Beyond Sensible archaeology in Ireland

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With our tongues held firmly held in our cheeks and feeling decidedly anachronistic we define ‘Sensible Archaeology’ as projects which have selected topics suitable to archaeological investigation, that at least attempt to attach discussion to solid archaeological evidence, and which detail the project in purposefully clear and comprehensible language.

We would not necessarily proclaim projects that fail to meet these standards as being flawed, pointless or irrelevant; we would choose to categorize them as being ‘Beyond Sensible’. This criticism is mainly a matter of stylistic choices, and should not be taken too literally, but there are some serious consequences to the proliferation of ‘Beyond Sensible’ archaeology that we are attempting to highlight. In 2002 two Swedish Archaeologists with long standing connections to Ireland published works about different aspects of Irish Archaeology. In both cases whilst the works themselves were interesting and well realised, certain aspects of them would be characterized as being ‘Beyond Sensible’.

Stephan Berg wrote a short article describing the process by which the spectacular natural landscape of the Sligo Bay area was altered in the Neolithic by the creation of large complexes of tombs. The most singularly spectacular monument is the vast cairn known as Maeve’s Cairn which is located on top of Knocknarea mountain that dominates the area. It is described in folklore as the burial place of the Witch Queen Maeve. At the end of an otherwise thoroughly sensible piece Berg concludes with the following anecdote[1].

A question put to me by a local farmer last summer: ‘Is Queen Maeve buried in the mountain?’ he asked me. I hesitated in answering, as I realised that he saw the cairn on the summit as marking a tomb located in the mountain. For him the boundary between the monument and landscape had been erased and the mountain had turned into a monument. I had to reply ‘Yes, she is buried in the mountain’!


Since when was the role of archaeologists to lie to members of the public? Queen Maeve is a mythological figure belonging to the Ulster Cycle which are thought to have been created in the Late Iron Age. The consensus view, and one that Berg himself ascribes to, is that Maeve’s Cairn is best regarded as a Neolithic Passage Tomb, predating the myths of the Ulster Cycle by three thousand years or more.  The answer, the only possible answer, was no.

The rural population in Ireland have a very curious relationship with archaeology. Whilst they respect the presence of visible archaeological sites and would seek not to interfere with them without good reason, they often appear to be largely disinterested in their histories. With their lives being focused on the difficult business of small scale farming and the comings and goings of the local community, they typically view archaeologists, and their interest in the past, with an amused distain. Connected with this is a sometimes puzzling use of language when talking about archaeology. Terms to describe site types are often mixed up; functions are often incorrectly ascribed or reflect considerably out of date ideas. By equating a slightly ambiguous use of language to his own perceptions of the landscapes development Berg projects his values onto an innocent bystander.

I am reminded of a similar conversation I had with a farmer whose family used to own the passage tomb complex at Knowth and who consistently referred to the passage tombs and souterrains as caves. This didn’t have any complex meaning, they were simply the caves which he had played in as a child before the archaeologists had arrived. I could now be launching into a discussion of how his use of the term cave symbolises a lingering association of the site with the zone of transition between this world and the underworld, how the site, even devoid of its historic context, was still perceived as a liminal zone, a place of transition and transformation, and a place still associated with the afterlife. But I won’t because that would be putting my words into his mouth and doing that is ‘Beyond Sensible’.

Christina Fredengren published a misleadingly titled book, Crannogs, which dealt mainly with prehistoric artificial islands on Lough Gara on the border between Counties Roscommon and Sligo. Whilst her inclusive use of the term Crannog to describe sites other than the Early Medieval and Medieval periods to which the name is usually restricted is questionable, the decision is logically explained and in some ways reflects a simple matter of taste. Where she does seem to stray into the realms which lie beyond the sensible is with her assertion that,[2]

“My anti-capitalist affiliations form an under current in this book.”

