6 Mesolithic communities in the west

6.1 Introduction

[Please note that part of this chapter has been published in From Bann Flakes to Bushmills: Papers in honour of Professor Peter Woodman]

In chapter 5, the evidence from the museum research and fieldwalking was presented for each location individually. In this chapter I will gather together these findings and suggest how we can understand early prehistoric communities’ inhabitation in the west of Ireland. To begin, in section 6.2 I will discuss the general distribution of Mesolithic material in the west, looking at the find contexts of the material, and discuss the distribution of axes. In section 6.3 I will look at the evidence for the Early Mesolithic in the west, with a focus on Hermitage, as this site represents the clearest evidence to date for the earliest communities in the area. In section 6.4 I will then move onto the Later Mesolithic, and will discuss the taskcapes on the waters and in the woods, human-animal relations, and the related questions of regionality and mobility. In section 6.5 I will consider the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition in the west.

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6.2 Distribution in the landscape

In this section I will discuss the general distribution of the Mesolithic evidence in the west, discussing the find contexts of the material, and look at the distribution of the stone axes.

The distribution of the evidence for the Mesolithic communities in the west consists of a widely scattered series of findspots – often of a single find – with two extensive concentrations of lithics on the lakes of Allen and Gara, and a third, smaller concentration at Tully, Co. Leitrim on the River Shannon downstream from these two lakes. Considering the presumed importance of the coast as a resource during the Mesolithic, a striking aspect of the distribution map (Fig. 6-1) is that while there appears to be six coastal sites, there is in fact only four definite findspots for over 1000 km of coast: the other two sites of Burrishoole and Mallaranny, Co. Mayo, are, as mentioned, not definitively related to the coast, and may well be inland Mayo sites, if not from further away. Three of the four definite coastal sites’ finds are also possibly not from a directly coastal location in the Mesolithic; the find from Prospecthill, Co. Galway today lies about 700m from the coastline, but in the Mesolithic a lower relative sea-level of 3-6m would entail that the find was from 2-3 km from the coast – in other words from the interior of the woods. Similarly, the find from Townparks, Co. Galway could be considered to be an estuarine find, but with lower relative sea-levels this may have been from a riverine location, with the coast 2 km away. The findspot from Streamstown, Co. Galway, is today from beside a bay, but which may have been a freshwater lake in the Mesolithic, meaning that the find would be from about 7 km from the coast. Therefore, the only site in a direct coastal location is at Belderrig, Co. Mayo.

Figure 6-1 Distribution of Mesolithic evidence in the west of Ireland

The Belderrig site was first noted as lithics were being eroded out of a cliff face. Caulfield[1] happened to live nearby; therefore this eroding site was brought to the attention of the archaeological community. This site has been excavated over the past three years, and is the first Mesolithic site to be excavated in the west of Ireland, and so far has revealed an extensive lithic scatter – dominated by the use of quartz – along with organic evidence (Warren, pers. comm.). To an even greater degree than at Ferriter’s Cove, the Belderrig site stands in utter isolation in the known Mesolithic landscape (Fig. 6.1) – there are no other known Mesolithic sites for a long distance. If Caulfield had not spotted this material, the entire coastline of Mayo would be another blank spot on the distribution map.

What must be borne in mind when looking at the distribution map for coastal sites along the 1000 km stretch of coastline is, firstly, the lack of research in these areas, and secondly, the fact that the Mesolithic site at Ferriter’s Cove was initially noted by a find of a Neolithic artefact. Therefore, we must be wary of seeing these as blank areas in Mesolithic occupation of the landscape. What should be considered is that Mesolithic communities were all along the coast, but we are as of yet unable to identify this inhabitation of the coastline. What also has to be contended with is that the rise in relative sea-levels over the period of 4000 years will have buried many costal sites. But, as at Belderrig, those higher up on the shore can be identified with time and perseverance – and some luck.

