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A sense of place in Irish prehistory.

Peter Woodman's survey-article in ANTIQUITY, 'Filling the spaces in Irish prehistory' (66: 295--314), was developed from his paper to the Prehistoric Society, 'What's new in Irish prehistory?' Was it actually new? Did it fill the spaces in the periods of earlier Irish prehistory that ANTIQUITY asked Professor Woodman to address? Gabriel Cooney offers a different perspective on Irish prehistory.

In an important review of Irish prehistory up to the end of the Bronze Age, Peter Woodman (1992a) argued that evidence in Ireland for prehistoric settlement in a spatial and chronological sense is more extensive both in time and space than has been recognized. In emphasising low-visibility archaeological sites, he discussed in particular the evidence from Munster, the most southerly province in the country. Woodman suggested that we should think less in terms of distinct periods of concentrated activity, more in terms of continued activity over long periods of time. The data to support these arguments came in particular from the Groningen programme of radiocarbon dating (e.g. Brindley & Lanting 1990; Brindley et al. 1983; 1988; 1990), from archaeological survey and excavation along gas pipeline routes (Cleary et al. 1987; Gowen 1988) and from other research (Woodman 1992a: 297, 311).

While I agree with the general trend of the ideas put forward by Woodman and recognize that he poses important research questions such as the date and nature of the initiation of human settlement in Ireland, the paper is not 'a re-evaluation of the traditional paradigms on which much of Irish prehistory is based' (Woodman 1992a: 295). Rather than representing a paradigm shift, it expresses and reinforces many of the traditional concepts in the study of Irish prehistory. A central feature is a dominant concern with what Woodman has elsewhere (1992b: 38) called the sorting of the raw data, within the conventional framework of Irish prehistory (Herity & Eogan 1977; Harbison 1988; O'Kelly 1989). There is, however, a very definite need to re-evaluate our approaches, to broaden our research agenda and to appreciate the complexity of the evidence. In the spirit of debate and evaluation called for by Woodman (1992b) a different perspective on Irish prehistory is offered here. My basic premise is that the most important task in Irish prehistoric studies is not to 'fill spaces' in Woodman's metaphor but rather to understand, through an integrated approach to material culture, how people constructed that prehistory over several millennia.

In Ireland (as elsewhere where more than one archaeologist works on a problem!) there has been some diversity of views about issues in prehistory. For example, while the explanation of change in the archaeological record is still very often seen in terms of migrations of new people from abroad (e.g. Eogan 1991), a full 40 years ago Raftery (1951: 180--81) suggested that early post-glacial settlers may have been the only colonizers in Irish prehistory (see also Waddell 1978). Debate about the sequence and mode of introduction of cinerary urns in the earlier Bronze Age also illustrates a healthy divergence of opinions (e.g. Kavanagh 1976; Brindley 1980; Waddell 1990a). But the richness of the Irish archaeological heritage and concern with recording it, allied to a strong tradition of what Binford (1989: 7--8) might call strict empiricism in research in Ireland, has led to a relative lack of explicit concern with archaeological theory. It is perceived that theory is secondary to the data on the ground. While showing clear signs of influence from processual archaeology Woodman's (1992a) paper continues this tradition with very limited reference to the theoretical basis on which it is written and without recognition that an atheoretical approach itself constitutes a theoretical viewpoint.

Elsewhere Woodman (1992b: 35) has commented that international developments in archaeological theory did not really have an impact on Irish archaeology. The influence of processual archaeology was mostly in data analysis. Yet any evaluation of Irish prehistory in the early 1990s might be expected to show a more explicit concern with the development and implications of the various strands of post-processual archaeology and the on-going wider discussion about the relationship between archaeological theory and practice (e.g. Shanks & Tilley 1989 and related comments; Trigger 1989; Malina & Vasicek 1990; Hodder 1991). Specifically in an Irish context there is a striking contrast between the vibrant debate in Irish historical research about the meaning and interpretation of the past and the recognition that history is written in and for the present (e.g. Brady 1991; Laffan 1991; Dunne 1992) and the widespread assumption in Irish archaeological circles that the data is primary, speaking for itself and that the limitations of the data prevent reconstruction of many aspects of life in the past (e.g. Harbison 1988: 195).

