All posts by Samuel Connolly

Book launch!

Last week I attended the launch of botanist Zoé Devlin’s beautiful new book Wildflowers of Ireland: A Personal Record. Zoé was on hand to sign autographs of this magnificent tome – the book is a quality publication, produced by the Collins Press. There was a time when such lavishly illustrated books on Irish nature were unheard of, but the Collins Press have made a name with prestige volumes of this high quality, and it is very fortunate for anyone with an interest in Irish wildlife. That said, the book is heavy in construction (if you should find yourself in front of a firing squad it would be helpful to have a copy tucked under your shirt!), but laden with superbly-written information and detailed maps for each plant species, and absolutely fantastic photographs taken by Zoé. Anybody who is familiar with this blog will remember reading in June of how I came to meet Zoé and her husband John as they searched for rare Sea Kale along the Wicklow coast in June.

Zoé Devlin with her beautiful and lavishly illustrated Wildflowers of Ireland: A Personal Record.

The Collins Press produce books designed to stand the test of time, so although this a bit too heavy to serve as a field guide, it is a perfect reference, and the descriptions of folklore, medicinal application and personal encounters elevate this volume to a status far above anything you are likely to find in a typical book on the subject. For example, here is part of her description of Silverweed – Potentilla anserina:

“My first record of this plant is from the Vartry Reservoir near Roundwood, Co. Wicklow, in 1976 and I photographed it at Tacumshin Lake, Co. Wexford, in 2008.

Also called ‘Argentina anserina’, many of Silverweed’s names refer to its leaves; in French Richette and in Dutch Zilverkruid. These same leaves were, at one time, used as insoles in the shoes of tired walkers to ease their feet. The plant was also used as food for geese, hence its species name ‘anserina’ (anser = goose in Latin). In early times the roots of this plant were cultivated in some of the Scottish islands until potatoes were introduced. It is said that they taste somewhat like parsnips. The dried fruits were also ground and used like flour in bread-making.”

The beautiful cover: you can judge this book by it's cover! It's superb.
Just a sample of the layout of the book: each page contains superb photographs and detailed information, and beautifully-written anecdotes.

Clearly the sort of book that will be of interest to botanists, general purpose naturalists, folklorists, foragers, cooks, medicinalists and, of course, survivalists (so if you’re a fan of Ray Mears I’d say this book is for you).

There were quite a few scientists and TV personalities at this book launch, and the event was hosted by Gerald Fleming, known as the “winking weatherman” from his broadcasts on RTE television.

Cornered by two people armed with cameras, Gerald Fleming contemplates the inevitable photographs.

For anyone interested in spending the money on Zoé’s magnificent book (money well spent!) follow this link to Amazon.co.uk (which lets you see more content too):

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Wildflowers-Ireland-Personal-Zo%C3%AB-Devlin/dp/1848891261/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1320181298&sr=1-1

Stone Age axe, or not?

Owen is an archaeologist whose favourite subject is the Stone Age, so he knew what he was looking for when he found the red quartz stone below the sandy cliffs. However, he was not 100% convinced, so took his find along to a specialist in the Stone Axe Project in University College Dublin.

Viewed from the side.

 

The specialist found the object very interesting, particularly the curve that you can see running along the upper side of the “blade”.

 

As seen from the other side.

Based on a careful examination of the quartz crystals (the white bands on the right, in the photo immediately above) at the thick, blunt end of the stone, the expert concluded that the remarkably axe-like shape was created naturally by weathering occurring more quickly on one side than the other – the crystal acting as a support preventing one end of the stone wearing away over a long period of time.

Although Owen accepts the expert’s findings there are some little details that are interesting:

Indentation on the "bottom" of the stone.

Firstly, all stone axes have a common trait, an indentation carved into the bottom. This is normally the axehead base, where the centre of gravity is located on the handle. If it’s natural weathering, why did the broad area of quartz crystals clearly visible at the base erode? And, why did the crystal in the seam at the very back completely collapse and fall out, leaving the surrounding stone intact?

The narrowest part of the axe, at the "top".

Once again there is clear evidence of crystal eroding and falling out of the stone. An interesting conundrum by any standards.

 

Archaeology 101 continued…

Just outside the town of Bray, in north Wicklow,  there is an extremely interesting area of seashore where ancient tree trunks from the time of the Ice Age can be still be seen today sticking out of the seabed at low tide. These trees see to be the edge of a vast prehistoric forest extending beneath the Irish Sea. Such pertrified forests are visible along the Welsh and English coasts too. In recent years the BBC made a documentary about the nature of the islands of the British Isles and the first episode featured Alan Titchmarsh visiting the north beach of Bray at low tide to view a forest of these bizarre undersea tree stumps. It is believed that when the ice sheets of the last Ice Age melted, around 5500 BC, that the rising seas drowned the forests.

Ancient tree stump on Bray's north beach. The "moss" is actually a species of algae, Cladophora rupestris, that appreciates any good perch on the shore.

Because Bray is located at the mouth of a river, namely the Dargle, it is a good site to look for ancient archaeological remains. So I went along with my brother Owen, the archaeologist, and local historian Tom Loftus to glean the beaches below the cliffs to the north of Bray, on the border with Dublin county. The beaches are a mixture of shingle and sand, with tall sandy cliffs above them. These cliffs are collapsing by degrees, and as such there is always the possibility of finding ancient artefacts.

Tom and Owen discussing the archaeology while looking for artefacts on the beach below high tide level.

We were accompanied by a flock of Turnstones, which busily foraged for food among the pebbles before the tide rose too high. Cormorants were perched on the various rocks of the bay, and Common Terns attended juveniles learning the trade of sea fishing.

Turnstones - Arenaria interpres. Beautiful beach-combing birds that are almost impossible to see even when standing quite close to them, due to their fantastic camouflage. There are two in this photo, standing side-by-side.

On the return journey Owen found what he believed was very likely a Stone Age axe-head. Stone axe-heads have a very distinctive shape, and this particular stone, of red quartz, had many of the hallmarks of deliberate shaping by the hand of man. However, Owen is always cautious when it comes to lithics (stone objects), so he wanted to have a specialist archaeologist check out the find before pronouncing judgement.

Owen holding the possible Stone Age axe-head while standing where he found it. This photo also explains why Owen often wears a hat when pitted against sunny skies and rainy days.

Tom also made a very interesting find, which has still to be checked out: it seems to be a single fossilised vertebra. The bone, which still has to be identified as belonging to a particular species, was completely impregnated with limestone.
More on the possible hand-axe will follow shortly, including the specialist expert’s opinion.

I'm calling this the "Loftus Vertebra" in honour of Tom, its finder. This is a fossilised bone, seemingly a vertebra. The original bone is now heavily impregnated with limestone, possibly due to prolonged exposure to sea air. This very interesting item requires further study. It is 46mm across the middle from outer surface to outer surface.

More on Owen’s potential axe-head to follow soon…