Prehistoric and Celtic Ireland

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Prehistoric and Celtic Ireland

In about 7000 b.c.e. small Stone Age Mesolithic communities in Ireland hunted wild pig, deer, and wood grouse in the forests with composite harpoons and spears (armed with tiny flints similar to those found in Britain and northern Europe) and fished the rivers near their settlements for the abundant salmon and eel in season. Three millennia later, the descendants of these first colonists were joined by much larger Neolithic communities of farmers who cleared the forests with polished stone axeheads. They set up farmsteads on the newly established grasslands to rear imported cattle and sheep, making field systems enclosed by double-faced stone walls, many of which were preserved under later blanket peat in the west of Ireland. They grew imported wheat and oats, which they ground into meal in saddle-querns and cooked in pottery vessels to make porridge.

Megalithic Tombs

COURT TOMBS The tombs of the Neolithic period are spaced apart over the cleared landscape. Built of very large stones and thus termed "megalithic," they required communal effort and were places for communal burial. Called "court tombs" after the distinctive open enclosed-courts in front of the burial chambers, they were built with orthostats and aligned east and west. Court and burial-chambers were integrated within a long trapezoid cairn between 15 and 55 meters long. More than 400 of these court tombs now exist on the coastal plains and on the uplands north of a line drawn from Clifden in Galway to Dundalk in Louth.

PASSAGE TOMBS More than forty excavated tombs have yielded both cremated and inhumed burials of people of all ages and both sexes. There is no distinction in type between the material deposited with these burials and that found in the habitations: shouldered pottery vessels and characteristic flint lozenge arrowheads and tools. Bones of cattle, sheep, and red deer found with the burials document funeral feasts.

Under the court tomb at Ballyglass, near the shore of Bunatrahir Bay in north Mayo, the foundations of a rectangular timber building 13 meters by 6 meters were discovered. The entrance was through a porch in the northwest façade into a partitioned hallway, above which were the sleeping-quarters. Within was a large open area 6 meters by 5.5 meters, with a fireplace close to the wall at its southeast end and with a high A-roof above. The pottery and stone implements found were of the same types as those from court tombs. Similar houses were excavated at Ballynagilly in Tyrone and Tankardstown in Limerick. These rectangular dwellings, the largest of the whole Irish prehistoric period, appear to have housed substantial social units like extended families, possibly headed by matriarchs.

More than 300 "passage tombs" are grouped in large cemeteries on hilltops, mainly in the north and east of the country. The chambers are simple or complex in shape, enclosed within round cairns girdled by megalithic kerbs. The finest architectural achievements of their builders are found in such monuments as Newgrange in the Boyne Valley, erected about 3000 b.c.e.; other major cemeteries are known on the Loughcrew Hills in north Meath and at Carrowkeel and Knock-narea-Carrowmore in Sligo. The lopsided cruciform chamber of Newgrange, over 6 meters wide, is approached by a passage 19 meters long; both are lined with tall orthostats. A great hexagonal corbelled vault built of large ice-boulders rises 6 meters above the floor of the chamber. This is covered by a pear-shaped mound of layered earth and stones 85 meters in diameter and averaging 12 meters in height, standing on a low knoll and containing a quarter of a million tons of material.

In Ireland, as on the Atlantic façade of Europe from Iberia north, these tombs are distinguished by a set of art motifs engraved on the orthostats, lintels, and roof-slabs of the tomb and on the kerbstones set around the mound in an early public display of art. The simplest canon merely represents these devices on the stones; another, more ambitious, combines elements to enhance the architectural effect, as on the lintel stones at Newgrange and Fourknocks; a later canon blends complex designs with the undulations of the stone to achieve a sophisticated plastic effect, as on orthostats and kerbstones at Newgrange and Knowth nearby. Many of these complex designs on tombs in Ireland and Anglesey and around the Gulf of Morbihan in Brittany are abstractions of the human face or figure; some are frankly female, representing a goddess of death and regeneration stationed at the threshold of the otherworld.

A rectangular fanlight or roof-box with a decorated upper lintel specially constructed over the doorway of Newgrange directs the rising sun at midwinter into the chamber, dramatically embodying the principle of regeneration in marking the death of the old year and the coming of the new.

