Over millennia the lake began to slowly change to a fen and marshy bog with the accumulation of sphagnum moss. The bog eventually swallowed all traces of the ancient campsite. By the 18th and 19th century this area had been identified as an ideal place to harvest peat. When dried the peat becomes turf which is commonly burned in the fires of Ireland. By the late 20th century, Lough Boora was supplying over 1 million tonnes of peat every year, helping to power Ireland’s industries and homes. The ancient story of Lough Boora was rediscovered in the 1970s, when a sharp-eyed Bord na Mona worker was taking a lunch break from cutting peat turf for fuel. He noticed a number of interesting looking stone tools, and recognising that they may be something special he and his colleagues alerted the National Museum of Ireland who carried out an excavation.
The archaeologists revealed one of the earliest known Mesolithic settlements in the Irish midlands. Excavated evidence suggested that hunter-gatherers were using fireplaces and trapping pig, hare, birds, eels and trout. At this time, no hut sites have been discovered at Lough Boora, but a large amount of evidence was identified by archaeologists, giving us great insights into the Mesolithic midlands. Like the Mesolithic site found at Mount Sandel in county Derry, Lough Boora produced numerous stone tools, such as stone axeheads, and blades and scrapers. Archaeologists also found burnt animal bone and carbonised and preserved plant remains. The largest portion of the plant remains, were hazelnuts. Some time after occupation, the Lough Boora site was enveloped by bog vegetation and lost until its rediscovery in the 1970s.
The discoveries made by archaeologists at Lough Boora have provided important insights into the diet of people in Mesolithic Ireland. However, in amongst the hazelnuts and bones that you might expect from a hunting camp – like eel, trout, pigs, hares and wildfowl – there were also bones of species that you might not consider to be on the menu. These include the bones of birds of prey like owls and falcons. As Professor Graeme Warren discusses, birds of prey are unlikely to have been particularly good to eat – but there may have been a symbolic meaning behind consuming them. Perhaps there was an animistic belief that by consuming these iconic predators that you were somehow also absorbing their characteristics or powers. The presence of bones of the jay at Lough Boora is also significant. Jays are also not regarded as typical food source, but have long been kept as pets: like many corvids they are intelligent, communicative birds. Their distinctive plumage is one of the most bright and distinctive among native birds and has been widely exploited for varied decorative and functional purposes, perhaps plucked to adorn cloaks or headdresses, or turned into bright lures for fishing. You can hear a fascinating discussion about Mesolithic Ireland with Professor Graeme Warren in Episode 2 of the Amplify Archaeology Podcast.