My own approach might be described as a post-processual one, but rather than following a particular agenda or taking a specific theoretical stance I would argue that we have to appreciate the value of a range of perspectives in assessing the archaeological record to understand the past (e.g. Whittle 1988: 1--9). What we need is a 'total archaeology', meaning, as Lee (1989: xii) has said of a 'total history', not the unachievable goal of trying to write everything about everything, but in the sense of trying to uncover the linkages between the various human activities recorded in the archaeological record (e.g. Cooney & Grogan forthcoming).

The impact of environment

An important element in Woodman's approach is the explanation of change and continuity in the prehistoric record almost entirely in terms of environmental adaptation or stress. Later Mesolithic hunter-gatherers are described as having a confidence in the exploitation of their environment (Woodman 1992a: 301--2). The location of Neolithic settlements and megalithic tombs is related to the presence or absence of good land and to the stress produced by population pressure (Woodman 1992a: 307). The Hekla III volcanic eruption of 1159 BC is suggested as responsible for the drop-off in the use of fulachta fiadh, for the end of the Early Bronze Age, and as the backdrop to the intensification of land-use seen in the dates for upland field systems (Woodman 1992a: 310). Here is the implication that environmental changes dictate the pattern of life; individuals and society passively accept the consequences, and changes in the archaeological record are a response to stress.

Yet this is a view that Woodman himself (1992a: 297) cautions against. While environmental factors may have had an influence on the course of Irish prehistory there were clearly other processes that affected both everyday and ceremonial life. Even when distinct marker dates can be seen in the environmental record there must be caution in inferring that the events which produced these marker dates had a direct impact on people which can be read off the archaeological record (Baillie 1991: 240). The necessary reliance on radiocarbon dating makes it unlikely that time blocks of much less than 50 years can be isolated for human activity on archaeological sites, so it will continue to be difficult to tie the archaeological record to specific environmental events (Bradley 1991: 210). More fundamentally, the assumption that the human response to environmental change can be separated from other processes operating within society needs to be questioned. For example, the growing emphasis on bogs, rivers and lakes from the Neolithic through the Bronze Age and into the Iron Age as places where the deliberate deposition of metalwork and other material occurred cannot be viewed as a simple consequence of environmental change. This is a trend in social behaviour that stretches well over two millennia and has to be seen as a complement to activity on dry land such as burial, and in the context of the nature and value of the material deposited (e.g. Bradley 1990).

A social side to the Mesolithic

Woodman's research on the Irish Mesolithic (e.g. Woodman 1977; 1978; 1985) has revolutionized our view of this major period in Irish prehistory. But it is research carried on within the tradition of seeing human behaviour in terms of ability to adapt to the environment (see Thomas 1988: 59). In Woodman's review (1992a: 305) the first use of the term 'societies' comes in the discussion of the Neolithic period. There are, however, important questions to ask about the nature of society during the Mesolithic. For example, procurement strategies for lithics have been treated against a background of resource availability (Woodman 1987) without attention to the possibility that movement of materials may have taken place in a social context within an exchange network. The uniformity in artefact types in the Later Mesolithic is interesting because not only does it occur irrespective of the use of different materials (Woodman 1992a: 302), but it also suggests an island-wide sense of stylistic identity at a period when distinct regional style zones can be recognized in Britain (Jacobi 1979: 63--8). This difference may be a relevant factor in considering whether the process of the beginnings of the Neolithic was necessarily similar on both islands.

