All research is inevitably the child of the frameworks set by its author’s predecessors. Consequently, the first task of any researcher is to comprehend and qualify how we arrived at this point in our knowledge; to assess how previous research has, for instance, coloured our notions of what is considered pertinent, indeed possible, for further study. Therefore, the purpose of this chapter is to delimit and contextualise the avenues of thought that have had a pronounced influence on the course of archaeological endeavours in Ireland, with a particular focus on research in the six western counties covered by this thesis. As it will be shown, this is clearly not a Whiggish history, of a unilinear progression in thought and successive clarity of vision, of work accumulating to a higher plane of understanding. The history represents a complex pattern of new avenues sought and cul-de-sacs found, of orthodoxies born, surpassed, and reborn again by later generations. Critically, it is recognised that the categories and theories that shall be scrutinised, and the labels, words, and meanings used over the centuries to delimit them, have undergone considerable, yet often subtle and overlooked, alterations: Thomas’ (1993) ‘Discourse, Totalisation and “The Neolithic”’, and Tilley’s (1998) ‘Megaliths in texts’ have both argued this point succinctly in terms of the entities the Neolithic and megaliths.
Following from this, it is a commonplace that the theory and practice of archaeological endeavour cannot be comprehended while divorced from the totality of the intellectual, social, and political milieu in which it operates. The archaeologist is not simply a passive viewer, a spectator, of a neutral past, but rather brings to the subject his or her own intellectual and cultural baggage: their upbringing, education, class situation, religious (or non-religious) and political affiliation. The historian of archaeological thought, Daniel (1971), has noted that a predominant recurring theme of archaeology can be viewed as the pernicious question of diffusion or independent invention. Inevitably, part cause, part effect of this thread of questioning is the fact that archaeology was born into the era of colonialism, and indeed, which it arguably helped to justify (Trigger 1989).
Consequently, the dominant theme of later Irish history, and indeed global history, has been colonialism – for Ireland, of course, the intertwined relationship with the Crown to the east began before the era of colonialism per se. As we shall see, the colonial discourse was to greatly influence ideas on the archaeological record for many generations, with strands still dominant today. Furthermore, an integral part of the colonial enterprise was the emergent nationalism, with the eventual founding of two states on the island of Ireland. Cooney (1995; 1996) and Woodman (1995) have both succinctly argued that this nationalistic presence has had an enduring affect on Irish and Northern Irish archaeology, nevertheless with their own respective insular peculiarities.
“The true patriot becomes of necessity the antiquarian”
(Owen 1858, cited in Trigger 1989, 148).
Taking the eighteenth century as my starting point, I will outline the antiquarian interest in the past, as it stood before the realisation that there had been a Stone Age past. It is here in the eighteenth century that the study of the relics of the past became a ‘scientific’ pursuit as the middle and upper classes saw it. The work of Berangar and Bigari and their Tour of Connacht will be assessed, and I will show how this Tour related to the emerging societies, The Hibernian Antiquarian Society and The Royal Irish Academy, and to the political divisions in Ireland at the time. As the nineteenth century wore on, impulses from European archaeology and the natural sciences were absorbed and digested, and often rejected, by scholars in Ireland, all the while that a palpable nationalism and patriotism was building in Ireland, both in the southern provinces and in Ulster. New fora such as the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and journals such as the Transactions of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society (later to become the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland (JRSAI)) and the Ulster Journal Of Archaeology developed the field of research, and enabled a platform for debate for the new concepts that were being conceived, such as ‘pre-historic times’ and the ‘Three Ages’ theory.
The eighteenth century antiquarian focus on the relics of the past followed from a long pedigree of such interest. Indeed, it is clear that ‘monuments’ and the various myths and legends related to them have always had a powerful pull on the imaginations of the communities that lived and worked around them. Furthermore it is a commonplace that what we categorise as artefacts were seen to be, for example, celts or elf bolts, with related stories attached to their significance, and were often used as magical charms for healing purposes. What these monuments and artefacts meant to past communities, and how they made sense of them, was passed down through the mediums of written and oral history. Accordingly, these histories could be edited, revised, and recreated to fit the ideological picture that was to be portrayed. In the case of Ireland, the situation was one where two broad factions, protestant and catholic, were to wrestle with the past.
What distinguishes the new antiquarianism in the 1700’s from previous historical pondering was that now the pursuit was to be followed along scientific lines: the separation of fact from flights of fancy, as the new scientists saw it. In Ireland, this new order came from the Ascendancy, and, as Boyce (1990) has commented, the relative tranquillity of the mid-eighteenth century allowed them to feel more at home, and to relate to the land as such – this burgeoning sense of security tied into a sense of Irishness, correlating with an increasing interest in all things antiquarian.
Arguably, this attitude is typified by the commissioning of Berangar and Bigari on their Tour of Connacht, to illustrate the antiquities in the landscape. Here, the Tour consisted mainly of drawings of ecclesiastical buildings and castles; the megalithic monuments were suggested as being possibly burial places of chieftains or sites of battles – today read cemeteries of ancestors – rather than the contemporary orthodoxy of them being temples or druidic altars – today read shamanistic practices. Harbison has suggested, perhaps somewhat generously, that this project represents a late eighteenth century archaeological enterprise, and that it
"focused amateur interest on extolling the physical remains of the country’s past in the years leading up to the foundation of the Royal Irish Academy in 1785. This expedition, therefore, played a seminal role in the early development of archaeological endeavour in Ireland" (2002, 1).
However, Love (1962, 419) has noted in an article on The Hibernian Antiquarian Society, subtitled ‘A forgotten predecessor to the Royal Irish Academy’, that the commissioning of the Tour by the Hibernian Antiquarian Society was due to be a far grander scheme encompassing the thirty two counties of Ireland – but the Society foundered on the rocks of patriotism and the debate on the origins of Irish civilisation between the members. On the one hand, men such as O’Conor (the only catholic involved in the society) and Vallancey saw the history of Ireland through the eyes of a past civilisation hailing from the Mediterranean, i.e. the Phoenicians; on the other hand, Ledwich and Beauford saw the history of Ireland as coming from the barbarous north of Europe, and hence Irish civilisation arriving solely with the English conquest (ibid., 422-3). Love explicates the reasons for the opposing views:
"Vallancey himself was an Englishman, but he was entranced with all things Irish and, like so many a convert, outdid many an Irishman in his assumed patriotism. Ledwich’s view of ancient Ireland, then, was slanted towards England and Protestantism; Vallancey’s was calculated to appeal to the native Irish and catholics" (ibid., 423).
The acrimonious debate over the course of Irish history railroaded the society, and hence the project of the Tour of Ireland: the project was not continued when Vallancey was involved in founding the Royal Irish Academy over a year later, of which O’Conor became a member. Ledwich earlier had refused membership to what he saw as another superfluous group, but
"finally [six years later] Ledwich gave in and became the 200th member… Presumably, the Academy by then was too successful, too large, too stable, for Ledwich to decline any longer… Vallancey’s influence had probably waned by then, too" (ibid., 431).
Returning to the Tour, a considerable significance of its completed work was that it recorded monuments no longer extant, or at least not as visible, in the landscape today. For example, Berangar recorded a monument, called Cuchullin’s tomb on the shores of Sligo, which by 1858 had disappeared; this is represented in the drawing as a circle of stones, with Harbison (2002, 101) commenting that the raised nature of the centre could imply that it was a passage tomb type monument. And at Ennishowen, Lough Mask, Co. Mayo, a now much dilapidated monument was illustrated, and described by Berangar as a Druidical temple: as an Irish Stonehenge. Harbison (2002, 158) comments
"The stones with perforations which stood around the perimeter – nineteen in Beranger’s day, reduced to thirteen when Wilde described it, even fewer when sketched by Mrs. L. Piggins of Westport around 1970, and down to four when examined recently by the Mayo antiquarians Noel O’Neill and Gerry Bracken".
It is interesting to note that, in another case of a Sligo monument in Harbison’s book, the original antiquarian depiction of Carrowmore tomb 7 is drawn in such a way as to divorce the monument from its landscape setting, whereas the modern photo of the same monument is framed in such a way as to show Knocknarea, with Misgaun Mewe on its summit, in the background, yet nevertheless at the same time in the centre of the image, arguably following today’s emphasis on landscape archaeology (ibid., pls. 5 + 6).
Half a century after the Tour of Connacht, the next large scale project was undertaken by the Ordnance Survey, a project which was clearly on a different scale than the previous. While this was ultimately an imperial outing, with Ireland again, as in so many cases, being the testing ground for Britain’s imperial projects, the work undertaken by O’Donovan, O’Curry, and their superior Petrie, amongst others, was certainly seen by some at the time as going against the grain of imperial intentions. Boyne (1987, 20) has commented in her biography on O’Donovan that a member of staff of Petrie’s department wrote an anonymous letter to the government dated to shortly before the topographical department was closed down – its work incomplete – in which he wrote that most of the staff of the department were “nationalists as well as catholics”, and signed it “A Protestant Conservative”. Furthermore, it was argued at the time that the historical and social sections of the memoirs would cause unnecessary disquiet amongst natives and rulers, leading to an outpouring of animosities amongst the political factions, and would
"provoke intense patriotic feeling and make much more bitter the deep divisions between members of different religions, between the governing classes and those governed, between former and present holders of land" (ibid., 22).
