Mystery surrounds Burren settlement excavated by archaeologists

Evidence of 160 huts and two labyrinthine enclosures for spiritual or ritual gathering

 

When a prehistoric people built a large settlement in the Burren up to 3,000 years ago, why did they choose a mountain-top with no running water?

Was it the closest point to a sky god, or was the location selected for some type of ancient gathering or “Dáil”?

“Truly one of the most enigmatic places in Irish prehistory” is how NUI Galway (NUIG) archaeologist Dr Stefan Bergh describes the exposed summit of Turlough Hill in northeast Clare.

His team secured Royal Irish Academy funding for a three-week excavation of a settlement of some 160 circular huts, bordered by a large burial cairn and two large labyrinthine enclosures of stone.

Turlough Hill, overlooking Galway Bay to the north and west and the Slieve Aughty mountains to the east, is the only Burren summit to have evidence of hilltop residence.

It is one of only two of its type on the island, with the second being in Co Sligo.

Whereas a typical prehistoric settlement comprises two or three dwellings, this is the size of a “housing estate”. Blue gentians are currently blooming within the foundations of the huts built across two halves of the summit footprint.

Semi-detached

As Dr Bergh notes on a walkabout with The Irish Times, most of the huts were built on top of the limestone pavement, but some have also been quarried into the bedrock which would have been far less eroded and far richer in vegetation.

Slabs of stone were set along the hut edges, with hazel posts possibly used for skin cover. Most of the huts have a defined entrance or are conjoined with one other in “semi-detached” fashion.

The settlement was not defensive, Dr Bergh believes, although the summit’s distinctive “rim”, comprising an eight-metre-high cliff face, serves as a type of natural “moat”.

The larger of the two enclosures, built some distance from the settlement, is 140m in diameter. It has 10 entrances, and is not a hillfort, Dr Bergh says.

“Its location and construction could suggest that it might have been some sort of gathering place for two different peoples,” he says.

What is even more curious, in his view, is the absence of a regular water supply, and the fact that the occupiers left little or no trace of their activities.

In excavations of several of the huts over the past three weeks, the team has found samples of charcoal and hazelnut shells, along with a hearth for cooking, but no pottery or toolmaking material to date.

The charcoal and shells will be sent to Uppsala in Sweden for radiocarbon dating, according to site director Dr Ros Ó Maoldúin and site supervisor Dr Noel McCarthy.

Volunteers

The NUIG team has been assisted by volunteers from Burrenbeo and by specialists including Swedish surveyor Dag Hammar.

“Normally, as archaeologists we focus on the fine detail, but in this case we are analysing the landscape and trying to work out what these people were thinking,” Dr Bergh says.

“Religious beliefs can drive people to extremes, but there might be another purpose for this site.”

The “explicit liminal location at the physical edge of the characteristic Burren landscape” could have offered a “symbolically charged” neutral ground for activities shared with groups based elsewhere, he says.

Dr Bergh’s interest in Turlough Hill was sparked by his work at Mullaghfarna in Sligo, which has the only other known prehistoric hilltop settlement of similar size on the island. It also has about 150 circular house or hut foundations dating from the Neolithic to Bronze Age.

A large lowland settlement of 74 tightly-clustered dwellings has also been located at Corrstown, Co Derry, and dated to the Bronze Age.