Mount Sandel is best known as the name of a Mesolithic settlement site that generally is regarded as producing the earliest securely dated evidence of human settlement in Ireland. The name of the site derives from a nearby prominent earthen fortification, which was used from the early medieval period to the seventeenth century. The fortification and the Mesolithic settlement lie on the edge of an escarpment 30 meters high and overlook the upper reaches of the estuary of the River Bann as it flows northward into the Atlantic Ocean. The River Bann is the second-largest river system in the island of Ireland and drains two-thirds of the state of Northern Ireland.
The potential of Mount Sandel first became apparent in the 1880s, with the recovery of a large number of chipped flint axes. The recovery of these "kitchen midden axes" at Mount Sandel and several other nearby localities and along the River Bann soon led several antiquarians (in particular William Knowles) to speculate that they were associated with what was thought of as the earliest Neolithic recolonization of northern Europe—what is referred to today as the Mesolithic period. During the 1930s, with the work of Hallam Movius, attention was focused more on the assemblages on the nearby Holocene raised beaches, and so interest in Mount Sandel waned. It was only with the work of Pat Collins in the 1960s and Peter Woodman in the 1970s that the full significance of Mount Sandel became apparent. The 1960s excavation concentrated on a series of deposits, at least partially slumped, on the slope below Mount Sandel Fort, while the excavations in the 1970s concentrated on an area that lay behind the fort, especially in fields where a major housing development was planned.
It had become conventional wisdom that the human occupation of Ireland began at 6000 b.c., but the excavations at the upper site in the fields have shown that the occupation at Mount Sandel began at a much earlier date. The radiocarbon dates from the site range from 8990±80 b.p. to 7885±80 b.p. Most of the dates from the main phase of occupation seem to be earlier than 7700 b.p. If the earliest dates are calibrated, it suggests that occupation at Mount Sandel could have begun by 8000 b.c. It should be noted, of course, that this date is approximately one thousand years after the beginning of the European Mesolithic. A few older dates from other sites also are known, but they either are from unreliable contexts or have such large standard deviations that the age spans of the dates renders them virtually useless.
The excavation of the upper site concentrated mainly in fields adjacent to Mount Sandel. Owing to extensive cultivation of the area, little evidence other than that in the topsoil was expected to survive. The actual excavation, however, uncovered extensive traces of structures, which represented the partially preserved remnants of numerous reoccupations of the site. A series of stake holes, hearths, pits, and patches of dark charcoal-stained soil was uncovered. In one area a small, shallow depression had been enlarged and flattened, and in it a series of four almost circular huts had been built in sequence on roughly the same spot. These huts were built with stakes to form either an inverted bowl or wigwam-shaped hut, each of which would have been between 5 and 6 meters in diameter. Toward the center of each hut a shallow depression about 20 centimeters deep and up to a meter across had contained fires. Other pits were dug in the vicinity of each hut. A few were quite large, up to 1 meter in depth. Larger and more irregular hollows probably were created by tree falls. (In some parts of Europe these tree falls may have been misinterpreted as pit dwellings.)
As Ireland may have been an island for more than the past ten thousand years, it has a distinct ecology. During the Early Holocene, probably no more than ten indigenous mammals and a few freshwater fish species inhabited Ireland. In fact most of the large mammals as well as such fish as pike that normally would have been hunted or caught in the rest of northwestern Europe were not present in Ireland. Therefore one question of interest is how early hunter-gatherers adapted to living in Ireland. Unfortunately, in many parts of Ireland the soils can be quite acidic, and so the faunal remains do not survive on many prehistoric settlement sites. At Mount Sandel, however, considerable quantities of bone, hazelnut shells, and other plant remains were thrown onto fires; as a result, the burned or carbonized organic remains survived. These remains often were recovered from layers where they had been left in hearths or dumped into other empty pits. Although limited in quantity, the organic material from Mount Sandel still provides one of the best pictures of the lifestyle of Mesolithic communities living in Ireland. The faunal remains from the excavation were dominated by the bones of migratory fish species, particularly salmonids, with lesser numbers of eels. Other fish species, including some sea bass, were rare. While a scatter of bird bones was recovered, the mammalian remains were made up of wild pig, three bones of hare, and a dog bone. The plant remains consisted of many thousands of fragments of hazelnut shells as well as a few water-lily and apple seeds.
The substantial nature of the dwellings and the careful positioning of the settlement to take advantage of a range of different environments suggest that the Mount Sandel site was used by a group of hunter-gatherers who remained at this one locality for a significant part of the year. Salmon could have been fished as they moved upstream during the spring and summer, and eels would have been caught as they came downstream in the autumn and early winter. Some of the fish and other resources, such as the hazelnuts, may have been stored throughout the winter. The bones of young piglets born in the early spring were found mixed in with the shells of hazelnuts, which presumably had been collected at the end of the previous autumn.
The stone tools from the site usually were made from flint and were, to some extent, similar to those found in adjacent parts of Europe. The most common artifacts were the small geometric microliths that would have been used in composite tools as knife-edges, barbs, and so forth. The most usual forms of microliths were elongated triangles and backed rods. The axe forms recovered from the site included broad-edged adzes (flake axes), small chopping tools (core axes), and numerous polished stone axes. Polished stone axes are well-established features of the Irish Mesolithic.
Somewhat similar assemblages have been found throughout Ireland, from Lough Boora in the Irish Midlands to sites in the south of the island, such as Kilcummer, which overlooks the Cork Blackwater River. There is still no evidence of an earlier human presence in Ireland, either during the first thousand years of the Holocene or in the preceding three thousand years of the Late Glacial, when intermittent human presence is known in southern Britain. At the same time, there is no doubt that some of the implement types found at Mount Sandel are local forms, which would suggest the existence of an earlier phase of human settlement in Ireland.
Mallory, James P., Thomas E. McNeill, and Barry N. Hartwell. The Archaeology of Ulster from Colonization to Plantation. Belfast: Institute of Irish Studies, Queen's University of Belfast, 1991.
Woodman, Peter C. "A Mesolithic Camp in Northern Ireland." Scientific American 245 (August 1981): 120–132.
Woodman, Peter C., ed. Excavations at Mount Sandel 1973–1977. Belfast: Her Majesty's Stationary Office, 1985.
Peter C. Woodman