Lismullin Post Enclosure, Co. Meath, Ireland

I attended the public lecture entitled ‘Iron Age Post Enclosure at Lismullin’, which was delivered by Frank Prendergast at the Dublin Institute of Technology on 2nd November 2010. Frank, a colleague from the School of Spatial Planning, had carried out a thoroughly professional analysis of spatial archaeological data that had been gathered during the painstaking archaeological removal of top soil prior to the construction of the M3 motorway. It was the construction of the motorway that had led to the discovery of the former existence of an iron-age wooden post enclosure at this location. Frank pointed out that no visible indication of the post enclosure had existed before the motorway-related investigations. The archaeologist who had led the dig and staff of the UCD School of Archaeology were present at the lecture and contributed significantly to the discussion that took place afterwards during the ‘questions’ session.

I found this a very interesting presentation and I was highly impressed by the insights that Frank provided and the marvellous way in which he placed the historical and archaeological information into context. It was interesting to learn too that part of the outer ring of posts has not been disturbed. By the symmetry of the existing data there can be high confidence about what is actually there too. I see it as a very positive thing that this undisturbed remnant is still in situ.

There was quite a large audience in the Michael O’Donnell lecture theatre, which included a representative of the Minister for Transport and members of various organizations. I do not know what proportion of the audience consisted of ordinary members of the public, but there were certainly individuals there who had very strong feelings about this particular piece of Ireland’s heritage. I found Frank Prendergast’s openness, professionalism and his respectful acceptance of diverse views inspirational.

The human condition and nature are both fascinating. Thankfully, society is made up of artists, poets, archaeologists, engineers, politicians, farmers, environmentalists etc. It is good that people do not all hold the same views and it is good that different people care more- or less-deeply about different things. Somehow society as a whole moves on, with ups and down, even though individuals may be pursuing different dreams.

For my own part, I believe motorways are necessary for today’s society and, given that resources are always scarce, it needs to be possible to construct them cost-effectively. Frank Prendergast displayed a relief map of Ireland in his presentation, on which he had spatially mapped known archaeological formations such as man-made mounds or configurations of rocks. The map made it clear that these exist almost everywhere. Frank also demonstrated, by an example, that in the course of civilization on the island of Ireland, since some time after the last ice age, constructions of one era have been dismantled in order to use the materials for some other purpose, perhaps another construction. The words I have been using are probably not the correct archaeological language: Frank used the correct, and much more precise, terms in his lecture.

It was clear from some of the questions and observations from members of the audience that not all of them were comfortable with the concept of preserving the traces of the Lismullin post enclosure by record only. My own opinion would have been much more accepting of what had been done. While he was careful not to take sides, Frank pointed out that, in his view, detailed data, with scholarly and professional assessment and analysis based upon it, could in itself be a national treasure. That struck a chord with me. As I referred to earlier, I felt happy that there was still a part of the remnants of the post enclosure that was undisturbed. With future techniques not yet imagined those remnants, or telltales, may yield a lot more information. Nature herself is self-documenting: she retains sufficient traces of every era that are, or will become, amenable to analysis. But, even nature re-uses and re-distributes materials; for instance, this would have occurred by massive compression of surface layers under the weight of ice and subsequent scouring as glaciers moved during the ice age that Frank mentioned.

I learned at the session that the carbon-14 dating technique had been used to establish the date at which the trees that were used for the posts of the Lismullin enclosure were felled. (For me, this technique is built upon one of the marvels of nature: she creates radioactive carbon isotopes in the upper atmosphere that become part of things that are currently alive. The half life of the isotopes is around 5730 years and so, amazingly, even tiny fragments of charcoal contain a type of count-down timer that was activated at the moment the material was no longer living.) I learned that other analysis of charcoal residue has allowed the species of the posts to be determined and has suggested that another species may have been interwoven around the posts, creating a fence or wall. Detailed analysis of the metrics of the post enclosure has shed a lot of light on the technical capabilities and the societal activities of those who constructed and used the post enclosure. Another lesson I learned from the lecture was that the importance of the Lismullin enclosure is not singular. The society that existed at the era of the enclosure can best be understood by putting the site into a much broader historical and archaeological context.

Those who regard Lismullin and the landscape around the Hill of Tara as sacred ground have a valid viewpoint. I respect that view and, in a sense, I encompass it in my own view that the island of Ireland is sacred ground for us, the Irish who live on it now. I believe that at Lismullin there has been a reasonable compromise. I am scarcely a poet, but I imagine nobody could know better than a great poet the importance of record.