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Lede
Professor Richard Bradley provides a window into the nature of harbours and travel in the Irish Sea during prehistory, a subject which features in his new book, Maritime Archaeology on Dry Land.

Story
This is a subject about which little is known, and only a retired academic would be rash enough to take it on. But there are interesting possibilities to consider. That is why I recently wrote a book called Maritime Archaeology on Dry Land. It was mainly concerned with the period between 4000 and 1500 BC – the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age – but the discussion also drew on later sources of information, extending from the first millennium BC to the Middle Ages.

The reference to Maritime Archaeology is straightforward enough, but how can it extend to dry land? My work studied the archaeology of the ancient coast where it survives above the modern sea level. Since the last ice age Britain and Ireland have been tilting. Freed from the weight of glaciers, northern areas have risen, but in the south the ancient shoreline is largely submerged. There is a wealth of archaeological material from the region of ‘isostatic uplift’, but in recent years it has attracted little attention.

Sea travel was obviously important in the prehistoric period. Britain and Ireland were settled by farmers from the European mainland bringing domesticated resources, and stone axes were made at quarries and mines very close to the shore. There are Early Bronze Age graves in the form of a boat, but the strongest evidence comes from a series of enclosed estuaries where enormous numbers of prehistoric artefacts have been found on the sand or gravel bars that protected areas of sheltered water. The same applied to some offshore islands, and studies of ancient coastlines show that they had already formed by the Neolithic period.

In Ireland the best examples are the Dundrum Sands and Dalkey Island; another was Merthyr Mawr in Wales. These places contain objects that had probably been introduced by sea, but others were obviously being made there. For instance, copper from Ireland was taken across the Scottish Highlands and worked on the Culbin Sands beside Findhorn Bay; flint arrowheads were produced at the same site. These places played a specialised role and were set apart from the settlements and monuments of the same period. In my book they are
compared with the ‘landing places’ and ‘beach markets’ of the historical period.

This preference for shallow bays protected by natural spits lasted until the end of the Early Bronze Age. By then the significance of these places was changing. There is less evidence of special artefacts, and these locations were chosen as cemeteries before they went out of use. There is more evidence from locations with better access to Continental metal, and the estuaries of major rivers like the Thames, the Severn and the Humber assumed a much greater role. So did exposed beaches like that at Whitepark Bay in the north of Ireland. Boats became increasingly robust and probably travelled further.

The first generation of prehistoric harbours lost its significance and has not attracted much attention until now.

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