Iverni: a prehistory of Cork | Review

Originally posted online on 13 December 2013 at rmchapple.blogspot.com

William O'Brien. The Collins Press, Cork, 2012. 2 Volumes, xii+284pp. ISBN 978-1-84889-
149-4. Was €39.99 now €31.99.

Back in November of 2012 I published Archaeological Excavations at Tullahedy County
Tipperary. Neolithic Settlement in NorthMunster: Review. I liked the book an awful lot and
was lavish in my praise. The post came to the attention of the publishers, The Collins Press
[Website | Facebook | Twitter], who were understandably thrilled. They asked me if I’d like to
review another of their archaeology titles and, without fully realising what I’d signed up to, I
said a hearty Yes! – A free archaeology book is a free archaeology book, after all! At the time,
I was unemployed and glad for any archaeology book I didn’t have to pay for … and I certainly
had the time – as a middle aged man on the dole, there’s only so many hours a day you can
spend reading rejection letters for entry-level positions! Unfortunately, by the time the book
arrived, I was gainfully employed and – I’m sorry to say – this beautiful tome was left to
languish unopened and unloved in my library. To be completely truthful, I’d largely forgotten
about it.

It was, thus, with a sudden, rising sense of panic that I received an email from the lovely people
at The Collins Press, enquiring as to whether I’d written the review and if they could have a
copy – please. I’m actually slightly horrified to think that I first met the author of this book
over 20 years ago. Billy O’Brien started as a lecturer at UCG (now NUIG) – I think – the year
after I left, so around 1991/92. It has been years since I saw him, but I remember it distinctly.
It was on a very cold, and overcrowded train out of Dublin … sometime before 2002 … he was
attempting to make his way up the carriage, carefully negotiating the throng, when he spotted
me. With a long, bony finger he prodded me firmly in the gut, declaiming loudly in his broad
Cork accent: ‘Well, didn’t you get FAT, bhoy?’ It’s true – there’s no denying it – I’m overweight.
I need to lose quite a bit … OK – I need to lose a lot of weight. I call myself fat all the time. But,
like someone giving out about a family member – it’s fine if I do it, but if you join in, you’re an
asshat! I’m not making myself out to be the good guy here - I muttered something equally
complimentary to him. After exchanging a few more similar jibes he continued his meander
through the serried bodies packing the train, each of us probably equally relieved to be rid of
the other. I give this one example of the timbre of our relationship over all the time we’ve
known each other – it was ever thus! As I say, I make no pretence to being the injured party,
camped on the cosy moral high ground – I’ve given as good as I’ve gotten. All the same, I’d be
lying if I didn’t admit that I really wanted this book to suck – hard!

I’m just going to be honest here and note that I really tried hard to dislike this book – I tried
and tried, but I just couldn’t. At one point I’d actually given the book away to the care of
another, in the hopes that they could provide the fair and balanced review that I felt I would
be unable to. Unfortunately, fate had other plans and the book was returned to my care,
unloved and unreviewed. As it turns out, I should have relaxed ages ago and just given in. It’s
an excellent book for everyone from the ‘interested amateur’ up to the ‘serious student’. It’s
not a textbook for the professional – and it makes no claims to be such, but even the
professional archaeologist will find much to enjoy here.

In the Preface, O’Brien notes the long human presence in what is now the Cork and emphasises
the need for a regional archaeology, attuned to the distinctive evidence preserved in the
county. At times that evidence indicates that the region was going along with the broad themes
of prehistory as seen across the island, but at others there is evidence for a distinct Cork ‘voice’
where a divergent path was taken. In Chapter 1: The prehistoric landscape of Cork, O’Brien
sets the scene, with the ubiquitous description of the physical landscape (If I had a pound (or
even a Euro) for every time I’ve read ‘X is a region of contrasting landscapes’ I could retire!),
followed by an excellent introduction to the history of antiquarian and archaeological research
in the county, going from the 1675 sketch of the Labbacallee wedge tomb, up to the scientific
investigations of today. Importantly, he highlights the role that the amateur archaeologist can
play in the important work of discovery, recording and protection of our ancient sites – an
important service, all too frequently overlooked by the professional archaeologist!