Megalithic tombs revisited

In his discussion of the Neolithic Woodman is correct to point out the fallacy of equating the distribution of megalithic tombs in Ireland with the totality of Neolithic settlement, but it is a retrograde step to suggest that megalithic tombs are in some way an optional extra in the Irish Neolithic, only constructed in quantity when there were social pressures (Woodman 1992a: 307). As Thomas (1988: 62--5) Barrett (1990: 183) and Sherratt (1990: 149--50) have pointed out recently, megalithic tomb-building was an integral and active part of Neolithic lifestyle in northwest Europe as it was introduced to Ireland and Britain, whether by colonization or transition (see Whittle 1990). If megalithic tombs were not constructed and used, then this represented a deliberate choice on the part of individuals and communities. This can be illustrated by the fact that decorated shouldered bowls belonging to the same style were placed in a variety of mortuary contexts: megalithic tombs, Linkardstown-type burials and cave burials (e.g. Herity 1982; Sheridan 1991; O Floinn 1992).

In Ireland the periods of construction and use of all four well-recognized types of tomb--court, portal, passage and wedge tombs -- overlapped (O'Kelly 1981: 188). The wedge tombs undoubtedly come latest in the sequence, with their construction apparently spanning the Final Neolithic and much of the Bronze Age (O'Kelly 1989: 115--22). Spatially also, while they have different foci at national level, the different tomb types overlap (O Nuallain 1989: figure 84). Woodman (1992a: 304) places emphasis on a traditional tenet and assumption of Irish megalithic studies, namely the difference between passage tombs and the other tomb types (see discussion and references in Cooney 1990: 741). He returns to the practice of using the term 'cemetery' only for grouped passage tombs, arguing that passage tombs were located in a sacred or special landscape, while the other tomb types were built in landscapes that were in daily use.

Cooney (1990) shows that the four major passage tomb cemeteries in Ireland have formalized and repetitive spatial arrangements within defined areas and that this and other evidence justifies the term 'ritual landscape'. But I also argued that there were groups of tombs of types other than (or including) passage tombs that should be treated as cemeteries (Cooney 1990: 748--51), places where tombs are deliberately placed close to an existing monument and over time this created a special, defined area within the landscape. The role of a megalithic monument does not end with the ceasing of use for burial, its presence in the landscape gives it a continued significance and leaves it open to new interpretations and meaning (Hodder 1989, 70). As well as passage tomb cemeteries there are also examples of single passage tombs. So the situation is more complex than a simple distinction between passage tombs and the other megalithic types. Rather than maintaining the traditional typological distinctions we need to consider different kinds of tombs in relation to each other. Instead of viewing each tomb type as representing a separate cultural group or as reflecting changing burial practice over time, it may be more appropriate as a starting point to suggest that when a tomb was being constructed there may have been more than one option to be used, so the design of the tomb is seen as a deliberate choice by the people involved.

To suggest as Woodman does (1992a: 303--4) that there is no evidence for a developmental sequence in megalithic tombs is to miss a fundamental aspect of the Irish Neolithic, because burial practice did become more complex and varied over time. The megapassage tombs in the Boyne Valley dating to around 3200 BC do come after several hundred years of construction and use of passage tombs in Ireland; they are placed very deliberately in the physical and social context of earlier tombs in the cemetery (Sheridan 1986; Cooney 1990). Rather than detailing different phases in the development of landscapes where the past is seen as a neutral background against which later activity continues (Woodman 1992a: 304), it is this emphasis on human action and practice taking place in the context of the past (e.g. Barrett 1989) that may enable us to understand better the complexity of what was happening in places like the Boyne Valley.

Here the aggrandisement of the megalithic cemetery against a background of Neolithic settlement ended in the construction of the mega-tombs at Knowth, Newgrange and Dowth. This was followed by Beaker-period activity at both Knowth and Newgrange (Eogan 1984; 1986; 1991; O'Kelly 1982; O'Kelly et al. 1983). What appear to have been settlement clusters were deliberately sited around the perimeter of the main passage tomb mounds. At Newgrange two of the smaller tombs were encircled by henge-related monuments (Sweetman 1985; Stout 1991), and Newgrange itself was ultimately at least partially enclosed by the Great Stone Circle. Underlying all the changes was a continuity of place, suggesting a desire to incorporate existing, already 'ancient', monuments as the basis to legitimate action and society in the present (Clarke et al. 1985: 41). As Vestergaard (1987: 63) has put it, the past is constantly reconstructed to produce meaning for a changing present. In some cases this reconstruction involves changing the past also, and here the possibility of the deliberate destruction of the quartz revetment at Newgrange (Simpson 1988: 35) is interesting. In a footnote Woodman (1992a: 308) refers to the incorporation of megalithic tombs into Iron Age ritual, but it is clear that this process of incorporation of the past began long before the Iron Age. Indeed, it is an underlying theme of continuity through much of Irish prehistory. Rather than seeing the archaeological record in terms of phases replacing one another a more realistic view is that the past pervades the present. This applies particularly to ritual activity, which relies on a sense of timeless permanency for its social effectiveness (Bloch 1977; Barrett 1991: 4--6).