Looking at the context of the finds from the west (Fig. 6-2), we can see that archaeological excavations have produced few finds: Hermitage, Co. Limerick, Leedaun, Co. Mayo, and outside of the portal tomb at Drumanone, Co. Roscommon: as mentioned, the lithic from the excavation at Oranmore, Co. Galway was misidentified as being Mesolithic. Fredengren’s (2002) excavations at Lough Gara have produced dates of Early and Later Mesolithic material (not included on the map). Looking at material that has come from surface finds, we have seen that the excavations at Belderrig were initiated as material was being eroded out of a cliff face (and have been marked as a surface find on map); we can see that a number of surface finds have been found along the Shannon River banks: at Annagh Lr. and Tully, Co. Leitrim and Lehinch, Co. Tipperary. The possible Mesolithic find from Turloughnaroyey, Co. Galway was a surface find, and the finds from River Island, Co. Galway and Inishmore, Co. Sligo were both surface finds on islands in lakes, while the finds from Clonnaragh, Co. Roscommon were either surface finds or possibly tillage finds (the owner of the adjoining fields I talked with never remembers the fields being ploughed). The other tillage finds are from Urlaur, Co. Mayo and Prospecthill. Finds collected while digging or during construction work came from Ballycurrin Demesne, Co. Mayo, Townparks, and Streamstown, with the one find from a bog coming from O’Briensbridge, Co. Clare. Dredging produced finds from Lough Allen and the River Corrib, while divers have collected material from this river as well. While there was one find from the lake bed at Lough Allen, the remaining finds, from Lough Gara and Lough Allen, were collected after the lowering of the water level on the lakes.

Figure 6-2 Find contexts of Mesolithic material

Therefore, we can see that tillage has played a minor role in uncovering evidence, that surface finds are thin on the ground, and the majority of evidence has been produced from the lowered lake levels exposing the shoreline of Lough Allen and Lough Gara. On these two lakes over two hundred separate lithic scatters have been identified. At Lough Allen, the previous recent literature had usually noted only two findspots coming from the lake (Fredengren 2002, 114; Gibbons et al. 2004, 5; O’Sullivan 1998, 55), with no fieldwalking having been carried undertaken in the area for decades. This thesis’ fieldwalking has shown the Mesolithic communities’ presence there to be far greater than previously acknowledged, with 97 findspots of either single finds or lithic scatters identified. What should be remembered is that only a small portion of the lakeshore was fieldwalked, therefore the remaining shoreline and hinterland of the lake remains to be investigated.

As at Lough Gara, when the lake levels were lowered on Lough Allen, numerous crannogs or platforms were noted by Raftery during a rapid survey of Lough Allen which he described as metalling sites. However, for the twenty such sites on Lough Allen, Raftery did not mention any lithics being recovered from them, and during this fieldwalking a few of these platforms did not appear to contain any lithics. At Lough Gara, which saw a much greater intensity of fieldwork in the 1950’s, numerous platforms were identified as containing lithics. A number of lithics were provenanced to groups of crannogs, while 58 individual crannogs are cited as containing lithics. Of these 58, 22 had a single find of a lithic, whereas one crannog had over 500 lithics; most of these crannogs are not on Lough Gara itself, but along the Boyle River, as it exits Lough Gara. Here, a number of the crannogs are located where the river widens to form another small lake at Coolnagranshy. Over half of the lithics from Lough Gara come from this 4 km stretch of river, with most of them from the shores of the small lake. As was shown in Fig. 5-39, the distribution of lithics on Lough Gara itself shows a concentration around Inch Island and on the south shore at Tawnymucklagh and Lomcloon. What is unclear is to what extent and degree the entire shore of the lake was examined for material. Therefore, it is uncertain if the intensity of finds from the River Boyle represents the collecting strategies in the twentieth century as opposed to the taskscapes in prehistory. However, a pattern does emerge of finds being more abundant from the shores of the river and lake that face northwards when looking at the water.

While Gibbons et al. (2005) have suggested that the River Corrib finds are from a similar location to that of Coolnagranshy, this notion would seem difficult to sustain. Both before and after the drainage works on Lough Gara, the River Boyle becomes a lake at Coolnagranshy (Fig. 5-42), and this would appear to be distinctly different to the character of the River Corrib at the point where the Mesolithic lithics have been found. A more appropriate comparison with the River Corrib finds would probably be upstream on the River Boyle at Derrymaquirk, which is closer to the outlet of the lake, where the river is narrower. The lithics collected by the divers from the river bed of the Corrib came from a two km stretch of the river, from the fording point at Menlough, down to close to Jordan’s Island. Further Mesolithic material has been collected from close to the sea, on what would have been an island in the River Corrib. Up on Lough Corrib itself, two findspots have been located, one on the western shore at River Island, and one directly across on the eastern shore at Ballycurrin Demesne.


