In August 1927 J.P.T. Burchell published a note in Nature. In this note he claimed to have found a series of limestone artefacts which he felt were produced during the Palaeolithic. Burchell began to find this material while on holidays in Co. Sligo (Burchell normally worked in southern England). As Ireland, in spite of numerous claims by William J. Knowles (1897; 1914), had no known Palaeolithic this note initiated one of the most acrimonious disputes in Irish archaeology. It was like a supernova exploding across the pages of Man and Nature. Charlesworth & Macalister (1930) documented 40 papers, pro/contra between August 1927 and May 1929. Like all supernovae this Co. Sligo controversy vanished as quickly as it had appeared and in 1936 Whelan, in his The Palaeolithic Question in Ireland, did not even refer to the Sligo material. Other authors, notably Movius (1942) and Woodman (1978), were inclined to follow the received wisdom that the Co. Sligo material was in one way or another a product of nature. However, the rediscovery of some of the material in the stores of the Quaternary section of the British Museum gave the author the opportunity to reassess the so called 'artefacts'.
History of the dispute
In 1927 Burchell claimed to have discovered significant evidence of an Irish Palaeolithic at three localities in north Co. Sligo [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. They were
1 Ballyconnell (Sligo 6[inches] O.S. 4: G5646 & G5746), where Burchell claimed to have found two 'artefacts' embedded near the base of the boulder clay where it covered the local limestone bedrock.
2 A cave on the northern coast of Coney Island (Sligo 6[inches] O.S. 8: G6139), where Palaeolithic artefacts were claimed to have been discovered on the beach adjacent to the cave.
3 The remnants of a 'rock-shelter' on the western edge of Rosses Point (Sligo 6[inches] O.S. 8: G6241), on the northwestern tip of Rosses Lower townland. It was suggested that this was the remnants of a collapsed cave whose presumed back had been filled with a series of large blocks which covered an area which contained over 100 artefacts (Burchell & Reid Moir 1928):
Under the fallen roof blocks and resting on the limestone floor were discovered over 100 flakes, implements and cores made of limestone together with a quantity of powdered shells, a limited amount of small rolled, beach stones and a few pebbles derived from the 'Boulder clay'.
It is important to place the dispute over the Sligo Palaeolithic in a broader context. In particular, Burchell was a close confidant of J. Reid Moir who was at this time claiming that he had identified a series of Palaeolithic flint artefacts from in and below the Crag Beds in East Anglia (Reid Moir 1927). These he claimed were of much greater antiquity than the usually accepted Palaeolithic assemblages of England. The fact that much of this material was found out of context on beaches adjacent to Quaternary deposits is of crucial importance as Reid Moir claimed to be able to identify these early artefacts from the primitive methods of manufacture. It is therefore not surprising that Burchell's initial note in Nature_(20 August 1927) was followed by a supporting letter from J. Reid Moir on the following page.(1) Thus the Co. Sligo material was being used to underpin a position in a dispute which was centred in East Anglia. It is also not surprising that in November 1927 counter-arguments were put forward by both a group of senior Irish academics, namely Macalister (archaeologist), Charlesworth (geologist), Praeger (naturalist) and Stelfox (zoologist) and by Hazeldine Warren, who also worked on the southern English Lower Palaeolithic and was a consistent opponent of Reid Moir's views on the Cromer Bed artefacts. The substance of the argument advanced by Burchell and Reid Moir was as follows.
The discovery of 'artefacts' in the base of the boulder clay at Ballyconnell convinced Burchell that the limestone artefacts from Sligo had a genuine Palaeolithic antiquity although only two specimens were found at Ballyconnell. …