Stone Age Settlement

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Stone Age Settlement

Because of its length the European Stone Age is usually divided into three stages. The Paleolithic period represents the archaeology of Stone Age hunter-gatherer communities in the Pleistocene period (often popularly referred to as the Ice Age). In Europe the Paleolithic may have lasted for a million years until the planet finally warmed up about 11,000 years ago. The Mesolithic period began after the end of the Pleistocene and continued until farming was introduced. In the Neolithic period it is generally accepted that Stone Age communities relied on a mixture of arable farming and domesticated animals. Many of these communities used pottery.

In northern Europe there was no continuous settlement, especially during some of the colder stages of the Pleistocene, but at various points in time, perhaps as far back as 700,000 years, human settlement took place in Britain. But in Ireland the earliest known settlement dates to only about 10,000 years ago, to the Mesolithic period. The absence of an Irish Paleolithic is often explained by the fact that Ireland was usually isolated as an island, thus inhibiting initial settlement, while numerous phases of extensive glaciation would have destroyed any of the ephemeral traces of Paleolithic settlement. In the last 40,000 years, however, many other mammals managed to get to Ireland and successfully lived there. They include a diverse range of species such as reindeer, mammoth, red deer, and horse, which raises the possibility that one day traces of an Irish Paleolithic will turn up.

Mesolithic Period

The earliest known evidence of human settlement in Ireland dates from about 8000 b.c.e. The Irish Stone Age ended probably just after 2500 b.c.e., which means that it represents half of the known human history of Ireland. The earliest reliable evidence is based on excavations at Mount Sandel, where remnants of several small huts were recovered on the edge of an escarpment overlooking the estuary of the river Bann. Ireland may have been an island for the last 13,000 years, so only a limited range of mammals, freshwater fish, and plants appear to have existed on the island in the early part of the post-glacial period. Fortunately at Mount Sandel traces of the burned remains of food refuse occasionally survived in fireplaces and pits, and from their examination it was possible to see that these people lived by catching fish such as salmon and eels, hunted animals such as wild boar, trapped hares, and in season gathered berries and hazelnuts. The site at Mount Sandel suggests that rather than following a migratory lifestyle, the people appear to have chosen to live at a spot where, as the seasons changed, they could obtain different sources of food, and they may also have stored some food for leaner times of the year.

At this period most Mesolithic communities lived in a forested environment and would have made extensive use of wood and bark for a range of utensils and weapons. In Ireland very little of this material survives, and as a result, much greater reliance has to be placed on the stone tools and manufacturing debris they discarded. The most common form of stone artifacts found at Mount Sandel are the small, geometrically shaped pieces of flint called microliths. These would have been inserted in wood or bone to act as edges on knives or barbs on arrow shafts. A range of axes, including some polished stone axes, shows how much they relied on woodworking. Many of these distinctive tool types have been found throughout Ireland, as far away as on the banks of the Shannon in County Limerick or the Blackwater in County Cork. As this early technology only lasted about a thousand years, this suggests that Mesolithic peoples spread very rapidly throughout Ireland.

Sometime after 7000 b.c.e., the stone-tool technology based on the use of microliths was abandoned and replaced by a local development using large flakes and blades of stone as knives and woodworking tools. The people who lived in this later part of the Mesolithic period continued to follow a somewhat similar lifestyle, with many of their tools being found on lake and river bottoms and banks. Numerous sites have also been found along the seashore, where sea fish, sea mammals, birds, and shellfish were exploited. A good example of this type of settlement was excavated at Ferriter's Cove on the Dingle peninsula in County Kerry.

Unfortunately the Irish Mesolithic period has not produced any art objects or examples of personal ornament, although these items have been found elsewhere in Europe. Usually, human remains are represented only by a scattering of bones and teeth, but a recent excavation at Hermitage in County Limerick has uncovered a number of pits containing human cremations, two of which had substantial posts also placed in the grave and one contained a large polished stone axe.

