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Ireland's Prehistoric Beginnings

Ireland's Prehistoric Beginnings

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Published by Brendon Wilkins
As Ireland’s land-hungry Celtic Tiger economic boom encroached on wetland landscapes once thought too boggy for modern development, it became clear that these sites, near to rivers, had been home to vibrant prehistoric communities that had settled along what would have been ancient thoroughfares. In the second part of this series on the top-ten sites of the Celtic Tiger, we investigate the new evidence for Ireland’s prehistoric beginnings.
As Ireland’s land-hungry Celtic Tiger economic boom encroached on wetland landscapes once thought too boggy for modern development, it became clear that these sites, near to rivers, had been home to vibrant prehistoric communities that had settled along what would have been ancient thoroughfares. In the second part of this series on the top-ten sites of the Celtic Tiger, we investigate the new evidence for Ireland’s prehistoric beginnings.

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Categories:Types, Research, History
Published by: Brendon Wilkins on Dec 08, 2010
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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ireland Prehistoric wetland archaeology

From ancient waterways to modern highways
As Ireland’s land-hungry Celtic Tiger economic boom targeted wetland landscapes once thought too boggy for modern development, it became clear these sites had been home to vibrant prehistoric communities, settled along what would have been ancient thoroughfares. Brendon Wilkins explains the evidence.
photo: Headland Archaeology Ltd.

Ireland’s prehistoric beginnings


n a misty morning 8,000 years ago, two young women pushed their way through the headhigh reeds of a tidal estuary, 6m below the busy streets of what is now modern Dublin. As they stepped onto the shifting mud flats, their baskets, wattle work and fishing ground came into view, and they could see, even from this distance, that it had been a bountiful evening. They belonged to the period known as the Mesolithic, and were the first people known to
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current archaeology | www.archaeology.co.uk


Dublin Prumplestown Granny

have lived in Ireland, between 8000 and 4000 BC (there is as yet no evidence for Palaeolithic occupation in Ireland). The majority of artefacts were organic and perishable, rarely surviving the lifetime of the people who made them. But it is not just the durability of the artefacts or activities that take place on a site that determines how much is found. What survives is also a product of the burial environment, which on some lucky occasions can be exceptionally favourable to archaeological remains: either because it is waterlogged, frozen, or so dry that the natural processes of
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microbacterial decay are slowed to a halt. In late 2004, Melanie McQuade, a Site Director for Margaret Gowen and Co., excavated just such a site.

Mesolithic Fisher-Foragers
During routine archaeological monitoring development works at North Wall Quay in Dublin’s Docklands, McQuade and her team found the remarkably preserved remains of seven Late Mesolithic fish traps dating to between 6100 and 5700 BC. These are the earliest securely dated 

aBove Pre-excavation shot of the multi-period Prumplestown Lower site. The Early Bronze Age pit circle is visible at centre.

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ireland Prehistoric wetland archaeology

photo: Margaret Gowen and Co Ltd.

aBove A Late Mesolithic C-shaped fish trap. aBove right This section of beautifully preserved wattle weir was part of a Neolithic fish trap that had been left on the shore’s edge, probably washed up by the tide.

right Earrings and blue glass beads discovered at Prumplestown. BeloW The wedge-cut pointed end of a Late Mesolithic fish trap.
5 cms

fish traps in Ireland or the UK, and are also some of the earliest examples recorded in Europe. Wet boggy sites adjacent to rivers – known as estuarine and alluvial wetlands – provide a wealth of scientific information, but it is the record of human presence in these landscapes that makes them special. The fish trap remains illustrate the value of this 70m stretch of the Liffey Estuary, which was in use over almost three millennia of Irish prehistory, as well as the technological skill of their makers – and raise several points concerning the social implications of trap fishing. At this time in Ireland, the population was heavily reliant on fish, due to the fact that the limited native fauna provided little opportunity for hunting. The importance of fishing is shown by the concentration of Mesolithic material recovered from lakeside, riverine and coastal settings, and is also highlighted by the high percentage of fish bone within assemblages of that period. In contrast to Britain, the Irish Mesolithic was a fisher-forager society, rather than one of hunter-gatherers.