The O’Donovan letters certainly show that O’Donovan was well aware of his position as a Milesian working on an imperial project. However, he saw himself as in a position to clear history of obfuscations and fantasy: the scientific approach would reveal the truth behind the lines of fiction. O’Donovan put into print the landscapes of the ‘aboriginies’ as he ironically called them, documenting their oral traditions of place names, and histories of the land and its divisions. Nonetheless, it is of course not wise to see this valuable mapping as a vignette into the further, deep past, as it is inevitably a snapshot frozen in time, and one can be lulled into a false sense of security by the lines and boundaries, and sites and places recorded in the nineteenth century, and to consequently presume the antiquity of them.
Be that as it may, the work undertaken by the Ordnance Survey has certainly proved to be a wealth of information, and without it perceptions of the past would arguably be different. Furthermore, the survey critically highlights the complex nature of colonialism and nationalism; a simplistic reading of oppressor and oppressed is insufficient. While slightly overdrawn, Tierney (1962, 456) has suggested that “not only the scientific study of Irish history and antiquities but much of the political and social consciousness of modern Ireland may be traced back remotely to the survey and to the work of O’Donovan and O’Curry”.
While Tierney’s comment on their long standing influence may be true of certain sectors of Irish interest, in terms of archaeology in Ulster, Woodman (1978, 6) has commented that the impetus for research in the north came about mainly due to the visit of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1852. An exhibition of the antiquities and historical relics of Ulster was staged to coincide with this visit, and Woodman (ibid.) notes that the catalogue for the exhibition made no reference to the ‘Three Age system’. The British Association, satirised at the time by Dickens as “The Mudfog Association for the Advancement of Everything” (cited in Howarth 1931, 35), held its first annual meeting in 1831. It was modelled loosely on a similar German association, and was founded in order to bring together men of science and to exalt the virtues of science to both the government and the general public – and to release scientific enquiry from the shadow of the metropole, more specifically the Royal Society. Orange (1971, 318) notes “if there were varying views on the form which the new body was to take and the objectives it was to embrace, on one point at least its projectors were agreed. Like the German association, it was to be peripatetic”. The association was to be explicitly provincial, holding annual meetings in the major towns, but explicitly bypassing London on its itinerary (ibid., 315). Accordingly, it held its fifth annual meeting in Dublin in 1835: however, the association’s biographer, Howarth (1931, 32), noted that “the second Irish meeting at Cork in 1843, was far less successful than the first: the state of southern Ireland at the time so unsettled that … [it] was in serious doubt as to the safety of holding a meeting there”. Clearly, the setting of Belfast for their next Irish jaunt was a more salubrious choice.
In the editorial of the first issue of the Ulster Journal of Archaeology (UJA) (McAdam 1853, 1-2), it states that the British Association’s visit and consequent Ulster exhibition had given the impetus to start a journal, as well as the awareness of the need to match scholarly journals found in the other provinces, to study what is termed the pre-historic times. Moreover, the opening article clearly alluded to the political climate, and sectarian divisions in the country and is worthy of a lengthy quote:
"The early Irish form of society … still exists here… and itself waiting for the hour of dissolution. The traditionary feeling of clanship, the peculiar notions of land tenure, the antiquated customs, and the strange semi-oriental language and cast of thought, still linger among the inhabitants of our mountains and secluded glens. Here the lineal descendents of the former lords of the soil and their retainers vegetate, as it were, in ignorance of the wondrous changes going on in the world around them. Driven by circumstances into the most sterile parts of the country they have lacked the knowledge and industry necessary to elevate their position… In strong contrast to these, appear the streams of agricultural colonists, chiefly of Scotch and English descent…assisted by thrift and industry" (McAdam 1853, 2, emphasis added).
Here, we see clearly some dominant themes of the colonialist discourse that would dominate much archaeological work for generations to come, and indeed, would seem to figure in contemporary discussions on the transition from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic (Trigger 1989). It is interesting to note that the Transactions of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society (1850, 4) (later to become the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland (JRSAI)), which was dominated by protestant clergymen and which the UJA mentions as a catalyst for their founding of a journal, is more inclusive in their editorial, stating: “All ranks, classes, and creeds will there [in the society] be found united on common and neutral ground; harmony and good feeling have been the uniform characteristics of its meetings”. Having said this, it should be remembered that this espousal of the common interest of the classes should be seen in the light of the formation and writing of this editorial in 1849 at the height of the Great Famine in Ireland: some classes may have had more pressing concerns on their mind, such as feeding their families.
Returning to Ulster, the UJA was founded at a time when European archaeology was groping towards the realisation that humanity was of far greater antiquity then had hitherto been recognised: as of then, the idea of the Three Age system had not received general acceptance. The orthodoxy of scientific thought at the time maintained that the history of humanity could be dated by the facts presented in the bible. Humanity was thought to be about 6000 years old, and the earlier propositions from the Classical world of there having been an age of stone before those of metal did not matter so much, as the bible provided more concrete answers. In an article in the first edition of the UJA on the ‘Origin and characteristics of the population of Down and Antrim’, the Rev. Home (1853) talks of the pagan past, but does not mention the Stone Age. However, in the same volume Grattan (1853, 198), highlighting the measuring of crania as an avenue to the study of past races, comments on the “(so-called) Stone, Bronze, and Iron eras”.
In 1857, an article appeared in which the Rev. O’Laverty (1857, 122-7) comments on the Three Age theory espoused Wilson – which followed from Thomsen – arguing that while the theory may have been plausible, it was inconsistent with the account in Genesis, which states that metal was used from the beginning. O’Laverty argued that his research into the finds from the Bann suggested “no progressive development of the art in the arrow-heads found in the Bann” (ibid., italics in original). From this, he deduced that stone should be seen as a substitute for scarce metal, i.e. they were contemporaneous, and hence no evidence for a Stone Age in Ireland.Top of Page
In this section I will look at the ramifications of the aforementioned new ideas further, focusing on how the Christian ethics of the time dealt with these new concepts such as evolution, and the subsequent Social Darwinism, and how those realms of possibilities coloured the study of prehistory. Work by Wood-Martin on lake dwellings and stone monuments typifies such quandaries, as does the threading of research into megaliths and contemporary anthropology by Borlase. The work by Westropp, Coffey, and Macalister, while highlighting the adoption of the self-image of the archaeologist as a man of science, equally highlights the difficulty in which the Three Age system was applicable, and how before the era of absolute dating such matters were easily contentious and ultimately, the results a matter of personal choice.
Waddell (2000, 1-3) has commented that the apparent convenience of the Three Age system was eschewed by Irish scholars until quite late in the nineteenth century even though Worsaae (1845-7, 310-5; 327-44) had in the 1840’s made presentations of his work in Ireland, and at this time specifically placed the building of the megaliths in the Stone Age, which a hundred years later would be disregarded (they would be seen as of a metal using age: see below, p.27). In relation to the Mesolithic, Rowley-Conwy (1996, 940-4) has commented that in terms of a European chronology, for a while there was the possibility of there having been no Mesolithic at all, as the earlier theorising by H. M. Westropp was effectively overshadowed by the publication of Lubbock’s Prehistoric times where the evolutionary path of humanity was seen to go straight from the Palaeolithic to the Neolithic. The term the Mesolithic was a late starter, only gaining substantial recognition after a few decades into the 20th century, specifically due to Clark’s definition of the period as occurring “between the close of the Pleistocene and the arrival of the Neolithic arts of life” (cited in ibid., 940). Indeed, it is after the Harvard expedition in the thirties and Movius’ (1942) consequent publication of The Irish Stone Age – in which he cites Clark’s work as the inspiration for his monograph (ibid., xvii) – that the term comes into more common parlance in Irish archaeology (however, not without its dissenters, see below p.27).
In Wood-Martin’s (1886, 9) The lake dwellings of Ireland, he comments on the arrival of people to Ireland without alluding to the possible subdivisions of the Stone Age, stating that the first ‘colonists’ used rude stone tools and settled on the lake shores due to the “original paucity of open country, for on the arrival of the first colonists … the only plain not covered with forest was the level district stretching between Dublin and Howth”; adding that the “most probable cause of their erection [of the lake dwellings] was to serve as places of refuge… to provide safety and protection”. Again, as we saw in the articles from the UJA thirty years previous, the biblical accounts of history weigh heavy on the interpretation of the past: however, here Wood-Martin maintained that
“the words of Genesis are in no way antagonistic to the discoveries of modern geologists, nor even to the theory of evolution … In common parlance we speak of events that occurred ‘in days of old’ without intention to limit the idea to periods of 24 hours” (ibid., 1).
Furthermore, in concurrence with the evolutionists’ ideas of progression, and Social Darwinism, Wood-Martin, a military man, began his book with the statement:
In 1888 Wood-Martin (1888, vi) published The rude stone monuments of Ireland (Co. Sligo and the Island of Achill), which he erringly hoped would be the first in a series that would “ultimately embrace the entire ambit of the Kingdom”. Wood-Martin commented on the bipartite division of the Stone Age, and firmly placed the study of archaeology in the fold of science, stating that the discipline was “a connecting-link between geology and history” (ibid., 2), and proudly stated his meticulous approach to fieldwork, leaving no stone unturned as it were (ibid., 237). In terms of his interpretations of the lithics of prehistoric Ireland, he commented that the evidence coming from Australia, where the “commerce” in stone tools were observed as being “bartered” over a distance of a hundred miles, could be analogous with the finding of Antrim flint in Sligo; as for the function of the monuments, he argued against the idea of them as places of sacrifice or ceremony, but rather suggested them as places of sepulture (ibid., 115-9; 250).