The Anti-Capitalism movement that developed in the late 1990’s and which is being alluded to is a curious beast. One of its most defining characteristics is the multitude of contradictory ideologies that temporarily assemble under its umbrella. Anarchists and Marxists may march through a city under the same banner for a day but fundamental differences persist about the necessity of the state (unresolved since the anarchist expulsion from the First International in 1872), whilst traditional working class unionists who wish to see collectivization and fairly managed industrial states march next to Primitivists who advocate the reduction of the global population by around 5.9 billion people and a return to paleolithic lifestyles for the survivors. Anti-capitalism itself then is not a theoretical perspective from which analytical methods can be borrowed without identifying which of the myriad themes is being evoked. To define an archaeology as anti-capitalist creates far more questions than it answers, and clearly a more detailed declaration of the books intent was required; after all potentially this was the most dangerous archaeological text ever written! Unfortunately the book was caught outside the last G8 summit carrying several sticks of dynamite, an ancient handgun and a battered copy of Mikhail Bakunin’s “God and the State”. When confronted by the police it took its own life rather than face incarceration. Sadly we will probably never know its true intentions or gain a full understanding of its beliefs.

Joking aside this decision to link an archaeological work with an anti-capitalist ideology is bizarre. Initially Fredengren reaffirms the dangers of politically loaded thought in archaeological explanations and extols the virtues of critical awareness. She then proceeds to claim that archaeologists must not ‘sponsor’ the market by describing things in terms of economic systems, and that as archaeologists we have a social responsibility to confront western liberal market society! There is in this work, despite her flirtation with critical theory, a deliberate politicization[3].

The CSA has a major problem with this approach. Our desire for a return to a more empirical archaeology is at complete odds to this sort of politicized stance. Surely we should base interpretation around whichever analytical tools are most appropriate once we have gathered the data. By starting with such an overtly political stance and rejecting the entire field of economically derived interpretive tools as a point of principal, the only archaeology that could be produced would be Beyond Sensible. Finally if we were feeling irritable we might question if the apparently dedicated anti-capitalist author deliberately selected a misleading title in order to sell more copies of her book?

It is hoped that the above is taken in the manner in which it was meant, a discussion of two specific incidents where archaeologists have taken liberties and moved beyond the scope of what we determine to be Sensible Archaeology. It is not meant as a general criticism of the work of either author but the above have simply been chosen to illustrate our perspective and allow discussion to revolve around actual examples rather than hypothetical and abstract notions. From our perspective both cases provide interesting examples of what happens when theoretical approaches temporarily out way the common sense of the archaeologist or where the archaeologists wander off unwisely into areas they are not overly qualified to deal with. The Campaign for Sensible Archaeology will be working away highlighting similar issues and hopes at some point, to make a difference no matter how small. Even if the most we ever achieve is to let a handful of stressed out students know that some professional archaeologists might not see the point of phenomenology either, I think we shall have done some good!

At present the CSA hangs out on Facebook and can be found at



Berg, S. 2002 Knocknerea: the ultimate monument: megaliths and mountains in Neolithic Cúil Irra, north-west Ireland in C. Scarre (ed) Monuments and Landscape in Atlantic Europe: Perception and society during the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age. London: Routledge, 139-151

Fredengren, C. 2002 Crannogs. Bray, Wordwell.

[1] Berg, S. 2002, p150

[2] Fredengren, C. 2003, p3

[3] Fredengren, C. 2002 p15

Stuart Rathbone is an English Archaeologist who has lived in Ireland since the beginning of 2001, working initially in commercial archaeology and becoming a Licensed Director in early 2006. Since 2008 he has worked in a variety of more academic positions and was a key member of the first phase of the Heritage Council funded North Mayo Project preparing the excavations of the Neolithic sites in and around Céide fields for publication (preliminary reports available at http://www.heritagecouncil.ie/archaeology/instar). He founded the Campaign for Sensible Archaeology in the spring of 2010 in response to a growing frustration with the way in which current archaeology is interpreted and presented, in what he assumed to be a futile attempt to affect some change.

Stuart has published articles on a wide variety of subjects including transhumant settlements in Britain and Ireland, Irish Bronze Age settlement, Early Medieval water mills, post Medieval rural settlement, and the application of OSL dating techniques for problematic sites. In 2009 he was a runner up in Current Archaeology magazines Jeffery May Award for new archaeological writers.

The Campaign for Sensible Archaeology cab be found at http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=123023784380067 and he invites any interested people to come along and join in with the ongoing discussions.

Copyright:  Archnews and Stuart Rathbone

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