After a brief rumination on the possibility of Pleistocene (Ice Age) settlement in the area,
Chapter 2: The Age of Stone: Early Foragers and Farmers (7600-2500 BC) gets stuck into
the evidence for the Mesolithic. While highlighting a lack of field research for the paucity of
known sites, he also identifies the sinking coastline as a potential reason why many sites have
disappeared. Essentially, the current coastline only took on its present form in the period from
3000-1000 BC, undoubtedly leaving much of the older evidence either drowned, or destroyed.
Nonetheless, there is excavated evidence for Early Mesolithic activity from the county
at Kilcummer Lower, and microliths have been discovered during fieldwalking at several
locations in the Blackwater valley, including Castlebalalgh, Ballynamona, and Lefanta. Recent
excavations, undertaken as part of the NRA programme of road developments, have also
revealed material of Early Mesolithic date at Muckridge 1, Rath-Healy 3, and Curraghprevin
3. At the last site the evidence is in the form of a small hearth and three stake-holes, the hearth
providing a radiocarbon date of 7330±60 BP (6363-6062 cal BC, Beta-201071) from Scots pine
charcoal. The Late Mesolithic also has a relatively sparse showing in Cork, with the majority
of finds being recovered during fieldwalking. Again, the author pays close attention to the most
recent excavations, including noting the flint flakes and mudstone axehead recovered from a
pit at Caherdrinny 3, along with features at Gortore 1b, and Curragh Upper. After a brief
introduction to the ‘first farmers’ and the Neolithic in Cork, O’Brien examines the relatively
rare Cork portal tombs. Only two definite examples (Arderrawinny and Ahaglashlin), along
with a putative third (Rostellan), survive in the county, and each is discussed in a separate case
study. Passage tombs are similarly scarce in Cork, with only two (Killickaforavane and ‘The
Lag’, Ringarogy) known from the county. Each is discussed briefly, but in sufficient depth to
provide real flavour of the sites. This is followed by succinct case studies of a number of the
Neolithic houses known for the county, including Pepperhill, Gortore, and Ballinglanna North
3. O’Brien follows this up with a brief, but relatively comprehensive, summation on the
introduction of the Neolithic into Cork and how it appears to have lagged behind the rest of
the island. The chapter concludes with a short digression into the Late Neolithic in general,
and Grooved Ware pottery in particular. Evidence for these (frequently) line-decorated, flat-
based vessels has been recovered from Ballynacarriga 3, Ballynamona 1, and Coole Upper. This
may seem like a fairly ordinary progression for a chapter on the Neolithic, until you realise
that so much of the evidence O’Brien skilfully marshals to tell the story is from relatively
recent, commercially based, excavations, often as the result of the road building schemes from
the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years. This is significant and for a number of reasons. Firstly, it illustrates
how important the archaeological discoveries from this ‘golden age’ of Irish archaeology really
are in giving flesh to the prehistory of Cork – and the island as a whole. The NRA have done a
magnificent job in bringing so many of these sites topublication, and disseminating this
knowledge to the professional archaeological world in particular. Now O’Brien takes the next
step – bringing this new material into the wider realm. Non-specialists, those with an interest
in archaeology, the public – call them what you will, but bringing this level of knowledge to
‘the general reader’ is a massively important step in the chain and O’Brien is to be commended
for doing it so well.