Beginning of the Neolithic Period

The Irish Later Mesolithic period saw a very successful local adaptation to insular conditions, one that reflected a slightly different way of life from that in the rest of Europe. There is, for example, very little evidence that the uplands were used at this time. This way of life might have continued indefinitely were it not for the introduction of farming. By about 5000 b.c.e. an economy that had originated in Southwest Asia, evolving as it spread across Europe, appeared along the western edge of Europe. This economy, usually associated with the Neolithic period, was based on the keeping of domesticated cattle, sheep, and pigs as well as the planting of crops such as wheat and barley. By 4000 b.c.e., at the latest, a variant of this economy was present in Ireland. How it got there is still the subject of debate. Was it brought in by small bands of farmers looking for new lands? Or did indigenous communities see advantages in this new way of life and adapt it to Irish circumstances? This change in lifestyle and equipment (material culture) was so great that most Irish archaeologists believe that the change would have necessitated some movement of people.

Besides bringing in a new lifestyle, these first farmers brought in the first ceramics and a new range of tools including carefully made, piercing arrowheads. Much more attention was paid to the manufacture of polished stone axes, and many of the axes made during the Neolithic period in Ireland used materials that had been extracted from sources of metamorphosed rock found at two locations in northeast Antrim, Tievebulliagh near Cushendall, and Brockley on Rathlin Island. These products were distributed throughout Ireland and even into parts of Britain. Besides being used for everyday purposes such as chopping down trees and building timber structures, some large, highly polished axes may also have been made for prestige and ritual purposes. The most famous of these is the hoard of eighteen axes found on the Malone Ridge in Belfast. These are all nearly 300 millimeters in length.

Neolithic Way of Life

Shortly after 4000 b.c.e. little farmsteads were springing up across Ireland. It is impossible to be sure if these houses were grouped together in small villages, but it is possible that a number of houses were built in the same general area. The members of several households probably worked together to clear forests or build monuments. Many of the houses were large rectangular timber structures around 6 meters in width and often more than 10 meters in length. In some cases walls were made of vertically set split-oak planks; in others the roof was supported on a framework of large posts.

The landscape that these first farmers would have faced was mostly covered with forests, so any cultivation of crops required an initial opening up of the woodlands. Traces of these activities show up in many parts of Ireland. It is thought that areas adjacent to the farmsteads were cleared of trees by chopping down the smaller trees, ring-barking larger ones, and burning the remaining scrub. In these clearings wheat and then barley would have been planted.

In Ireland, however, it is probable that the keeping of cattle may have been more important than growing crops. Cattle and sheep then were much smaller than modern breeds and kept mainly for their meat. Specialized dairying, for example, did not begin until perhaps the first millennium c.e., while the weaving of wool does not appear to have begun until the Bronze Age. Of course, these peoples continued to fish and to gather wild plants and shellfish, but the core of their diet was provided through one or another form of farming.

There was obviously a period of pioneering farming, but Neolithic farmers were not primitive, shifting agriculturists, and some areas were used for periods of 300 to 500 years. One area that shows clear indications of sedentary Neolithic farming is Céide Fields in coastal north Mayo, where Professor Séamus Caulfield has explored a landscape buried beneath the blanket peat bog that had developed before the end of the Neolithic period. Here an organized series of field boundaries was laid out, covering an area that may have been 2 by 2 kilometers. A series of strips of fields ran from the coast up onto higher ground. Within or associated with most of these strips was a stone circular enclosure that would have surrounded a circular farmhouse. Some megalithic tombs were also incorporated within this field system. Although there is some indication of arable farming, these fields were mostly used for pasture—probably for grazing cattle.

It would be quite wrong to think of these societies as idyllic and peaceful. There is evidence in Ireland and elsewhere that violent death was common during the Neolithic period. The fact that some of the burned Neolithic houses have a number of arrowheads associated with them suggests that violence often occurred.