Lough Gara and the River Corrib hold the biggest concentrations of axes in the six counties after Killaloe, Co. Clare, the Tawin/Maree area, Co. Galway, and Lough Inchquin, Co. Galway. In all these areas, shale and mudstone are the predominant raw materials used. For the latter three areas, almost all of the recorded finds from them have been axes, and in the case of the Tawin/Maree area, axes were the only finds recorded. However, as this survey’s fieldwalking of ploughed fields in the Tawin/Maree area has shown, where previously only axes had been found, this survey was able to collect 800 lithics. This suggests that when looking at a distribution map of the finds of axes (Fig. 6-3), what we are looking at is the collection of an obvious stone tool, and that the lack of other finds from the area does not imply that only axes are to be found there. The other main point about looking at the map of the distribution of axes is that amongst these finds are Mesolithic axes, which have invariably been attributed to the Neolithic. As mentioned earlier, this attributing of polished axes to the Neolithic stems from the entrenched tradition that the Neolithic heralded a new era of technological and ritual advances, including the polishing of axes to clear forests, and performing ritual acts. This is highlighted by the comments of the excavators of the site at Hermitage, before the Early Mesolithic radiocarbon dates were returned:
"Although in use since the Mesolithic, the stone axe is a diagnostic tool of the Neolithic, essential to large-scale forest clearance…The polishing of stone axes is a time consuming business. It takes a long time to polish the entire surface of an axe. It may be no accident that the adoption of the polished axe happens alongside decorated pottery and the building of complex monuments. They are not simply work tools” (Collins and Hayes 2001, 88-9, emphasis added).

These comments are mirrored by a report on an axe find from the River Corrib:
"Polished stone axes are considered to be characteristic of the early farmers of the Neolithic…but many ground…axeheads were being manufactured from as early as the late Mesolithic…There appears to be no purpose to the polishing of the surface other than aesthetic and this may indicate the increase in emphasis on the decoration of implements and a shift towards the use of tools in a ritual context” (Kelly 2006, 35, emphasis added).
These two quotations highlight the erroneous view of Mesolithic communities as being essentially less cultured people – indeed uncultured people – than the supposedly more sophisticated Neolithic farmers. They were so busy scrounging for food, they had no time to concern themselves with anything else, especially not non-pragmatic, ritual acts, or aesthetics. While researchers investigating the Neolithic acknowledge the symbolic and aesthetic value embedded in an axe and looked at the ritual aspects of their deposition, for the Mesolithic it is presumed to have been strictly a work tool, devoid of meaning and value beyond its purpose of woodworking. This engrained view of the Mesolithic stems from an evolutionary perspective which relegated hunter-gatherers – past and present – to a lower rung on the evolutionary ladder. The ubiquity of ground and polished axes on Mesolithic sites suggests that this artefact must be considered as integral part of the material culture for the period. By omitting the polished axes from discussions on the taskscapes of the Mesolithic communities – and by omitting the social aspects of the creation, distribution, use, and deposition of ground and polished axes – we are immediately missing a vital piece of the story of the communities that inhabited Ireland for four millennia.

Figure 6-3 Distribution of axes in the west

There are almost 1800 axes provenanced to the six counties, with over 700 of these coming from Killaloe alone. Woodman et al. (1999, 78) have commented that in the Mesolithic the axes tend to be formed from pebbles which required minimal shaping to create an axe. What the deposition of a finely crafted polished mudstone axe from the cremation pit A at Hermitage tells us is that we can consider well crafted axes as being from the Mesolithic as well as the more natural, fortuitously shaped axes. Woodman et al. (1999, 80) have also suggested that axes found in riverine and lacustrine contexts should not be assumed to be Neolithic instead of Mesolithic. While in agreement with this, I suggest that we should bring it even further and argue that even away from these areas, it should also not be assumed that they are Neolithic. As this survey’s fieldwalking in Prospecthill has shown, a Mesolithic retouched point was found in a field with two other axes at least 2 km away from a riverine context, in an area which produced dozens of axes in the 1930’s. Of course, it would seem doubtful that all these axes are Mesolithic, considering that 800 post-Mesolithic artefacts were also found during this survey (including a few more axes). But it does suggest that a number of them may be Mesolithic, and that further Mesolithic lithics are to be found in the area, if enough time is devoted to investigating the area.

