Ireland Prehistory

Ireland’s Ancient Prehistory Past

Ireland Prehistory is the part of the past before written records were kept. History is notoriously written by the victor and therefore always gives a bias version of events. However written accounts give more verifiable information than the other evidence (articles and monuments). That’s the problem with prehistory in there is no written proof a lot of what is banned about as fact is merely opinionated guesswork.

Prehistory is broken down into three different time periods which are The Ice Age (30,000 BC –10,000 BC)The Stone Age; which is further divided into two, Mesolithic (10,000 BC -4000 BC) and the Neolithic(4000 BC –2000 BC) then the The Bronze Age (2000 BC –500 BC).

Ireland

Ireland Prehistory
Ireland Prehistory

What is agreed on; amongst the majority of scholars is that there was a change in the weather about 10,000 years ago which caused the ice sheet that had been covering the British Isles and Ireland to melt. This coupled with the earth’s movements, during the same time period, caused both the land bridge between Ireland and Britain and the one between Britain and Denmark (Dogger Bank) to be broken and Ireland became an island. According to some reports the ice was later in retreating from Ireland than it was from the rest of main land Europe which helps to explain why there is no evidence of humans in Ireland before round about 7000 BC. This later defrosting of the ice sheet is the most probable reason that there are no snakes in Ireland; nothing to do with the Welshman known as St Patrick.

What did prehistoric Ireland look like?

Prehistoric Ireland was densely covered in trees. They would have been mixed deciduous trees unlike the mono planted forestry that we know today. It was so densely wooded by virgin forest that it would have been very difficult to travel far over land as there were no roads, perhaps a few trails. Rivers were used as the main thoroughfares. There were small settlements of peoples surrounding water ways. It wasn’t until the climate changed towards the end of the Mesolithic period that the bog lands were created in the central basin.

Stone Age Ireland-Ireland Prehistory

What’s the difference between the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods?

The Stone Age is divided into two time periods; the Mesolithic (10,000 BC-4000 BC) and Neolithic   (4000 BC-2000 BC). The differential being made between them not only in time but because of the improvements in tool technology in terms of pottery. They started making coiled pots an influence that spread from the east of Europe at the end of the Mesolithic. These peoples are called the Beaker People. The occurrence  kind of found artefact marks the spread  Although Mesolithic man in Ireland built huts, pottery and tools, they did not leave any earthworks such as those found in France. The earliest earthworks in Ireland are Neolithic so there were also improvements in construction techniques.

Mesolithic Ireland

It is postulated that the first emigrants into Ireland came from Scotland into what is now today Northern Ireland. These early hunters concentrated their activities on waterways, foraging on the shores of the sea, lakes and rivers. The earliest concrete evidence of Mesolithic activity in Ireland is to be found in county Antrim (which is Ireland’s only source of flint), county Londonderry and county Sligo. Mount Sandel (county Londonderry) was excavated in the 1970’s. The archaeologists found the remains of Mesolithic huts and charcoal from cooking fires, and these have been dated to between 7000 BC and 6500 BC. ‘The Curran’ (near Larne in county Antrim) is a raised beach where archaeologists have found thousands of flint tools. In county Offaly, archaeologists uncovered evidence of a Mesolithic settlement at Lough Boora.

Ireland bronze age dwellingA Crannog; which is a bronze age dwelling, has been reconstructed at Craggaunowen, Co . Clare and they also have examples of Mesolithic and neolithic dwellings.

Where they came from?

Evidence suggests that Ireland was initially populated from Scotland, although there must surely have been some migration from Wales and south-west England. Finds of Mesolithic tools (although not settlements) suggests that these hunters spread south down the east coast of Ireland and inland along rivers to the Shannon basin.(3)

The end of Mesolithic era is marked by a decline in the population, or at least a decline in the relics that  have been found. The climate got wetter at this time and many of the lakes in western Ireland began to turn into the bogs that exist today. This is the most likely cause of population decline during this period.

