Irish Archaeology

Irish Archaeology
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 Guide to Archaeology of Ireland
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Mesolithic                                      Neolithic                             Bronze Age              

Ages of Irish Archaeology

Archaeology isn't just about treasures in museums or archaeologists working feverishly with trowels. Neither is it simply about creating site reports that gather dust in the archives of some library. Students of the archaeology of Ireland will already know of Tara and Newgrange but we all need to be reminded that  archaeology is all around us and is seen every day in every landscape; it is especially evident in hillside landscapes like the one pictured further down this page.  In this area one might find: old roads, bridges and pathways; field systems where farmers of long ago tamed the land; peat bogs many thousands of years old, many with hidden secrets; field boundaries - whether stone walls or earthen banks; possibly a ringfort, a


Irish Archaeology Poulnabrone                          Irish Archaeology  Newgrange Entrance Stone



standing stone or a stone circle; a  wedge tomb or portal tomb, a medieval tower house, a ruined medieval church, (perhaps with a Sheela na Gig);  and farmhouses and cottages from 18th and 19th centuries.  In some areas, one can see remains of Bronze Age mining. An Ogham stone would be a rare find as would a rock with Bronze Age rock marks inscribed on it. Industrial Irish archaeology includes things we see around us and take for granted: old mills, lime kilns, old machinery, etc.; but how do you make sense of all this archaeology if you don't understand the chronology and the terms used to describe the different archaeological periods? Below is a concise explanation of the terms most commonly used in Irish archaeology when discussing time periods, and an overview of each period. 


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Paleolithic means Old Stone Age.  Paleolithic is defined as that period from the first emergence of humans on earth until about 10,000 years ago.  The Paleolithic is further divided into 'upper' and 'lower' and 'middle' but this need not concern us here as there is no evidence for human habitation in Ireland during the Paleolithic. Of course Irish Archaeology departments at Irish Universities are always watchful for any evidence of Paleolithic habitation in Ireland.  Most of the country was covered in ice during the Ice Age which receded 10,000 years ago. The ice glacier came as far south as a line drawn across Munster from North Kerry to North Waterford, with parts of Kilkenny and Wicklow also unglaciated, and some students of Irish archaeology cling to the hope that some day evidence will be uncovered in this area that humans existed in Ireland before the Ice Age. Such evidence has been found in England. It is not expected that humans survived in the southern areas of Ireland while the rest of the country was covered in ice as the temperatures would have been too cold.  What we can be certain of is that humans were in Ireland  a thousand years or so after the ice had receded during the last ice-cage. This archaeological period is known as the Mesolithic or 'middle stone age'.


Could it be that in a place like this in Southern Ireland, evidence will one day be forthcoming to show human occupation of Ireland during the Paleolithic?

Picture taken in the foothills of the Galty mountains in South Tipperary.                  

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The Mesolithic in Ireland is regarded as that period from 8000 - 4000 B.C.  

How fortunate I and my fellow students were to have had Prof. Peter Woodman as our lecturer when we (young and older) started at University College Cork in the 1997. R.I.P.

The Mesolithic is further divided into the Early Mesolithic and the late Mesolithic. During this time, hunting and gathering was the mode of life and the evidence from the Mesolithic comes mainly from Mount Sandel in Derry, Lough Boora in County Offaly, and Ferriter's Cove in County Kerry.  The evidence from Mount Sandel hut sites which were excavated by Professor Peter Woodman (now at University College Cork) shows they were in use from around 7000 B.C. to 6650 BC.  This is classified as an Early Mesolithic site.  Mesolithic Sites were usually set on elevated ground overlooking rivers.  These rivers played an important part in the survival of the hunter-gathering people by being a source of food with salmon and eels available for many months of the year. Water birds would also have been drawn to the rivers. Deer had not yet been introduced into Ireland. The diet would have been supplemented by hares and wild pigs.  However, the presence of hares and wild pigs in Ireland, one thousand years or so after the ice had receded, might be suggested by some as being evidence for a land bridge between Ireland and the English/Scottish coast. The alternatives are rather unlikely..they swam?.. they survived the ice?..  they were brought in boats? 


Flint tools from the Mesolithic are often the best evidence of these early sites. Other tools, from wood and bone may well have been used, but flint is the one that survived the thousands of years in the ground. Early Mesolithic people used tools called  microliths.  These microliths -as their name implies - were tiny slivers of worked flint and are extraordinary in their sophistication.  Many different types are identifiable and the use to which they were put has been determined. These include scalene triangles, rods, needlepoints, and micro-awls.  These tiny flint blades were often used in composite tools with wooden handles which have not survived. 

