Monument Examination: The Cat Stones (Aill na Mireann) – A Bronze Age Site

Time Period: Primarily Bronze Age (2500 BC  – 700 BC in Ireland)

Site Type: Natural Feature / Ceremonial Structure

Importance to Humanity: Shows evidence of construction and early organised ceremonial worship.

The Cat Stones (Aill na Mireann)

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Introduction:

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A few years ago I carried out a field survey of one of the most intriguing monuments in Ireland I have ever seen, so I taught I would start my first proper Blog entry with a description of what I encountered there on my field survey as this location covers most of the human occupied time periods in Ireland. The site is known locally as the ‘Cat Stones’ or the ‘Stone of the Divisions’ and its Gaelic name is ‘Aill na Mireann’ (SMR number: WM024-061). The stones are located on the south west side of Uisneach Hill in County Westmeath, in the town land of Kellybrock, at Irish National Grid Reference 228894E, 248610 (Archiology.ie) on the main Mullingar to Athlone road, approximately ten miles outside Mullingar town. The Hill of Uisneach is a very important site locally and nationally as it contains a large amount of Bronze Age (2’500 B.C.  – 700 B.C.) sites that were used for a variety of ceremonial activities. There is also a lot of activity in the Early Medieval Period (400 A.D.)  – 1’200 A.D.) with a Royal Palace (Rath) located on Usineach Hill as well. As there is a long history of ceremonial and domestic activity in the Bronze Age, there is a good possibility that this site was used in early prehistoric periods as well, possibly stretching all the way back to Mesolithic period (8’000 B.C. – 4000 B.C.), when people first came to Ireland as hunter gathers. It’s possible an unusually shaped stone such as the ‘Cat Stones’ would have drawn their eye, making them assign various meanings to the stone. Uisneach Hill is still an important monument today in Ireland both culturally and as a tourist destination. The Cat Stones itself is a large glacial erratic boulder that has been split and it gets its name of the Cat Stones as some people believe it resembles a large cat looking at a mouse.

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The monument is registered as a Barrow-unclassified which is according to the National Monuments Database on www.archaeology.i.e. ‘An artificial mound of earth or earth and stone, normally constructed to contain or conceal burials. Used where it is not possible to identify the specific type’. ‘These are part of the Bronze/Iron Age burial tradition (c. 2’400 B.C. –   400 A.D.)’. As the Uisneach area has such a large amount of historical sites I had decided to concentrate on the Cat Stones as there is a good possibility that it was their very presence in the first place that made this area sacred to the Mesolithic and Neolithic (4’000 B.C. – 2’500 B.C.), people and are the main reason why so much focus has been concentrated on this area for so long. This site examination comprised of the following aspects:

  1. Site approach and ease of access.
  2. Site location, examination and dimensions of the site.
  3. Local history and legends surrounding the site and mentions in literature.
  4. Recommendations for the upkeep and maintenance of the site in the future.
  1. Site approach and ease of access.

The Hill of Usineach is well sign posted and can be easily reached from Mullingar or Athlone. The main car park for the Uisneach area is located on the main Mullingar to Athlone road on the right hand side just before the small village of Kilare. There is no proper car parking area, just a pull in where people can leave their cars, as there is a large number of visitor’s to this site all year long I would be recommend for the future that there was a proper area for visitor’s to park as the main road is very busy and dangerous.

Access to the site is through a local farmer’s field on the south side of the hill and it is indicated on a sign on the gate that the Uisneach area is privately owned working farm and that to access the site any visitor should contact the lands owner. Uisineach Hill has been associated with the ancient fire festival of Bealtaine that is carried out ever year on the 1st of May, where it is said a large fire was lit on Uisineach Hill that complimented other fires that were lit on the surrounding hill’s at the same time, and that each of these fire’s could be viewed from the top of the Hill of Uisneach. In the last few years there has been an annual ‘Festival of the Fires’ at Uisneach Hill where a concert is performed along with a large gathering of people, which culminates in two fire’s being lit at the top of Uisnaech. This concert and the annual amount of visitor’s to the hill over the year may have an environmental impact on the area and especially the various monuments located there however there is no obvious sign of irreversible damage to the site. The Cat Stones are located on the south west side of the hill, in an adjacent field a good distance from the entrance over rough terrain, so suitable footwear is recommended to view this site properly. The Cat Stones field can be accessed through a set of steps in the ditch. As you approach the monument from the east side it is difficult to see the Cat Stones as you are walking down hill and they are located below you, with a low embankment around it. It becomes apparent that the more traditional way to access the Cat Stones would possibly be from the south west direction walking straight up the hill where the view of the Cat Stones is much more pronounced.