Megalithic Tombs

During the Neolithic period a significant amount of energy was devoted to the construction of megalithic tombs. The term itself—mega (large) and lithos (stone)—refers to the use of large stones, some weighing many tons, particularly as structural members (orthostats) or capstones in the building of the tombs. Megalithic tombs can be found concentrated in certain parts of western Europe from the Iberian peninsula to central Sweden, and a particularly large concentration (more than 1,500) has been found in Ireland. Some cannot be classified, but three different types are known to have been built in the Neolithic period: passage tombs (230), court tombs (more than 400), and portal tombs (roughly 175). More than 500 other tombs fall into the wedge tomb class that may have been built just after the end of the Stone Age.

Normally megalithic tombs were built out of locally available stone and used in an unaltered state. Some feature massive stones, such as the capstone at Brownshill in County Carlow, which is estimated to weigh up to 100 tons. Others were built using dry stone-walling techniques. The size of the tombs varies from almost 100 meters in diameter (such as those at Newgrange and Knowth) to others only 10 meters across. In some cases these stone monuments postdate timber structures and continued to be used after the Neolithic period. On occasion, material was placed within them later, and recognition of their significance at a much later time can be seen in the fact that they often have names like the Druid's Alter or Ossian's Grave. The term tomb might suggest that these structures were simply monumental graves, but their positioning, the manner in which human bones were placed within the burial chambers, and evidence of other activities having taken place around the tomb suggest that these structures should best be seen as "tombs for the living." They were used for burying only a tiny proportion of the population, and burial rites often entailed placing inside a small handful of cremated bone or some individually selected unburned bones inside. Few complete skeletons were placed in megalithic tombs during the Neolithic period.

Passage tombs are the most spectacular examples of megalithic tombs. In this type of tomb the burial chamber is usually accessed by a passage that runs in from the edge of the cairn or mound. The mounds are usually curvilinear, with their edges defined by a kerb of orthostats. Passage tombs are often found in groups or cemeteries. They are frequently placed apart and on higher ground. About 60 percent of the passage tombs in Ireland occur in four cemeteries: the Carrowmore and Carrowkeel cemeteries in County Sligo, and at the Loughcrew and Bend of the Boyne cemeteries in County Meath. The last of these is centered on the three large mounds of Knowth, Dowth, and Newgrange. Newgrange is 85 meters across, with a 30-meter-long passage leading into a cruciform burial chamber made up of a central chamber 6 meters in height and three ancillary cells. In the case of Knowth, where the main mound is of a similar size, a passage running from the western edge terminates in a simple chamber, but another passage that runs from the eastern edge finishes in a cruciform chamber similar to that of Newgrange. Knowth is surrounded by a series of other smaller tombs, some of which may have been built before the main mound was constructed. In the inner chambers of a number of tombs there are large stone basins. One particularly fine example from the eastern chamber at Knowth 1 is highly decorated. The burial rites associated with these tombs mostly consisted of the placement of small patches of cremated bone, but this apparent simplicity is balanced by the presence of exotic "grave goods," such as a spectacular carved-flint mace head from Knowth. Many of the passage tombs have produced pendants, long pins of bone and antler as well as polished stone balls made from nonlocal materials. Indeed it is even suggested that many of the raw materials used in building Newgrange were imported. The kerb stones, for example, which are greywacke, may have been brought some distance from the coast. Of course, Newgrange is famous for the fact that the passage is positioned so that as the sun rises on the day of the mid-winter solstice its light passes through a box in the roof of the passage and shines into the burial chamber.

The Bend of the Boyne and to a lesser extent the Loughcrew cemetery have the largest concentration of passage tomb art in Europe. This geometric art is made up of such motifs as chevrons, lozenges, spirals, and circles, etc. It is either incised or pecked onto the surface of the orthostats. This, of course, would have been done without access to metal tools. The most famous example is the entrance stone at Newgrange, which is over 2 meters in length and covered in a coherent pattern dominated by spirals. Other stones, often in prominent positions, have this "plastic" art style, but many others have less coherent patterns that may have been built up through the placement of individual motifs.

