Going deeper underground: The application of GIS, predictive modelling and comparative morphological analysis to better understand cave use in Neolithic Ireland.
Supervisor: Dr. Marion Dowd
Funding Body: Irish Research Council, IT Sligo Presidential Bursary
Until recently, cave archaeology has been a vastly neglected field of research in Irish Archaeology. This has led to an underrepresentation of caves in the archaeological record and research mostly relies, with a few expeceptions, on antiquarian investigations from of the late 19th and early 20th century. Out of 86 caves of known archaeological significance, almost one third of them are considered to have been used during the Neolithic, mostly in association with religious and funerary activity. Research bias has led to a clustering of caves of Neolithic significance to discrete locations in the south and southwest of Ireland whereas the north of the country, which is significantly richer in Neolithic archaeology than the south, boasts only few caves that can be attributed to that period. Yet counties Sligo and Leitrim boast a similar amount of caves than the popular caving regions in Clare and Fermanagh.
The primary aim of this project is to increase the number of caves of Neolithic significance by Archaeological predictive modelling. This statistical method has been used to predict the location of high archaeological potential since the early nineteen seventies. Developed in the USA, it has become a standard planning tool in cultural resource management (CRM) and has been adopted later in European countries such as Germany and the Netherlands in research and CRM. In archaeological predictive modelling an environmental profile of areas of unknown archaeological status with those of known ones is compared to identify factors that may have influenced site location choices in the past. Using statistical methods such as logistic regression, those factors can be used to identify areas that closely match the environmental profiles from areas of known archaeological status and summarised in probability maps. This method has been adapted to assess individual caves for their archaeological potential using a range of environmental and morphological attributes in the south and southwest of Ireland.
To identify more potential caves of Neolithic archaeological significance and their relationship to Neolithic monuments of the northwest, a large scale survey recorded and planned over 100 caves in six discrete research areas in counties Sligo and Leitrim, some of which were newly discovered or deemed lost. This provided a detailed picture of the distribution and nature of caves and their spatial relationship with Neolithic monuments within the research areas. Drawing from existing knowledge about cave use during the Neolithic, it is possible to assess these caves for the likelihood to contain Neolithic archaeology. The discovery of a previously unknown Neolithic excarnation site on Knocknarea mountain, Co. Sligo during fieldwork substantiates the importance of caves in Neolithic religion, for funerary rites and how natural landscapes and landscape features may have influenced religious beliefs in general.