Until reading this book, I hadn’t realised just how sparse the evidence for the Mesolithic and
Neolithic periods are in Cork. True, the large-scale developments of the last decade have added
significantly to our knowledge, but the fact remains that Cork is not overly endowed with
evidence for these periods. Instead, Cork really is a Bronze Age county. To some extent, this
explains my suspiciously raised eyebrow when, on scanning the contents list, I saw that three
of the chapters (out of seven) were based around the Bronze Age … four, if you count the
relatively short Copper Age or Chalcolithic as more of a ‘metal’ Age rather than a ‘stone’ one.
In Chapter 3: The Age of Copper: First Metalworkers (2500-2000 BC), O’Brien plunges
directly into this topic, providing a brief, but enlightening, section on ‘The Earliest Copper
Metalwork in Cork’, before getting to grips with the Ross Island mine. Although in county
Kerry, it is though that this one location supplied all of the copper needs of the island for
approximately 500 years. Considering that this site was excavated by O’Brien, and is of the
highest significance to our understanding of the Bronze Age in Ireland, he shows admirable
restraint in keeping his synopsis so concise and to the point. This is followed by a general
statement of our knowledge on what is still termed ‘Beaker culture’, and then an examination
of the presence of this distinctive pottery form cross the county. O’Brien then provides an
excellent synopsis of the Wedge Tomb monument type, examining origins, economy, and
society. However, the heart of this section is his concentration on the excavated tombs,
including ‘classics’ like Labbacallee and Island – both excavated by the late M. J. ‘Brian’
O’Kelly – and relatively recent excavations by O’Brien at Altar and Toormore. In each case the
evidence is briefly presented in engaging, readable style. The chapter is concluded by an
examination of the Early Gold, including the known lunulae and discs.

In Chapter 4: The Age of Bronze: Settlement and Economy (2000-600 BC) O’Brien begins
with an examination of the metal and metalworking technology in the Early to Middle Bronze
Age. Central to this story is the procurement of the copper and, as the acknowledged expert on
the topic, O’Brien devotes a considerable amount of text to the subject, especially the Mount
Gabriel mines near Schull. O’Brien then moves on to examine the evidence for the Bronze Age
Houses and Settlements. While the Mount Gabriel mines were investigated as part of an
academic research strategy, the settlement evidence is dominated by eighty sites discovered
through the road, pipeline, and sundry ‘development-led’ projects. Again, O’Brien provides a
succinct case study of Ballybrowney Lower1, along with a more general summation of the
evidence that includes such sites as Mitchelstown 1, and Ballynamona 2, etc. The majority of
these settlements were small-scale farmsteads and the section on Bronze Age Farming
attempts to place them in their environmental and economic contexts, followed by a
comprehensive exposition of the Ardgroom farmscape on the Beara peninsula. It’s a chapter
on the Early Bronze Age and it wouldn’t be complete without a trundle through the evidence
for burnt mounds. It’s also an archaeology of Cork, so it definitely wouldn’t be complete
without a relatively in-depth examination of O’Kelly’s excavations and experimentations
at Ballyvourney 1 which have set the tone for much of the research in the half-century since.
O’Brien stands firmly on the side of these sites being used as cooking places, arguing that
there’s little evidence to suggest other functions, including tanning, brewing, or metalworking.
My personal take on the phenomenon is that they’re relatively long lived as a site type and are
found in a number of basic combinations and permutations of troughs, pits, and burnt mound
material. My guess is that the only real commonality they share is that they’re capable of
producing large volumes of hot water – what that water may have been used for is quite
another matter, and I think there’s enough variety in the excavated evidence to support a
variety of possible uses. Where I take issue with O’Brien (and all other purveyors of the term)
is in his use of ‘fulacht fiadh’ as a means of describing these sites [here | here]. I’m the first to
agree that ‘burnt mounds’ may not be the most exact or descriptive term, but I do believe that
it is the best currently available. Quite apart from the fact that the term in Irish would probably
have been utterly unknown to the people who created and used these features, Ó Néill (2003-
2004) has comprehensively demonstrated that the things referred to in Medieval Irish literary
sources by this name are definitely not this form of archaeological site. I would also suggest
that the reader acquaint themselves with Waddell’s (2008) comments on the topic. If this
retrograde nonsense wasn’t enough, I am kindly informed by a number of sources that the
plural form most commonly used in the profession (‘fulachta fiadh’) is defunct and should be
replaced with the grammatically correct ‘fulachtaí fia’ (which O’Brien uses). I’m sure that no
one will be suddenly swayed from their previously-held convictions by my scorn and vitriol,
so go have fun – call them what you will, but I’ll not be joining you! As an aside, I would point
out that in a rather wonderful Facebook discussion on this topic, alluded to above, I was
informed that the term ‘fulachts’ (with an Anglicised plural) has been banned from the
publications of the NRA and is seen as anathema. Probably due to some innate perversity in
my soul, on reflection, I’m utterly charmed by this hybrid term and think it should achieve
widespread adoption. I also realise that I’ve probably just created a position even less popular
than before! What’s life without a few windmills to tilt at?

