Dating of Céide Fields complex

 

Sir, – The recent claim by Dr Andrew Whitefield that Céide Fields, Co Mayo, widely regarded as the oldest enclosed landscape in Britain and Ireland, may not relate to the Neolithic era has, as expected, already given rise to considerable controversy (“Archaeologists clash over dating of Céide Fields complex”, February 3rd).

Dr Whitefield, in a recent journal paper, argues that the extensive field-wall system at Céide more likely relates to the late Bronze Age/Iron Age and is thus at least two millennia younger than generally accepted. Dr Whitefield critiques the results of archaeological surveys and excavation carried out in north Mayo by Prof Seamas Caulfield and his colleagues and students over the course of 50 years.

He also critiques detailed and comprehensive pollen analysis carried out by the undersigned and finds that the conclusions reached are based on circular arguments and that the “research casts doubt on the Neolithic chronology for the field system”.

According to your article, Prof Caulfield has described Dr Whitefield’s paper as “error-strewn”, and claims that “Dr Whitefield was relying on pollen dating for the wall construction – a technique that has been ‘discredited’”.

We find this claim incomprehensible and, as far as we can judge, it is incorrect.

At this juncture, we simply wish to state that we fully stand over our fossil pollen data and the interpretations that we gave in lengthy, peer-reviewed journal papers published in 1995 and 2001.

We regret to have to state that Dr Whitefield has reinterpreted our data in a fashion that exposes his lack of understanding of pollen analysis.

Since pollen analysis was first used 100 years ago by the Swedish scientist Lennart von Post, it has been regularly refined so that it remains the most powerful tool available for reconstructing past environments, and especially woodland clearance and farming in prehistoric times.

Indeed, there exists no other technique of comparable power and robustness. We are satisfied that our pollen and radiocarbon data show, beyond doubt, that the earliest and main farming impact at Céide Fields dates to the early Neolithic within an Irish/British context.

As far as we are aware, the archaeological evidence does not contradict this and, overall, it supports our contention. – Yours, etc,

Dr KAREN MOLLOY,

MICHAEL O’CONNELL,

Professor (emeritus),

Palaeoenvironmental

Research Unit,

School of Geography

and Archaeology,

NUI Galway.