Winter storm aftermath continues to yield more artefacts

Call for dedicated rescue fund to deal with volume of material

Galway Heritage Officer Dr Jim Higgins with two stone axe heads, thought to be more than 5,000 years old, found on the Galway coastline. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

Galway Heritage Officer Dr Jim Higgins with two stone axe heads, thought to be more than 5,000 years old, found on the Galway coastline. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

Tue, Apr 22, 2014, 01:01

Archaeologists have identified yet more historic material thrown up by the new year storms on the Atlantic seaboard, including a pink granite quern, or hand mill, estimated to be several thousand years old; several Mesolithic stone axes; a late medieval harbour; and early Christian burial grounds.

The volume of artefacts thrown up by the extreme weather, which also damaged existing heritage sites and transformed parts of the coastline, has prompted archaeologist Michael Gibbons to call for State funding for a “rescue unit” to ensure valuable heritage is not lost.

Two stone axes recently found by Galway city heritage officer Dr Jim Higgins on the shoreline brings to six the number of reported Mesolithic finds on the Connemara coast.

Dr Higgins found one of the two axes on Ballyloughane beach in inner Galway Bay, where few such prehistoric finds have been reported before, he says, while a second axe located at Barna is believed to be 6,000-7,000 years old.

Other known Mesolithic sites are at Ardmore, Finish island, Streamstown bay and the White Strand on the Renvyle peninsula, and Mr Gibbons says that Dr Higgins’s discoveries now contribute to “one of the biggest collection of prehistoric artefacts ever found on the west of Ireland”.

The pink granite quern was found earlier this month by Mr Gibbons on a prehistoric settlement west of Roundstone, which included a large midden or ancient shell heap and a stone enclosure.

He said that the quern was broken in antiquity and he estimates that it is between 4,000 and 6,000 years old.

Medieval harbour
Evidence of a late medieval harbour beneath Doon Hill, along with a possible wreck site, are also now visible at low tide, while the remains of an 18th/19th-century village west of Cleggan have been revealed by the January storm surges.

A local landowner has reported a children’s burial ground marked by white quartz stones close by.

More midden deposits, containing evidence of the diet and lifestyle of our ancestors, have been found at Dog’s Bay, near Roundstone, and near Renvyle Castle, while the storms damaged other middens aged between 6,500 and 7,000 years.

Two separate early Christian burial grounds have been “eroded out” on St Macdara’s island off the Connemara coast.

On the Galway-Clare border, the western and southern wall of the medieval church at Aughinish have been damaged, and the shoreline was “strewn” with medieval masonry.

Mr Gibbons said that the finds and the evidence of damage exposed the “under-funding” of existing heritage services and the need to establish a “rescue fund” which might save very valuable archaeological material.

A priority would be the harbour edge buildings and midden identified recently on Inishbofin island, he said, as these are beginning to degrade rapidly.

“In the absence of any available resources to carry out further work on these newly revealed sites, I will continue to document them photographically and, where possible, will take small samples from the collapsed deposits for dating purposes down the road,” he said.

He believes there was a great deal of interest in what the storms have revealed.

‘Ongoing contact’
The Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht was unable to comment on Mr Gibbons’s call yesterday, but said some weeks ago that it was “in ongoing contact” with regional staff and partners in the heritage sector, including the Office of Public Works (OPW) and local authorities in the most affected areas, to identify the full extent of damage to archaeology.

Two years ago, the Institute of Archaeologists of Ireland suggested to Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Jimmy Deenihan that the OPW’s heritage services unit should be included under his remit to avoid duplication of roles.