TWO major archaeological assessments were carried out three years ago in the same townland where the prehistoric site has just been discovered, halting work on the new M3 motorway.
The two assessments were funded out of the €30m spent on archaeology along the entire M3 route - and both surveys concluded that no features of archaeological significance were discovered in the townland of Lismullin.
Crucially, one of the surveys added a caveat that a significant portion of woodland was contained within the testing area and "this portion of road take was not archaeologically assessed".
But last month archaeologists discovered what they are describing as a wooden version of Stonehenge - despite the earlier assessments which involved digging dozens of test trenches in the small townland.
The Department of the Environment was notified of the discovery by the National Roads Authority (NRA) last month, but failed to tell Transport Minister Martin Cullen before he took part in a sod-turning ceremony for the M3 motorway last Monday. Just 24 hours later, it was confirmed that a site of archaeological importance had been discovered.
Archaeologists say the site was most likely used for ritual ceremonies. It is also understood that a burial mound has been discovered, which was the final resting place of a woman of high status.
However, the importance of the site has yet to be fully assessed and some archaeologists contacted by the Sunday Independent have expressed caution about claims that the find is of truly international importance.
"There have been examples where the importance of discoveries made at other sites, particularly Carrickmines, have been blown out of proportion. We should be cautious," one senior archaeologist warned.
However, experts who have visited the Lismullin site are convinced that the site could be of major significance.
"It's very ancient and is a wooden equivalent of Stonehenge," said archaeologist Joe Fenwick from NUI Galway.
"It consists of a large enclosure, and a high-status burial chamber seems to have come to light. It's several hectares in size, you're talking about a massive complex. Because of their nature, these timber henges are very rare. You could count them on the fingers of one hand. The timber rotted away a long time ago, but the features would be dug into the subsoil. It would take a large team digging for several months to excavate the site," he said.
Fine Gael Transport spokeswoman Olivia Mitchell TD has said she was stunned to learn that more than 500 archaeologists, hired at a cost of €30m, managed to miss the four-acre historical site while excavating for the motorway.
"This situation would be hilarious if it weren't so serious. In spite of hiring 500 archaeologists for the M3 project, and having spent €30m on archaeological work, the entire M3 project has been brought to a crashing halt by the discovery of a four-acre archaeological site in its path.
"This was in spite of the fact that archaeologists were employed to dig a trench along the entire 59km of the route with cross trenches dug every 20 metres. This site isn't a small rath or a single standing stone, it's the size of three football fields.
"There has clearly been a shocking waste of time and resources. But this find also puts the very future of the M3 motorway in jeopardy. We may now be looking at the possibility that the M3 will have to be rerouted at massive expense. This route was selected after many years of examination and excavation and after the NRA assured us this was a safe route in terms of archaeological significance.
"The M3 is a crucial project which could save commuters from outside Dublin more than a week every year in travelling time. The existing N3 has already exceeded capacity and urgently needs to be replaced," she said.
© Sunday Independent