Of the other two tomb types, the vast majority of court tombs are found north of a line from Clew Bay to Dundalk Bay, whereas portal tombs tend to occur slightly farther into the midlands and also in some numbers in the southeast of Ireland. Both these forms are usually found on their own or in very small groups. In some areas, such as in the south of County Armagh, a portal tomb and a court tomb can be found in close proximity to each other.

Court tombs tend to have rectilinear, wedge-shaped cairns where an open court area is placed, usually, though not always, at the broad end of the wedge. Burial chambers—usually two or four—are placed one behind the other to form a gallery that runs off the court farther into the body of the cairn. Numerous variations on this theme are found throughout the northern part of Ireland. Simple examples of a court tombs are at Ballyalton, Co. Down, and at Creggandevesky, Co. Tyrone, whereas larger and more complex versions are at Creevykeel and at Deerpark in County Sligo. In the latter case the court was placed at the center of the cairn, with burial chambers running off the court in different directions. Portal tombs, also called dolmens or cromlechs, often consist of one chamber and are among the most striking prehistoric monuments in Ireland. Often the cairn that surrounded them has been removed in more recent times, although in some cases the cairn may never have been extensive. Classic examples of portal tombs are Poulnabrone, Co. Clare, and Legananny, Co. Down. In many cases a large capstone is balanced on two portal stones and on a backstone. Although some aspects of the burial rites are similar, the ritual associated with these forms usually did not include placement of the same range of exotic items found in the passage tombs.

Many other forms of ritual occurred in this period. Across the south of Ireland a number of smaller round cairns have stone boxes (cists) at their center. These usually contain one or two complete skeletons. In certain areas a number of caves have also produced both complete skeletons and scatterings of bones that can also date to the Neolithic period.

With such a proliferation of monument types there is always a tendency to put them in a chronological sequence, but it is possible that at least some of the major types were in use at the same time. Court tombs and portal tombs were in use by 3800 b.c.e., whereas the earliest convincing dates for passage tombs suggest that they may have begun to be built by 3400 b.c.e. or possibly slightly earlier.

Final Neolithic

Sometime after 3000 b.c.e. the megalithic tomb tradition seems to have gone out of fashion, and ritual instead centered on the building of large banked enclosures ranging in size from about 50 to 180 meters across. These enigmatic structures are usually referred to as henges on the basis of their similarity to monuments of that type in Britain. Groups of henges can be found in areas that are rich in other Neolithic monuments, such as the Bend of the Boyne cemetery or at Lough Gur, Co. Limerick. In some cases, as at Newgrange or at the Giants Ring on the Malone Ridge near Belfast, there were also large circles or curvilinear enclosures of posts that may have been up to 6 meters in height.

The Stone Age did not, of course, end on a neat chronological horizon, and many of the tools used for everyday purposes continued to be made from stone. It is probable, however, that sometime after 2500 b.c.e. copper artifacts such as axes and then daggers began to be made from the rich copper sources found especially in southwest Ireland.


The archaeological record shows that the Irish Stone Age is not just a marginal period lost in antiquity. Not only was farming introduced, but it may be that these peoples, representing the beginning of a continuous 10,000 years of human settlement, form the foundation of the current makeup of the people of Ireland. Stone Age peoples cleared areas of forest and opened up the landscape, perhaps bringing about for the first time significant ecological changes. Through its monuments, the Stone Age has left one of the most abiding images from Ireland's past.

SEE ALSO Prehistoric and Celtic Ireland; Bronze Age Culture


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O'Kelly, Michael J. Newgrange: Archaeology, Art, and Legend. 1983.

Ryan, Michael, ed. The Illustrated Archaeology of Ireland. 1991.

Wadell, J. The Prehistoric Archaeology of Ireland. 1998.

Woodman, Peter C. "A Mesolithic Camp in Northern Ireland." Scientific American 245 (August 1981): 120–132.

Woodman, P. C., E. Anderson, and N. Finlay. Excavations at Ferriter's Cove, 1983–1995. 1999.

Peter C. Woodman