A Timeline of Irish Archaeology
Mesolithic Ireland (8000BC-4000BC)
The earliest recorded inhabitants of Ireland appear to have arrived sometime around 8000 BC, most likely on boats from Britain. They were hunter gatherers, who would have exploited seasonal fruits, nuts and berries as well as stalked large game and fished the surrounding seas and inland waterways. Indeed, most of the Mesolithic sites thus far uncovered have been identified in close proximity to water. This was probably because riverine and coastal locations gave access to the widest range of wild foods and also because in such a heavily wooded country waterways would have allowed the quickest and easiest means of transport via dug-out canoes. Some of the best known Mesolithic sites include Mount Sandel in Co. Derry, Lough Boora in Co. Offaly and Hermitage Co. Limerick. At Mount Sandel the remains of a series of light-weight timber structures were identified, which may have originally looked like wig-wams. They had associated hearths used for warmth and cooking, while food waste from the site suggests that the inhabitants dined on eels, salmon, hazelnuts, berries and wild boar. The site at Hermitage was particularly significant as it contained the first evidence for Mesolithic burials. These consisted of small pits filled with cremated human bone and charcoal along with associated grave goods in the form of polished stone axes.
In general the material culture from the earlier Mesolithic is characterised by small flint blades known as microliths. These were too small to have been used on their own and probably formed part of composite tools. For example a number of microliths may have been inserted along the length of a wooden handle to form a cutting blade or at the end of a wooden pole to make a harpoon or spear (see image below). In contrast the later Mesolithic was characterised by large flint blades, often referred to as Bann flakes or butt trimmed flakes, which could have been used on their own as spear points or cutting knives. The reason for this change in flint technology remains unclear and it is not paralleled in Britain or the continent.
Neolithic Ireland (4000BC-2500BC)
The next phase in Irish prehistory saw the arrival of the first farmers in and around 4000BC. They brought with them new ideas about food production and had the ability to grow crops and raise domesticated animals such as cows, sheep and goats. The first farmers also introduced the earliest pottery vessels as well as utilising a much wider set of artefacts, including polished stone axes, a variety of flint tools and saddle querns for grinding corn. They lived in large rectangular houses, which were generally defined by deep slot-trenches that would have supported stout wooden walls, while the roofs were most likely thatched. These houses have been identified throughout the country, with notable examples including Corbally, Co. Kildare, Granny, Co. Waterford, Lough Gur Co. Limerick and Ballyglass, Co. Mayo. Their inhabitants appear to have practised a mixed farming lifestyle growing crops such as emmer wheat and herding cows and sheep, while wild foods would also have been exploited. Pollen records suggests that extensive forest clearance took place during this period to open up new farmland, with large field systems being laid out at sites such as the Céide fields in County Mayo.
One of the most distinctive aspects of the Neolithic was the introduction of new and monumental forms of burial architecture in the guise of megalithic tombs. These included a variety of monument types with the four most notable being court tombs, portal tombs, passage tombs and wedge tombs. Court tombs, which have a largely northern distribution appear to be the oldest type and are similar to monuments found in Scotland. They are generally wedged-shaped in plan, with associated courtyards that were probably used for ceremonial activity and had internal burial chambers.
Portal tombs, by contrast, were simpler affairs and are characterised by a number of upright stones, which support a gigantic capstone. This gives them a somewhat table-like appearance and has led to many colloquial names such as Druids altars, Giants beds or Diarmaid and Grainnes’ bed. The internal chamber in these monuments was used for burial activity and they may have originally been covered in earthen/stone mounds, although little evidence for this survives. Poulnabrone, in County Clare is probably the most recognisable Portal tomb (see image below), and excavation here revealed a number of skeletons, one of which had a violent death as a flint arrowhead was found embedded in its leg.
The third class of megalithic tomb, the passage tomb, is by far the most impressive. It occurs mainly in a band extending across the centre of the country from Sligo to Meath, although outliers do exist in locations such as Cape Clear in Co. Cork. The tombs generally consist of a large circular mound containing a central chamber or chambers, which are accessed by a long passageway that is often orientated on important phases of the suns yearly cycle. The tombs generally occur in cemetery clusters, with some of the most famous being Carrowkeel in County Sligo, and Loughcrew, Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth, all in County Meath. Some of tombs can be extremely large with Newgrange probably being the most impressive. They often contain rock art, utilising motifs such as spirals, chevrons and dots to create impressive if slightly bewildering images. Burial took place in the central chambers with cremation being favoured over inhumation.