In Chapter 5: Death and Religion in the Bronze Age (2000-600 BC) O’Brien covers the same
time period as in the previous chapter, but instead looks at the evidence for the funerary rituals
and related evidence. He gives excellent accounts of Food Vessel Burials, with brief case
studies of Ballyenahan, Moneen, and Curraghbinny. This is followed by the Urn Burials and
cremation cemeteries. The text is, in this section more than others, enhanced by a beautiful
combination of modern photographs of the pottery vessels, along with a number of the
surviving sites, juxtaposed with older line drawings of the artefacts, excavated sections, and
site plans. After that, it’s on to an examination of the stone circles. Here, the visual style is
dominated by fewer line drawings and more rather beautiful photographs, many displaying
gorgeous landscape vistas behind them. Again, after a general introduction, O’Brien gives
concise case studies of Drombeg and Bohonagh stone circles (both excavated by Edward
Fahy). This is followed by an introduction to those most Munster of monuments – the Boulder-
burials, again followed by summary accounts of the excavations at important sites,
including Cooradarrigan and Ballycommane – both excavated in the 1980s by O’Brien. The
same basic approach is taken to Stone Rows and Pairs, Standing Stones, Cairns. A short
section deals with the chronology of these monuments, before providing a synopsis of Fahy’s
excavations at Reanascreena South, something of a hybrid monument, linking traits of both
stone circles and barrows. This leads to a general introduction to barrows generally and the
Cork examples in particular. This is followed by an all too brief synopsis of O’Brien’s
excavation of the magnificent site Knockatreenane. In the Crossing to the Dark Side segment,
O’Brien is unconvinced about claims of lunar alignments relating to the wedge tombs, stone
circles and related monuments. He baldly states that ‘These ideas had no place in the thinking
of Bronze Age people, for whom the orientation of a wedge tomb or stone circle was a religious
imperative involving an observance of the setting sun in the darker months of the year’.
Instead, he argues for a much more general association – common to many ancient societies
– of a connection between the setting sun and the land of the dead to the west. This is an
association strengthened in observable alignments on the winter solstice at Drombeg and on
the equinox at Bohonagh. In particular, O’Brien draws out the incidence of quartz as a ‘stone
of light’ at many of these sites, from the scatter of pebbles at Knocknakilla, to use of large
stones at the Ballycommane boulder-burial. I would take issue with O’Brien on one point of
this discussion, specifically his use of the term ‘primitive societies’ (p. 194). This is not merely
a lefty, politically correct affectation on my part, but a genuine appreciation that any society
that was ‘aware of the yearly cycle of the sun, and … held gatherings and rituals to celebrate
solar events, such as the midwinter and midsummer solstices and the autumnal and vernal
equinoxes’ cannot, in good faith, be deemed primitive. The chapter concludes with a look at
the multifaceted way in which artefacts can function in both a mundane, household way, and
also in a religious or ritual manner. He cites the recovery of ‘foundation deposits’ at the houses
excavated at Ballybrowney Lower and Mitchelstown 1, etc. Other features may be more
enigmatic, such as the regularly recovered evidence of deliberately buried portions of domestic
waste that may have been ritually placed in the ground. The chapter ends with a meditation
on Continuity and Change in Religious Belief, 2000-600 BC. Here O’Brien examines the
social role of religious observance and how it changed over the course of the Bronze Age. In
particular, he directs the reader’s attention to the use of wedge tombs over several generations,
in contrast to the stone circles, which may only have been used for a single burials. The
evidence is unclear as to whether this may be interpreted as a differentiation in the role of the
ancestors over time, though he certainly favours this interpretation. O’Brien argues that there
is also continuity between these two site types as both may be interpreted as foci of sun-
worship, specifically a prototypical incarnation of the Celtic god Dagda. He also sees continuity
rather than change in the emergence of the stone circle phenomenon around 1500 BC, where
this developing solar cult traced its roots from the wedge tombs, eventually diminishing the
role of the ancestors within society. O’Brien argues that this can be viewed very much as an
organic development of the incumbent society, rather than any particular sudden arrival of
new peoples with new and exotic technologies and rituals (though some of this must have
happened, too). I’ve noticed something with the photos throughout this book and here is as
good a place as any to mention it. It’s the ranging rods in so many of the pictures – these red
and white poles that provide scale and appear in so many of the illustrations. I honestly don’t
know how to feel about them in this context. My initial feeling was that this is a ‘popular’ book
– a very good one, true, but still the market is not for the professional archaeologist. For this
reason they should be out – no ranging rods – they spoil the pretty pictures! However, we
would be loath to crop a reproduced line drawing of a pottery vessel so as to exclude the scale.
Similarly, you wouldn’t do that to a site plan. So why should the photographs be any different?
Site after site in this book is illustrated with photos of the sites and all with the ubiquitous
presence of the ranging rod. It was only when I saw the image of the ‘three fingers’ stone row
(Fig. 210 & the cover photograph on the dust jacket) without the pole that it struck me that
this may be a beautiful, artistic image in its own right, but it’s just not an archaeologist’s
photograph. I suppose it comes down to the feeling of comfort that comes with the thought
that the ranging rod has been placed there – just so – by an archaeologist who has
really thought about that monument … or so I would have myself believe! Whatever the truth
of the matter, the plates – throughout the book – adhere to my central dictum for
archaeological photography: they should be both archaeologically informative and
aesthetically pleasing … and they certainly are!