The fishing ground
The fish traps were buried within estuarine silts, where most of the remains were preserved in situ at depths of 4m to 6m below sea level. They were set to the south of a gravel shoreline about 30m north of the existing quay wall, which represented either the northern bank of the prehistoric
current archaeology | www.archaeology.co.uk

channel of the Liffey, or the shore of a tidal island within the estuary. The fish traps and the pieces of stakes and wattle scattered across the site were the remains of structures that operated on the principle of passive fishing: fish in the incoming or outgoing tides were caught in traps, and then retrieved at low tide when the traps were accessible. The system is separated into weirs of wattle work designed to guide the fish, and traps designed to catch them. Most of the remains from North Wall Quay were parts of ebb weirs, which caught fish that drifted with the falling tide. Ebb weirs are typically constructed of large wooden fences (or stone walls) that form a V-shape, with a basket set at the junction to trap the fish. Four of the ebb weir pieces were Late Mesolithic in date. In addition to the ebb weirs, Late Mesolithic dates were also obtained on a C-shaped fish trap and a basket fragment. Evidence for a Middle Neolithic fish trap was also discovered, which comprised a beautifully preserved section of a wattle weir (4.41m by 4.16m), found at the edge of the shore where it had probably been washed up by the tide. All the remains were so closely dated that they could have been used by the same or successive generations of fishermen. The high level of preservation enabled detailed analysis of the wood used in their construction. The traps were made almost exclusively of hazel, with small amounts of birch, ash and fruitwood
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also used. The selection of hazel was an obvious one, since it is a pliable wood, ideal for use as wattling and withies. It grows in dryland areas, however, and is unlikely to have grown in the estuarine environment of this site – thus, the wood must have been sourced elsewhere. Many of the stakes from the Late Mesolithic fish traps displayed worked ends, with most cut to a point on the end. These took the form of chisel (cut on one face), wedge (two cut faces) and pencil (multiple cuts) points. The visible tool marks were mostly flat, although a few were concave, indicating the use of convex, narrow bladed, smooth stone axes, comparable to the narrower examples of such recorded from Late Mesolithic sites.

Catch of the day
In his seminal 1986 study Reading the Irish Landscape, Frank Mitchell argued that dense woodland covered Ireland during the Mesolithic, perhaps explaining why the majority of finds from this period come from coastal, alluvial and estuarine sites. The restriction on inland movement meant that people would have travelled most easily along river valleys, and the fish traps at North Wall Quay support this picture. Reconstruction exercises have shown that harvesting the raw material and manufacturing a conical fish trap takes at least seven hours – a considerable investment in time and resources. While parts of the traps such as baskets and wattle panels could have been constructed off-site, they would have to have been assembled and positioned during low tide when the estuary was accessible from the shore; thus, the people fishing at North Wall Quay must have lived within easy reach of the traps, so that they could harvest the fish and carry out any repairs at low tide. The traps could potentially have caught any of the fish swimming into estuarine waters, namely herring, whiting, bass, sole, trout, flounder, plaice and mullet, as well as seasonal runs of salmon and eel. Such a wide variety of fish may have facilitated year-round fishing; it could then be argued that the construction of fish weirs may have laid the foundation for a trend of sedentism and social complexity. Ireland had become isolated from Britain since it was originally settled around 8000 BC, developing its own distinctive settlement pattern and material culture. Whether the drive towards agriculture came from within the native population, or without, there were dramatic 
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top The Neolithic house discovered during air reconnaissance of the route for the N25 Waterford Bypass at Granny in Co. Kilkenny. aBove Cobbles inside the Neolithic house, representing a floor surface, during excavation. left North-west wall of the house, showing packing stones.

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photo: Headland Archaeology Ltd

ireland Prehistoric wetland archaeology

photos: Headland Archaeology Ltd

changes happening beyond the Irish Mesolithic world such as the wave of colonisation that was sweeping into central Europe from the Balkans and Western Asia. As our next site shows – an early Neolithic house from the River Suir valley – prehistoric waterways again came to the fore.
Iron Age ringditch cemetery

aBove Reconstructions of how the Neolithic house at Granny was constructed, based on excavation information.

Hearth and home
In 2004 freelance archaeologist Joanne Hughes had her suspicions, but it wasn’t until she got an excited call from NRA Project Archaeologist James Eogan – just landed from a reconnaissance helicopter flight along the route of the N25 Waterford Bypass – that she was convinced: the faint square outline gradually appearing beneath her team’s busy trowels was the first Neolithic house discovered in Co. Kilkenny. It has since turned out to be one of the best examples so far unearthed in Ireland. The Neolithic period in Ireland dates broadly to between 4000 and 2500 BC, and is typified by a change in stone technology, a reliance on domesticates, and a transformation in social attitudes. It was a significant departure from the Mesolithic life-way. Stable isotopic analysis of Neolithic human remains indicates a general shift in this period from marine to a terrestrial diet, dominated by meat, bread and dairy products. Settlements were much more permanent, housing small farming communities dependent on a narrow range of intensively managed food sources. This change is expressed at the early Neolithic house site discovered at Granny, Co. Kilkenny, on the N25 Waterford Bypass. Surrounded by tilled fields and penned animals, it was an isolated dwelling on a south-facing slope overlooking the River Suir, measuring 6.5m by 7m, and dating to between 3950 and 3715 BC. It had been built by constructing a square foundation trench, into which postholes had been cut at regular intervals to hold a substantial timber frame supporting the roof. High quality stone objects, including chipped flakes and leaf-shaped arrowheads, were deposited into some of these postholes, before the posts were packed in and fastened together. A lighter wall-cladding of split timber planks was then added, with packing stones wedged against them in the foundation trench. Oak charcoal was found throughout the foundation trench, suggesting that planks had been
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Wetlands area with trackways
Cow mandibles found here

