6,000-year-old settlement poses tsunami mystery

Archeologists have uncovered evidence of pre-farming people living in the Burren more than 6,000 years ago — one of the oldest habitations ever unearthed in Ireland.

Radiocarbon dating of a shellfish midden on Fanore Beach in north Clare have revealed it to be at least 6,000 years old — hundreds of years older than the nearby Poulnabrone dolmen.

The midden — a cooking area where nomad hunter-gatherers boiled or roasted shellfish — contained Stone Age implements, including two axes and a number of smaller stone tools.

Excavation of the site revealed a mysterious black layer of organic material, which archeologists believe may be the results of a Stone Age tsunami which hit the Clare coast, possibly wiping out the people who used the midden.

The midden was discovered by local woman Elaine O’Malley in 2009 and a major excavation of the site is being led by Michael Lynch, field monument adviser for Co Clare.

“This is the oldest settlement in Clare,” said Mr Lynch. “We have always thought hunter-gatherers existed in Clare but this is the first real evidence of that.

“These people were pre-farming. Farming would have been introduced a few generations later and these farmers built monuments like the dolmen.

“These people would have come to certain places at certain times of the year. Obviously they came here to eat shellfish, but possibly they had another place beside a river nearby for when they wanted to catch salmon and trout, and at other times they would have collected things like hazel nuts.

“We know that they were cooking and eating shellfish here, but we don’t know yet exactly what method they were using to cook it. So hopefully that is one of the things we can uncover in the weeks ahead.”

The archaeologists are also hoping to establish the make-up of a mysterious substance found during the excavation.

The substance, which is two or three inches deep, disintegrates when it comes in contact with air. A large slab of the material has remained intact on an ancient settlement, indicating that a large amount of it was laid down at once, possibly as the result of a tsunami.

“We have found a mysterious layer of black organic material on the site and it is just under that level that we have found all the oldest archeology,” said Mr Lynch.

“We have not been able to identify exactly what this black layer is yet but, as it happens, it is this layer which helped to protect the ancient settlement that we are currently excavating.

“If we can establish a date for this black material, it will help us to piece together more of the mystery of this site and it could tell us a bit about what happened here that brought the use of the midden to an end.

“It is possible that this is the result of a major climatic event, a massive storm or possibly a tsunami, or some other major event of that sort, which would have thrown up a large amount of debris all at one time.”

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