Conferences & Publications

Portalis – confronting colonial legacies in the earlier prehistories of Ireland and Wales 

Samantha Brummage, Thomas Kador, Stanton Green, Claudia Green, Joseph Schuldenrein and Martin Bates 

Colonial legacies are omnipresent in the prehistoric archaeologies of Wales and, especially, Ireland, with the narratives for both countries having been dominated by the predominant interpretations of evidence in England.

Early Holocene Ireland is frequently portrayed as a blank canvas separated from Britain by the Irish Sea and ready-made for Mesolithic would-be colonists, while Britain in turn was disconnected from continental Europe by rising sea levels early in the Holocene. Recent paleogenetic evidence points to a near-complete population change that heralded the Neolithic period and the beginnings of agriculture, thus again conjuring up notions of incoming colonist-settlers from the East.

The Welsh Mesolithic is similarly affected by these narratives, and with no comparably early dates to Eastern England, the suggestion is of colonists moving from there into Western parts of Britain.  At the same time, large assemblages at Nab Head and Prestatyn, for example, have identified Early Holocene coastal communities in both North and South Wales, while a Mesolithic presence in Cardigan Bay has been largely neglected, perhaps because much of the evidence is now likely below the rising sea level.

The Portalis project explores early prehistoric connections between Southeast Ireland and West Wales, neighbouring regions, connected by the, just over 100km wide, St George’s Channel. As there is a record of late Pleistocene occupation from Southwest Wales, yet none from Ireland, an almost immediate assumption appears to be that the relationship between the two regions would have primarily entailed a one-way movement, from east to west. However, we argue that this may relate much more to predominant narratives of more recent colonisations – the Vikings, the Anglo-Normans and early modern planters – than actual archaeological evidence.

This is further underscored by the persistent idea that Ireland was first populated from the Northeast (i.e. the province of Ulster), which is arguably the most British part of the island (in a contemporary context). In contrast to this, the Portalis project does not seek to find the antecedents of prehistoric settlement of Southeast Ireland in Wales (via England).  Instead, we see the project as an opportunity to jointly explore similarities and differences, both in material culture and settlement evidence as well as in the approaches that have dominated prehistoric research in the two regions.

In line with the overall aims of the session, with this presentation we seek to outline how decentring the prevalent colonial narratives affecting the archaeology of these regions, is an essential part of understanding early prehistoric activity both on the eastern and western shores of the Irish Sea.

Inherited Places: knowledge exchange in Mesolithic-Neolithic Britain and Ireland 

Samantha Brummage 

The changes which occurred in material culture and associated practice, during the 4th millennium BC, have generally been framed as a one-way transition from Mesolithic hunter-gatherer/gatherer-hunter to Neolithic farmer and builder of monuments.  There is very little consideration of multiple authorship in transition histories, or a sense of blended knowledge and traditions through the mixing and merging of people, places and things.

This is partly due to a legacy of colonial narratives, including the type of research questions and methodologies used, and site-based focus which can miss events occurring on a smaller scale.  Processes of change, however, are much more complex than ‘Neolithisation’ narratives account for as indigenous and migrating communities often learn from one another and adopt aspects of each others cultures.

My research for Portalis Project uses records of sites and spot finds in Ceredigion, along with material from current excavations at Llanllyr in Talsarn, and examines the nature of settlement in Cardigan Bay, based on relationships existing between sites and scatters, spot finds and spaces in between.