Causewayed Iron Age ringditch

Neolithic timber circle

Early Bronze Age pit circle

Neolithic timber circle

aBove Site plan of features on both sides of the River Lerr, Prumplestown Lower and Woodlands West.


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charred to preserve them prior to being placed in the ground. The charred remains of one of these planks was discovered in situ, and, inside the house, rare evidence for intact floor surfaces also emerged. The entrance was on the southern side of the building, leading into an internal space that roughly measured 30m². A row of stakeholes crossed east-west dividing the house in two; this may have held a portable wattle screen to separate activity areas, and the majority of finds and a cobbled surface were found to the north of this subdivision. Charred cereal grains of emmer wheat, naked barley and oat were also recovered, along with 93 sherds of pottery from at least 14 early Neolithic carinated bowls. The team also made the exceptional discovery of a new form of pottery, with a flared concave rim and a pronounced

inward lip designed to accommodate a lid. Possibly unique in Ireland, it suggested connections or influences from Western Britain. As the new ideas and technology of farming took hold in Ireland, the surrounding seas were not so much a barrier as a connecting link to the dramatic changes taking place in Atlantic Europe. The Neolithic was a radical break with the past, and although it also involved the movement of people, it should not be seen as a straightforward process of colonisation. Indigenous knowledge of rivers and coastline may have been an essential condition to the swift adoption of farming. This continuity is well illustrated by our next site, an exceptionally well-preserved multi-period landscape, where ceremonial activity purposefully took place adjacent to a river that was prominent in the Mesolithic.

top The cache of Mesolithic artefacts, including retouched mudstone blade. left Early Bronze Age pit circle. middle left Working shot of Mid to Late Bronze Age structure. Bottom left Causewayed Iron Age ring-ditch during excavation.

From subsistence to ritual
Today, the River Lerr is a relatively minor stream; however, excavations carried out by Patricia Long, Site Director with Headlands Archaeology Ltd, in advance of the N9/N10 Kilcullen to Carlow road scheme, near Castledermot, Co. Kildare, revealed that the river was the focus of an exceptionally rich cultural landscape from the Mesolithic through to the post-Medieval period. Two sites, at Woodlands West and Prumplestown Lower, constitute a single archaeological landscape located on either side of the River Lerr. Densely concentrated archaeological features 
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ireland Prehistoric wetland archaeology

the gender agenda
When it comes to interpreting ‘mankind’s’ prehistoric past, gender roles and stereotypes are common currency. This is the ‘boys and arrows’ mentality, which sees women as gatherers and men as hunters, despite the notorious difficulties in ascribing gender differences to archaeological evidence. The scene at the beginning of this article describes two women fisher-foragers on the River Liffey, but we are unlikely to ever know whether the fishing ground was the exclusive domain of women, men or both. It seemed logical to choose women as the protagonists of the story, however, as the site was excavated by a woman, and the lead specialist was a woman – as was the case with all three of the sites discussed in this article. Irish archaeologists would probably see this as unremarkable; but in Britain, gender inequality in archaeology is a very hot topic. The British Women Archaeologists (BWA) was formed to address the perceived difficulties faced by women in pursuing a fulfilling career in archaeology. No such group exists in Ireland, a fact that is supported by figures from Discovering the Archaeologists of Europe, a cooperative trans-national project undertaken in 2007-2008 which aimed to assess the state of employment within professional archaeology across Europe. According to the survey, the size of the archaeological workforce in the UK was 6,865, and 1,709 in Ireland. Of this figure, 41% were female in Britain, and 45% in Ireland; not a tremendous disparity, but the figures also show that, in Ireland, women hold the majority of permanently-employed positions. The implication is that the opportunities for women to move into more senior positions is much better in Ireland than in the UK – perhaps another unacknowledged benefit of the Celtic Tiger.

right Mesolithic Bann Flake discovered at Prumplestown.

