Clare Champion, Friday, April 25, 2003
The Riches of Clare exhibition at the local authority-run Clare Museum charts the county’s history. In this article, John Rattigan writes about a quern stone, which was found at Kilmacreehy.
In February 1999, while investigating the medieval church site at Kilmacreehy, local historian Seán Spellissy found what he thought was a quern stone near the shoreline. Jim Higgins, the Galway City Heritage Officer, visited the site and confirmed the find as a “saddle” or “saddle back” quern stone.
Quern stones originated in the Middle East, where people first moved away from hunting and gathering as a source of food, and turned to agriculture, cultivating crops and domesticating animals. From about 8500 BC in Mesopotamia (the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in modern Iraq), the seeds of wild grasses were collected and sown, becoming the early forms of wheat. Key to this development was irrigation, which took water from the Tigris and Euphrates turning the barren desert into fertile land, a move that was fundamental to the development of what we call “civilisation” today, as people for the first time exerted some control over their environment.
The emergence of agriculture led to a profound social revolution. While crops grew in the fields, time previously spent hunting and gathering could now be used to develop a more complex society, complete with an elite class, craftsmen, sophisticated laws, new buildings, and new technologies. Quern stones were invented at this time, and were necessary for grinding grain to make flour. With the introduction of cultivation into Ireland during our Neolithic period, about 4,000 BC, saddle querns also arrived.
Although there are a number of different types of quern stones, such as the rotary and beehive querns, the saddle quern is the earliest form. It gets its name because of its appearance: a rectangular stone with a concave upper surface on which grain was ground by using a rubbing stone.
Interestingly, at about the same time as Seán Spellissy made his find at Kilmacreehy, archaeologists in the UK made a fascinating discovery. Neolithic bread – the earliest fragments of bread to be found in these Islands – was recovered during an archaeological excavation near Oxford. The bread was charred (which allowed it to be preserved) and was found in a pit with carbonised hazel nut shells and some artifacts, suggesting the find was the remains of a ceremonial offering, and giving us some idea of what ancient bread may have been like in Ireland. Radiocarbon dates suggested the bread was made between 3620 and 3350 BC, and further analysis showed the samples to be made up of a number of coarsely ground grains, including barley.
Several other saddle querns from Clare, all on loan from the National Museum of Ireland, are currently on display in the museum. Two examples come from Knocknalappa, a Late Bronze Age settlement site on Rosroe Lough near Newmarket-on-Fergus, while a third is from Cahercommaun, an Iron Age settlement on the edge of the Burren. Examples of two rubbing stones for saddle querns, necessary to grind the grain, are also on display, and both are from the Newmarket-on-Fergus area.
Following the recovery of the Kilmacreehy quern stone, Seán Spellissy, as required under the National Monuments (Amendment) Act 1994, reported the find to the National Museum of Ireland. Under the Act, the State has right to ownership of all archaeological objects found in the Republic, which have no known owner at the time they were found. Finders are required to report their discovery to the Director of the National Museum of Ireland, the Gardaí, or to the curator of Clare Museum, who is a designated person under the National Monuments Act. Archaeological objects will then be collected, and a reward, at the discretion of the State, may be made to the finder.
Eamon Kelly, Keeper of Irish Antiquities at the National Museum of Ireland, moved the Kilmacreehy saddle quern to Clare Museum, a designated building under the National Cultural Institutions Act 1997, thus keeping this ancient domestic object in Clare. It is now in storage, though it can be viewed by appointment or by logging on to the Clare Museum website hosted by www.clarelibrary.ie.