As we saw earlier in relation to The Tour Of Connacht, it had been surmised that the megaliths may have been used in Druidic cults of some nature; Wood-Martin dismissed this, and T. J. Westropp (1906-7, 454) concurred: “only two or three [megaliths] have ever been called ‘Druids’ Altars’, probably derived from the pseudo-learning of the gentry or surveyors”. Westropp was active in the Clare area, and in similar fashion to Wood-Martin, he was proud of his methodical approach to his fieldwork, and placed the megaliths in the “Neolithic and Early Bronze Age, though probably surviving to unusually late times” (ibid., 457). Over the course of two decades, Westropp published in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy and the JRSAI a large volume of articles on various Clare monuments such as ‘prehistoric forts’, ‘ancient remains’, and dolmens, as well as on the Aran Islands and other areas, not to mention the folklore of the areas.
The first monograph dedicated to megaliths encompassing all of Ireland was Borlase’s (1897), The dolmens of Ireland. This work, unlike that of Wood-Martin and Westropp, did not involve the visitation of all sites, and indeed was reliant on the aforementioned two authors’ respective works for his synthesis. Significantly, the reach of the imperial age can readily be seen by the list of reputedly comparative dolmens in Africa, Middle East, India, as well as closer to home in England and mainland Europe, a list made possible by the Europeans’ machinations in these lands. Indeed, a major part of this book was what he called “the question of early racial movements from north-west to south-east and vice versa across the face of central Europe” (ibid., viii). Borlase opined that
“the chambers bear witness … to a barbaric attempt to copy in unhewn materials some elaborate models of hewn-stone domes and arched vaults which had become known to the builders through contact with the cultivation of the Mediterranean or the Black Sea coasts” (ibid., 425).
And in disagreement with Westropp and Wood-Martin, he argued that the
“monuments were no mere sepulchres of the dead, but places set apart for the sacrificia mortuorum, for pilgrimages, for the periodical assembling of the tribe or tribes for religious or social purpose, for the holding of fairs, for the contracting of marriages, and for unrestricted feasting and revel. At the root of all this lay the cultus of the dead and there is no need to shun the fact that in the British Isles … human sacrifices, almost certainly combined with cannibal practices, prevailed” (ibid., 476).
Borlase dedicated his book to Lubbock – the arch-imperialist – and the colonialist thesis is clearly visible throughout. Moreover, the chapter on the “anthropology and ethnology” is an exhaustive account of skull sizes, with comparisons of the Irish with Neanderthal and simian skulls; on the ethnology of Irish groups, he speaks of contamination between groups, and in the case of his self-proclaimed ‘investigations’ in Galway he uses the dominant social theory of the day in his descriptions of the ‘commoners’ he witnessed:
“the Cladagh men themselves are lounging and phlegmatic… they are highly suspicious… There are clearly two types … the one the dark and handsome type… the other remarkably plain and ill-looking… sullen and evil” (ibid., 1078).
Some fifteen years later, Coffey (1912) followed with a publication on New Grange and other incised tumuli of Ireland, and the subtitle of the book neatly sums up the agenda: “The influence of Crete and the Aegean in the extreme west of Europe in early times”. Here, Coffey maintained that motifs such as spiral patterns lozenges, concentric circles and so forth came from the Mediterranean via Scandinavia, not France as others had thought. This, of course, harkens back to the aforementioned debates of the eighteenth century in the days of the Hibernian Antiquarian Society.
Macalister (1928) sung Coffey’s book’s praises in his synthesis of Irish archaeology, and while Waddell (2000, 3) and Milner and Woodman (2005, 4) have pointed out that Macalister used the term Mesolithic in his 1921 Text-book of European Archaeology, in his 1928 The Archaeology of Ireland he simply states the bipartite division of the Stone Age, and comments
“between these two periods there was an era of transition, as yet imperfectly known. It appears to have been a time when new races, swarming, probably out of Asia, were entering Europe, each bringing its own contribution to the culture of the Continent” (Macalister 1928, 7).
Furthermore, he frets at the difficulties in analysing the Stone Age and the Bronze Age as separate entities, citing the melting pot character of the material culture from those times; while acknowledging the Stone Age date for the initiation of the construction of dolmens, he describes “the great chambered tumuli” as “the most conspicuous of the Irish Bronze-Age monuments” (ibid., 28; 118). While Macalister uses the term culture in the above quote, this is not in the context of Culture as would become influential, but rather his writing follows the pattern of ascribing affinities to races as had been the case of the nineteenth century work discussed above, and culture pertaining to the notion of affinity or civilisation.Top of Page
I will now move on to the formulation of the Irish Mesolithic as a distinct entity. Here, I will show how and why Ulster was considered the heartland of the Mesolithic, and the flint resources the raison d’être of the north-eastern distributional bias. The history of Ulster Mesolithic research has been comprehensively covered by Woodman (1978, 6-12) so in this section I will briefly outline some of his main points and cover some aspects he did not touch on. I will discuss the work of Whelan, and that of Movius and the Harvard mission, and how this project significantly altered the picture of the Mesolithic inhabitation in Ireland and enabled a framework to be set in place, but one that did not necessarily have to be adhered to as we will see by Mitchell’s reconsideration of the evidence. The lengthy quotes included in this section by Movius, Macalister, and Mitchell arguably show how, on the one hand new parameters of thought alter the theoretical landscape in which archaeology is practiced, however on the other hand how the residues of old concepts are hard to shake off.
Woodman’s chapter on the “history of the study of the Mesolithic period in Ireland” (1978, 6-11) underlines the domination of Ulster in Mesolithic research; this being due to the tradition of amateur collecting, as well as reasons such as the fact of accessible raised beaches and extensive diatomite cutting (of course, the diatomite cutting and raised beaches enabled the amateurs areas to collect artefacts). Critically, Woodman suggests that a pattern may be ascertained between findspots of material and the proximity of collectors’ homes. Commenting generally on the nineteenth century activities, he suggests that
“the era of the collectors could be described as the era of lost opportunities. Although the natural scientists had created the chronology they were incapable of using it. Knowles did roughly provenance his material but collections were built up in a fashion which had more in common with the 18th century gentleman’s collections of ancient curios” (ibid., 10).
Woodman further comments that by the 1920’s the focus had changed from being directed at the artefacts themselves, to what information could be gleaned from them. However, the emphasis on research at the time was placed on ascertaining the foreign contacts that produced the Mesolithic record, thus relegating the importance of developing “a proper definition of local implement types… Thus Whelan in particular was inclined to attempt to find implements in his Irish material which paralleled implements in other foreign industries” (ibid., 10). Woodman comments that while Whelan was in many ways blinded by the foreign influence idea, his chronological sequence for the Irish Mesolithic was confirmed by the work undertaken by the Harvard Archaeological Mission of 1934, which investigated sites in both the north and south of Ireland; here, it was established that the Mesolithic consisted of Early and Later periods:
“The result of the Harvard Missions work was to make available in a well documented context a large quantity of material which could be placed in a stratigraphic succession. This expedition’s work led to the establishment of a concept of the Mesolithic which has survived until almost today” (ibid., 11).
The 1930’s was certainly a tumultuous time to be involved in a project like the Harvard Mission that involved investigations in both Northern and Southern Ireland. The Janus-faced nationalism of Ulster Unionism was in full flight; the South, involved in its Economic War with Britain, was in the process of divorcing itself from the Empire and becoming a republic; and Britain’s relationship with Europe was again in question. Movius (1942) alluded bluntly to the political climate:
“the writer, trained as an archaeologist and approaching the problem from the purely objective viewpoint of an outsider, sees no valid reason for doubting as intimate relationship between Britain and Ireland on the one hand and Northern Europe on the other during Late-Glacial and Early Post-Glacial times” (ibid., xxi).
In terms of the theoretical aspects of Movius’ work, as mentioned previously, he cites Clark’s work as an inspiration. The following passage, with references to culture groups, diffusion, and environmental parameters, clearly underlines this:
“Furthermore, the well-established principles of diffusion are clearly substantiated by the distribution of Mesolithic settlements in England and Ireland. On the periphery influences arrived late, and, due to the proximity of the continent, South-Eastern England was farther advanced than Ireland and Scotland… Other factors, both climatological and geological, were operative, and, in so far as they affected either mode of life or facilities for movement, they must be considered by the archaeologist. These also were important in the diffusion of new ideas. Unless there was a definite need resulting from such a major cause as environmental conditions, traits would probably fail to diffuse… As far as Ireland is concerned the arrival of the Campignian seems to mark an invasion of new peoples… As in earlier times, the North Channel was the line of approach used by the newcomers, who, possessing superior equipment, forced the Larnian food collectors inland and to the infertile sand dune areas of the coast, and occupied the rich flint region of Counties Antrim and Down… In the sand-dune areas of the coasts of Northern and Western Ireland, the Larnian survivors clung on to a basically food-gathering economy until the Early Christian Period” (1942, 260-1; 256).
