One: When I returned to my desk from a mid-afternoon snack of chips and guacamole, I had a question: why when you first open a bag of potato chips (or crisps) your handfuls are mostly of large, well formed and still intact chips; whereas after awhile the chips seem more broken; and by the end they are just a handful of greasy crumbs? The deterioration in size and chip integrity occurs even when a full bag is put into a solid bowl used for dipping in some nice delicious clam dip. Were they all just on top or is it that they don’t seem to survive as well to the end of the bag or bowl? I suspected that I was to blame, not the chips, but we shall see.
Two: As I pondered this question I started to consider the Céide Fields (pronounced something like Acadia but without the initial A and muffling most of the last a). Céide Fields is a staggeringly large Neolithic aged ruin (that is, stone age but after the agricultural revolution) of a settlement on the northern cliff-lined, barren and windswept coast of County Mayo in the west of Ireland. It dates to around 3,500 BC and apparently comprises the largest Neolithic site in Ireland. It also has the oldest known field system in the world, which sounds pretty darned impressive even though I am not 100% sure I know what that means.
Either way, these were ready-for-prime-time agriculturalists. This may have been far away from where agriculture started, indeed even far away from anything like where people choose to live even now in Ireland, but it seems they were up to date, not a back water town full of hicks.
My sister, brother and I took a day-long detour one day last April to go see this site, in the pouring rain and fighting gale force winds. As one stands there, taking it in, the settlement rises up the gently sloping hillside away from the steep sea cliffs while the inaccessible Atlantic pounds those cliffs at your back. It is a rugged and beautiful spot in a wild but barren sort of way.
However, frankly it is a vista which would bore a teenager to tears. In truth, most of what is important here remains buried beneath the peat, which is itself largely covered simply by grass. Its interest is mainly intellectual I believe, though it does make an impression.
Three: Some time ago I came across a unique map of the British Isles. see megalith map. This particular map indicated with red dots the sites of all megalithic monuments, like a stone circle such as Stonehenge or a barrow mound or other large stone mostly immovable monument. I was struck by the fact that these were not distributed evenly. In fact there were far far more of them as one traveled towards the extremities (as we would think of them today) of each main island.
Generally there were more, sometimes a lot more to the west, but also to the north and to the far western south as well. For instance, the Céide Fields in northern - but not Northern Ireland - has more megalithic company than does say Dublin. And Scotland and Cornwall have far more megaliths than either the midlands or the Southeast of England.
It was as if a megalith was repelled, as are the like poles of two magnets, by population centers. This was true for both Great Britain and Ireland, each viewed separately. If these megaliths might be tied to where people actually lived, then what are extremities now, were centers of population then. And, most oddly, where people now live were extremities back then.
Was this really an indicator that more people lived during the Neolithic in the farthest and more remote reaches of the islands? If you were to conduct a tour of existing megalithic sites you might come to that conclusion, these Neolithic folk simply seemed to like this remote stuff, the more remote the better they would say. After all, they were from the stone age! Or did more remote settlements simply have some greater desire to spend decades and uncountable community resources to build really big stone stuff? Were they overcompensating? It just seemed so improbable.
Well indeed there may have been a difference in populations or cultures. Or maybe there were simply more big rocks around some places to temp would-be builders. It can be hard to be sure. But maybe the megalithic map, in some degree, is just like the potato chips. As the big hand of society reaches in, over time the chips distribution will change. The surviving sites maybe were just the little, harder to grab chips left to the end.
One, part II: I decided I needed empirical evidence. It so happened that I still had in my kitchen an unopened bag of the same brand of chips. Bag number one (marked here for identification and with which I had just made this initial observation) is opened and nearly consumed, Bought at the same time from the same store shelf was bag number two. (A two for one sale item with my stop ‘n shop card.)
Now I have some small training in the field of Archeology, which means I moved some dirt around in 1967 at a Medieval farm site in Devonshire with my Dad and older brother on an amateur manned but professionally organized archeological dig, as the British sometimes do. And I read about Archeology while taking college courses in my Anthropology minor. So I felt quailified to tackle the potato chip bag as an archeological site. Were potato chip distributions inherent in the bag’s initial structure and layers as brought home, or did our hands and mouths have something to do with it?
I brought my gear and samples to my grandmother’s dining room table, and conducted my experiment.
I carefully slit open the side of bag #2 along the vertical without disturbing the chip distribution. As will be seen, there was no initial tendency for larger chips to be on top. The larger chips initially are uniformly distributed. Something else was going on.
