The professor who put this grassy and historic mound on the map

There’s a grassy mound near Coleraine that is one of the most significant places in our history and sadly, Roamer didn’t know very much about it until perusing a reader’s note sent at the beginning of March.

The mound is called Mountsandel.

The e-mailed message, with an accompanying newspaper cutting, stated “you’ll get a page out of this.”

There’s more than a page - there are 10,000 years, at least!

I’ve never been to Stonehenge (it’s on my bucket list!) but it was with great awe several years past that I wandered amongst the curious, craggy, Calanais standing stones on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.

The stones, an extraordinary, cross-shaped grouping of upright rocks erected around 5,000 years ago, predate Stonehenge and no one really knows why they’re there.

One theory is that Calanais was a kind of ‘early planetarium’ tuned-in to the seasonal astronomical cycle; many of the stones are aligned with the rising and setting moon.

Local legend proffers another theory that giants of old who lived on the island refused Christianity so St. Kieran turned them into stone!

The grassy mound near Coleraine needs no giants or legends, apart from the legendary ‘giant of archaeology’ who put Mountsandel on the map!

It was the seminal work of Professor Peter Woodman PhD, D.Litt. (Q.U.B,), Dean of Faculty at University College Cork and Emeritus Professor of Archaeology, which dated Mountsandel as mankind’s first settlement in Ireland.

Sadly, Professor Woodman passed away at the end of January, and the reader who informed Roamer of Coleraine’s historic Mountsandel also sent the Professor’s recent obituary from the Coleraine Times newspaper.

“Since his boyhood days in Holywood, Co Down,” the obituary recounted, “Professor Woodman encouraged his students to indulge in ‘the pleasure of finding things out.’”

Just two months before he died aged 73 in January, he attended a Rotary Club meeting in Coleraine where “he expressed his pleasure that the Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council had produced a Mountsandel blueprint plan to bring to a wider audience the unique history of those early Mesolithic people who came up the Bann to settle at what is now the Cutts.”

Mountsandel is the first documented settlement of mankind on the island of Ireland, proving that civilisation in Ireland is at least 9,800 years old.

He began excavating there in the early 1970s, but Professor Woodman’s internationally acclaimed work took him further afield.

Known around the world as the leading expert on the Mesolithic period, he was consulted widely in Russia, Norway, Scotland, the Arctic and the Isle of Man.

He researched more than 20 sites throughout Ireland and published over 100 academic papers.

It was more recently in 2015 that Professor Woodman wrote an account of the Coleraine settlement that included dramatic images from the dig at Mountsandel in 1973.

He described the momentous archaeological find that took him completely by surprise and which rewrote the history books.

His name crops up in many of the standard textbooks on Irish history and schoolchildren in the Republic of Ireland learn about Mountsandel in their curriculum.

“The tragedy is,” Professor Woodman’s newspaper obituary lamented “when these children...come to Mountsandel to walk in the footsteps of their Mesolithic ancestors they are unable to find it as there are very few signs to celebrate its significance here and it is not on the North’s schools’ curriculum.”

So what was it like when our ancestors came to Mountsandel nearly 10,000 years ago? Professor Woodman described the scene for a BBC radio series.

“The last ice sheets had receded 3,000 years earlier and the sea level was five metres lower than it is today.

“The falls and rapids at Mountsandel must have been a majestic site; below them in early summer the salmon waited in thousands for a flood to take them upstream to spawn, and sea bass foraged at high tide for crabs, flounder and smolts. Flint was carried from the beach at Portrush and Downhill.

“They (the inhabitants) gathered hazelnuts supplemented by crab apple, goosegrass and the seeds of water lilies.”

When Peter’s team excavated the site there was charcoal-ash in the remains of 10 circular huts, each about 20 feet in diameter.

Recorded on a gripping interview on www.mountsandel are many of Professor Woodman’s amazing archaeological conclusions, based on his expansive research and from the dig near Coleraine.

Mountsandel was a base camp for an extended family group of around ten people who lived there during the warmer spring, summer and autumn months.

(Though they may have spent the whole year there.)

The seven almost egg-shaped huts were quite substantial, some about six metres in diameter, constructed by driving hazel rods into the ground, tying them at the top and then weaving smaller branches into the main structure.

They were probably covered predominantly with turf and possibly some animal hide.

Each hut had an approximately-central hearth, with a small flint-working area beside the fire and a sleeping area at the back.

The huts were central on the site, beyond them were drying and storage racks, a flint-knapping area and probably a butchering area.

One of the hearths included bone fragments and hazel nuts indicating that the inhabitants ate meat and veg and were probably hunters and fisher-folk.

Peter Woodman, who ‘unearthed’ Mountsandel, was born on July 2, 1943 and died on January 24, 2017.