We’ve still not left the Bronze Age as O’Brien wades into Chapter 6: Warfare and Society in
the Late Bronze Age (1200-600 BC). He begins with an examination of changes in societal
structure, population boom, material wealth, and technological advances. This period is
characterised by the use of bronze for everyday tools, along with what is termed ‘elite
metalwork’, concentrating on sophisticated weaponry and items associated with feasting and
similar displays of wealth. These include cauldrons and buckets, along with the well-known
musical horns. In addition, there is the significant corpus of 66 gold objects of Middle and Late
Bronze Age date known from the county. What all these items show is that this period was one
of growing social division not just across Cork, or even across the island of Ireland, but is seen
across many parts of Europe. The concentration on the production of weapons (and their
reflection in contemporary rock art) is, in part, taken as evidence for the emergence of a
warrior elite after 1500 BC. Another aspect of this phenomena is the increased prevalence of
defended settlements during this period. As an example, O’Brien revisits O’Kelly’s 1950s
excavation of Carrigillhy, a small oval enclosure defined by a stone bank, protecting a
centrally-paced oval house. The author then embarks on a brief introduction to the Irish
Hillfort. Only a small number of these large, elevated, enclosures are know from Cork. They
include one of known Bronze Age date at Clashanimud, and two of probable prehistoric date
at Caherdrinny and Carntigherna. This is followed by a concise, but engaging, description of
the site at Clashanimud, along with O’Brien’s own excavations there. From here the author
moves on to a more in-depth account of Late Bronze Age weaponry, in particular the swords
and spears. In the closing section of this chapter, Cork and the Bronze Age World, O’Brien
examines the trading links that developed in the period after 1200 BC in north-west and
Atlantic Europe. Chief among these was the demand for metal resources – be it in terms or
raw materials or finished products. O’Brien emphasises that to this must be added those less
archaeologically visible imports, including salt, furs, exotic animals, and human slaves. In a
final, and all too brief, section on the 19th century discovery of the Mullagh Hoard (and
Kilmurray Hoard from Kerry) that demonstrates some of the earliest Irish contacts with the
European Celts.