Necessarily, the larger chips are removed first, leaving smaller and smaller chips behind as a result of our taking them out in an unequal order. Not due to an unequal chip pattern already in situ. The tendency of larger chips to be removed early on may be hypothesized as their being easier to grab, more attractive to me as guacamole scoops, and the first chips my hand alights on.
Two, part II: Upon arrival at the Céide Fields we signed up at the nice visitors center for a docent led tour, which would take us back out into the elements. We walked among a number of exposed stone walls and small building foundations where our guide pointed out their significance and other relevant information about the place. Once again I was struck by the realization that though my siblings and I were interested, our kids would rather put needles in their eyes than have to put up with this.
Eventually, as wind blown rain was unmistakably working it’s way inside my jacket, we came to a patch of grass covered peat where the docent stepped off the walkway meant to protect the site from our shoes and boots, picked up a 10 foot or so tall iron pole or pick and with just a light shove, slid it down into the peat for about 5 feet until it’s further progress was stopped by hitting a stone. He dutifully took a measurement.
In this way the entire site, miles across, had been mapped painstakingly, one pole thrust at a time over 50 some years. Then we hurried indoors to get out of the rain.
As I sat inside the Céide Fields visitors center sipping a hot cup of tea, drying off and recovering from the hike into the archeological site, I wondered just why all these people thought to build their homes and a town way out here. You can’t even get to the beach due to the cliffs. Did they like this weather? (You will note that I don’t show many pictures of Céide Fields, it was raining so hard I couldn’t get out my camera except between rain squalls. But let’s be fair, it was mostly just a lot of wet grass.)
Well, the weather then wasn’t the same. According to information provided at the visitors center, it was warmer back then than it is now, much warmer in fact. Nor was the terrain the same. No peat then, or at least not enough at that point to harvest for fire burning. Lots of trees. They cleared the upland fields of their trees and raised cattle. (Eventually that would doom the settlement, putting in place the circumstances allowing for the formation of the blanket bog that would engulf the settlement after a thousand years or so.) And since they didn’t burn peat for fires, they would have burned great logs in what I would like to think, were roaring fires. As a way to shift perspectives from the present barren fields to the past, consider that should a little girl want to visit grandma in the next town over she would need to pass through a great, shall we suppose wolf infested, dense forest that probably went on mostly unbroken to the other end of Ireland.
Okay. But still, why not just build the largest Neolithic settlement in Ireland, the Dublin of its day, down near to where they must have originally come from, the south and east. Surely that was nicer and certainly closer to relatives left behind. That’s why those places are populated now, isnt it? Or at the very least why isn’t there a settlement down there this big? Or indeed, bigger? Why does Céide Fields stand out?
Well, maybe they were trying to get away from others? Maybe this whole settlement was made up with with the hermits of the Neolithic. Maybe, but all of these megaliths all over the British Isles were built by hermits? And only by the hermits? And it is notable that there were no fortifications at Céide Fields. This was not a population concerned about warlike neighbors.
Conclusion pro Tempore: Well the answer is that they probably did build down to the southeast. Probably a lot of them. Or their contemporaries did. They probably built lots of megalithic monuments down there too. The megalithic monument map I studied, with its bias towards the “extremities” on each island, was just as unlikely to correctly show all the monuments actually built as the idea that they had only built this one big settlement way up in the most remote part of the island.
We don’t see as many of those big settlements or monuments in the southeast perhaps because they ARE in places of continuous habitation, they simply haven’t survived. Society has reached in, like my hand in the bag of chips, and taken what they needed and put the stones from those settlements somewhere else where society then needed them. And that wasn’t on some barren piece of wild Atlantic coast.
The Céide Fields, remarkable as they are, merely reflect the crumbles of chips left in the bottom of the bag. Most of what remains in the other now lost sites have been put into more recent stone pasture walls, houses, churches, Roman roads (in Great Britain), and finally into reproductions of really old things.
What we are left with is the stunning realization that though Céide Fields may be the largest Neolithic site today, that doesn’t mean it was back then. What we see now has a survival data bias in it. As we stand on some barren rock of land we need to consider that bias or we will draw mistaken inferences from the past. Still lost sites existed in more “normal” places, likely were numerous and some at least were larger.