Interestingly, for a monograph on the Stone Age a peculiar omission was any substantial discussion of the phenomena of the megaliths which he justified so: “whereas some of the megaliths in Ireland are admittedly Neolithic, the practice of constructing these monuments reached its peak with the first appearance of metal and is outside the scope of this book” (ibid., 211). In relation to this, Macalister, in the second edition of his The Archaeology of Ireland footnotes an acknowledgement to the work of the Harvard Mission (1949, vii), and cites the work of Evans and Mahr as causing him to (happily) “discard the Danish scheme of Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages, with their subdivisions”, and in its place use a chronology based “upon types of megalithic monuments, the most important prehistoric remains in the country”. In so doing, he argued for:
Beachcombers corresponding generally to Mesolithic
Protomegalithic corresponding generally to Neolithic and Early Bronze Age
Deutromegalithic corresponding generally to Middle Bronze Age
Epimegalithic corresponding generally to Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age (ibid., viii-ix).
Clearly unimpressed with the sentimental nature of some archaeological and historical work in his land he sniffed at “the history of the egocentric outlook called ‘Nationality’” (ibid., ii), and declared
“the myth of Early Irish civilisation is rooted in ignorance of all that Science has to say regarding the origin and nature of civilisation itself. Civilisation was a very rare phenomenon in the Ancient World, and came into existence only in exceptional circumstances. No isolated community could ever develop it: on the contrary, if a community, which had acquired certain of the resources of civilisation, should happen to be isolated… it would sooner or later lose these acquisitions… Imperialism is essential for the planting and fostering of civilisation, for it brings many different peoples within its scope, and almost forces them into contact, so they can ‘pool’ whatever spiritual, intellectual, and material commodities they may individually possess; and supplies, for the developing community, a needful training, such as is supplied by parental and educational discipline for a developing child” (ibid., x).
This forceful paragraph was indeed a far cry from the nationalistic agenda being promulgated in Ireland and many corners of the globe at the time. The end of World War II saw Imperial Britain victorious yet crippled, and there is a clear yearning for the halcyon days of Macalister’s youth in his writing.
As mentioned in Woodman’s previous quote (p. 26), the Harvard expedition set the concept for the Mesolithic in Ireland which survived until well into the seventies. However, there was still room for manoeuvring – Woodman and Anderson (1990) have noted that what we now consider as Mesolithic-type artefacts were seen again as possibly being Neolithic in the 1960’s and 70’s. The main figure in Mesolithic research at this time was the geologist Mitchell, a polymath who excavated numerous Mesolithic sites. In 1971, he highlighted the debated entity, the Mesolithic, and suggested:
“At some time more than 7,700 radiocarbon years B.P. a small group of folk of Upper Palaeolithic ancestry must have reached Ireland… The continuing rise in sea level between Britain and Ireland then widened the gap into a stretch of water too hazardous to be crossed in the type of boat available to Mesolithic wanderers. We can perhaps picture very limited numbers of descendents of the original immigrants stagnating in cultural isolation until the first Neolithic farmers arrived about 5,500 radiocarbon years B.P…. In addition to providing cultural innovations, the Neolithic folk may have provided a market for the fish and other game trapped by the Larnian hunter-fishers [‘Neolithic’ polished stone axes a main trading item]. The latter seem to have undergone some sort of population explosion, and established themselves widely on sea and lake shores in the Northern half of Ireland. Here for a short time, before being absorbed into the Neolithic way of life, they flourished as specialised fishermen, catching and smoking fish in large quantities” (Mitchell 1971, 282-3).
Arguably, the interpretation here of cultural progress and societal change can be seen to be quite similar to that of the editorial in the first edition of the UJA cited previously (p. 19). There is also the sense that the Neolithic ‘folk’, the farmers, are our ancestors, with the Mesolithic having been a stage of progress inevitably surpassed. The Mesolithic fishers, once given the opportunity of commerce and enterprise, improved their lot, and inevitably became a new people: a Neolithic people.Top of Page
In this section I will move back chronologically, and turn my attention to the west of Ireland more specifically, to look at research into the Stone Age there. I will begin with the founding of the Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society at the turn of the twentieth century, and then look at Raferty’s mid-century article on the Stone Age in the west, and the debate on the ‘Riverford Culture’. Other aspects such as the ‘shore-dwellers’ will be discussed, as well as the initiation of the Megalithic survey by de Valera and Ó Nualláin, which began on the monuments of Clare. This survey, formulated in the concept of the culture history model, saw the monument types as indicators of culture groups, and attempted to ascertain how the diffusionary pattern of the spread of the megalithic phenomenon came about. I will then finish this section with a look at Herity’s model of the passage tomb builders’ arrival to Ireland, and how this related to the megalithic survey’s findings.
The turn of the twentieth century saw the foundation of the Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society, with the inaugural address explicating how archaeology was the “science of things that are old”, and how the scientific mind could understand the remnant monuments as revealing “the domestic, the social, the political, and the religious life of our own ancestors, in the far distant past”; the editorial called these monuments the “unwritten records of the past”, and related the “pre-historic times” to “the ages of stone, of bronze, and of iron” (Healy 1901, 3-5). However, the historical past dominated the articles in the journal for many years, with a focus on the manuscripts, castles, and ecclesiastical monuments, and charting the clans of the area. It was only the occasional paper that dealt with prehistoric matters.
In 1945 the journal published an article on the ‘Contributions to the study of western archaeology’ by Raftery (1945), in which he stated the then conventional dating of the Mesolithic to 6000-2500BC; in commenting that ‘no unequivocal relics of the Mesolithic Period have been identified’ in the west, he presumed, however, that they would have been there; in terms of the Neolithic ‘there is no reason to doubt that man had penetrated to and largely settled in Galway’, citing the polished stone axes as proof of this (ibid., 109). Commenting on Mahr’s theory of a ‘Riverford People’ (see below, p. 30), he was dismissive of the idea of the axes signifying a ‘people’, arguing that the relation between this type of axes and the Bann Flakes might represent instead
“an industrial aspect of a Neolithic culture rather than a distinctive culture per se. Several specimens of these slate axes have been reported from the Corrib … and a very large number has been found on Tawin Island and in the general Oranmore neighbourhood. Conservatism and poverty may, of course, here again have played a role and axes of this type may have been continued to be made for a long time after their first introduction” (ibid., 112).
Furthermore, he argued, in disagreement with Mahr, that the megaliths in the area were related to the arrival of metal using people from the Mediterranean.
Mahr’s presidential address to the Prehistoric Society outlined his theory on the ‘Riverford People’, and he propounded that this should be viewed as an Epi-Mesolithic culture, and further argued that there was the possibility of their being no real Neolithic in Ireland per se, but rather, a move into the Bronze Age, and the building of the Megaliths (1937, passim). Mahr acknowledged Evans’ research as a major contribution to his analysis of the megalith phenomena, arguing for an evolution from complex to simple form, and that the arrival of megaliths implied “something more than a purely cultural innovation, and that there was also immigration involved”: this diffusion was presumed as invasion and conquest, with the ‘horned cairns’ as exemplifying a move westwards across the island; he argued that the passage tombs began also to the same period of “megalithic colonisation and that they represent two distinct currents within one and the same movement” (ibid., 342, 345, 351).
To jump back slightly to the latter half of the end nineteenth century and the first couple of decades of the twentieth century, some of the dominant names who worked on matters prehistoric in the west of Ireland in this period include Armstrong, Bigger, (Mr. and Mrs.) Coffey, Costello, Kinahan, Knowles, Macalister, and Praeger (e.g. Costello 1905; Kinahan 1868-9; Kinahan 1870-1; Knowles 1896; Knowles, Paterson, Praeger and Bigger 1899; Macalister, Armstrong and Praeger 1911-2). As is obvious from the contributors to archaeological research mentioned so far, this was a male-dominated pursuit: one of the few exceptions to this at this time was Brunicardi (1914, 184-213), who published an article ‘The shore-dwellers of Ancient Ireland’; this was based on her MA thesis, and included a synthesis of fieldwork on middens done by Knowles and Praeger amongst others.
Here, Brunicardi’s map of ‘midden sites’ contains some fifty six shell middens, of which forty four were situated on the western seaboard, and twenty in the area covered by this present thesis. Interestingly, Brunicardi, in theorising on the ‘shore-dwellers’, comments that the middens were the only monument left by those people, implying no connection with the megaliths even though she describes a skeleton found as “a typical Neolithic man”, and she states that their dwellings were “either huts or caves” (1914, 184, 185). From the twenty sites in the west, numerous ‘hut sites’ were discovered, along with hearths. The lithics consisted of flint (in Sligo, Leitrim, and Clare), chert, quartz, quartzite, and other “metamorphic kinds”; these made up diagnostic tools such as arrowheads and scrapers, as well as axes, choppers, flakes, and hammerstones; she points out the modern use of stone tools on the Aran islands (ibid., 197-200). Pottery was not a frequent find, and in terms of the composition of shells, the case of the middens at Dog’s Bay showed signs of certain types of shell-fish being piled in different heaps; it was considered that the dog-whelk could have been collected for dyeing purposes, either the dyeing of cloth or human skin (ibid.).
Brunicardi relates the middens of Ireland to those from around the globe, and suggests that a peculiarity is the finding of heaps of shells of a single species rather than a mixed heap, and that the finds “point to a race of people in the same plane of civilisation as the Danish and Scotch kitchen-midden makers of prehistoric times, and the Fuegian and Australian of to-day”, and the lithics suggest a “low grade of civilisation” as flint was not exported around the country, but rather, local material was used (ibid., 206). Citing the work of Lubbock – who called the Fuegians “the most miserable specimens of the human race” – and other explorers, she maintains that peoples such as Australians and Pacific islanders were stuck in a stasis of non-development, and in line with this theoretical stance, argued that the Neolithic shore-dwellers in Ireland were a distinct degraded race from the megalithic builders inland (ibid., 207, 209).