During the Later Mesolithic period, tool making technology was less sophisticated than in the Early Mesolithic.  Composite tools with tiny microliths were no longer the norm, but larger - some say 'cruder' -  flakes of flint were in use.  Because of the number of these tools found in Northern Ireland's Bann Valley, the tools themselves are referred to as Bann Flakes.


At Mount Sandel the evidence shows that the huts were circular, about 20 feet in diameter, and made from saplings stuck in the ground, tied together at top and probably covered in skins or thatch. In the centre of the huts a scooped out hollow in the ground served as a fireplace.


It is worth noting that there are no recorded burials from the Mesolithic period in Ireland. The tombs that can be seen in the Irish countryside from the magnificent Newgrange and Knowth to the humblest portal dolmen are from the later period known as the Neolithic. 




The Neolithic -New Stone Age - in Ireland is regarded as being from 4000 BC to 2500 BC and is the period during which farming began to be a way of live for people living on the island of Ireland.  There was certainly some carry-over of hunter/gathering from Mesolithic times, but farming was rapidly becoming the norm as people began to realise that they could control the food supply by planting crops, storing them, rearing animals, keeping animals in captivity, etc. To this end, they developed new tools usually in the form of stone axes which helped in the clearance of  great tracts of oak and elm woodland which covered most of the country at the end of the Mesolithic. As well as tackling the country's forest with stone axes, Neolithic people availed of a much more powerful tool in forest There is evidence to suggest that there was contact between Neolithic people in Ireland and in Europe and certainly in mainland Great Britain.  As well as being the first Irish farmers, the people of this period were the builders of great tombs and the creators of field systems such as those found at the Ceide fields in North Mayo.     

The tools used during Ireland's Neolithis period were ground and polished stone axes - many made from porcellanite which is associated with granite and sourced primarily from Tievebulliagh mountain in County Antrim and also from a site near Brockley on Rathlin Island. Flint blades called plano-convex knives were used wherever a knifeblade was called for - skinning animals, cutting hides, cleaning fish, etc. Leaf and lozenge shaped arrowheads were fashioned out of flint or chert. These arrow-heads were beautiful objects as well as being functional. Chert is a black flint-like stone that was used by Neolithic people where flint was not available. Scrapers were used for a variety of jobs, perhaps skinning animals and cleaning hides, etc. Hollow Scrapers were also used, presumably for shaping arrow-shafts out of wood. 

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This hoard of porcellanite ground and polished Neolithic axes was found near Belfast. Axes from Tievebulliagh and  Rathlin Island  have been found in many areas of mainland Britain. This is usually pointed out as being evidence of travel and possible trade between the two islands 5,000 years ago.


Porcellanite was an advance over flint axes due to it being less brittle than the flint. No porcellanite tools have been found from a Mesolithic site. This demonstrates the resourcefulness of Neolithic people in identifying and utilising new resources. 



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Neolithic Stone Axes

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Pottery is first found in Ireland in the Neolithic period and has never been recorded from a Mesolithic site. Books have been written on the subject of Neolithic pottery. It is enough to record here some of the names given to the round-bottomed and flat-bottomed bowls.  Archaeologists classify such bowls by type of rim, type of decoration, etc, and usually name them after the site where they are first found or are most prolific. Names include Western Neolithic, Ballyalton bowls, Lough Gur class 1 and class 2, Linkardstown, and Carrowkeel ware. Carrowkeel ware is usually found in passage-tombs.


Burials during the Neolithic are dealt with on the Tombs page of this site. When Neolithic people arrived in the country from Europe they brought with them the tradition of tomb building which was not practised in the country up to then. Court tombs, portal tombs, and passage tombs are the classifications of Neolithic tombs.  Wedge tombs straddle the later Neolithic and continue into the Bronze Age.


Houses during the Neolithic were both circular and rectangular in shape.  In the larger houses, walls were constructed by placing a double row of posts and fixing stones between them  to a height of just one foot, and then packing the rest with straw, sods of earth or even planks of oak as at Tankardstown in County Limerick.  Lough Gur in Couuty Limerick has both a circular and rectangular Neolithic house reconstructed and is an important site with public access and information available.                 Click here for Bronze Age


On this page you can learn about Irish Cottages


Lots of sites for  Irish Rare Books