By Colin Gannon
The recent hot summer unearthed previously hidden or forgotten archaeological treasures as unrelenting, intense sunshine scorched the land, leaving behind a hitherto forgotten mystic trail, visible only from the air.
The heatwave may have mostly passed but the discoveries come just as Ireland celebrates its National Heritage Week – a yearly cross-county endeavour that sees over 2,000 events take place across the island – aimed at creating awareness of Irish heritage, and, in turn, to “promote conservation and preservation”.
Coordinated by Ireland’s Heritage Council since 2005, the National Heritage Week has become one of Ireland’s largest cultural events, with this year’s programme running from 18-26 August.
The 2,000 events – most of which are free – range from historical re-enactments and storytelling to immersive explorations in Irish wilderness.
This year’s Heritage Week has a common theme woven throughout its events – ‘Share a Story, Make a Connection’ – which encourages people, as is tradition in Ireland, to share their stories with others.
Whether it’s a familial connection to local history, personal stories one may have about traditional crafts or music, or tales about oft-forgotten places or monuments in their local area: Everything is welcome.
Coincidentally, recent tropical conditions have brought such historical sites to life. Dry conditions, as rare as they are in Ireland, led to water restrictions, particularly in the densely populated Greater Dublin Area.
To the dismay of farmers, Met Eireann – Ireland’s national meteorological service – repeatedly referred to the arid forecasts in definitive terms. The word drought became a daily fixture in weather forecasting. And it wasn’t long before sun-baked, yellowed land appeared throughout typically vibrant, green landscapes – and, from a bird’s-eye view, outlines of millenia-old monuments began to reveal themselves.
Experts, of course, were overjoyed. Archaeological searches that bear fruit are far from common, more often than not, digs are an exercise in professional curiosity.
Anthony Murphy, a historian who has been researching the Boyne Valley area for years, was using his drone to image the landscape of the UNESCO World Heritage Site when he noticed a previously un-captured and magnificent circular enclosure, or henge, just below the world-famous neolithic passage tomb Newgrange.
An aerial survey was then undertaken by the National Monuments Service, principally to try and “uncover further secrets held in our landscape,” as Ireland’s Minister for Culture and Heritage, Josepha Madigan, put it.
The crop marks – as seen in the Boyne Valley, or Brú na Bóinne, as its known locally – gain visibility when moisture and high-quality nutrients are trapped in fortification ditches, the kind constructed thousands of years ago.
As the images show, this leads to a lusher green growth that stands out against the H20-starved grass during periods of hot weather.
“With further research we know these fascinating finds will add greatly to our knowledge of the wonderful Brú na Bóinne World Heritage landscape,” Madigan added.
Last month, a wildfire raged across Bray Head, the rocky headland on Ireland’s east coast. The blaze burned through plant life in the area, revealing a more recent historic relic, one which had been buried for decades beneath the foliage: a World War II-era sign spelling Éire, the Gaelic translation of Ireland.
The block-lettered sign is one of at least 82 so-called “Éire markings” that once dotted the Irish coast as a signal to wartime pilots.
Despite being officially neutral, Ireland often cooperated with Allied forces during the war, and the Éire markings were, in fact, used as navigational tools for Allied pilots. Only about a dozen of the 82 Éire markings survive today, and most of them are not well preserved.
Meanwhile, in the UK there were a handful of similar discoveries: At Gawthorpe Hall, Lancashire, National Trust staff found the outline of an 1850s garden that was removed after World War II.
Interestingly, it was designed by Sir Charles Barry, the architect behind the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament. Perhaps even more revelatory were the markings of walls, roadways and buildings of an Ancient Roman town which were revealed in Norwich. Remnants of Caistor Roman Town, which was founded in 60AD, became visible as a result of the heat wave, too.
Unprecedented heat waves have wreaked havoc in some quarters, sweeping across and terrorising Europe – rapid-spreading wildfires killed more than 80 in Greece, with 8 people having died in Spain as temperatures tipped 50 degrees celsius.
There have been precious finds, however. Reintroductions to our storied pasts, new layers of our histories uncovered.
National Heritage Week activities and generally staying in touch with your heritage can help keep one stay grounded in what can be an unpredictable, turbulent and sometimes reality-distorting daily experience.
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