By Mícheál Ó Coileáin
DISTRICT DIRECTOR: Mícheál Ó Coileáin / EDITOR: Mícheál Ó Coileáin
While walking across the beach at Cuan a’ Choill near Ballyferriter in the early 1980’s, a geologist from University College Cork, Peter Vernon, picked up a piece of flint-like stone on the shore which caught his attention. The stone was a cut piece of Rhyolite which was later presented to Prof. Peter Woodman at the Dept. of Archaeology in the University, who identified it as a plano-convex knife fragment similar to those found in a Neolithic context at other sites and dating to roughly 6000 years ago. This chance find was to begin a period of several years of excavations at Ferriter’s Cove, which have provided us with details of the earliest site on the Dingle Peninsula. As a student of archaeology in University College Galway at the time, I was lucky enough to have played a small walk on part on these excavations in 1993. I had come to know Peter Woodman and as an enthusiastic student of ‘stones and bones’, I was keen to get a few weeks work on the excavations at Ferriter’s Cove. Woodman kindly invited myself and Billy Riordan, another budding archaeologist from Dingle, to come on site for the last few weeks of the dig. He placed us under the watchful eye of one of the senior archaeologists, Liz Anderson.
After an unproductive week of trowelling through layers of sand, we finally made a break through. Billy excavated one of the earliest examples of cattle bone found in Ireland or the UK, dating back almost 6500 years. A few days later, while working on a barren looking section at the southern end of the site, I was lucky to find a cache of five stone axes. They were all made from elongated pebbles of black shale and beautiful in their simple design. They may have been buried as part of a votive offering or hidden for later retrieval. Both finds probably point to the period when the hunter/gatherer community were coming into contact with the early farmers who were coming into Ireland and introducing new ideas and technologies which were to change Ireland completely – the beginning of agriculture.
There appears to have been a main period of occupation at Ferriter’s Cove between 4600BC and 4300BC, with a later phase closer to 4000BC while the knife fragment that kicked off the investigations may date closer to 3600BC. This was a hugely important discovery, as previously archaeologists had thought that Ireland was largely uninhabited during the Mesolithic period (middle stone age). It is likely that the site was used on a seasonal basis when food on the coast was plentiful, and they may have sought a more sheltered
location further inland for the winter and early spring. The plentiful supply of a variety of stone for tool making must also have been a factor in the use of the site.
There is ample evidence that they were able to catch and eat a variety of fish such as wrasse, whiting, herring and scad along with a several species of shellfish including dog whelk, periwinkle and mussels – collected on the shoreline. They also ate pig meat as the excavated bones testify, which would have roamed wild in the nearby woodlands of the period. Cattle would have made up part of their diet in what was mostly a fish based food supply. Ferriter’s Cove has proven to be a window on a period of change to Ireland, when we moved from being hunters and gatherers towards becoming full time farmers.
Those magical days of excavating in the sun, looking out at the remains of Ferriter’s Castle and beyond to Inish Tuaisceart, linger long in the memory.The excitement of finding a simple piece of bone and stone may not sound very exciting to most, but to two student archaeologists it was thrilling. It is still a place I visit regularly after a storm, hoping that the Atlantic waves will have revealed more glimpses in the sand of the earliest inhabitants of the Dingle Peninsula.
Unfortunately, within a few years of those exciting few weeks on our knees in Ferriter’s Cove, Billy Riordan, a free spirit, had died in a tragic accident in Malawi while travelling through Africa and the archaeologist Liz Anderson, who had showed us how to make flint scrapers had also died after battling illness. Carpe Diem.