A Sense of Place in Irish Prehistory

By Cooney, Gabriel; Woodman, Peter | Antiquity, September 1993 | Go to article overview

A Sense of Place in Irish Prehistory


Cooney, Gabriel, Woodman, Peter, Antiquity


Peter Woodman's survey-article in ANTIQUITY, 'Filling the spaces in Irish prehistory' (66: 295--314), was developed from his paper to the Prehistoric Society, 'What's new in Irish prehistory?' Was it actually new? Did it fill the spaces in the periods of earlier Irish prehistory that ANTIQUITY asked Professor Woodman to address? Gabriel Cooney offers a different perspective on Irish prehistory.

In an important review of Irish prehistory up to the end of the Bronze Age, Peter Woodman (1992a) argued that evidence in Ireland for prehistoric settlement in a spatial and chronological sense is more extensive both in time and space than has been recognized. In emphasising low-visibility archaeological sites, he discussed in particular the evidence from Munster, the most southerly province in the country. Woodman suggested that we should think less in terms of distinct periods of concentrated activity, more in terms of continued activity over long periods of time. The data to support these arguments came in particular from the Groningen programme of radiocarbon dating (e.g. Brindley & Lanting 1990; Brindley et al. 1983; 1988; 1990), from archaeological survey and excavation along gas pipeline routes (Cleary et al. 1987; Gowen 1988) and from other research (Woodman 1992a: 297, 311).

While I agree with the general trend of the ideas put forward by Woodman and recognize that he poses important research questions such as the date and nature of the initiation of human settlement in Ireland, the paper is not 'a re-evaluation of the traditional paradigms on which much of Irish prehistory is based' (Woodman 1992a: 295). Rather than representing a paradigm shift, it expresses and reinforces many of the traditional concepts in the study of Irish prehistory. A central feature is a dominant concern with what Woodman has elsewhere (1992b: 38) called the sorting of the raw data, within the conventional framework of Irish prehistory (Herity & Eogan 1977; Harbison 1988; O'Kelly 1989). There is, however, a very definite need to re-evaluate our approaches, to broaden our research agenda and to appreciate the complexity of the evidence. In the spirit of debate and evaluation called for by Woodman (1992b) a different perspective on Irish prehistory is offered here. My basic premise is that the most important task in Irish prehistoric studies is not to 'fill spaces' in Woodman's metaphor but rather to understand, through an integrated approach to material culture, how people constructed that prehistory over several millennia.

In Ireland (as elsewhere where more than one archaeologist works on a problem!) there has been some diversity of views about issues in prehistory. For example, while the explanation of change in the archaeological record is still very often seen in terms of migrations of new people from abroad (e.g. Eogan 1991), a full 40 years ago Raftery (1951: 180--81) suggested that early post-glacial settlers may have been the only colonizers in Irish prehistory (see also Waddell 1978). Debate about the sequence and mode of introduction of cinerary urns in the earlier Bronze Age also illustrates a healthy divergence of opinions (e.g. Kavanagh 1976; Brindley 1980; Waddell 1990a). But the richness of the Irish archaeological heritage and concern with recording it, allied to a strong tradition of what Binford (1989: 7--8) might call strict empiricism in research in Ireland, has led to a relative lack of explicit concern with archaeological theory. It is perceived that theory is secondary to the data on the ground. While showing clear signs of influence from processual archaeology Woodman's (1992a) paper continues this tradition with very limited reference to the theoretical basis on which it is written and without recognition that an atheoretical approach itself constitutes a theoretical viewpoint.

Elsewhere Woodman (1992b: 35) has commented that international developments in archaeological theory did not really have an impact on Irish archaeology. …

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