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6.3 Taskscapes in the Early Mesolithic

In this section I will discuss the evidence we have for the Early Mesolithic in the west. Lough Allen and Lough Gara have possible evidence for Early Mesolithic activity, but these areas need further work to define more clearly the Early Mesolithic presence: the remaining part of the west away from the Shannon has yet to turn up evidence for early occupation. I will then discuss the site at Hermitage. I will also discuss Lough Boora, which is on an eastward tributary of the River Shannon, and how this relates to Hermitage.

The first line of possible evidence for the Early Mesolithic comes from Lough Gara, where some possible early-type cores have been identified by Finlay (pers. comm.): however, as noted, Sternke (pers. comm.) did not find any of these during her review of some of the lithics. This thesis’ review of the Lough Gara material noted two possible early-type cores; one from Tawnymucklagh (E115:1-42 [T33/55]), and one from Inch Island (E119:36) – a piece of brushwood from Inch Island was dated to 7330-7050 BC (Fredengren 2002, 120), but it is unclear if this is a date of humanly modified, or naturally occurring, material. Further up the Shannon, on Lough Allen, this thesis’ fieldwalking found possible evidence for Early Mesolithic activity – three cores and a core axe at Cormongan on the east shore of the lake, a core from the north shore of the lake at Derrinvorey Lower. However, further work is needed to assess this possible Early Mesolithic presence. Therefore, we can see that the definitive and possible Early Mesolithic material found so far has been found along the Shannon and its tributaries, with a blank spot of some 20,000 km² for the rest of the region.

Ironically, considering the dearth of evidence in the west, the clearest signs we have for the Early Mesolithic in the west is not the usual ephemeral lithic scatter that signifies a prehistoric inhabitation of an area, but the series of cremations at Hermitage on the banks of the Shannon. The three cremations here dated from the mid-eighth millennium to the mid-seventh millennium: the latest date may represent a Later Mesolithic cremation, depending on how one dates the beginning of the Later Mesolithic.

Plate 6-1 River Shannon, looking east towards Hermitage

The oldest cremation (7530-7320 cal. BC) excavated contained an above average weight of bone than is usually found in excavated cremations, suggesting that the bones were carefully collected from the funeral pyre and deposited in the pit. The cremated remains were placed around a post that has been interpreted as a grave marker, and placed against this post was a polished shale axe; eight chert (two of which be natural chert or limestone pieces) and nine flint lithics were also in the pit (Collins and Hayes 2001; Lynch 2001; Woodman 2001). It is more than likely that not every person who died was treated in this manner. While this could suggest that this was the funeral of a man or woman who was considered of significance to the community for what ever reasons, it could also be indicative of a significant event in which the cremation of this person was deemed to be appropriate or necessary. Indeed, while the cremated remains in this pit were taken to represent a single individual, and hence could be seen – and in a later prehistoric context probably would be seen – in the context of the rise of the importance of the individual in society, the understanding of different concepts of personhood discussed earlier in chapter 4 suggest that what we see as an individual would have been perceived differently in the past.

The funeral rites of this cremation were performed by mindful communities of practice (sensu Dobres 2000), and members of the community would have had their own roles to play in these rites, whether actively or passively, as participants or spectators. Funeral rites are considered key arenas in which the social values of a community are not only reflected but are also arenas instrumental in the social reproduction of the communities (Thomas 1991, 129). However, while doing this, the rituals can be open to ambiguity, subversion, and contestation (Cooney 2000, 89). Furthermore, Howe (2000, 63) has noted that an element of ritual that is often overlooked is that of risk: the risk of the incorrect performance of the ritual, or the inability to control the (supernatural) forces being contended with.

The process of cremation is not a particularly practical method of the disposal of the dead and was ultimately tied up in the cosmology and world view of the community involved. In cremation, the transformative power of fire is given a central place in metamorphosing the body, and a large fire is a highly visual way of disposing with a body, seen from close by and also from afar from the rising smoke. Ingold (1986, 246) and Zvelebil (1997, 37) have noted that the world view of hunter-gatherers is often typified by a tripartite division of layers: sky, earth, and water, which are “linked by a ‘cosmic pillar’, or ‘cosmic river’, symbolised in the shaman’s turu, or a tree often placed in the centre of the shaman’s tent”. At this cremation we see these three layers converging: the body ascending into the sky through the flames and smoke; the remains being deposited in the earth (with bone embedded in burnt clay), and these actions being carried out beside the river.

