Places to visit: Ceide Fields, Ireland

27th July 2001 at 01:00

Ceide Fields isn't somewhere you'd find by accident. Perched on the cliffs above the Atlantic, it's at the furthest fringes of the west of Ireland, at the very edge of Europe.

But hidden treasures always take a little digging - and if you persevere along the coast road, past the village of Ballycastle in County Mayo, with grey stone walls on one side and the roaring sea on the other, you'll find what is one of the most significant prehistoric sites in western Europe.

Ceide Fields (pronounced like "cajun" without the n), which has been called a "slow-motion
Pompeii", is a Stone Age farming settlement preserved beneath the peat bog that swamped the site about 5,000 years ago.

Standing at the entrance to the Ceide Fields is a futuristic, pyramid-shaped visitors' centre. Inside is an exhibition that attempts to place the archaeological evidence in its historical context, showing the kind of homesteads that might have been standing in these fields and how climate change and deforestation combined to turn the ground into sodden bogland.

Around 1,000 people lived on the original Ceide Fields, growing crops such as barley and wheat and keeping animals on farms divided by dry-stone walls. These rectangular plots vary between five and 17 acres. Archaeologists were also intrigued to find no defensive walls around the settlement, suggesting the community faced no great external threats.

Apart from its claims to historical significance, Ceide Fields is also big on atmosphere. It's a wild, brooding stretch of high ground overlooking the Atlantic, and you can imagine that it wouldn't have looked much different when our Stone Age forebears were here. Some locals are resolutely sceptical, saying there's nothing to see -nbsp;just a few walls in a field of the type you'd see in any old field.

And although this is the oldest known field system in the world these locals have a point, because an intriguing aspect of the outlines of farms and buildings uncovered is the continuity with today's landscape. The network of small farms suggested by the Ceide Fields could be mistaken for the pattern of farming that still survives here.

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