show that this remarkable and dynamic area has been occupied since the earliest settlers arrived in Ireland, and that the river was a magnet for monuments associated with ritual and burial. The topography of the area is significant; excavated areas are dominated by gravel ridges running on both sides of, and parallel to, the river. A range of features associated with burial and ritual were found in these well-drained gravel ridges, which would have been inter-visible across the river, clearly placing the river at the centre of attention within the community. The earliest feature on the site was a pit, dated to c.7000 BC. Lithics were found on both sides of the river, with a Mesolithic Bann flake discovered

in silt on the north, and a pit, dated slightly later at around 5000 BC, containing a cache of three lithic artefacts, on the south. The deposition of the three lithic artefacts within a pit close to a wetland/dryland interface could be the earliest indication of the river being used as a backdrop for an ‘offering’. One of the artefacts was of very soft mudstone, and may not have been practical as a tool – but rather deliberately manufactured to be deposited in a ritual context. The later Neolithic saw an intensification of activity in the area, especially on the north side of the river. A small south-facing timber circle was found, 5.8m in diameter and comprised 16 postholes. A pair of four-post structures, from the same period, was also found nearby. Timber circles have been found in association with fourpost structures elsewhere in Ireland, and are usually interpreted as ritual in nature. The timber circle, constructed on a ridge overlooking the river, was the first permanent ritual structure within the site, and is likely to have been frequently revisited. Some of the most exciting evidence dates to the Early Bronze Age. A pit circle was found close to the summit of the southern gravel ridge, which had no evidence of ever having contained or supported posts or stones. This monument type is rare, and possibly unique, in an Irish context, but close parallels are found in Britain, mostly dating to the Neolithic period and normally associated with henges and other ritual monuments. A number of Bronze Age cremation burials were identified on both sides of the river, concentrated along the gravel ridges in close proximity to, but not impinging upon, the spaces defined by the Neolithic timber circle and Early Bronze Age pit circle. Two of these cremations yielded glass beads, as well as three copper alloy rings with decoration giving a ‘twisted’ effect. The rings are of great importance as rare Late Bronze Age burial goods, and are examples of a new type of ornament.

image: Sarah Nylund/Headland Archaeology Ltd

Monuments and memories
The Iron Age saw a continuation of the use of the area for burial and ritual, with the establishment of a ring ditch cemetery. Two circular, one pennanular, and one horseshoe-shaped ring ditch were excavated on the north side of the river. The
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pennanular ring ditch was less than half a metre north of the Neolithic timber circle, and the causewayed ring ditch was located less than 5m from the pit circle on the south side, suggesting that the remnants of the older monuments may still have been visible. Each ring ditch had its own characteristics. The penannular ditch on the north side had a series of deliberately deposited cattle mandibles opposite the entrance. The horseshoe-shaped ditch had a significant quantity of burnt bone (unidentifiable) in its fill. On the south side, the causewayed ring ditch had two roughly contemporary inhumation burials in the interior. These marked differences suggest that each ring ditch represented something unique, and perhaps were tended by a dedicated group of people. The picture presented by the clustering of these monuments alongside older features, and the wide date range returned from within small areas, shows continuous use of the area for burial into the Iron Age. The analogous timing, and inter-visibility, of the monuments on either side of the river reinforce the status of the river as a focal point within one landscape. With no written records, people in the past would have formed a sense of their collective

aBove Damp boggy area adjacent to the south side of the River Lerr, containing trackways.

left Cattle mandibles within the Iron Age penannular ring-ditch on the north side of the River Lerr at Prumplestown. sources
Joanne hughes jhugheso@eircom.net patricia long trish@headlandarchaeology.ie melanie mcQuade mmcquade@mglarc.com

identity through oral tradition and encounters with material culture. Monuments and earthworks would have played a crucial role in this. Later generations would have had to explain this evidence from the past, long after their original purpose had been forgotten. The burial tradition continued on the southern gravel ridge right into the early Medieval period, but the ancient ritual traditions were gradually forgotten, and the river flowed once again through a subsistence landscape. The precise reasons why this river was so special to prehistoric people may remain a mystery. But it is certain that the Celtic Tiger infrastructure boom allowed the ancient significance a of the River Lerr to be rediscovered. C

further reading 
Patricia Long and Gillian McCarthy, ‘To the waters and the wild: ancient hunting in County Kildare’, Dining and Dwelling - Archaeology and the National Roads Authority, Monograph Series No. 6. ISBN 9780954595579. Joanne Hughes, ‘Two Neolithic structures in Granny townland, Co. Kilkenny’, Recent Archaeological Discoveries on National Road Schemes 2004 Archaeology and the National Roads Authority, Monograph Series No. 2. ISBN 0-954595513. Melanie McQuade & Lorna O’Donnell, ‘Late Mesolithic fish traps from the Liffey estuary, Dublin, Ireland’, Antiquity, Vol 81:313, 2007 pp 569-584.

next month:
photo: Headland Archaeology Ltd.

iron age ireland: the celtic present meets the celtic past

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