The final burial monument of the Neolithic, the wedge tomb, was used at the very end of the period and, indeed, it could be argued that these monuments are really an Early Bronze Age phenomenon. They are largely confined to the southwest of the country and typically consist of a small wedged shaped tomb constructed out of uprights stones supporting capstones. Burial remains are located with the chamber.
Bronze Age Ireland (2500BC-500BC)
The next major phase in Irish prehistory is characterised by the arrival of metalworking. Initially these new metal objects were fashioned out of copper and mainly consisted of axes and daggers. The copper for these tools was probably derived from Rosse island in Killarney, Co. Kerry, where excavations have uncovered the earliest copper mines thus far uncovered in the British isles. These somewhat crude copper objects were soon replaced by more durable Bronze tools. A wide variety objects were made out of this new material including axes, swords, spears, knives, halberds, cauldrons and jewellery. In addition, The Bronze Age also saw a veritable explosion in fine gold working with some beautiful objects being constructed including lunale, torcs and bracelets. These items were of obvious high status and hint at the presence of new social elites. Pottery continued to be used during this period for both domestic and ritual activity, as were flint tools such as arrowheads, knives and scrapers.
During the earlier Bronze Age burials could be either cremated or inhumed and were placed within a simple pit or sometimes in a more complex stone lined cist. The burials were often accompanied by grave goods and these most commonly consisted of small decorated pots known as food vessels. The name of these pots being derived from the belief that they may have held food or drink for the journey to the afterlife. In later part of the Bronze Age cremation became the dominant rite and grave goods became less common. The cremations could occur in pits or sometimes within small circular barrows. In its simplest form a barrow is a circular ditch, with a small mound at its centre with the mound being formed by material thrown up during the excavation of the enclosing ditch.
Evidence for house remains becomes more plentiful as the Bronze Age progresses and the majority of these structures are circular in plan. They tend to have south or east facing entrances, which were sometimes emphasised by the addition of porches. The roof, which was probably conical and thatched, could be supported by internal posts or on load-bearing walls. Internal hearths are relatively rare, and it remains uncertain if this is due to a preference for outdoor fires or merely due to poor survival rates related to damage caused by modern deep ploughing methods. The Late Bronze Age also saw the development of large hilltop enclosures/hillforts and some of these appear to have been associated with settlements. The hillforts, as their names suggest, were located in prominent locations that were easily defendable by large embankments, ditches or walls. Some have been subject to partial excavations, such as Rathgall in Co. Wicklow and Mooghaun Co. Clare, and at both locations the remains of circular houses were revealed.
Iron Age Ireland (c. 500BC-400AD)
The Iron Age remains a somewhat enigmatic period in Irish prehistory with a relative dearth of settlement evidence compared to earlier and later periods. Where houses do occur they appear to have been circular like their Bronze Age predecessors. Similarly small ring barrows continued to be used along with simple pit burials, with the latter sometimes being inserted into earlier monuments such as passage tombs. Cremation continued to be the pre-dominant burial rite and the burnt remains were sometimes accompanied by small personal items such as beads or jewellery. As the name of the period suggests this era was characterised by iron tools and weapons, although bronze continued to be used to make items of jewellery. A number of large ceremonial/tribal sites are also recognised from this period including Emain Macha/Navan Fort, Co. Armagh, Dun Ailinne, Co Kildare and Croghaun Co. Roscommon. Excavations at Emain Macha, revealed the presence of a large building, possibly ceremonial in nature, which was located within a hilltop enclosure. One of the more unusual finds from the dig was the remains of barbery ape skull that demonstrated trade contacts with the Mediterranean region. This period is also associated with the arrival of the Celts to Ireland and although a Celtic language definitely became established on the island, evidence far a large scale invasion/migration is still far from conclusive in archaeological terms.