Place in the Bronze Age landscape

From the Final Neolithic onwards a wider array of ceremonial and ritual activity, often carried out in specific locations, is visible in the archaeological record. Formal burial instead of being the dominant arena for such activity now becomes only one of a number of ceremonial practices. Woodman (1992a: 307--10) demonstrated that much of the evidence we have for the Early Bronze Age is not concentrated in an early phase but is spread across the period. However, he maintains the traditional demarcation lines between the various types of sites and artefacts. It is the links between what are often regarded as unrelated sets of data that are of major importance in understanding the pattern of human activity in the landscape. The increasing separation of the metalwork from the burial and settlement evidence through the Bronze Age may create major problems for the archaeologist, but it is a result of deliberate action and the creation of different spheres of formal ceremonial activity as metal objects were deliberately placed in lakes, rivers or bogs. In some places this deposition went on over prolonged periods of time, so that parallel to formal burial areas or cemeteries were places of formal deposition, particularly in wetlands. This zonation of human activity in the landscape can be appreciated in areas where research has been on-going, as in the case of O'Brien's work on the Mizen Peninsula (O'Brien 1990; Woodman 1992a: 307--8) and the area around Lough Gur, where the lake itself appears to have become a focus of deposition while the settlement core shifted to the south, with the lowest parts of river valleys used for barrow cemeteries and fulachta fiadh (Grogan 1988: 156--7).

Even though they are spatially separated, spheres of ceremonial actions and events may have been linked. Eogan (1964: 285) has referred to the practice of hoard deposition in the Late Bronze Age as involving 'graveless grave goods' and in a similar vein Barrett & Needham (1988: 133) have suggested that certain Early Bronze Age objects in Britain were deposited in rivers as part of a votive deposition linked with funerary ritual. The deposition of metal objects at megalithic tombs, as at the Toormore wedge tomb in Co. Cork (O'Brien et al. 1990) and the court tomb at Tully, Co. Fermanagh (Waterman 1978) indicate that places recognized as special, because of their monumentality and association with death, may have been deemed appropriate for object deposition. In metalwork deposition there may have been distinct rituals relating to gender (Waddell 1990b: 13). If human activity and settlement patterns were spread across the landscape in a complex manner, both physically and in terms of human perception, it seems unlikely that the explanation of the end of the Early Bronze Age can be sought simply in environmental change (Woodman 1992a: 310).

The end of Irish prehistory?

Woodman's consideration of Irish prehistory (1992a) ends with the Bronze Age. This may perpetuate the separation of the Late Bronze Age from the Iron Age and the scenario of a collapse at the end of the Bronze Age (e.g. Mallory & McNeill 1991: 140). The outstanding feature of the archaeological record, however, is the degree of continuity across the two periods (e.g. Champion 1989; Raftery 1989). In the Navan complex, Co. Armagh, in the Late Bronze Age a hillfort, Haughey's Fort, was constructed and used (Mallory 1988; 1991). Below and to the northeast of it an artificial pool, the King's Stables, was constructed as a receptacle for formal deposits, including the front part of a human skull (Lynn 1977). To the east of Haughey's Fort lies Emain Macha which appears to have become the focus of activity in the complex in the Early Iron Age (Lynn 1986; 1992). Below and to the northeast of it is Loughnashade, a small lake with known finds of La Tene-style trumpets and human skulls (e.g. Warner 1986). Here we see the deliberate replication of an axis of movement in the landscape and a pattern of formal deposition which crosses the Late Bronze Age to Iron Age transition (Cooney & Grogan 1991). This kind of continuity is central to understanding developments in later Irish prehistory and stresses the integrity of the Late Bronze Age/Iron Age archaeological record.