Over a century after the initial Ordnance Survey set about recording monuments, the project was taken up again in 1949, this time naturally in the hands of the Republic’s Ordnance Survey section: clearly there were no ‘Protestant Conservatives’ to spoil the party this time around; however the ambitions were considerably more modest, focusing solely on a survey of megaliths. The main considerations of this survey were to record in a systematic fashion the megaliths in the countryside, with a focus on the distribution, locational siting, and morphological and orientational traits of the monuments. The initial county surveyed was Clare, which as we saw previously had been well covered by Westropp; indeed, the survey noted that of the 119 extant tombs listed in the volume, Westropp had mentioned all but 24 (de Valera and Ó Nualláin 1961, xv). Commenting on the classification of tomb types, the survey identified four main types, the Court Cairn, the Portal Dolmen, the Wedge-shaped Gallery Grave, and the Passage Grave, and suggested that this typology was vindicated by the respective finds of the types, suggesting that the tomb types were “indicators of cultural groups”; further they argued that no new type was bound to be discovered, and that the excavation of some 50 megaliths from 1930 had led to a greater understanding of the “architecture and furniture” of the tomb types (ibid., xi-xiv).
The construction of the megaliths apparently on the bedrock in the Burren suggested to the authors that the contemporary soil cover was similar in the “megalithic times”, with scattered tree cover, and the “craglands” used as winter grazing (ibid., 108), and in relation to the distribution of wedge tombs they argued that, unlike the location of passage tombs in Ireland, the wedge-tombs suggested a pattern of close proximity to habitation as opposed to specially selected burial grounds (ibid., 111). The vast majority of the tombs listed for Clare were wedge-tombs, and they dated them, on the grounds of inference from evidence elsewhere in Ireland, mostly to the Bronze Age, and suggested parallels with Brittany; the less well represented court tombs were suggested as being peripheral to the main Irish distribution and dated firmly to the Neolithic yet they suggested that the arrival of the court tomb type “need not, however, necessarily pre-date the arrival of the wedge-shaped tombs in the area”; the portal tomb was seen again as peripheral to the main Irish distribution, “typologically derivative of the court cairn”, and possibly contemporary with the wedge-tomb; the absence of passage tombs, while noting that some of the numerous hill-top cairns may hold this type, was suggested as a fact due to the lack of a cemetery arrangement of these cairns as well as the fact that the area fell outside the ambit of this type (ibid., 114-5).
The fieldwork carried out for this survey led de Valera (1960) to disagree with Evans and Mahr’s assessment of the court tomb phenomena, however he remained loyal to the entrenched diffusionary model. Here, he switched the direction of the movement to a west-east direction originating in the Sligo/Mayo region by possibly French colonists landing on the coast, and argued for a specifically Neolithic date; again, he disagreed with Mahr’s assessment of the passage tombs, arguing that they were later than the court tombs (ibid., 41, 52-8, 72). In this, Herity (1974, passim) agreed; he opined that the court tomb builders were a ‘peasant’ farming culture and the passage tomb builders were a more sophisticated, urbane culture, which set up on the east coast and diffused westwards, originating via Breton and Iberia.
Herity argued that the poverty of the material culture, and the distribution of court tombs evoked the model of a scattered peasant farming community, while the sophistication and agglomeration of passage tombs evoked a model of an urban minded class of entrepreneurs, who engaged in trade and industry and “everywhere they went, there are signs of brilliant administrative and professional minds adapting easily and confidently to the insular environment” (ibid., 27, 175). However, he sat on the fence in terms of a decision on whether or not the passage tomb phenomena represented a small scale movement or outright colonisation; and the seeming paucity of material culture, which in his view should have been greater, was reconciled in terms of degradation and stifling by less urbane folk:
“Conservatism is an ever-present threat to such a vibrant society, and the monotonous character of the ornaments and pottery vessels which we find in rather the same forms widely dispersed in space and time may imply a hardening of the society’s arteries and the onset of such conservatism. Intermarriage with the peasant indigenes could well have hastened this development” (ibid., 185).
Interestingly, he argued that the preponderance of seashells found at passage tombs in comparison to court tombs suggested an introduction of this pattern of seashore living by the passage tomb people, and argued that the ‘Larnian’ lithics found at Loughcrew tied this lithic type to them, and therefore that middens such as at Sutton and along the north (from Sligo) and north-east coast could be seen as related to the passage tomb builders (ibid., 172-4).Top of Page
This section highlights the predominant place that Woodman has had on the research of the Mesolithic in Ireland over the past few decades. His seminal monograph on the Irish Mesolithic, published in 1978, is still the only dedicated monograph to the Irish Mesolithic, to which he has added many more publications such as that of his excavations at Mt. Sandel, Bay Farm, and Ferriter’s Cove to name but a few. In this section I will limit my discussion to general aspects of these three sites, and will discuss in more detail other aspects of these sites as well as others in later chapters.
Woodman’s, The Mesolithic in Ireland (1978), publication was the first monograph dedicated to the Irish Mesolithic, and was mainly concerned with outlining and defining the chronology and typology of the material culture of the period, and indeed, in providing once and for all a definitive Mesolithic: as we have seen not everyone was convinced of this characterisation of the material. His gazetteer of all known sites to that date shows a significant northern bias to the material – about 150 sites are listed for the north against 40 for the rest of the island. However, he made clear that his analysis suggested that the earlier notion of the Mesolithic dependence on the exploitation of Antrim flint, and the notion of the initial colonisation occurring in the north-east were no longer tenable (ibid., 208). Broadly, Woodman’s analysis followed the culture-historical model, and he suggested that his deterministic environmental model was due to the evidence of the period; his use of the site catchment analysis, developed for a considerably different climate and environment was acknowledged by him as problematical (1978, 175).
As is clear, research in the Irish Mesolithic has been dominated by Woodman, and space will not allow even a brief jotting of his publications over the years, so it will suffice to simply comment on three publications which he headed. The site of Mt. Sandel, Co. Antrim projected the Irish Mesolithic onto the European map, and provided much of the evidence for the subsistence patterns discussed in the 1978 publication; however the full report was not completed, so the interpretations were tentative. In 1985 the excavations were published (Woodman 1985), and this site came to dominate discussion on the Mesolithic in Ireland: indeed the site became the site-type for the Irish Early Mesolithic. And understandably so; here there was extensive evidence of habitation, far more than had been thought probable when the work began ahead of the development (ibid., 4).
The interpretation of the site was that it signified a base camp, and possibly structures indicating more temporary occupancy as well, with outliers as satellite camps; the early dates obtained entailed that the chronology of the arrival of humans onto the island would have to be revised (ibid.). As mentioned Mt. Sandel inevitably became the site-type for the Early Mesolithic, and as such was at variance with the projected European model of a Mesolithic society becoming more complex over the millennia, with the hunter-gatherers settling down and using fixed base camps: Ireland had base camps early and fleeting occupation later. Moreover, as any standard first year essay or exam answer on the Early Mesolithic will say, the ‘other’ site, the temporary camp at Lough Boora, Co. Offaly provided the perfect cousin to the Mt. Sandel base camp. At Mt. Sandel they overwintered; at Lough Boora they stayed a while.
Accordingly, Mt. Sandel is a good example of the perilous nature of the archaeological endeavour: archaeology deals in fragmentations of fragments, and a shadow in the record remains a blind spot in the interpretation. If Mt. Sandel had remained unexcavated and was treated as another lithic scatter of fleeting occupation, the Early Mesolithic would have been consigned to the picture of roving hunter-gatherers. And of course the discovery of such a site can highlight and vanquish a blind spot, but this can easily become a blinkered view: as the known Early Mesolithic habitation was a base camp, it is expected that this model, placed on an isolated pedestal, is applicable throughout. Consequently, this individual site, which had its own history and trajectory, is laden with a value in terms of its broader picture for us as opposed to what it was, and whose it was, in its own time and place: indeed, these very points were raised by Woodman before the publication of the Mt. Sandel monograph (1983, 25). While it is easy to be critical of the idea of the ‘archaeology of wait-and-see’, it is difficult to extend beyond that boundary of possibilities.
Woodman and Johnson’s (1996) article on the Bay Farm 1, Co. Antrim excavation was a belated publication of an excavation by Woodman carried out shortly after that of Mt. Sandel. Here, Later Mesolithic artefacts were uncovered during drainage work in a field on the Antrim coast, and it was hoped that this would enable the examination of material in situ, as for the most part “the study of the Irish Mesolithic on the Antrim coast [had] been based on material found in geologically re-sorted contexts” (ibid., 138). Furthermore, this excavation was to form part of a wider regional study of the prehistoric “land use and settlement patterns” in Antrim; however, due to “financial limitations”, and Woodman’s move to Cork, the full project did not come to fruition (ibid.).
