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Ireland's Invisible People: the Celtic present meets the Celtic past

Ireland's Invisible People: the Celtic present meets the Celtic past

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Published by Brendon Wilkins
Comparing Ireland with the fast growing ‘tiger’ economies of the Far East, economists coined the term ‘Celtic Tiger’; the irony is that evidence for ‘Celtic’ Ireland is almost as rare as evidence for an indigenous species of Irish tiger. Has a decade of development-led excavations altered this picture? Brendon Wilkins assesses the new evidence emerging for the Irish Iron Age, in the third article in the series on the top ten sites of the Celtic Tiger.
Comparing Ireland with the fast growing ‘tiger’ economies of the Far East, economists coined the term ‘Celtic Tiger’; the irony is that evidence for ‘Celtic’ Ireland is almost as rare as evidence for an indigenous species of Irish tiger. Has a decade of development-led excavations altered this picture? Brendon Wilkins assesses the new evidence emerging for the Irish Iron Age, in the third article in the series on the top ten sites of the Celtic Tiger.

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Categories:Types, Research, History
Published by: Brendon Wilkins on Dec 08, 2010
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02/23/2011

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current archaeology
 
|
 
www.archaeology.co.uk
ireland
 
Iron Age
dcmb
2010
 
|
28
Ireland’sInvisible People
Comparing Ireland with the fast growing ‘tiger’ economies of the Far East,economists coined the term ‘Celtic Tiger’; the irony is that evidence for ‘Celtic’Ireland is almost as rare as evidence for an indigenous species of Irish tiger. Hasa decade of development-led excavations altered this picture?
B Wks
 assesses the new evidence emerging for the Irish Iron Age.
the Celtic present  meets the Celtic past 
 
www.archaeology.co.uk
 
|
 
current archaeology
|
 
Issue
249
29
name of God,’ he began, ‘and of the dead genera-tions from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons herchildren to her flag and strikes for her freedom.’ Aline can be drawn between those bullet holes andthe development and implementation of some of the strongest and most enviable national monu-ments legislation in the world.
R
ising majestically above Dublin’sbusiest street, the Georgianfaçade of the General Post Officestill contains bullet holes – grimreminders of Easter Monday 1916,when Padraic Pearse read a decla-ration that signalled the start of the Easter Risingand the beginning of Irish Independence. ‘In the
 
aBove
Mid-excavationaerial view of the site atRahally, from the south-east.
   p   h   o   t   o   :
   M   a   r    k   u   s   C   a   s   e   y
 
current archaeology
 
|
 
www.archaeology.co.uk
ireland
 
Iron Age
dcmb
2010
 
|
but we cannot see them,’ he wrote. ‘Thus we maytruly describe them as the invisible people.’Archaeologists throughout the world will rec-ognise this conundrum: does absence of evidenceequal evidence of absence? Are Iron Age people‘invisible’ because Ireland was plunged into aDark Age of economic and cultural stagnation?Or are Iron Age people ‘invisible’ because ourexcavation strategies have hitherto been ineffec-tive? As the Celtic Tiger boomed, archaeologistswere presented with a once in a lifetime oppor-tunity to finally find Pearse’s dead generations.
Changing times, changing fortunes
Perhaps it was his long years as a dairy farmer thathoned Gerry Mullins’s acute archaeological sen-sitivity to changes in landscape. As the machinebucket exposed yet another ditch crossing theroad corridor, the excavation director was quickto notice what a field walking team, desk studyand geophysical survey had failed to discover.Employed by Cultural Resource DevelopmentServices (CRDS Ltd) to undertake test excava-tions on the N6 Galway to East Balinasloe RoadScheme, Mullins recognised that a series of fourconcentric ditches cut into the flanks of Rahallyhill were the remnants of one of the largest hill-forts ever discovered in Ireland.Irish hillforts date to the Late Bronze Age, butwere occupied for many centuries after, poten-tially shedding light on the nature of society inLate Prehistoric Ireland. The number of knownhillforts in Ireland has increased dramaticallyin recent years (from estimates of 40 in 1972 to
30
The National Monuments Act was enactedin 1930, when the nascent state was grasping anew identity, independent of its former colonialmaster. If the last 700 years could be dismissedas enslavement to the English garrison, thenarchaeology could be called upon to reveal aGaelic Ireland that was fully free. But, as archae-ology matured into a professional disciplinefocussed on the scientific recovery of informationabout the past, evidence for the native ‘Celtic’ Ire-land, glorified in art and literature, was far fromforthcoming.The Irish Iron Age is represented by a handfulof high profile ‘royal’ sites, occasional depositsof metalwork and an oral tradition of epic sagas.The late Barry Raftery argued in his seminal1994 book,
 Pagan Celtic Ireland 
, that these scantremains were the trappings of a small aristocraticelite, shedding little light on how the majority of the population had lived. ‘These people existed
aBove
Aerial view of Rahally, showing theprojected outline of thehillfort ditches.
   p   h   o   t   o   :
   C   R   D   S   L   t    d
d os
Debates concerning ‘unRoman Britain’ should look across the IrishSea. Ireland was never brought under Roman control, which meansthe country missed out on the gift of a coherent network of longstraight roads. The Gaelic for road is
bothar 
, literally translatedas ‘cow-path,’ a word that gives some insight into the ineffectivetransport network that Ireland inherited at the beginning of the Celtic Tiger boom. With no ‘top-down’ reorganisation of thelandscape, Ireland maintained a dispersed rural population longinto the Early Medieval period. There were no major urban centresuntil the Vikings arrived, and without the driving thrust of Romanindustrial pottery production, Irish sites are largely ceramic-freefrom the later Prehistoric until the later Medieval periods. Withoutthe conventional bookmarks of 43 AD and 410 AD, archaeologistshave developed a different chronology, based on radiocarbon, thatbetter reflects the duration of Irish time periods, which retain thesame nomenclature as Britain.
B
8000BC 4000BC 2500BC 700BC 43BC AD410 AD1066
i
Anglo-Saxon MedievalEarly Medieval Late Medieval Anglo-Norman
Mesolithic NeolithicBronzeAgeIron Age
AD400 AD850 1150

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