A unique Neolithic landscape a few miles west of Ballycastle, en route to Belmullet, provides a glimpse into the life they lived. As the oldest known field system in the world, Ceide Fields is a site of world importance.
Five and a half thousand years ago our Stone Age ancestors carved out a life for themselves in North Mayo facing the wild, inhospitable Atlantic Ocean. A unique Neolithic landscape a few miles west of Ballycastle, en route to Belmullet, provides a glimpse into the life they lived. As the oldest known field system in the world, Ceide Fields is a site of world importance. Stone field walls, houses and megalithic tombs are cleanly preserved beneath a blanket of peat over several square miles. The fields tell the story of the everyday lives of a farming people: their social organisation, their highly developed spiritual beliefs, and their struggle in an environment which constantly challenged them about a thousand years before the pyramids were even dreamt of.
The field system was discovered in the 1930s, during the course of an ordinary working life. A local schoolteacher from Belderrig was digging up turf to store for fuel when he noticed piles of stones in the bottom of the bog. From the way the stones were piled up-- too orderly to have formed accidentally--he discerned that they were the result of human labour and considering how deep they were and his knowledge of how the bog grows, he figured there must be an ancient story behind them. Forty years later, his son, Dr. Seamus Caulfield, began studying these stones which traverse thousands of acres under the blanket bogs of North Mayo and in doing so, brought the story more to life, leading to the building of a multi award-winning interpretive centre, a visit to which is illuminating and enriching.
The centre’s striking pyramid-shaped building is constructed with natural materials, such as sandstone, oak and glass. Rising out of the bog on the edge of a cliff, it is reflective of a tradition of structures, such as lighthouses and martello towers, which are dotted along the coastline in Ireland. The centre is one of over 60 Heritage Sites in Ireland and houses exhibitions, an audiovisual show and tea rooms. A guided tour enables you to discover a buried wall for yourself, using a centuries-old method of probing the bog land.
The artifacts recovered at Ceide Fields illustrate the story of a Neolithic farming
community whose lifestyle was more advanced than we might have imagined. Evidence has been found of the sophisticated use of tools, pottery-making, stone and
wood work. By clearing forests these first farmers created arable land to plant and harvest wheat and barley. They created living areas and burial tombs and kept animals whose manure was detected in archaeological digs, indicating its use as fertiliser. The remains of their lives were found broken and in disarray, indicating that the site was abandoned and after a millennium of progressive farming their way of life came to an end. They may have unwittingly contributed to their own demise, by clearing forests which caused the land to become too wet, causing the nutrients to leach from the soil, rendering it infertile and eventually leading to its abandonment.
This wild and colourful landscape is rich with mosses, sedges, lichens, heather, flowers and insect-eating sundews. You may hear the lark sing while you learn about dramatic changes to the landscape and the growing bog. Away from the road and cars, mobile devices and all modern conveniences, it’s possible to imagine, if only for a moment, the life our hardy Neolithic ancestors lived.