The Bay Farm excavations revealed what was argued as signatures of numerous phases of occupation. The excavation revealed stake-holes, and pits, some of the latter which were filled with flint and taken for caches of lithics but not as deliberate caching of only blades, as some of the same pits were found to contain cores: the end result was that these features were treated as “enigmatic”, and the last major feature, or non-feature, was a lack of substantial hearths (ibid., passim; for a discussion on Mesolithic caching see Finlay 2003B). The dominant aspect of the site was the lithic scatter, and the site has been interpreted as a specialised knapping site; over 1000 cores were uncovered as well as the primary debitage consisting of unused flakes. In terms of the regional picture, it was argued that there was the possibility of the Bay farm production site’s material being moved to the Bann Valley and Lough Neagh (Woodman and Johnson 1996, 228). A refitting and a use wear analysis programme were carried out on the lithics. However the use wear analysis was ultimately “not successful” (Anderson 1996, 234). The results of the refitting programme led the authors to suggest that
“the classic uniplane core is not so much an integral feature during the reduction of a core but rather a frequent by-product which is a limitation to the further effective utilisation of the core. It has also been shown that frequently very few useful flakes and blades are produced from each core, with the result that large quantities of by-products are left after the production of a relatively small number of usable flakes” (Woodman and Johnson 1996, 221).
Woodman’s move to Cork has highlighted once again how our prehistoric periods are determined by people looking for them. With his presence in the south of the country, the Mesolithic distribution map has changed significantly. Ferriter’s Cove also highlights how luck can play a part in the discovery of sites; here, a diagnostic Neolithic tool was noted there which ultimately led to the excavation of a Later Mesolithic coastal site. In 1983, excavations commenced at Ferriter’s Cove, which continued intermittently until 1995 (Woodman et al. 1999). This Later Mesolithic site effectively showed the distribution of the Mesolithic to involve the four corners of Ireland, and significantly, produced evidence of domesticates of an early date. Woodman comments in the preface to the monograph that, ironically, as this site was investigated to draw out the picture of the Neolithic in the region “the role and significance of the Neolithic component remains almost as unclear in 1999 as it did in 1983” (ibid., viii).
The site has been interpreted as following the model of ephemeral Later Mesolithic habitation, and the dating suggests that the site was used intermittently over a millennium, with more or less three phases (ibid., 154). The lithics at this site highlighted the variable types of stone utilised during the Mesolithic, firmly displacing the ideas of a flint-dominated/dependant Mesolithic. The site however, stands in isolation: as a temporary camp, almost nothing is known of its connecting places in the landscape, apart from Valencia Island which returned a Mesolithic radiocarbon date. Clearly these were not the only Mesolithic sites in Kerry, but the lack of extensive and intensive fieldwork in the region is highlighted.Top of Page
In this section I will focus on the research under taken on the Neolithic, especially the role of the monuments, and the ‘arrival’ of farmers. Burenhult’s Carrowmore project is the starting point, and I will discuss his work on the passage tomb builders and his thesis on the Mesolithic economic basis of the same. I will move on to the work of Caulfield in North Mayo, and discuss how he argued strongly against Burenhult’s theory. Moving back east, I will discuss Bergh’s thesis on the passage tombs of Cúil Irra, and finish with a discussion on the Bally Lough Project which looked at the transition to farming in the south-east, and at Kimball’s research on the Neolithic transition in Eastern Donegal.
In between Woodman’s excavations at Mt. Sandel and Ferriter’s Cove, Burenhult’s (1984) Swedish expedition began a large scale survey of the megalithic tradition in Carrowmore, Sligo. While earlier work in Ireland had viewed the megaliths as a result of invasions of missionary farmers (Daniel 1980), Burenhult’s intention was to ascertain the culture historical evolution of the indigenous inhabitants of the region in the context of the theory popularised in the seventies, that along the Atlantic fringe the Mesolithic population were responsible for the construction of the megaliths. He argued “it is obvious that a maritime adaption has played an important role in the subsistence systems of these megalithic building populations” (the ‘obviousness’ of this surmising is indeed interesting in the context of the previously mentioned omission of Brunicardi on the relation between the middens and the megaliths in her survey of the shore dwellers: see above, p.31). His stated three objectives for the project were to analyse the “culture history”, the “palaeoethnography”, and the “cultural ecology” (ibid., 20-21).
Burenhult maintained that the economy of the builders was in a “traditional sense ‘Mesolithic’”, but the Neolithic makes its presence felt due to the fact that:
1. “The landscape is affected by man”
2. “The erection of stone-built tombs”: this is related to population growth, “and a need for a more formalised social organisation and perhaps … for territorial markers” (ibid., 139).
These “Neolithic elements” take as given the notion of the Mesolithic population as an ecological entity in a ‘natural’, uncultured state, and suggest a Rubicon of population size and social evolution was crossed for the Mesolithic to become the Neolithic. Furthermore, it is clear that the discussion of both the Mesolithic and Neolithic times, and their peoples, is coined in strictly secular terms.
The survey and excavations were interpreted as providing evidence for a Mesolithic economy due to the presence of shells in the megalithic tombs, and the early dates suggested an indigenous development; the lack of substantial houses (beyond what were termed hut sites) was taken as evidence of a mobile societal structure, forgetting the dictum: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Ultimately, the lack of diagnostic Mesolithic lithics entailed that the building of these monuments could not be categorically linked to what would be considered a Mesolithic population.
Caulfield (1983) argued in the early eighties that his work on the Ceide fields militated against the picture painted by Burenhult on the chronology and economy of the megalithic builders in the Sligo area. The discovery of widespread field systems under the bog, with their related megalithic structures, was taken as evidence for the deliberate planning by a farming community, who deforested a large area in order to manage a pastoral system of cattle rearing. Caulfield argued that a similar situation was more likely for the inhabitants of Sligo, rather than Burenhult’s model (of course, Burenhult’s (1984, 144) riposte was that the tombs and area under his consideration were different from the court tombs and the related field systems in Mayo, so both interpretations were valid for their respective areas). Caulfield was dismissive of an indigenous input into the Neolithic, favouring the arrival of Neolithic farmers into the area, bringing with them a Neolithic package of economy and religion. His comments on the carrying capacity of the deforested fields in comparison to that of hunter-gatherers’ range, and the inevitability of farmers taking the opportunity of this apparently empty land is strongly reminiscent of Macalister’s 1949 elucidation on the
“food-gatherers [being] … inevitably squeezed out after the arts of food producing have by any means been established in the regions where they pass their unenterprising existence. Thereafter they cannot compete with their more progressive neighbours in the battle of life; sooner or later, they must either emigrate or perish” (Macalister 1949, 41).
Again, it is arguable that Caulfield’s and Macalister’s postulating on the landscape as uncultured, empty, and there for the taking by the enterprising farmer, and the inevitability of Progress, are the shibboleth of the colonialist discourse discussed previously.
Amongst the prehistoric field systems and megaliths on the north coast of Mayo, there have also been house structures revealed, both rectangular and circular (Grogan 1996; Cooney 2000); a stone’s throw away to the east at Ballyglass there is the interesting situation, matched in a number of cases elsewhere in Ireland, where the excavation of a tomb revealed a house structure underneath, as well as “smaller structures” under another tomb close by (Grogan 1996, 41-2). Furthermore, it is noted that both seemingly permanent and temporary houses are found in the same regional landscapes during the Neolithic, and Grogan’s list of 50 Neolithic houses has numerous new additions coming from rescue excavations around the country. Indeed, the Neolithic house has a long pedigree of research in Ireland, going back to the work at Lough Gur, where both round and rectangular houses, as well as enclosures were excavated.
Following work on the Carrowmore project, Bergh undertook a study of the passage tombs in the Cúil Irra region, towards his PhD. The resulting publication, Landscape of the monuments (1995), formulates the classification of the ‘passage tombs’ as a ‘tradition’, purposefully blurring the tight classificatory nature of the monument ‘type’ in order to stress the heterogeneity of the extant monuments he was studying. Moreover, the landscape approach to the research and understanding of these monuments is given centre place, and he sets out clearly various avenues by which the monuments can be theorised, such as astronomical alignments, visibility of and from the monuments, and how these related to power structures at the time, and critically, how these changed through time. He suggests that this was a development over time, and tips his hat to the theory of a progression from simple to complex structures over time (ibid., 109).
Consequently, he concludes that a significant aspect of this tradition of monument building was the controlling, and dominating, of the landscape by a social elite, to the exclusion of the wider population whose ancestors resided in the tombs (ibid., 162). Arguably, Bergh has implicitly relegated the ‘masses’ of the Neolithic society, those outside the know, the inner circle of the elite, as a disempowered group. However, this reading of power is questionable, as it is argued that power can not be understood as being projected from the top down, but rather, in Foucauldian terms, as “an understanding of power as a diffuse entity, present at all levels of society and inherent in all events and relationships” (Brück 1998, 32).
Bergh suggests that, contra Burenhult, a Mesolithic ‘hand’ was not at play in the construction of the monuments. Rather, he cites the impetus for the monuments as arriving from social and economic lines of communication from the continent, to, presumably, newly arrived farmers in the region. Bergh’s caveat on the influence of the continent maintains that “the absence of continental features represents rather an earlier phase when the long distance contacts were of a different character, and not of a kind explicitly expressed in the local ritual and its monuments” (ibid., 110). Bergh’s position in terms of the links with the continent and the negative evidence for the Mesolithic does, however, beg the question: does this imply a lack of a Mesolithic society in the region, a virgin territory, or a vanquishing of the former from the latter at some stage in prehistory? This is left unsaid, and Bergh notes that some fundamental issues about the lifestyles of the inhabitants remain unanswered such as the settlement and subsistence patterns.