These islands may have been chock full of people in their Stone Age post-agricultural-revolution settlements. Before bronz and then iron weapons revolutionized and gave purpose to warfare, and before plagues from travelers and rodents from afar descended on them, these islands might have been populated by numbers that would not be seen again for thousands of years.
[Note. I won’t pretend that this conclusion is in some textbook or authoritative paper which I have found. For what they are worth, these are only my own inferences, and they are based on (1) the size (large) and location (remote) of Céide Fields, (2) the aberrations seen on a map of megalithic sites showing they are located more in remote locations, but without any reason grounded in the Neolithic period itself to explain this, and (3) a potato chip archeological dig. I am a traveler, not a professional antiquarian.]
Actual conclusion: Okay. So what? Why is a travel blog taking my time to tell me about survival rates for ancient Neolithic sites and monuments? Fair enough.
It’s because this isn’t just a Neolithic thing. So much of what we travel to see fits this same pattern: an out of the way place which, in between when created and now, has been largely forgotten, abandoned, or just left alone. It therefore survived. This is evident even in our modern cities.
Where there were once derilict slums are now fancy neighborhoods simply because they still have old buildings with character. Paris’ Île-de-France and Left Bank are so popular for their narrow streets and small old buildings which evoke a medieval atmosphere, but first they had to survive Napoleon III’s 19th Century remodeling of Paris which tore down the Right Bank and repurposed it with wide boulevards and Mansard roofed apartments. What was once East Berlin is now a favored destination because during communist rule no capital was spent there modernizing that portion of the city. Repeatedly, anywhere that was in use, profitable, popular and exploited no longer has anything left surviving that is of interest.
Simply put, some of our favorite tourist attractions are places too unpopular to have been torn down. Tourism can be the attention given to what had previously been entirely ignored. Suck on that Left Bank!
It is worth considering as we gape at places like the Céide Fields, and the thousands of stone circles and monuments still surviving mostly on marginal land (and the Left Bank and East Berlin as well) maybe these were not that extraordinary in their day. And if we find them there, then how many more were there once? What were all these people doing?
Four: And where did they all go, and why?
Part of the answer to that last question, for me at least, could be found at the aptly named Abandoned Village on Achill Island on the western extremity of Ireland and a little over an hour drive south and west from the Céide Fields (if you don’t stop; but you always stop in Ireland). This is a mile long collection of stone cottages along the southern shoulder of Slievemore Mountain which today are wholly empty and comprised only of stone foundations and a lot of stone walls. My siblings and I also visited this place and spent some time walking amongst these much more recent stone ruins. They didn’t look that different from Céide Fields, just a little more intact.
Up until relatively recently (last century) this was an actual community, or at least it had a lot of people in it. What were they doing some miles away from the sea, which they could see even on a rainy day, and on this barren mountainside.
Recent occupation was comprised of summer pastoralists up on the mountain, they were herding sheep on the mountainsides in the heat of summer, but the structures are big enough and there are enough of them that this must have at one time been a permanent village. Where did they get all that stone?
Just along-side the somewhat recently abandoned village, a few hundred yards to the east, but also up about as high on the mountain and as far from the sea, sits a megalithic tomb indicating occupation here perhaps as long ago as 5,000 years. The builders of this were contemporaries of the cattle breeders at Céide Fields. (My brother who climbed up there noted that someone was building yet another megalithic tomb right next to it. Megalithic is hot.)
Others had lived here millenia before the occupants of the now Abandoned Village. Their ruin of an ancient settlement is around here somewhere, most likely it was right under all those walls and cottages that probably cannibalized their stone. The Abandoned Village was once the potato chip bag in operation, taking out old stone foundations to make new ones.
But then, over time, this land became less productive still, what we see as a wild landscape is in fact the severely degraded remnants formed from long past and also ongoing agricultural practices. This wildness was caused by humans. And now this area is dependent on the interactions of just a few, not many species. Mostly sheep, goats and grass. That’s a hard and fragile thing when you have to depend on only one thing to eke out a life.
I think that one day someone woke up and with a blinding flash realized what and how we see this land now: beautiful but grown very marginal and harsh. He or she, I bet she, looked at the other few thousand people still living up here and asked, why on earth are there a few thousand of us still living up here? She mentioned her epiphany to her neighbors and, all eyes now open, they all promptly left; ending up who knows where thousands of years ago, but some more recently in the tenements of lower east side Manhattan and Boston. Such have the land use patterns played out over and over down through the centuries.
And these are the surviving chips to which we now reverentially return as tourists.
©️ 2019 D Abbott