Upland archaeology refers to archaeological sites, monuments and landscapes in upland areas where evidence of past human activity is often preserved to a very high quality. Today, uplands lie at the limits of farming and settlement with Census data indicating the lands as under-populated, remote and detached from the more populated lowlands. However, this was not the case in the past as people have worked and farmed hills and mountains since prehistory, with some of Ireland’s oldest archaeological sites and monuments surviving in upland areas. The nature of the physical and economic links between upland and lowland, and how they changed through time provides a rich understanding of how people interacted with the landscape in the past.
In Ireland, the archaeology of the uplands is a relatively new research area, though there have been notable studies in the south-west of Ireland such as the Ballyhoura Hills project and a study of Mount Brandon on the Dingle peninsula. Upland sites can be difficult to access, and are often concealed by vegetation and forestry cover. However, there is great potential for discoveries as new sites continue to be revealed by exploratory archaeological projects and chance events such as fires.
Careful comparison of older maps, aerial photographs and modern cartographic resources are used as a baseline to investigate an upland area. This information can be augmented with remote sensing data such as Lidar and satellite data where available. Ground surveys and liaison with local communities are also very useful both to discover and to better understand upland sites such as prehistoric burials, standing stones, relict landscapes and past industrial activity such as quarrying and mining. Both scales of survey have their benefits. Desktop and aerial surveys help understand large-scale features such as hill forts, trackways, artificial watercourses and field boundaries, while field-walking and ground survey allow the interpretation of these features and the identification of smaller features such as standing stones and cairns.
I have undertaken a number of upland archaeology projects. These have included research on the stone decay of rock art and burial monuments in Co. Kerry, of the history and character of upland archaeological sites and historic quarries in Connemara, and an the upland archaeology of Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown as part of an archaeology access study. Upland archaeological sites present a number of challenges both in how to encourage a wider appreciation of their heritage value, and also in the technical detail of their conservation and management.