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Review of Rewriting the (Pre) history of Ulster - Dr Rowan McLaughlin

This is a write-up of a talk given by Dr Rowan McLaughlin regarding how the 4000+ developer produced RC dates since 2001 in Ireland basically rewrite whole swathes of how we perceive the prehistory of Ireland.

[snippet from 1/3 of way in]

Over the last decade-and-a-half or so has seen a vast increase in the volume of archaeological data that has been produced. Much of this is the result of economic circumstances, where development-led excavations have been carried out in advance of construction. Many of these were carried out during the Celtic Tiger years, in advance of major infrastructural works such as roads, pipelines, quarries, and residential developments. In a perfect world, the excavations get written up and get stored in archives as ‘grey literature’ ... some even get published. McLaughlin estimates that over the last ten years alone some one million pages of new data for the island of Ireland have been written down. Rowan’s approach to the ‘data mountain’ has been centred on extracting an understanding of chronology from this mass of data, a task he describes as ‘the golden cord to lead out of the labyrinth’. An examination of all the available radiocarbon dates for Irish prehistory that were available in around 2001, shows that there were 1396 known from both published and grey literature sources. Plotting all of these out gives an indication of what prehistory is ‘like’ at this point. As may be expected, there are relatively few sites dating to the earliest periods and more sites from more recent times and a slow but gradual increase in between. This has led to a view of the prehistory of Ireland where there was an initial colonisation during the Mesolithic (c.10k cal BP) and that this was a relatively stable hunter-gatherer way of life until the introduction of agriculture (c.6k cal BP). After this point we see a population explosion that goes hand in hand with increasing social and religious complexities. From this point on we can witness communities evolving and adapting these beliefs and practices, until it reaches its final developed flourishing of civilization in more recent times. As he says: ‘The problem with that view is that it is entirely wrong. It’s not what the archaeological data actually indicate.’ He sees that this discovery has been the big achievement of development led/commercial archaeology in Ireland since the millennium. He then turned to another histogram of 4928 dates from prehistoric Ireland that have become available in the time since 2001.Instead of a gradual increase, there are peaks and troughs in activity. At some times it appears that there were significant episodes of large-scale archaeological deposition, and this contrasts with periods of seemingly little activity. To understand the reality of what we’re seeing here, there are a number of ideas that must be kept in mind. Firstly, all the dates must be calibrated as we cannot directly compare this archaeological data with environmental evidence from various regions. The other issue is the degree of bias in how these data points were collected. Obviously, the first bias is where excavations take place – either dictated by individuals’ research interests, or where development is planned. Further biases exist in the systematic approach that archaeologists use in the collection of this data. For example, there are certain types of features that are more likely to be dated over others – what McLaughlin describes as features that are ‘more juicy looking’ and, thus, more likely to be dated. Indeed, certain types of sites are almost completely ignored and this is an ongoing issue.
juamei Posted by juamei
29th June 2014ce

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