Seems camped on before.
-- Seamus Heaney, “Bogland”
A shovel slicing into the bog is luscious to hear and feel, like biting into an overripe pear. A shovel-slice into the bog that strikes a buried stone, however, end-caps with a muted ‘thunk.’
The ‘thunk’ is both heard and felt, travelling up the shovel’s spine and disseminating through the bog itself. Ears, hands, and feet all register this first strike upon a Bronze-Age stone wall fence buried beneath the Achill Island bog. Each turn of the spade exposes a section of wall to daylight for the first time in 3000 years.
Achill Island quickly called out to me during my two-month stay in western Ireland. Located in the thinly-populated westerly reaches of County Mayo, the island—accessible by bridge across the narrow Achill Sound—offers stunning Atlantic cliff-face views, a landscape with a layered, ancient past, and bog, plenty of bog.
My first Achill hike was at the Minaun Cliffs on the southwest flank of the island overlooking the long, sandy Keel Strand with surfboarders braving the icy Atlantic waves. Up through a cut in the lower cliff face, through the bog and among the scattered sheep, we ascended to the Coffin Trail, along which islanders in the more remote villages in earlier centuries carried their dead to the Catholic cemetery seven miles away, occasionally resting the caskets on leachtai, or stone cairns, still present on the landscape. Not so the dead unbaptized infants, banned in earlier times from consecrated ground and buried in unmarked graves on the lower reaches of the cliff. Today a memorial at the site offers belated recognition of their presence.
The Deserted Village digs another layer into the past. Eighty stone cottage ruins stretch out over a mile in one- or two-lane rows. Their roofs gone, many of their walls tumbled in, the cottages offer no explanation for their en mass abandonment. Perhaps many of the inhabitants died off in the Famine and the survivors emigrated in the following decades. Flowing down from the cottages are furrowed rows, the remains of the residents’ potato lazy beds, un-tilled since the mid-1800s and now reverting to bog. Perhaps a landlord evicted everyone, with plans for the land that never materialized. No actual records remain to tell the story, just the stone walls.
Stones and other artifacts, that is. An archaeological study of three cottage sites suggests happier times as well. Shards of cheap but colorful imported dinnerware—plates and saucers and tea cups—suggest some gaiety to everyday life as well as contact with the outside world. The sheer number of cottages suggests an active and lively village. And the small size of the one- or two-room cabins offered a cozy warmth against winter rain squalls.
Achill Island and all of Ireland once enjoyed a warmer, dryer climate. About 4000 years ago the region underwent a climate change, leading to today’s cool, wet weather. Neolitihic farming practices had already felled much of Ireland’s forests, and the combination of climate change and deforestation led to the widespread formation of bog—reeds and sedges and mosses that could survive in the wet landscape and which acidified the soil and water so that other plants could not re-establish. Bog plants layer upon their prior years’ partial decay, and in doing so literally swallowed up the stone remnants of ancient people’s lives after they moved to more hospitable grounds. Bog covers 87% of the modern Achill landscape.
Today I am tagging along with the Achill Archaeology Field School as we attempt to unearth part of that ancient layer from the bog.
Field Director Stuart Rathbone is explaining to the students and me why he thinks there may be a 3000-year-old stone wall buried beneath the bog where we stood. To the right as we face up the mountainside lies a Neolithic court tomb dating to 3500 B.C., its support stones collapsed but its capstone clearly intact. About 80 meters to the left sits the stone foundations of Bronze Age huts, the dwelling places of ordinary folks from 1000 B.C. In between, Stuart reads the landscape. A slight leveling of the mountain slope runs in a straight line between the two sites, with the slope resuming below the line. Clumps of grasses amid the prevailing bog mosses likewise run along this line. “Stones beneath the bog can change the chemical composition,” Stuart says, resulting in vegetation differences.
So we haul our equipment up the mountainside and stake out a rectangle for digging.
If we find something, we’ll prove Stuart’s hypothesis. If all we find is bog, then Stuart’s prediction is false.
We commence digging. The two younger students work uphill from me, struggling to breach the tangled surface of the bog with their shovels.
With a sharp step onto the edge of the shovel I slice down into the bog. After a few more slices and twists with the shovel, the first wet, matted layer of bog works free, and I carry the black prism to the spoil mat. Then a second matted chunk.
The next slice ends in a dull ‘thunk.’ Stuart brightens, but realizes it could be a random buried stone. Till the next ‘thunk,’ and the next and the next.
Soon I have unearthed a three-foot section of wall hidden away beneath two feet of bog.
Later, Stuart instructs me to begin cleaning off the buried stone wall, sweeping and removing bits of bog to expose the stonework to the sun.
Bog and glittery flakes of schist stone are under my fingernails. Cleaning the site, I scrape my knuckles on stones that have gone untouched for 3000 years.
We are about to call it a day in the late afternoon. In one tiny rectangle hidden away on the mountainside, the bog has offered up a small slice of the Achill story, layered upon and swallowed by successive years’ growth of bog, and sunning itself for the first time in 3000 years.
Other lives have passed over this ground before, lives replete with tragedy and joy. As for me, I am grinning ear to ear, kneeling in the bog as if it were a sandbox, scraping the years off the stones and nursing them back among the living.