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According to yesterday’s Times the number of wild tigers in India has now fallen to around 1000 animals. Poaching, for traditional Chinese medicine, is considered to be the main cause of decline, but habitat damage – caused by tourism – has also been recognised as a significant contributory factor. The government there has announced that tourism in tiger reserves is to come to an end;

“Seeing a wild tiger has become a kind of status symbol,” M. K. Ranjitsinh, chairman of the Wildlife Trust of India, said. “People do not realise the harm to the broader ecosystem. They are loving the tiger to death.”

A parallel? Keep it in mind when you read the following letter by Joe Fenwick. The evidence of our past is under constant threat of destruction by modern agricultural method, by neglect and, latterly, by development, but do we also destroy that which we celebrate? Can we love our monuments to death? From the Irish Times;

Madam, – Not wishing to pour cold water on Fáilte Ireland’s “Festival of the Fires” in celebration of Bealtaine, but perhaps the burning of bonfires on upwards of 50 prominent hilltops throughout the nation is not in the best interests of our ancient heritage or, indeed, the promotion of our tourism industry.

Minister for Tourism Mary Hanafin, I believe, is to reignite this ancient “Celtic” festival this coming weekend and (according to your Magazine, April 24th) openly invites communities throughout Ireland to “commandeer” a local hilltop for the purposes of lighting their own bonfires.

Alas, some of our most significant (and lesser significant) archaeological monuments are located on the summit of hilltops; largely because of the commanding views such places afford. In recent years geophysical survey has revealed the presence of otherwise invisible, but often substantial sub-surface archaeological remains on and surrounding extant archaeological monuments at many of these places (for instance, Uisneach, Co Westmeath, Rathcroghan, Co Roscommon and Knockaulin, Co Kildare).

Magnetometry has been especially successful in this regard, as this technique is particularly sensitive to the residues of ancient fires and the subsequent distribution of ash and burnt material from such events into surrounding ditches and pits.

Bonfires lit on or near archaeological monuments will permanently affect the magnetic properties of the underlying and surrounding surface soils and in so doing compromise the value of these places for meaningful scientific research in the future.

As an archaeologist specialising in archaeological geophysics, I would ask the organisers of such events, even at this eleventh hour, to confine bonfires to elevated “fire boxes” well away from any known archaeological monuments (and hopefully unknown ones too). Aware, however, of the futility of my appeal in the face of spontaneous and largely unregulated events, I will be praying to the gods for rain and hoping Fáilte Ireland and Ms Hanafin will not be promoting this well-meaning if ill-considered event as the beginning of an annual nationwide “festival”.

– Yours, etc,

JOE FENWICK, Department of Archaeology, NUI Galway.

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