The approach taken here and that offered by Woodman show that there are different ways of looking at and reading Irish prehistory. That such a diversity of opinion exists is a testament to the strength of research in prehistoric studies in Ireland. Woodman (1992a: 296) has suggested that there is a danger of prehistory becoming marginalized in Irish archaeology. But despite a lack of concern with theory and the continuity of traditional approaches the last 20 years have seen major advances in prehistoric research. Three major texts on Irish prehistory have appeared (Herity & Eogan 1977; Harbison 1988; O'Kelly 1989). Twenty-three of the 43 papers in the first five volumes of the Journal of Irish Archaeology concerned prehistory and the database produced by survey and excavation has greatly increased. Given the prominence of prehistorians on the academic staff of the four Departments of Archaeology on the island there is no reason why prehistoric studies should become marginalized. If anything the advent of the Discovery Programme (Anon. 1992) suggests that the future of research on prehistory is more assured than for the historic periods. What is needed is a recognition on the part of archaeologists of the wealth of questions still to be asked of the prehistoric past (see Woodman 1992b: 38--9) and the realization that it is the result of human action. As a character in Brian Friel's play Making history (1989) put it, 'History has to be made -- before it's remade'.

Acknowledgements. My thanks to Sarah Cross, Eoin Grogan and Finola O'Carroll for discussion and comments. The comments of the three referees were very useful and the paper has benefited from them. The views expressed here are, of course, those of the author alone.


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Peter Woodman(*) writes:

I would like to thank the editors for giving me the opportunity to reply to Dr Cooney's response to my recent article in ANTIQUITY. His response highlights the manner in which the text takes a life of its own. In this case his criticism of the way in which my article finishes is perfectly valid, but as ANTIQUITY had originally envisaged two articles -- one on early and the other on later prehistory -- it was agreed that I should end my contribution somewhere around 1000 BC though with implications running later. I deliberately ended it away from the notional period boundaries as these may have been to some extent irrelevant in the development of early Irish Society.

I do not propose to reply to every comment of Dr Cooney. Of course, other prehistorians would have written a different article with different emphases, and as I noted at the beginning of my article my own interests and circumstances -- Mesolithic research and move from Ulster to Munster -- has coloured what I have written. If we must begin every article by making obeisance to each theoretical perspective, then the very richness of diverse approaches will be replaced by Stalinist-like statements of respect for each school of thought. We have only recently escaped from institutional orthodoxies in Irish archaeology, I would hope that we do not replace them with philosophical ones.

Obviously some points raised by Cooney have been covered elsewhere. Many of the problems associated with the distribution of later Mesolithic artefacts in Ireland were discussed by others already (Woodman 1986; Woodman & Anderson 1990). In the context of a paper which started as 'what's new in Irish prehistory' it did not seem like a good idea to cover old ground.

Here I would like to concentrate on two points. The first is the role of the megalithic tomb in the Irish Neolithic. I feel that we represent two faces of the same coin and the face that each of us has chosen reflects our priorities. As I was educated at a time when we preferred self-fulfilling hypotheses in which there were chronologically controlled proliferations of different types of megaliths, I was suggesting that other explanations should be examined. One example would be that a profusion of megaliths did not necessarily represent a successful, rich society, or that, even when we considered the ritual association of megaliths, sacredness could take more than one form. Thus the monument through its construction and use could itself be a sacred artefact irrespective of its location or it could be used to help reinforce the sacredness of, or the control over a particular locations which in itself had ritual or sacred significance as a place.

