Pagan dating in ireland

by Peter Harbison Although one of the last corners of Europe to have been settled by man, Ireland is particularly rich in prehistoric remains.

The great passage-tomb of Newgrange, dating to the fourth millennium BC, has become internationally famous since the discovery of its orientation towards the rising sun at the winter solstice, and excavations at the neighbouring tomb of Knowth have given unprecedented insight into the wealth of Irish megalithic art.

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Not until 1699, however, when the Welsh antiquary Edward Lhuyd paid his initial visit to Ireland, did we have our first record in more recent times of a real interest in Ireland's prehistoric antiquities.

Lhuyd, who was a Keeper at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, provided us with the first written account of Newgrange, which had been accidentally opened earlier in the same year.

The author also looks afresh at the controversial question of when the Celts first arrived in Ireland.

Pre-Christian Ireland will find a place on the bookshelves of all who are fascinated by the pagan origins of modern Ireland.

Professor Binchy may not have been too far wrong when he called archaeology a 'curious science', yet it certainly is one which becomes not only more interesting, but also more exact, with every passing day.

This can be instanced by the revolution caused by the discovery of the radiocarbon dating method, and its even more recent and precise counterpart, dendrochronology, or the science of tree-ring dating.

Peter Harbison has written the first full-scale survey of Irish prehistory for a general audience to have appeared for a decade.

Pre-Christian Ireland gives the story of human settlement from the beginnings 10,000 years ago to St Patrick's Christianizing mission in the fifth century AD.

Prehistory is not just what prehistoric people made of it, but also what archaeologists have made of it today, and this is the reason why the text of this book makes a point of naming the archaeologists who have made the significant contributions. Binchy, the well-known Celtic scholar, spoke of 'the imaginative and conflicting speculations of archaeologists, and devotees of that curious science which calls itself prehistory'.

Because prehistory - by its very nature - has to deal with speculations, it is natural that the views of archaeologists will conflict, and it is only by weighing up the pros and cons that one can come to the most probable solution to any problem in prehistory, where the absence of writing makes it difficult to make the mute stones speak.

It ought to be pointed out here, however, that the Belfast laboratory has shown that radiocarbon dates falling between 800 and 400 bc can no longer be relied upon, as they cannot be distinguished from one another, and that they ought to be abandoned therefore.

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