Historic Find at Glencar Lake“It’s just the density of material that’s really unusual.”

As heard on The Ray D'Arcy Show

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What are the chances that a drought, an archaeologist and a picnic would all collide in the environs of Glencar Lake to reveal a massive haul of artefacts; the likes of which have never been seen in the area before? Well, whatever the chances, it happened; as archaeologist Marion Dowd told Kathryn Thomas on the Ray D’Arcy Show. Speaking on the phone from Sligo, Marion says she was out for a walk with family and friends in June this year, when her son began scouting for a picnic location on the shores of Glencar Lake. The spot they chose just happened to be an that is usually underwater, Marion says:

“The levels of the lake dropped at that time, so this surface with all these chert tools became exposed. Normally that area would be completely submerged under the waters of the lake. It was just the chance that we happened to go there at that particular time. Since then, it’s been pretty much completely covered over by water again.  And it could be another 12 months before that part is exposed.”

Marion explains that “chert” is a type rock often used to create sharp tools in prehistoric times, and there was plenty of it about that day. Marion says she caught sight of one little piece at first. When she spotted it, almost immediately she recognised it as a prehistoric tool:

“It’s what we call a convex scraper. So it’s a little stone scraper. And the type of stone that they were using is chert. It’s a black stone, kind of like flint.”

Subsequent work has led to the discovery of a total of 930 pieces of chert tools and the debris left behind in the process of making them. Exact dating is yet to be determined, but it’s likely the items are between 4000 and 7000 years old. Marion says it’s not certain who the people were who used the items found at the lakeside, but she says the find is adding to the knowledge archaeologists have about the area:

“It’s always very difficult to find the houses or the everyday farmsteads of these people. I suppose what was fantastic about this was that we are getting a real glimpse into the everyday lives of various prehistoric people.”

The 900-plus pieces that have been found represent the lives of not one, but several generations of prehistoric peoples who came and went at Glencar, Marion says:

 “We know from looking at the assemblage that it’s not just one event in time. Probably what we are looking at is a collection of artefacts that built up, potentially over thousands of years, so that we’re getting people repeatedly coming to the lake; it would have been a real hub of activity.”

Marion says the area, covering parts of counties Sligo and Leitrim, was a focus for people looking for fresh water for themselves and for livestock, fishing, catching duck and many other activities.  Kathryn was curious about other excavations in the area, and it turns out that this find is totally unique, according to Marion:

“This is the first prehistoric site that’s known from this particular lake. We do have, you know, later activity from the early medieval period. You know, we’ve crannógs and a lot of ring forts around the area, which is again testifying to how important the lake was. But all of those sites are much, much later.”

This chance find has yielded far, far more than a planned dig at a designated site, Marion says:

“It’s just the density of material that’s really unusual. You don’t tend to find dense concentrations of stone tools, as we call them ‘lithics’ in one place, especially if you’re not actually looking for them, if it’s not during an archaeological excavation. In my own history of working on excavations, the most we might have found of any of my sites would be 20 or 30 pieces!”

If you want to find out more about what’s been happening at the site since the find back in June, you can listen back to Kathryn’s full interview with archaeologist Marion Dowd here.

Ruth Kennedy

© The Listener 2020

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