The people buried in these tombs were generally cremated—as many as 200 persons of all ages and both sexes have been found in a single tomb at Tara—and the remains were interred with their ornaments, pendants, and beads carved of semiprecious stones and strung in necklaces. Their pottery, known as Carrowkeel ware, was a hemispherical bowl, ornamented all over the surface with chevrons and nested arcs. The most significant feature of their burial ritual in Ireland is the complete absence of stone tools and weapons from their burial chambers, contrasting with the burial deposits of all other megalithic tombs in west and north Europe. This suggests that these mundane items were prohibited from the sacred burial places, being allowed only in the habitations. The size and number of these tombs in the Boyne Valley suggests a workforce of several hundred people living in agglomerated settlements. They betray their ancestry in Atlantic Europe, particularly in Brittany, in their unique fondness for shellfish—periwinkle, mussel, oyster, and pecten—which constitute the remains of funeral meals found at sites far inland.

Later Neolithic Communities, Hilltop Defended Settlements, and Contacts with Central Europe and the Caucasus

A later Neolithic tradition, dramatically different in its origin in the Caucasus via central Europe and Scandinavia, was a new burial rite—the individual burial of a man deposited in the central closed cist (a small stone box roofed with a flat slab roof, designed to take a single crouched burial) of an earthen mound up to thirty-six meters in diameter. The departure from communal burial indicates a radical change in society: Now each sept had a single male leader or ruler at its head. The burial was normally accompanied by a highly decorated pottery vessel that could have belonged to one of four newly introduced classes.

The followers of this new group occupied the coastal islands of the Clyde area of Scotland and the river valleys of the lands on both sides of the Irish Sea and were strongly represented in south Leinster. Their arrival in Ireland can be dated to early in the third millennium b.c.e.; their cultural contacts with central Europe were thriving as late as 1800 b.c.e., when bone-barbell pins of Ún<caron>etice type were imported directly from central Europe to Dublin, Kilkenny, and Limerick. These people introduced the horse into Ireland, ultimately from the Caucasus. Their portal tombs—200 single-chambered megalithic tombs in long cairns derived from court tombs—follow similar patterns on both sides of the Irish Sea.

The new arrivals lived in defended settlements built on moderately high hills in the northeast, such as Lyles Hill north of Belfast, where a broad palisaded earthen bank enclosed a pear-shaped area of six hectares, within which stood a cairn probably containing a classic individual burial. The naturally defended promontory of Knockadoon extending into Lough Gur in Limerick was also chosen for settlement, along with artificial lake-dwellings in Tyrone, Derry, and Meath. The salmon fisheries of the River Bann and the coastal sites in the sandhills in Derry, Antrim, and Down, and on the offshore islands of Rathlin, Bute, Man, Lambay, and Dalkey, also attracted them. This new group's Scandinavian, central European, and Caucasian background, their introduction of the horse, and the timing of their arrival in Ireland (from the third millennium into the second), all suggest a close relationship with speakers of a proto-Indo-European language spreading from their homeland in the Caucasus via Scandinavia to the far west.

The Bronze Age

With the Early Bronze Age came the art of transforming new materials in a radically innovative way into personal ornaments, weapons, and tools. Copper mined in Leinster as well as in Waterford, Cork, and Kerry, was smelted and cast in open molds into knives, daggers, and flat axeheads from about 2000 b.c.e.; copper was later alloyed with tin to make a harder metal, bronze. Gold was hammered into flat sheets to make earrings, lunulae (neck ornaments shaped like the crescent moon), and breast ornaments. Settlements were established near the sources of these metals; as a result, west Munster became prominent for the first time.

Beaker metalworkers, named for their distinctive bell-shaped redware vessels, settled on the European continent at three great nodes rich in metal ores: near Lisbon, in central Europe along the Danube north of the Alps, and in Ireland and Britain. Their dead were buried alone in cists or pits with a single beaker, a conical V-perforated button, and a wrist-bracer, which was a flat plate of stone perforated at the ends to protect an archer's wrist from the bowstring. With these classic accoutrements of the archer-warrior went flint barbedand-tanged arrowheads. These people wore gold basket-shaped earrings and pairs of sun-discs, along with tanged knife-daggers cast in open stone molds. Only a few classic beakers have been found in Ireland, the finest of them at Moytirra near Sligo town.