  1. Site location, examination and dimensions of the site.

The Cat Stones is a large glacial erratic boulder and appears to be in its original position, it is surrounded by a low circular embankment which was possibly constructed around the monument in the Bronze Age as this was a common Bronze Age practise, however there is no way to tell for sure. It is this embankment that has the monument classed as a Barrow, however I doubt there is any burials under the Cat Stones as it is such a large structure that it would have been very difficult to move in Neolithic times. However it is interesting to note that local legend states that this is the ancient resting place of the goddess Eriu. The Cat Stones is approximately 4m high and approximately 5.5m in width and 3m in length. It consists of one large boulder and several smaller boulders which appear to have broken off the larger boulder.

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Diagram 1:

It appears that the smaller boulders (3,6,7 on Diagram 1) may not have broken off the large boulder naturally as there appears to be evidence of chipping and several of the boulders appear to be squared off as if they were being carved into blocks, possible to be used in construction. There is a possibility that some of the boulders may have been taken away from the site already and there is no way to determine when such quarrying may have taken place. There does not appear to be any modification on the north west side of the large boulder (1), only one small boulder (5) lies slightly beneath it, which was possibly always there or may have been added sometime in the past. Viewed from this angle there is no evidence of the possible quarrying and it is interesting to note that it all appears to have been carried out on the north east side, possibly due to the north east side of the boulder being weaker than the north west side. However with a visual inspection, the composition of the boulder appears to be equal throughout and there does not appear to be any difference on any side of the boulder.

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Diagram 2:

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Diagram 3:

The embankment around the Cat Stones is approximately 5m away from the boulder on all sides, and is approximately 2m in width. It appears to surround the stone entirely however on the west side there appears to be a dip in the height of the mound, either due to degradation over the years or this may be where people originally entered the enclosure. As Uisineach Hill is extremely rich in other ancient structures, the Cat Stones is surrounded by many other relevant monuments. There are two Bronze Age forts located to the South along with a natural spring that may have been present in Neolithic times. There is also a large early medieval rath or royal palace located to the north east, along with an ancient track way running south to north, ending at the large rath.

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  1. Local history and legends surrounding the site and mentions in literature

The stories surrounding the Cat Stones are many and varied. Many believe the Hill of Usineach is the ‘naval’ of Ireland as it sits near the centre of Ireland. The Cat Stones are also referred to as the ‘Stone of the Divisions’ and Early Medieval sources say’s it marks the point where all the provinces of Ireland met. The Cat Stones are also mentioned in old texts such as the ‘ANNALS OF WESTMEATH – ANCIENT AND MODERN’ written by James Woods in 1907. He states that ‘Ireland from the very earliest times was divided into provinces Ulster, Leinster, Munster, Connaught. This arrangement was first made by the Firbolgs the sons of Dela, and their meeting place was around the Great Stone Ail-na-Meeran(Woods, 1907, 241). He also reiterates the legend that ‘Eiri, wife of one of the sons of the Monarch CarmoJa, from whom Erin is said to have been called, was buried underneath this stone’. (Woods, 1907, 241). He goes on to say that possibly part of the stone, which was split off, was thought and may have been used to form a Cromlech (a megalithic structure) (Woods, 1907, 241). This is interesting as it indicates that the area which appears to have been quarried may be the area where the stone was split off.

