Prehistoric site discovered at lake on Sligo-Leitrim border

Glencar Lake find a case of ‘right person, right place, right time’, says archaeologist

A post-lockdown picnic on the shores of Glencar Lake on the Sligo-Leitrim border led to the discovery of almost 1,000 prehistoric tools and provided insight into the working lives of people who lived there thousands of years ago.

Marion Dowd, an archaeologist and local resident, was marking the easing of Covid-19 restrictions in June with her son Fiachra (12) and another family, when they spotted hundreds of pieces of chert, a rock used to make stone tools, on the shores of the lake.

Dr Dowd, a lecturer at IT Sligo, said the lake’s water level had dropped markedly due to a prolonged dry spell and had revealed a knapping floor, a place where people would have sat and shaped stone into tools more than 4,000 years ago.

“Basically, families sat at this location thousands of years ago enjoying the lake just as were doing in 2020,” she said.


The tools are believed to have been used for gutting and cleaning fish, wood work, basket making and preparing food.

Dr Dowd said this part of the shore would have been an area of dry land in the past, but that the rising water level of Glencar Lake had covered it over time.

“I was back there yesterday and it is totally submerged again,” she said, remarking that the timing of her discovery was fortuitous.

Dr Dowd reported the find to the National Monuments Service and the National Museum of Ireland. She and her colleague Dr James Bonsall helped to record the site and recover the tools, which will be deposited in the museum.

The lecturer believes some of the tools date to the Stone Age and Bronze Age and it was possible that some are linked to the Mesolithic age.

Dr Dowd and Fiachra had earlier that day visited Sruth in Aghaidh An Aird waterfall, also known as the Devil’s Chimney, with Catherine Pineau and her son Yann (10). They followed the stream from the waterfall to the lake and while the children were looking around for a picnic spot, she spotted one of the prehistoric tools on the ground.

“I suppose it was a case of right person, right place, right time,”she said, given many people would not have known what the object was.

‘No excavation’

An expert in prehistoric archaeology, Dr Dowd started to look around and soon realised that the area was a previously unrecorded archaeological site. It is one of 98 known knapping floors in Ireland, and the second one discovered in Co Sligo.

“What is interesting was that there was no excavation involved. These items were just lying there because the level of the lake had dropped,” she said.

Archaeological sites around Glencar Lake such as ringforts and crannógs were previously associated with the early medieval period. But the discovery provides evidence that prehistoric people availed of drinking water and opportunities for fishing, boating and washing around the lake.

The 930 pieces of worked chert were discovered on the shore and the knapping floor spanned a 16m x 13m area. Among the stone tools found was a convex scraper dating to the Neolithic or Bronze Age, which could have been used for cleaning animal hides or preparing fish.

Marese McDonagh

Marese McDonagh

Marese McDonagh, a contributor to The Irish Times, reports from the northwest of Ireland