This site is very well known for two things: its biodiversity and its archaeological sites.
Yesterday, on our way to the Cliffs of Moher, our bus passed through this strange landscape, known as The Burren. It's unique appearance is due to the fact that the ground is mostly covered in limestone blocks, with plants growing from the cracks in between. This makes the whole place look almost like a sort of lunar landscape, with large grey rocks covering the majority of the land, and stray plants growing between them. Despite it's inhospitable appearance, the Burren is actually the site of lots of plant and animal life. A portion of the land has been made into a protected park area, called Burren National Park, which stretches out over 15 square kilometers. The entirety of the Burren is 250 square kilometers, and much of it is used as farmland. Because it is such a unique ecosystem, nearly all of the Burren is designated a Special Area of Conservation, and the farmers who live here use very sustainable methods to ensure the preservation of this place.
This site is very well known for two things: its biodiversity and its archaeological sites.
The Burren gets its name from the Irish word "Boireann," meaning a rocky place, though in the past, it has more often been called the "fertile rock," a very valid nickname. Of all the native types of plants and trees that grow in Ireland, 70% - 75% can be found here, including plants that rang from alpine to Mediterranean, from thistles to orchids. These many different plants grow in the cracks between the limestone rock, fertilized by the deposits of sediment that have been built up since the carboniferous period, and kept frost-free by the gulf stream winds. When it comes to animals, the burren houses dozens of types of mammals, birds, invertebrates, reptiles, amphibians, and fish. This land is also farmland, which means it is not uncommon to see farmers' cows, goats, and sheep grazing here. The area is well known for the farmer's dedication to keeping the ecosystem intact. The grazing of animals is restricted to certain areas during certain times, ensuring that the plants are never decimated by the livestock. Farmers will have their cattle graze in the most plant-dense areas in the winter (when they eat the more), and then move them back towards the south for the summer. This not only ensure that no one area is completely killed off, but creates room for the new spring plants that would otherwise struggle to grow in the dense areas. This amount of cooperation between the farmers and the ecosystem, and the constant dedication to keep the Burren a stable place is very interesting, and a real ecological success story.
As with much of Ireland, the Burren is rich in archaeological sites. I spoke about some of the ancient architecture in yesterday's post, and this site is home to hundreds of structures. There have been sites excavated here that date from the Mesolithic to the Iron Age, with the most famous (including ring forts) structures having been built in the Neolithic. These are mainly tombs, showing evidence of farming civilizations in the area. The most famous site (seen in the picture to the right) is the Portal Tomb, or Portal Dolmen at Poulnabrone. This dolmen has been dated back to c. 3600 BC. It faces north-east, and has a 12ft by 7ft capstone. The area was excavated, and the remains of 16 to 22 adults were found there, along with the bones of 6 juveniles, which were buried over the course of six centuries. Most of the people buried here died before they were 30, mostly from high levels of stress and overexertion. Like most prehistoric people, the early inhabitants of the Burren essentially worked themselves to death. Even beyond the Portal Dolmen however, many, many tombs have been found, including one site with such a high density that some archaeologists suggest it may have been a megalithic cemetery.
Researching the Burren made me even more curious about the different landscapes of Ireland. I would love to go visit the Burren one day, and see more of this unique landscape.
The Dingle Peninsula is a truly unique land, boasting, among many other things, one of the landscapes with the greatest amount and variety of archeological sites in Europe. Over 2,000 monuments have been discovered there, with proof of inhabitants dating back 6,000 years.
This post is my second research post, and I will be focusing on Ringforts, an archeological feature that is common in the area.
Ringforts are, as their name indicates, large, fortified walls built in a circular pattern. These forts come in many different sizes, and some are made out of stone, while other are made out of earth or sod. Often times, these 'forts' were placed on hills, with shallow ditches around them. The are in the center of the ringfort is usually empty and open. While many ringforts were destroyed over time, lots have been found and excavated, and are today being preserved acheological sites.
During the Mesolithic period, hunters and gatherers roamed the island, leaving behind traces of their temporary camps, usually marked by wide varieties of animal remains.
There following the Mesolithic period came the Stone Age (aka Neolithic period, c. 8,800 BCE – c. 2,500 BCE). This marks the appearance of settled living, with the first signs of farmers (stone tools, more permanent structures, pottery, etc). Several large-scale tombs and other funerary monuments were found, showing a fairly amazing amount of architectural knowledge. These monuments are sometime attributed to the Bronze Age, likely because of the architectural skill that would have been needed to create them. Cairns, or man-made piles of rocks, usually for religious or mapping purposes have been found from this time period as well.
The people of the Bronze Age (c. 2,500 BCE – c. 500 BCE) in Ireland left an increasing amount of artifacts behind. By this time metal was being used to make weapons, tools, and jewelry. Stone circles and graves aligned with sun rise and set were built at this time, along with many other grave and social sites. There are dozens of these archeological sites are found across Ireland, and many are very well preserved thanks to the boggy ground.