  1. Recommendations for the upkeep and maintenance of the site in the future.

Uisneach Hill as a site in general has a very diverse history of monuments and they are all in varied states of decay. The Cat Stones is possibly the best preserved of all the monuments. There does not seem to any sign of stress on any of the boulders and it appears that the monument will stay in its current condition for a long time to come. The embankment around the Cat Stones does appear to be eroding away and as the field it is located in a working farm the cattle and the amount of visitors walking on it may increase the erosion over time. The farmer had erected an electric fence around the site however, this is not in place anymore, and it would have protected the embankment more but would have also restricted visitors from getting to the Cat Stones. It would be possible to erect a fence around most of the embankment to protect it, leaving an entrance into the Cat Stones for visitors to see them. It would be also a good idea to change the way up to the Cat Stones, to walk up the south west side as the visitors would have to travel through fewer fields and would therefore have less of an impact on the working farm. Also a new car park as mentioned previously would be preferable to accommodate the amount of visitors to Uisneach Hill and a proper path up to the site would also reduce the impact visitors would have on the rest of the farm. The large rath/ royal palace on the hill was excavated in the 1920’s by R.A.S Macalister, however it would be recommended to carry out a small excavation around the Cat Stones and some of the embankment to see if there is any sign of Neolithic or earlier activity. This would help to date the site more accurately and confirm if the embankment is a Bronze Age construction. It would also endeavour to give a better insight into what activities were carried out there in the past.

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Futher Reading:

  1. Jones, Carleton. 2007. Temples of Stone. Cork. The Collins Press.
  2. Website: ie, 2015 address: www.archaeology.ie
  3. Woods, James. 1907. Annals of Westmeath – ancient and modern. Dublin. Sealy, Bryers & Walker.
  4. Website: Festival of Fires, 2015 address: http://www.festivalofthefires.com/

 

Introduction: From our distant past to a bright future?

In this blog I hope to enlighten, entertain and encourage discussion on all aspects of archaeology, hopefully giving people a better idea of what archaeology can tell us about what it is to be human.

Over the course of half a million years humans have evolved to become one of the most versatile animals on planet earth. The technologies we use and the habitation structures our ancestors built in the past can help us understand how people developed and created new innovations to help make life easier and more productive. Over thousands of years in the palaeolithic period humanity first learned to harness the power of fire and stone and we lived as hunter gatherers but in the neolithic period (approx 10’000 B.C. in the Middle East) we developed agriculture and finally settled down and the first communities developed. Then with the discovery of using furnaces to melt copper and tin to make bronze (approx 2’500 B.C.), humanity leaped forward, building emmense palaces around the world (such as on Minoan Crete and in Egypt) and trading became prevalent as merchants traveled around the Mediterranean. However the first signs of large scale fighting can also be seen at this time, as it appears the more people have the more they are willing to risk to get more, and the Bronze age period ends in the Mediterranean with the collapse of most civilisations with evidence of large scale fighting and destruction.

The Iron age (approx 700 B.C.) saw iron smelting replace bronze and the civilisations (Celtic, Greek etc..) in Europe thrived  with the Romans ending up controlling most of Europe through technological innovation but also cruel warfare methods. Over the course of hundreds of years the older belief systems of Europe were replaced by Christianity as it spread from the Middle East all across the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire finally collapsed in 476A.D. And the Early Medieval period rose from the ashes where cultures such as the Anglo Saxons, Bizantiums, Carolingians, the Islamic Caliphates and Norse Vikings fought and traded with each other but never again in Europe would one civilisation dominate all the others. In the Medieval period (approx 1000 A.D) in Europe the impressive Castles and Cathedrals of the Middle Ages were built leading to the early modern period (approx. 1600 A.D).

War and technology appears to go hand in hand with the development of more complex civilisations. As we improve our lives we seem to come up with ever more effective ways to kill each other. If we learn to remove war and cruelty from developing our societys their will be nothing to hold us back but to remove war we need to insure people have enough food, land and freedoms that they want for nothing. To accomplish this humanity will need to make a drastic shift in how we think and live but we have drastically changed how we live before so we can hopefully do it again in the future.

In the following blogs I’ll look at various sites and artifacts that can tell us about how our ancestors lived in various time periods and we will investigate how people lived through these times. I hope you will join me on this journey to explore the human spirit and inventiveness of our ancestors.