on the southern side where it is very visible landmark on most days of the year. Overlying the bedrock is a deep layer of grainy sandy till that contains frequent small boulders and pieces of the white milky quartz. Today the till is covered by an expanse of Atlantic Blanket Bog, the depth of which varies considerably from one location to another. This peat bed consists of the partially decayed remains of bog plants such as sphagnum moss, ling heather and purple moor grass. Waterlogging and the acidic ground conditions halt the normal process of bacterial decay and the partially decayed plant remains form deep accumulations of dark brown and black peat. Despite the steepness of the ground Slievemore provides an extensive area of grazing today for reasonably low numbers of sheep, but in the past it is likely that far larger flocks of sheep have been grazed on the mountain, alongside cattle and goats.

At several of the excavation sites examined by Achill Archaeological Field School a pre-peat soil has been revealed directly overlying the till and underlying the peat bed. This pre-peat soil, grey sandy silt, demonstrates that prior to the onset of bog growth the mountain would have been covered in lush pasture. In the centre of Slievemore Roundhouse 1 a post abandonment soil was discovered that had become waterlogged preserving thousands upon thousands of individual blades of grass, a discovery that was particularly evocative of this earlier environment.

The steady accumulation of peat on the mountain has provided ideal conditions for the preservation of the remains of stone buildings, which are enveloped by protective layers of peat following their abandonment. The Middle Bronze Age roundhouses that were excavated on Slievemore between 2006 and 2009 are among the best-preserved and most intact structures of that period known from Ireland. The Early Medieval Kiln complex excavated between 2010 and 2011 was an equally impressive discovery and to date no clear parallels for such a substantial set of industrial buildings from this early period have been identified to date. No doubt future work on Slievemore by Achill Archaeological Field School will continue to reveal more examples of these hidden architectural gems.

Whilst the archaeology of Slievemore has been the focus of the majority of the work of Achill Archaeological Field School there are a number of other locations where the field school has undertaken important research. The next post on this blog will take a look at one of the areas of the island that is a perennial favourite with the students; Keem Bay, Croaghaun Mountain and Achill Head.

Achill Archaeological Field School runs a variety of archaeological courses that are suitable for archaeology and anthropology students, professional archaeologists and inquisitive members of the public. Visit our website at http://www.achill-fieldschool.com for details of all of our courses and information about the many exciting projects we have undertaken. Residential and non-residential options are available throughout the summer. We also specialise in Guided archaeological tours of Achill and the Corraun Peninsula.

Email: info@achill-fieldschool.com

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View of Slievemore and Croaghaun from the Minaun Cliffs at Keel

 

 

 

Welcome to our Blog!

The entrance of Roundhouse 2

Students excavating the entrance of a Middle Bronze Age Roundhouse in 2010.

 

Hello and welcome to our new Blog!

We’re going to use this new blog to tell people about some of the different archaeological sites that can be found on Achill Island and in the surrounding areas of County Mayo. We’ll also be using it to share some of the results of the excavations we are undertaking on Achill, including the ‘Cromlech Tumulus’ on Slievemore and the mysterious ‘Pony Graveyard’ recently discovered on the beach at Dooagh. So watch this space!

The staff at Achill Archaeological Field School are heavily involved in the Irish Archaeological Community and we’ll certainly be using this blog to share information about the work of our friends and colleagues, and other interesting things that we might come across from time to time.

I think a very good place to start, seeing as it is so central to so much of the work of Achill Archaeological Field School, is the mighty mountain of Slievemore. This behemoth dominates the western half of the island, with its dramatic profile and lofty summit. Referring to archaeological landscapes as palimpsests may be a tad clichéd but in this case it really is perfectly appropriate.

The earliest archaeological remains on Slievemore are a series of Megalithic tombs dating from the Neolithic period and probably constructed around 3500BC! Today two Court Tombs and a Portal Tomb are clearly visible and several other megalithic sites are present, even if it’s not exactly clear what types of site they represent… yet!

During the Bronze Age Slievemore was a farmed landscape and there are numerous large houses, two of which have been partially excavated and found to date to between 1400 and 1200BC. The houses are constructed within an expansive field system which has been surveyed in detail and subject to small scale excavation.

As with most of Ireland the Iron Age remains elusive, but we are slowly beginning to put together a complex picture of Medieval Slievemore. Traces of settlement sites, ecclesiastical sites and industrial sites have all been identified but much more work needs to be done on this period before we can properly understand the scope of activity taking place on Slievemore during the period.

Superimposed on these early landscapes is a very dense and well developed post Medieval farming landscape. The famous Deserted Village runs along one of the lower contours of the mountain and is accompanied by a complex arrangement of roads, pathways, garden plots and fields. Military activity at the start of the Nineteenth Century is evident in the remains of a Napoleonic Era Signal Tower on the adjacent ridge. Between the signal tower and the end of the Deserted village there is a quartz quarry that was once connected by a tramway to the quay at Gubalennaun Beg on the coast beyond Pollagh.

But I think before we get to carried away with all of this we ought to have a look at the physical aspects of Slievemore that underpin the various archaeological landscapes. The geology and environment of Slievemore seem like a very good topic for our second post!

Stuart

List of archaeology courses for 2014

Slievemore Mountain

Slievemore, with the small artificial island or Crannóg at Loughannascaddy in the foreground.