Why did they come to Ireland?

Rock hunting or prospecting has to be one of the oldest human endeavours and is was one of the driving forces behind the first settlement of Ireland by incomers. Flint was the most widely used stone for implements in the Stone Age but round about 5000 BC Porcellanite; or porcelanite, (1) is a hard, dense rock somewhat similar in appearance to unglazed porcelain. It is often an impure variety of chert containing clay and calcareous matter. This type of rock is unique to Co. Antrim (1) but stone axe heads made of it have been found in many burials throughout Europe showing that there were trade routes established throughout the peoples of this time. Discovery of the Porcellanite lead to the first “invasions” of Ireland. So began the economical migration that has lasted for 7000 years to and from mainland Europe mostly via the British Isles.

Shannon area during the Stone Age

So why is the area surrounding the Shannon so heavily populated with Neolithic and megalithic remains. One has to imagine a land that looks very different than it does today. The majority of the land was covered by forests making over land travel extremely difficult and hazardous. Most trade and people transportation was done using the rivers; they were the motorways of the day.  There was a degree of settlement due to land expansion but as today the driving force was financial gain. The industry of the Bronze Age was the making of bronze. There are two key metals used in the production of Bronze; copper and tin. Neither of these metals are found in the area today but what is there is a sequence of Carboniferous sediments, where Lower Carboniferous limestones in a number of sub-basins host important zinc-lead deposits. Zinc, this is the same kind of rock that Porcellanite was found and is also were flint is found. So this may have been the reason for early settlement by hunter gatherers. It is also commonly known as limestone which is the required in the smelting process. There is ample evidence of the Celtic trade routes running from Ireland all the way to China.

The Shannon is an excellent sheltered one and at the top of it we have Marblehill.

further reading:

http://www.ucd.ie/archaeology/research/shannon_estuary/more_information.html

http://www.risknat.org

So why was a strong hold in the south west of Ireland considered important to ancient man in Ireland Prehistory ?

Bronze Age Ireland

At the end of the Stone Age there was again a period of climate change and that lead to a population decrease.

The Central Ireland Basin is underlain by Copper used in the manufacture of bronze was mined in Ireland, chiefly in the south-west of the island, while the tin was imported from Cornwall in Britain. The earliest known copper mine in these islands was located at Ross Island, at the Lakes of Killarney in County Kerry; mining and metalworking took place there between 2400 and 1800 BC. Another of Europe’s best-preserved copper mines has been discovered at Mount Gabriel in County Cork, which was worked for several centuries in the middle of the second millennium. Mines in Cork and Kerry are believed to have produced as much as 370 tonnes of copper during the Bronze Age. As only about 0.2% of this can be accounted for in excavated bronze artefacts, it is surmised that Ireland was a major exporter of copper during this period.

During the Bronze Age, the climate of Ireland deteriorated and extensive deforestation took place. The population of Ireland at the end of the Bronze Age was probably in excess of 100,000, and may have been as high as 200,000. It is possible that it was not much greater than it had been at the height of the Neolithic. In Ireland the Bronze Age lasted until c. 500 BC, later than the Continent and also Britain.

So you’ve got copper from Kerry, tin from Cornwall and if you are serious about wanting to make a lot of bronze you need a location that has the other key ingredients that are needed to make it. Lime stone and fuel to stoke the furnaces. Both of these natural resources should be in an easily accessed and defendable position so you are looking for a site by a river up a hill. Marblehill fits that bill.

All of the evidence to date indicates that the area around the mouth of the Shannon was the Bronze Age equivalent of an industrial heart land.

The townland of Marblehill is littered with 78 lime kilns which were later employed to make fertilizer for the soil to improve the crop yield.

Reference 1^ Porcellanite, Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service.

2 www.ucd.ie/archaeology/research/shannon_estuary/more_information.html

3 BBC http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/british_prehistory/peoples_01.shtml

3 gsi.ie