Whereas in Britain and on the Continent single males were buried in cists, in Bronze Age Ireland and Brittany the dead were buried in late megalithic tombs, allées couvertes (gallery graves) and "wedge tombs." Irish wedge tombs number more than 500 and are found mainly in the west, with a great concentration in the metal-rich areas of Cork and Kerry. One hundred have been found on the limestone uplands of the Burren in County Clare, where winter grazing is widely available. Wedge tombs were economically designed, with long burial galleries opening to the west, low orthostats that converge and slope downward toward the east end, and roofs with flat lintels.

Archeologists have discovered more than 1,300 single burials deposited in pit graves and cists, mainly in Leinster and in east and central Ulster—the obverse of the wedge tomb distribution. The pottery normally found at these sites are food vessels and urns—provincial and hybrid derivatives of beakers, with contributions from some Late Neolithic types. Sometimes the cists have been found grouped together in cemetery cairns and in flat cemeteries.

About forty round cairns housing several cists have been discovered. They probably developed from using Neolithic passage tombs to take secondary cist burials, as at the "Mound of the Hostages" at Tara. Here, secondary burials with food-vessel and urn pottery extended from the end of the Neolithic period to about 1500 b.c.e., when the remains of a prince aged fourteen wearing a necklace of bronze tubular beads were inserted into the mound. A royal scepter of five cylinders of animal bone with toothed edges was found with a cremated burial in the multiple-cist cairn of Knockast in County Westmeath.

Cinerary urns (large, coarse vessels designed to contain and protect the cremated remains of a single individual, frequently inverted over them) became the standard funerary pottery of the early Irish Bronze Age, displacing to an extent the earlier food vessel. Predominantly associated with such urns from about 1500 b.c.e. are bronze razors with ovoid blades sharpened to a keen edge, apparently designed for the removal of facial or cranial hair. Of forty-four Irish razors discovered, thirty-one were found with burials, apparently of males—possibly barber-surgeons or medicine men.

Between about 1250 and 1000 b.c.e., while dramatic changes in the eastern Mediterranean marked the disintegration of civilizations and empires, the scene was set for the magnificence of the Final Bronze Bishopsland phase in Ireland. Among the treasures from this phase are palstaves—implements developed from the flat axe-head, with flanges at the edges terminating in a stop-ridge halfway between butt and blade. Finely made new tools of bronze for metalworking and woodworking—the hammer, anvil, vice, punch, graver, and chisel—also made their debut; they are the first such tools to be found in Ireland. More than twenty hoards of this period, found mainly in the north and east, consist of new types of gold ornaments including delicate finger-rings and feminine gold earrings, which were molded or twisted, copying east Mediterranean techniques. Heavy gold torcs were also developed in Ireland from bronze prototypes of Baltic origin. The dramatic increase in the availability of gold bullion suggests the discovery of a mother lode, possibly in Wicklow.

Excavations at Haughey's Fort, located on a hilltop three kilometers west of Emain Macha in Armagh and covering an area of about twenty acres, yielded evidence of a bank faced by a palisade inside the innermost ditch, dating from about 1100 b.c.e. Storage pits on the site yielded carbonized barley. Animal remains indicate that cattle, pigs, and a small number of sheep or goats had been eaten there, as well as leftovers of an apple. The great size of two circular post-built houses, each over twenty-five meters in diameter, suggests that this was the seat of a potentate.

The Final Bronze Age

After 1000 b.c.e. the metal industries of Ireland burgeoned, flourishing under the influence of the late European Urnfield phase (from 900 b.c.e.), so called after the great bronze hoard of Dowris found near Birr in County Offaly. The large number of individual tool and weapon types and the quantities of metal found in the possession of individual craftsmen attest to a society that controlled mining and distribution, satisfied a demanding market, and supported the rise of important smiths, merchants, and potentates. A hundred hoards provide convincing evidence of great personal riches. The Great Clare Gold Find of 1854 consisted of at least 150 ornaments weighing 5.5 kilograms—the largest find of prehistoric gold objects in northern or western Europe. Claymolds, which were used exclusively by 1000 b.c.e., made possible the manufacture of new socketed axeheads, socketed knives, and chisels in great numbers.