Ring forts, however, do not appear until the Iron Age (c. 500 BCE – c. 500 CE) when the architectural structures began to grow in size. There is some debate in the archeological community as to whether ring forts really date back this far. Some attribute them to much later periods, saying that they may have been built between 600 CE and 900 CE, though some theories claim they are as recent as the Medieval times, c. 1400 CE. The most common belief is that these forts were built towards the middle of the first century, and were then used as foundations for further building in the Medieval times. Despite a constant disagreement, the most accepted idea is that ringforts were built up until c. 1000 CE.
The theories on what ringforts were used for are almost as wide ranging as the amount of time during which they may have been built. There are four generally accepted hypotheses: agriculture, industry, defense, and status.
Due to the fact that farming was the norm in Ireland at this time, it is likely that these wall would have been made to either shield either a farmer or his cattle from the elements, or perhaps as a storehouse for cereal. In areas where there is little farming, ringforts often contain various other artifacts, such as pottery, leading archeologists to hypothesize that they were used as hubs on trading routs. When it comes to defense, the name 'ringfort' give a fairly good idea of what they are believed to have been used for. Along with serving to protect people from invaders, some theorize that these forts were markers for territory, to warn others that they were entering inhabited land. The final explanation, status, refers to nobles using the ringforts to differentiate themselves from the common people. All of these explanations have very substantial evidence supporting them, and it is therefor likely that different ringforts were used for different things, encompassing all of these different theories.
And, with that, we head off from Galway. Hope you found this post interesting!
Today, we all took a bus to see the Cliffs Of Moher, on the south- western side of the island. We spent several hours looking around, and I can honestly say I've never seen a landscape like this one.
Once again, I find myself at odds with the English language to try to figure out how to properly explain how beautiful and unique this landscape is.
The cliffs stretch off into the ocean for miles, with 700 feet drops to the water. The colors are just beautiful- the vivid green of the grass, the dark blue-teal of the water, the red and black of the rocks and silt, the bright yellow of the dandelion flowers mixing with light purple of Sea Pinks and Sheeps Bit, the grey-white sky over it all, the list goes on and on. And, if the list of colors is long, the list of textures easily matches it. Wavy, fluffy grass grows off of jagged shale, and water goes from smooth and shiny to light and foamy against the edge of the polished rock cliffs. Pebble beaches, inhabited by flocks of seagulls, rise up to walls that alternate between spider-web cracks and horizontal rock layers. Moss and lichen grow in blooming, fractal patterns, and clouds trace lines against the flat sky.
To save you from more of my adjectives and metaphors, here are some photos:
Josh, Austin, Adam and I walked along the cliffside to Hag's Head, the southernmost point of the cliffs. These photos were taken all along the way there. As always, hover over for captions.
And, for those of you who were wondering what all of this looked like with the wind blowing through it, here's a quick video, taken when standing on the path between the Main and North Platforms.
And now, for a bit of history.
The story of the Cliffs of Moher begins 300 million years ago, during the Upper Carboniferous Period (that's the age of the giant dragonflies and 6 foot long lizards, for you who, like me, aren't geology buffs). At this time, this land mass was the location of the delta for a massive river. Many different types of sediment and rock were washed here by the river, such as sand, clay, and silt. As the continental masses shifted, the sediment was compacted to produce what is now sandstone, mudstone, shale, and stiltstone. These types of rock were eroded over time, and, due to their different densities and resilience, created the remarkable cliffs we see today.
Because sediment collected at this site over so many years, it's rock layers act like a sort of geological history book. Layers of different types of rock tell scientists about what was going on at the time, and this are has been extensively studied. Along with information on how the are was behaving over time, the Cliffs of Moher contain a wealth of fossils. The two most common types are scolia and burrows. The scolia are long, squiggly trails left by unidentified creatures, likely worms or snails. Burrows are small circles, also left by unknown marine creatures, this time as they created either breathing or escaping tunnels in the sand.
Many years after all these unknown fossil-creating critters had died off, humans came walking along these picturesque cliffs. The first signs of life date back to the first century BCE. These ancient peoples came up with many legends of various people and creatures who had lived here. These include stories of mermaids and sea hags and the like, which are highly entertaining, and gave their names to some of the rock formations. The people of 100 BCE also built a sort of fort on the southern edge of the cliffs, known as Hag's Head, which stood up until the 1700s. This structure was likely built as a defense outpost or refuge, as the cliffs are too inhospitable for ancient man to have lived there. the last record of it is from 1780, however, after which it was torn down and replaced with a telegraph tower, which was also torn down, this time to make way for a lookout tower during the Napoleonic War. The ruins of this tower are still present today, and visitors can walk around and in it at Hag's Head.
As a tourist site, the Cliffs of Moher have been a popular destination since the 1500s, when young noblemen would visit it as part of the grand tour. Many writers spoke of the cliffs in their works all throughout history, though it was not officially opened to the public until 1974. Since then, the site has gained popularity and almost one million visitors came through the site in 2006. From 2005 to 2007, a visitor centre was built here, offering people an opportunity to learn more about this unique site. This centre, called the Cliffs of Moher Experience, is built to be very eco friendly. It is powered by renewable energy and uses geothermal heating and cooling.
The Cliffs of Moher were certainly an amazing experience, and I look farward to seeing more of the Irish country landscape as we continue our journey south to the Dunquin.