Chapter 7: The Age of Iron: Celts and Romans (600 BC – AD 400) begins with a quick run
through of the issues and current thinking about The ‘Celtic’ Iron Age and should be
mandatory reading for anyone caught guldering on about all things mystical and ‘Celtic’. For
example, the lack of direct evidence for La Tène culture in Cork (and other areas, too) may be
taken to indicate the continued existence of Late Bronze Age groups that maintained their
independent culture and way of life, before taking on iron working as a technology, if not all
the cultural baggage that went with it. This is an important distinction to make – a society can
be iron using, but not particularly ‘Celtic’ and the terms should not be confused! This is a
discussion that has had a relatively long life within archaeological circles, but it is good to see
the fruits of this thought and research brought to a wider audience. In terms of archaeological
evidence for this period, again much has been added to the picture through the archaeological
investigations necessitated by the large-scale infrastructural projects of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years.
O’Brien provides excellent reviews of the evidence within the county for settlement and
economy, farming, iron working, and ritual, before concentrating on an in-depth study of Iron
Age Farming in the Beara Valley. This latter section is based on O’Briens excellent 2009
monograph Local worlds: earlysettlement landscapes and upland farming in south-west
Ireland (also published by The Collins Press), and it again demonstrates the author’s ability
and commitment to bringing the fruits of professional-oriented academic labour to a wide,
non-specialist audience. In his summation of the Beara Valley research, O’Brien returns again
to the question of ‘Celticisation’, and notes ‘that there is no obvious ‘Celtic’ component in the
material culture, settlement or religion of Iron Age people living in Cork’. Similarly, his
question: ‘Are Cork people, or for that matter the Irish, Celts?’ is met with a resounding ‘No’.
This will, of course, come a no surprise to most archaeologists, but may be something of a
shock to the wider public and O’Brien is to be congratulated for stating the case so frankly.
This is followed by a summation of the relationships between the county and the Roman world,
the introduction of the Ogham alphabet, and the settlement and economy of the period. In the
latter case, O’Brien provides a case study of Garranes ringfort, where the main thrust of the
occupation dated from the late 5th to early 6th centuries. The chapter is brought to a close
with the arrival of christianity in the 5th and 6
centuries and a meditation on how the people
of the Iron Age would have perceived and mythologised the profusion of monuments from
earlier periods that they saw around them.

There are two things that you cannot believe O’Brien on. The first – and most important – is
his taste in movies. It’s genuinely terrible. My feelings for the man remain eternally coloured
since the day he burst into the post-graduate study rooms at NUIG to deliver his breathless
review of AceVentura 2: When Nature Calls. ‘It’s brilliant!’ he said, ‘dey even play de bongos
wit his HED!’ I’m truly sorry, but this is a depth from which no man can recover. The other
thing that O’Brien cannot be trusted on is back in the Preface to this book where he claims that
the book was ‘written primarily for a Cork readership’ – it may have been his intention, but it
is simply not the truth. If you have even the slightest interest in Cork’s heritage, are from Cork,
live in Cork, or have just heard of Cork – I commend this book to you. But beyond that? Who
should buy this book? The answer to that is, basically, anyone who has an interest in Irish
archaeology. It’s well written, it’s engaging, it is (in the best sense) popular – without being
bereft of scholarship, or ideas for the more serious student. Throughout, I’ve attempted to
highlight the depth that new evidence from the ‘Celtic Tiger’ excavations have been
successfully integrated by O’Brien to form a ‘new prehistory’ of Cork. But there is wider
significance here too in that O’Brien has placed before us a template that regional
archaeologies – not just for a general audience, but for any readership – must now be
measured against. And here’s something I hadn’t anticipated in reading this book – it makes
me think that while I love and adore John Waddell’s The PrehistoricArchaeology of
Ireland and that the Revised Edition includes quite a bit of new evidence that has come into
our possession as a direct result of those ‘Celtic Tiger’ excavations, there is still room in the
market for another professional-level textbook. On the basis of what I’ve seen here, I’m
actually hoping that Billy O’Brien is the one to write it … though I feel it probably won’t be
dedicated to me.

O'Brien, W. 2009 Local worlds: early settlement landscapesand upland farming in south-
west Ireland. The Collins Press, Cork.

Ó Néill, J. 2003-2004 ‘Lapidibus in igne calefactis coquebatur: the historical burnt
mound'tradition'’ The Journal of Irish Archaeology 12&13, 79-86.

Waddell, J. 2008 ‘Monumental beginnings: thearchaeology of the N4 Sligo Inner Relief Road
[Review]’ Archaeology Ireland 22.3, 47.

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