A brilliant new school of artists who worked in gold devised a far more extensive range of personal ornaments than had been available before—gorgets, dress-fasteners, cuff links and pins, bracelets, and a variety of new hair ornaments, some of which seem to have been invented to satisfy a discriminating home market. The delicacy of the gold ornaments contrasts with the rude weaponry, spears, and slashing swords of the military heroes. Braying martial horns were part of the new military panoply, and horse-trappings and rattle-pendants denote a society given to parades. Large sheet-metal cauldrons and cast flesh-forks attest to princely hospitality. A northern province yielding cauldrons, buckets, horns, and gold sleeve-fasteners contrasts with a southwestern province (extending up to Banagher on the Shannon) in which horns decorated with conical pseudo-rivets, gold lock-rings, gorgets, and repoussé bowls are distinctive types. Ireland's contacts with the Urnfield area of Central Europe were at this time through northern and southern Britain, and also via the Atlantic with the Mediterranean.

Great stone fortresses like those on the Aran Islands, some surrounded by defensive zones of multiple walls or chevaux-de-frise (protective areas made of stone spikes set at an angle in the ground), appeared seemingly overnight in the southwest and west of Ireland at this time, probably from Galicia in northwest Spain. Promontory forts on the coast provided well-garrisoned lookout posts. Suddenly, society assumed a new military character; the times were troubled. Lake-dwellings became common, some of them with bronze workshops. Bronze crotals, metal objects resembling bull's testicles, may be evidence of a bull fertility cult at this time. A tall, wooden god preserved in the bog at Ralaghan in County Cavan foreshadowed the iconic gods and the La Tène aniconic (nonrepresentational) fertility stones that appeared at the end of this last millennium b.c.e. Important dwellings and temples emerged on sites such as Emain Macha—structures that in the early centuries C.E. were recognized as sacred royal centers.

Hallstatt and La TÈne Traditions

In Ireland and Britain there are few Iron Age artifacts of the Hallstatt tradition (750 to 450 b.c.e.), when immensely rich leaders lived in princely strongholds such as the defended hilltop of the Heuneberg overlooking the Danube in southern Germany. During the fifth century b.c.e. the late Iron Age La Tène culture developed out of the Hallstatt tradition in the Champagne area of France and the middle Rhine valley and Bohemia. The princely dead were buried with splendid weapons and ornaments on two-wheeled chariots under huge mounds. The people of this culture congregated in impressive hillforts and in enormous proto-urban oppida (towns) such as the Heuneburg in southern Germany and Alesia in eastern France. Their new art style was disseminated widely from Asia Minor to Britain and Ireland. In this style, Greek palmettes and tendrils were subtly distorted into elegant and sophisticated abstract shapes presented on curved surfaces with a charming ambiguity.

In about 300 b.c.e. this heroic tradition arrived in Ireland and established itself in a northern province over the broad territory of Ulster, Connacht, and north Leinster. Ironworking was then fully established in Ireland, though gold and bronze were still used in making luxury objects. Examples of the distinctive La Tène neck-torc and brazen horn representing the "Dying Gaul" have been found in Broighter in Derry and Ardbrin in Down. Warriors were equipped with leaf-shaped spearheads, at that point made of iron and mounted on wooden shafts up to 2.4 meters long, and with swords, scabbards, and shields. Only a very small number of cauldrons and bronze bowls have been recovered, along with a single stave-built 1.4-liter tankard from Carrickfergus. Bronze fibulae (safety pin ornaments with tightly coiled springs, decorated with relief ornament to the bow) along with beads of colored glass appeared as new kinds of personal ornament.

The great royal sites of the period are located in the northern La Tène province: Tara and Tailtiu in Meath, Emain Macha near Armagh, Uisneach in Westmeath, and Cruachain west of the Shannon in Roscommon. The history of Tara and Cruachain begins with the burial monuments and the found objects dating from the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age; in the late prehistoric period ring-barrows appeared in great numbers and in a range of shapes and sizes. An excellent example of a ring-barrow is found at the royal site at Tara, where a large oval enclosure, 210 by 175 meters across, was formed from a double row of stout posts on the northern slope of the ridge, surrounding the "Rath of the Synods" and the "Mound of the Hostages." Ring-barrows are also found at Tailtiu, on the hilltop of Emain Macha, within the hilltop enclosure at Clogher in Tyrone, and at Uisneach. Thus these royal sites were in part conceived of as cemeteries, sanctified by the bones of ancestors. The other characteristic monument is a great mound, the forradh, as at Tara, on which the king sat to exercise his judicial functions at the periodic assembly, or oenach. Massive composite monuments—Ráith Airthir at Donaghpatrick in the Tailtiu complex, the Mote of Downpatrick, and the monument at Granard in Longford—all relate to this forradh.

