Friday, December 13, 2013

Iverni: a prehistory of Cork | Review

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 6th 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.


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.