The History Of Neolithic Ireland

Ireland’s Neolithic (late stone-age) period began around 4000 BC. and is marked by the introduction of farming techniques.

Farming had first appeared around 10,000BC, in the Middle East and from Anatolia and Mesopotamia had slowly spread into Europe. Cattle, sheep and goats and grain were ferried across the narrow sea between Antrim and Scotland by new migrants in dugout canoes and possibly skin covered boats. They also brought with them knowledge of pottery making. It was simple, clay formed into ropes and coiled around and round to form a pot shape then heated in a fire. Sometimes the pot would have a simple design such as indentations from stones or fingers.

Ireland during the Neolithic Period

These new incomers found a land that was sparsely inhabited and heavily forested with oak, elm, alder and hazel. The hills and mountains were clothed with pine and birch woods.

Those who arrived on Irish soil would clear an area and work it until the ground became infertile, then they would up camp and move somewhere else. It was this style of settlement which would cause the exhausted soil to evolve into the peat bogs. It is probable that the first inhabitants of Ireland would have learned and adopted these new ideas from the new-comers.

Neolithic tools used in Ireland

Neolithic Tools in IrelandAround this period too, there was an improvement in the climate as temperatures, on average, rose. This would have helped in the introduction of barley and wheat. The macroliths of the late Mesolithic period began to be replaced by heavier polished axes which were better suited to fell trees. These axes were made from porcellanite which is much harder than flint. It was mined near Cushendall on the Antrim coast and on Rathlin Island.

Whilst finds of Neolithic axes have been made throughout Ireland, though mainly in Ulster, they have also been found in the south of England which suggests a two-way trade existing between Ireland and Britain. It is estimated that over 18,000 of these ancient axes have been found in Ireland alone.

Neolithic farming & communities

This new agriculture would allow for population growth and larger communities. New more developed houses began to replace the sapling and branch shelters of the past. In 1969, at Ballynagilly in County Tyrone, the remains of one of these new houses were discovered. It was rectangular in shape and measured six meters by six and a half metres. It had wattle and daub walls supported by oak uprights and substantial posts supported a thatch roof.

Similar discoveries were made in Limerick and more recently in Campsie about three miles north of Derry on the east bank of the river Foyle and again in Ballyarnett which is a town-land about the same distance from Derry but on the west side of the Foyle, at the foot of the Inishowen peninsula. At Ballyarnett, burned arrow-heads and wooden palisades indicate the possibility of warfare . Carefully placed artefacts in a particular area may give an indication of ritual.

How these farming communities laid out their fields, was discovered in a County Mayo bog, when, Dr.Seamus Caulfield began to investigate deposits of stones that his father Patrick had discovered in the 1930’s when digging his turf. He was to uncover a complex of fields, divided by dry stone walls, dwellings and megalithic burial mounds that covered an area of 12 km². The area, the largest such complex in the world and known as The Céide Fields, has been designated a World Heritage site by Unesco. It is unique in that it permits one to see the whole spectrum of society at one time, the dwellings, the laid out farm land and the monuments to the dead which also indicate a belief system in an after-life.

Neolithic monuments & burials in Ireland

One of most remarkable things the Neolithic people left behind that can still be found in Ireland today are the monuments and burial sites.

Today, dotted all over the country, are the remains of these sites many of which have changed over the years. Such monuments and sites includes the Passage Tomb of Newgrange,  Maeve’s Cairn on the summit of Knocknarea Mountain and the Poulnabrone Dolmen Megalithic Tomb.

Further reading


 

 Sources


  • The Mesolithic and Mesolithic-Neolithic Transition in Ireland by Killian Driscoll. Lithics Ireland Consultancy.
  • Landscapes of Neolithic Ireland by Gabriel Cooney. Routledge. Oxon OX14 4RN. 2000.
  • Neolithic Settlement. Significant Unpublished Irish Archaeological Excavations 1930-1997. An Chomhairle Oidhreachta, The Heritage Council.
  • A History of Ireland in 250 Episodes by Jonathon Bardon. Gill & Macmillan. Dublin 2008

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