It appears that while the Iron Age La Tène tradition developed in the north, the Final Bronze Age tradition lived on in Munster and south Leinster. The greatest impact of the Irish La Tène tradition may have been on the landscape around royal sites and in massive defensive earthworks of the last two centuries b.c.e., such as the Dorsey in County Armagh and the Black Pig's Dyke running from south Armagh through Monaghan as far as north Leitrim. Despite its relative paucity, La Tène art continued in Ireland and Britain after the Romans, finding ultimate expression in the hands of early Christian artists.

La TÈne Gods and Religion

Practices related to Celtic rituals have survived through the Christian period and up to the present day. Midsummer and midwinter rituals began in time immemorial. The quarter-days—the first days of February, May, August, and November (respectively, Imbolc, Bealtaine, Lughnasa, and Samhain)—each had their own rituals. High hilltops were visited at Lughnasa, a practice surviving to the present in the pilgrimage to the summit of Croagh Patrick in Mayo. The element dair, meaning oak, which appears in many place-names (as in Brigit's Cill Dara, the modern Kildare) may commemorate druidic sanctuaries sited at oak groves.

Representations in stone of godlike figures are known: The three-faced Corleck granite head from Cavan may have been part of a composite icon; the horned Tanderagee idol, from the cathedral site at Armagh, has mask-like features, a great open mouth, thick-lipped and screaming, and stylized arms. At that site there are also representations of a sun god, a bearded head, and a family of three benign bears, the largest with a wolf-head between its fore and hind legs. On Boa Island in Fermanagh a pair of belted warrior-gods, described by Françoise Henry as "terrifying in their inhumanity," stand back-to-back, staring severely out from the otherworld with large almond eyes.

Three aniconic carvings decorated with the characteristic abstract swirling curves, spirals, and trumpets of the Irish La Tène style celebrate male potency at Killycluggin in the territory of the legendary Crom Cruach at Mágh Sleacht in north Cavan, at Castlestrange in Roscommon, and at Turoe in Galway. Plain phallic pillars are more numerous: They are found on the Hill of Tara and beside Dún Dealgan as well as at Kilkieran in Kilkenny, Killadeas in Fermanagh, and Clear Island in Cork, where they were later purposely incorporated in early Christian sites.

Roman Iron Age and Christianity

Roman material borne by visitors from Wales and Scotland appeared in Ireland from the first century C.E. onwards, and have been found between the Liffey and the Boyne as well as along the northeastern and northern coasts. A hoard of 500 valuable silver coins of the first and second centuries from Feigh Mountain in Antrim was found in a leather bag concealed under a flagstone. No Roman roads, towns, temples, or military camps were built in Ireland. After a marked hiatus in the third century, Roman material again found its way into the country. Evidence of visitors to Newgrange in this later period has been documented by coins of Theodosius, Constantine I, and Valentinian I, dating from about the year 400, together with a number of disc-brooches and the inscribed terminal of a Bishopsland bar-torc. Roman silver found at Balline in Limerick and Ballinrees in Derry was brought back to Ireland by Irish pirates from the crumbling periphery of the Roman empire in the fourth and fifth centuries. Numerous shards of Samian ware document visits by native Irish to the Roman world.

Christianity, already tolerated in Roman Britain and Gaul from the time of Constantine after 312 C.E., was present in Ireland by about 400. Ogham writing based on the Roman alphabet also appeared about this time. With Christianity came the Bible and a certain degree of literacy. It was about this time that the young (Saint) Patrick, son of a Roman decurion, was seized by Irish pirates in Britain and enslaved by Milchú, who put him to herding sheep on Slemish Mountain in Antrim. It was this Patrick, author of our earliest texts, who returned in the second half of the fifth century with a mission to organize and extend the already growing Irish church.

SEE ALSO Bronze Age Culture; Celtic Migrations; Cruachain; Cú Chulainn; Dún Ailinne; Emain Macha (Navan Fort); Myth and Saga; Stone Age Settlement; Táin Bó Cúailnge; Tara


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Michael Herity