One of the few portal tombs to be excavated in Ireland is the Poulnabrone portal tomb, Co. Clare. This excavation revealed a series of depositions of disarticulated human remains, along with animal bone, pottery, lithics, and bone artefacts (Waddell 2000, 90-1). At least twenty two individuals’ remains were identified, with these representing six children and sixteen adults (Cooney 2000, 96). The dates returned on the bone ranged from 4200 to 2900 BC, with Cooney commenting that this could represent an early date for the construction of the tomb, with later depositions of remains, or a Later Neolithic construction date, with the deposition of bones that had been stored elsewhere (ibid.). These wide ranging dates highlight the difficulty ascertaining the construction date of a tomb from the depositions found in them.
After discussions with Woodman in the early eighties, Zvelebil and colleagues initiated a long term project looking at the early prehistory in the south east of Ireland, focusing on one river system, with a special focus on the Mesolithic Neolithic transition. In the same vein as Burenhult’s project (see below), one of the aims was to understand how the transition to farming in Ireland involved an indigenous population. The project initially investigated the lower reaches of the River Barrow and the Barrow’s estuary at Waterford, and then further work continued upriver (Zvelebil et al. 1996). In an earlier article, Zvelebil et al. (1992, 202) outlined their processual landscape approach to their investigations, citing two aims: “first, to understand the processes that form and transform archaeological residues and the surrounding landscape, and the second, to interpret contemporaneous patterns of behaviour and the way they change in time”.
They argued that their findings concluded that a site-orientated approach to the record, whereby lithic scatters are used to determine where to dig to look for settlements, would be problematical, and that lithic scatters must be used in and of themselves to interpret the landscape utilisation of the inhabitants at the time under scrutiny (ibid., 223). Furthermore, the authors stressed the necessity of a multidisciplinary approach to this research, maintaining that
“it is futile to attempt behavioural interpretation without understanding the geomorphology and the formation of archaeological landscapes first. This requires often detailed testing of the landscape by geomorphologists, palynologists, and other specialists on which palaeoenvironmental reconstruction, both on local and regional scales can be based” (ibid., 214).
In summary, they posited that their findings suggested a pattern of continuity over the period of the transition to farming, with also an increase in the type of ecosystems utilised in the Neolithic.
On the other side of the country, Kimball (2000A) surveyed an area in the Lough Swilly, Co. Donegal region towards his PhD on the Neolithic transition in Ireland. Here, he and his team fieldwalked some 101 ploughed fields amounting to 4.3 km², resulting in some 757 stone artefacts, 21 of which were Mesolithic (ibid., 25). Unfortunately, while Kimball alludes to various artefacts found by amateur collectors in the area over the years, he does not elaborate on this aspect of the record, or indeed include even a cursory list of what had been found by them. He suggested that the findings of his survey were broadly similar to the Bally Lough project in terms of the landscape distribution of finds, i.e. the range of ecozones of the Mesolithic and Neolithic finds; however, he argued, contra the Bally Lough project, that this did not represent continuity from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic.
Kimball’s staunchly processual, neo-evolutionary, stance is revealed as he says: “due to the nature of the Later Mesolithic archaeological record, it is not possible to define the social dimension…of this society” arguing that instead the environmental context is all he is left with to work, and, luckily for him, he suggests “that environmental parameters formed the constraints within which the social dimension evolved” (ibid., 55). Therefore, he maintains that there is excellent evidence available to reconstruct the environmental parameters of the time, and hence to detail the economic resources available. However, he does not seem to acknowledge differing opinions of palaeoenvironmental reconstruction, for example the work by O’Connell and Molloy (2001) versus the work by Göransson (1984) (see below, pp.47-8).
Moreover, this explicit dichotomy of social practices and economy are founded on the Hawke’s ladder of inference principle. However, the ladder of inference principle is ultimately flawed and rather than a ladder leading to less obvious insights, the ladder is more Escher-like with steps leading up and down, a confused interplay of parts, as opposed to neat parts playing a role in a unified system: the economic base is intimately related to social practices. Finally, a perplexing void in his thesis is any discussion of the monumental aspects of the region; he does not include the megaliths in his analysis, beyond mentioning that they exist in Ireland in the Neolithic! Given the predominance of the megaliths in the debates on the Neolithic transition, it is unclear why he failed to deal with this issue. Did his adherence to Hawkes’ principle entail that he felt he could separate one part of the ‘system’, as if the ‘ritual’ space was divorced from the ‘subsistence’ patterns that he was surveying?Top of Page
I will now turn my attention to the early prehistory in the west. I will begin with a discussion of the only completed research programme on the Mesolithic, the M.A. thesis by Lynch, which focused on Mid-west Clare. The relevant early prehistoric work by O’Sullivan’s survey of the inter-tidal section of the Shannon will be discussed, as will the various papers by Gibbons ands Higgins on the Mesolithic they have published over the years. Warren’s excavations of a Mesolithic lithic scatter in North Mayo will be mentioned, concluding with a discussion on Fredengren’s work on the early prehistoric material from around Lough Gara.
The Mesolithic in the west has not received much research focus, with the only completed research programme on the Mesolithic itself in the west having been a one year Masters thesis by Lynch from UCC, which looked at the Mesolithic in Co. Clare. One of his stated objectives for the thesis was “to establish a probable rather than a possible Mesolithic” (Lynch 2002, 1); he focused his work on the mid-west of the county, and comments that the foot and mouth crisis limited the possible fieldwork he could undertake, and he was curtailed from fieldwalking in the more suitable season: the end results showed that “some of the lithics found in the area could belong to the Mesolithic period” (Lynch 2002, 67).
In terms of the artefacts in the collections, Lynch comments “none of the stray finds of flint or chert lithics examined in the collections in the museums could be described as diagnostic Mesolithic artefacts. Equally, none of these could be definitely assigned to the Neolithic…. In fact, without the evidence of the Neolithic monuments and their excavated artefacts, it would be difficult to identify the Neolithic in County Clare based on the stray flint or chert finds alone” (Lynch 2002, 64). Another of his stated objectives for his thesis was to enter into the debate on the chronology of polished stone axes. In terms of the axes from the area, he concludes by remarking that “whether these trends are enough to suggest that many… are Mesolithic is debatable, but they give a positive indication” (ibid.).
This thesis has seemingly eschewed an explicit theoretical stance, implicitly aligning itself in a culture history mode of ‘methodology’; Lynch presumes that the “dense forests” curtailed the helpless inhabitants of the area, until they were later succeeded by the new arrival of Neolithic farmers, who triumphantly carved their space into the landscape: the implication is a striking dichotomy between Mesolithic forager and Neolithic farmer. His aim of studying the period under the auspices of a “new perspective” (i.e. a landscape approach) would seem to have faltered from the outset as he failed to connect the landscape and environment as something lived in. Rather, he implied that the landscape was a background to activities, something to be passed through in their search for resources to be exploited.
South of Lynch’s study area, O’Sullivan’s (2001) work on the inter-tidal archaeology of the Shannon estuary covered both the prehistoric and historic periods. O’Sullivan’s work in the Shannon estuary has highlighted some possible signs of Mesolithic activity, and more definitive Neolithic activity (ibid., 72-3). Briefly, the earlier interpretation of a poplar plank, C14 dated to 4779-4551 cal.. BC, as remnants of a dug out canoe is now cautiously suggested as possibly natural, but human activity is not ruled out completely; the same goes for a possible brushwood feature, which the author suggests may date, due to its similar elevation to the poplar plank, to the Later Mesolithic (ibid.). A mid-fourth millennium date was returned on the human skull and clavicle which was found along with cattle bones, lithics, hazelnuts, worked and charred wood, and also a basket made of alder, with O’Sullivan commenting
“it is instructive to recall that in a dryland context (e.g. a ploughed field) only the stone axe and chert chips would have been recovered. Indeed, this also raises the point that even small scatters of lithics in ploughsoil have to be regarded as potentially significant indicators of human activity” (ibid., 84).
Clearly, the discovery of human remains in an otherwise ‘functional’ context of human food procurement/consumption/subsistence highlights the complexity of the archaeological record and the poverty of our notions of sacred and profane places and events. Moreover, O’Sullivan, in relation the early prehistoric submerged forests recorded, discusses the necessity of moving beyond the traditional approach of viewing the waxing and waning of forests as indicators of human population, and solely economic resources, and rather to think of them as “significant places” in prehistory instead (ibid., 64).
In terms of the transition to farming, O’Sullivan’s comments highlight the limitations of our language and the strength of the periodicity of archaeology – as soon as farming arrives the Mesolithic people are gone, as O’Sullivan states – after mentioning the early dates of domesticates in Ferriter’s Cove – “in the Late Mesolithic the Shannon estuary may already have been a focus for settlement… By the Early to Middle Neolithic local communities may have modified their settlement strategy and economy somewhat… Local Neolithic forager-farmers could have herded their cattle down…” (ibid., 90). Seemingly, one cannot call them ‘local Mesolithic forager-farmers’. But is this due to chronological implications or classificatory restrictions?
O’Sullivan has commented that the publication of the inter-tidal survey should be seen as a preliminary account of the archaeology in the area, and he highlights the need for more work to be done as the actual time spent in the field for the project was quite limited. As he commented, research in the inter-tidal ecosystems has been lacking in Ireland, and these areas are an important avenue for research; the case of the Neolithic log boat in Galway Bay also highlights this.