Our disagreement as to whether the megalith is an automatic element within a Neolithic culture is a matter of emphasis. My argument that it was not an automatic element of the Irish Neolithic was advanced as far back as 1984 (Woodman 1984). The idea that the Neolithic of a region required megalithic tombs has been very strong in Irish archaeological orthodoxies. It was implicit throughout much of the association of Young irish Archaeologists' Conference on Lough Gur--Limerick in 1986, while Frank Mitchell (1989), having discovered traces of Neolithic activity in Valencia Island, felt initially that there ought to be a megalithic tombs of a similar age in the same area. On a personal note, initial applications for funding for a Mesolithic site at Ferriter's Cove in southwest Ireland seemed to me to be receiving exceptionally close scrutiny because of the fact that there was a claim that a Neolithic component might exist. In later years I felt it was more diplomatic to leave out references to the Neolithic.

The real question is not whether social, economic or environmental factors produce megaliths either at all or in some instances in abundance. Rather the question is, Why do some Neolithic societies produce megaliths and others not?; are they an essential element, as suggested by Thomas (1988), and should one regard those societies without visible monuments as somehow inferior or of marginal interest?

The second, and perhaps the main, issue which should be addressed is the role of theory in Irish archaeology. In spite of the effort and interests of individuals, traditionally we have been users of the theory of others rather than the innovators of our own. A lecture on Ricouer and Hermeneutics would probably be treated by most Irish archaeologists as a treatise on Irish Monasticism. This is not something peculiar to Irish archaeology. Prof. Larry Taylor, in a comment on theory in historical sciences, felt that we were on the receiving end of a process of 'cultural drift' on the edge of Europe (Lecture at UCC March 1993).

In that context I would fully agree that my paper did not address the role of theory in Irish archaeology and therefore fell into the trap of appearing to suggest an atheoretical position, which of course is a theoretical perspective in its own right. I have been more concerned, particularly in my paper in the Irish Review (Woodman 1991), with making a provocative statement on Irish archaeology's apparent lack of capacity to synthesize. In that context I would disagree with Dr Cooney's criteria for judging the health of Irish prehistory. Three texbooks and five slim issues of the Journal of Irish Archaeology in 15 years since the demise of Irish Archaeological Research Forum is hardly something to be proud of. My concern as a prehistorian is that, aside from the potential of the Discovery Programme (whose need was seen by a politician, not an archaeologist!), field archaeology in prehistory has been marginalized. If theory exists in a vacuum, in a discipline that is embedded in artefacts, excavations and survey, then our capacity to evaluate our ideas, with all their flaws and prejudices, is limited. Instead we rely too much on a small selection of sites and excavations whose information is limited by the standard of the time when they were excavated. If we accept that archaeology is to some extent an experimental science then the potential weakness of theoretical perspectives outstripping experiment is a major issue for Irish archaeology. If the combinations of theory and practice can be got right, then the particular perspectives which we individually bring are of lesser significance. I suppose this shows that I really am a processualist concerned with approaches such as middle-range theory, but at least it is a step in the right direction, as a few years ago I was accused of being an 'unrepentant defender of Gordon Childe's view of European prehistory'!


MITCHELL, G. F. 1989. Man and environment in Valencia Island. Dublin: Dublin Royal Irish Academy.

THOMAS, J. 1988. Neolithic explanations revisited: the Mesolithic--Neolithic transition in Britain and south Scandinavia, Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 54: 59--66.

WOODMAN, P.C. 1984. The early prehistory of Munster, Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society 89: 1--11.

1992. Irish archaeology today: a poverty amongst riches, Irish Review 12: 34--9.

1986. Problems in the colonisation of Ireland, Ulster Journal of Archaeology 49: 7--17.

WOODMAN, P.C. & E. ANDERSON. 1990. The Irish later Mesolithic: a partial picture?, in P.M. Vermeersch & P. Van Peer (ed.), Contributions to the Mesolithic in Europe: 377--88. Leuven.

(*)Department of Archaeology, University College, Cork, Ireland.
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Title Annotation:includes reply; response to Peter Woodman, Antiquity, vol. 66, p. 295, 1992
Author:Cooney, Gabriel; Woodman, Peter
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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