In terms of the Mesolithic, the picture north of Clare is certainly different, and Gibbons et al. (2005) have outlined various finds of Mesolithic date from western Connacht. For the most part, they suggest that the finds consist of “Bann flakes”, usually found as a single artefact, with twelve reputed findspots recorded by them; they mention in passing material from Tawin Island in Galway Bay, and mention a find from Omey Island, near Clifden of a pebble hammer mace head, and comment that this type of artefact has been found in Mesolithic contexts in Britain (Woodman (pers. comm.) is not convinced that this artefact is prehistoric). This article follows a number of articles that two of these authors have produced over the years on the topic of Mesolithic finds in Connacht (Higgins 1977-8; Higgins 1985-6; Higgins 1987; Higgins and Gibbons 1988). Similarly to Lynch’s thesis, the main thrust of the aforementioned articles is a picture of a hungry Mesolithic population, with all the sites noted as good places to forage. The thrall of the Mesolithic catch in the west would seem to have got the better of them and the quality and quantity of the reputed Mesolithic River Corrib finds has been overstated (see below, Section 188.8.131.52).
On the North coast of Mayo at Belderrig, near the Ceide fields, Warren (2004), UCD, began a project in 2004 on the Mesolithic finds that have been noted by Caulfield being eroded out of the cliff face. A preliminary excavation began in 2004, and this was continued in 2005 and 2006. Here, Later Mesolithic artefacts have been discovered, dominated by quartz, along with organic remains (Warren, pers. comm.). This excavation is the first Mesolithic site to be excavated in the area covered by this thesis, and it is hoped by Warren that this will enable a long term project of Mesolithic research in the area.
Fredengren’s (2002) work in the Lough Gara area studied the environs of the lake from a long term perspective, up to historic times. She has outlined Mesolithic and Neolithic activity, and has argued for a Mesolithic input into creation of the megalithic monuments there, arguing that the activities of the Mesolithic inhabitants in the area entailed that they were conducive to the notion of monuments and monumentality. Furthermore, she argues that what she regards as Mesolithic crannogs, and how they relate to the lake can be seen mirrored in a structural fashion in the building of monuments and hut sites in the uplands (ibid., 151-2). Fredengren has argued that the polished stone axe should be seen as a Neolithic type artefact, and suggests that the pattern of retrieval of this type of artefact again mirrors what she sees as a move away from the waters in the Neolithic period (ibid.).
However, her referencing of material, specifically those published by Woodman, relating to the information on polished stone axes would seem to be ultimately flawed, and based on an erroneous reading of Woodman’s work. Arguably, this highlights the fact that there would still seem to be problems and uncertainties when dealing with Mesolithic material culture. The ubiquitous polished stone axe was traditionally linked to the “New Stone Age” and the resulting Neolithic package, and more specifically to the tree felling activities of the Neolithic population. As the Mesolithic inhabitants did not clear away forests but were reduced to wandering the fringes of the dense forests, they must not have had the technology to clear forests. In a sense this becomes a circular argument; no felling of trees, no need for axes, no axes, no ability for felling of trees. However, for nearly 30 years the polished stone axe has been definitively linked to Mesolithic contexts in Ireland (Woodman et al. 1999, 77-80), but more often than not, researchers have failed to take this on board in their work, and are content to regard it as a signature of the Neolithic (e.g. Dowling 2001; Fredengren 2002; Henry 1989; Murtagh 1998).Top of Page
In this section I will outline briefly some of the palaeoenvironmental work that has been carried out over the years. Arguably, this type of evidence is integral to any consideration of a landscape study of prehistory. Much of the evidence comes from pollen analysis. Unfortunately work on sea level changes on the west coast has been lacking, with the current general models available being based on British models and data. The work done on the sea levels at Ferriter’s Cove will be described.
The work of the palynologists, O’Connell and Molloy amongst others, in the West is of considerable importance. O’Connell and Molloy’s (2001) article on farming and woodland dynamics in Ireland during the Neolithic, in their words, paid particular attention to mid-western Ireland; this was due to the quality of evidence available from this area. They have posited that the earlier Neolithic represents a period of widespread farming activity involving large-scale deforestation, and that the Later Neolithic is characterised by limited farming and woodland regeneration; they argue that the lengthy episodes of the cleared woodland suggests permanent habitation as opposed to a mobile structure of farming. In terms of the regeneration of woodland in the Later Neolithic, they suggest that this amounts to a population decrease rather than a movement of people out of an area. In relation to the early appearance of cereal type pollen, they suggest that for the most part this can be discounted as evidence for cereal cultivation.
Göransson (1984) developed an alternative reading of the pollen record, and began his chapter with quotes from two influential Danish palaeoecologists. These quotes outlined the thinking of their time as considering the primeval forests of the Atlantic climax as being inhospitable places for the Mesolithic as well as the Neolithic populations. However, he argued that contrary to these enduring images of the ecology of the time, people were involved in the forests, and used the forest as part of their farming strategy, and ultimately “it is assumed that Mesolithic and Early Neolithic man used the inherent power of the forest of broad-leaved trees to function both as ‘plough and manure-spreader”; this was done by coppicing the woodlands which would not show up as a dramatic drop in the pollen count, hence farming could have been initiated millennia before the elm decline, and signs of forest clearance (1984, 154-58). This reading of the pollen record however, would seem to be based on intuition rather than an analysis of the record per se. Indeed he states that this type of farming would not be clearly perceptible in the record.
A more recent project by Molloy and O’Connell (2004) investigated a pollen core from a small lake on Inis Oírr, one of the Aran Islands, Co. Galway. Here, they noted that a more open habitat than the closed woodland is suggested for the Mesolithic period than is apparent in other pollen cores; they comment that a similar pattern was noted from a core from Caherkine, Co. Clare, and they suggest that this may be due to little or no soil cover in these karstic environments (ibid., 45). Preece et al. (1986) investigated a deposit of calcareous tufa near Tallaght, Co. Dublin. From the mollusc data retrieved, they argued that there was evidence of woodland clearance in this area at c. 7600 BP; this clearance episode was suggested as possibly been created by Mesolithic communities as a flint flake was uncovered during this investigation. However, the authors comment “the causal link between anthropogenic disturbance and vegetational change is extremely hard to demonstrate and in most case totally untestable”. Moreover, as Rackham (1988, 13) has noted, the notion of a dense, closed woodland is ultimately misguided, as intermittent openings in a woodland are not an aberration, but a part of the natural lifecycle of a woodland. He notes that most of the trees in Britain and Ireland are shade intolerant, so would require openings for younger generations of trees to mature.
Mooney (1990) investigated the palaeoecology of the lower Lough Corrib basin, Co. Galway and his research showed that the lake levels of the Corrib were substantially higher in the Early Holocene, with them falling a few metres below today’s level at some stage later; at some stage prior to c. 6100 BP the levels rose once again. Another project is underway at the moment on the Lough Corrib catchment area, which is studying the environmental change in the area since the last glacial period (Bingham and Sexton 2004). This project will provide an analysis of the local and regional vegetation, and will hopefully be able to define the lake levels over prehistory more precisely than the previous study.
The understandings of the changing sea levels on the west coast during the Holocene are poorly understood. This is due to the fact that little fine-grained work has been carried out. The models that are available have previously been based on data from Britain, which was then extrapolated onto Ireland, and did not take into account the underlying topography (Brooks et al. 2006). Brooks et al. (ibid.) comment that in order to assess the palaeogeography of the coastline at a useful scale what is needed is “higher resolution geophysical surveys of nearshore bathymetry and sediment thickness… combined with refined models of relative sea-level, sediment movement and tidal change. These research aims form part of the long-term goals of the Submerged Landscapes Archaeological Network (SLAN)”. The excavations at Ferriter’s Cove included an investigation of the relative sea level and shoreline position at the time of occupation of the site (Delaney and Sinnott 1999). The results were inconclusive as it could not be determined whether a coastal barrier existed there at the time; indirect evidence led them to suggest that the sea level was c. 6m lower than at present (ibid., 167-9).
I have noted this practice recorded into the 20th century (MNI Files 1935:421 & 1943:190) - for more details see below, p. 216.[return].
The association held meetings in Dublin in 1835, 1857, 1878, and 1908, and in Belfast in 1852, 1874, and in 1902: they did not return again to Cork (Howarth 1931, 116-7).[return].
For a contentious historiography of the term prehistory, see: Chippindale (1988) and Clermont and Smith (1990).[return].
On the changing nature of the journal's logo, and political implications thereof, see Stout (1996, 117-18). For a discussion of the politics of nineteenth century Irish archaeology see McEwan (2003).[return].
de Valera and Ó Nualláin (1961, xv) note however, that Borlase did not include all of Westropp's noted megaliths in his synthesis.[return].
Three years later the survey of Mayo followed (de Valera and Ó Nualláin 1964), and eight years later volume III covering Galway, Roscommon, Leitrim, Longford, Westmeath, Laoighis, Offaly, Kildare, and Cavan was published with an altering of the terminology of the tombs to court-tombs, portal- tombs, wedge-tombs, and passage- tombs (de Valera and Ó Nualláin 1972); Sligo's survey was published some 15 years later (Ó Nualláin 1989). The passage tombs were not included in the aforementioned volumes as they were to have their own volume.[return].
Waddell's (2000, 407-08) bibliography references some twenty three of Woodman's publications; and this not including Woodman et al.'s (1999) monograph on the excavations at Ferriter's Cove, in which his bibliography (1999, 162) references thirty two of his own previous material.[return].
For an analysis of the dating of the monuments, and a critique on the project see Bergh (1995).[return].
O'Reilly (2003) has used this log boat as a platform to assess a local Neolithic landscape and to discuss inter-tidal archaeology. However, her thesis is beset with problems, such as her concepts of tool use and primitivism (ibid., 48).[return].