The commitment to cremate the body of this person necessitated a considerable undertaking in time and effort for a community. The process of this burial rite may have been carried out over days, weeks, or even longer. This would have involved at least the following steps, not necessarily all in this order:
a) the preparing of the body for cremation;
b) the gathering of the various materials for the pyre;
c) the lighting of the pyre;
d) the maintenance of the pyre to thoroughly burn the bones;
e) the cooling of the fire;
f) the inspection of the pyre’s remains for bones (and other material added?);
g) the collection of the bones and other material into containers;
h) the post-cremation alteration/preparation of the bones (pounding/ grinding);
i) the digging of the pit;
j) the forming of the grave marker (this may have been a feature already there);
k) the deposition of the bones and lithics, and possibly other organic material
– all the while as people, mourned, ate, slept, talked, played, took care of infants. All these processes involved differing communities of practice, and necessitated the negotiating and asserting of the power relations involved in the community: whose place was it to do step a), or who was excluded from doing step i). These communities of practice would have involved the socialisation of children into the processes, from observing the activities and the older peoples’ interactions, to active exclusion or initiation in the processes involved. A key consideration of this cremation concerns the relations that the community involved had with the landscape – the gathering of wood for the fire was not a matter of resource exploitation, but would have been tied up in their understandings of the animacy of the woodland (Ingold 2000, 144); the gathering of the mudstone, chert, and flint lithics again brought different parts of the animate landscape together with the wood and the person.

The next evidence for burial at this site came between fifteen to twenty five generations later (7090-7030 cal BC). Here, the circumstances were different in that it is suggested that there is the possibility that only selected parts of the body were cremated, or only a partial amount of the cremated remains were deposited in this pit. The deposition of lithics in this pit was different from the first in that they were almost exclusively chert, and nearly half were taken to be naturally fractured pieces as opposed to flakes or blades; there was also cremated fish bone present in the pit. The next evidence for cremation dates to about twenty to thirty generations after the second (6610-6370 cal BC): this consisted of a minute amount of bone – not identified as human – which was deposited with six flakes and blades (one flint, two chert or limestone, and the rest chert), and three small stones.

For the second pit at Hermitage, it is suggested that disarticulation of the body took place, with only some of the remains cremated, or deposited in the pit. Evidence for disarticulation may also be found in regards to the Early and Later Mesolithic humans remains from the rest of Ireland, as shown in Chapter 3. The disarticulation and movement of body parts around the landscape would seem to be a recurring theme in the European Mesolithic in general (Conneller 2006, 159).

The burials at Hermitage represent evidence for burial beside the river intermittently over a period of between thirty five to fifty five generations. This represents a persistent place in the landscape, a bend of the River Shannon where communities returned to over the generations. It has been suggested that this was a fording point on the river, suggesting that there were two axes of movement here – the crossing point of the river between east and west, and the movement up and down on the river, from the sea into the interior of the island. While we have here a persistent place in the landscape, we must be cognisant of both the continuity and change in the communities over this period. Indeed, depending on how one views the transition to the Later Mesolithic, this time frame could represent both Early and Later Mesolithic cremations. Moreover, the landscape would have undergone considerable changes over this length of time, in terms of the changing water levels, and with the development and alteration of the composition of the woodlands.

With only a small strip of the river bank excavated, it is unclear what further evidence there is for the Early Mesolithic in the area. The closest other material is, as mentioned in chapter 3, the Early Mesolithic human remains from Killuragh Cave, Co. Limerick by an eastern tributary of the Shannon, which were found with a range of lithics (Woodman and O'Shaughnessey 2003). Following the Shannon north, the next evidence for the Early Mesolithic is at Lough Boora, Co. Offaly about 100km from Hermitage, connected to the Shannon via the River Brosna. While at Hermitage we have explicit ritual behaviour in the form of burials and artefact deposition, at Lough Boora the site is traditionally viewed in economic terms as a temporary hunting/fishing site. However, as discussed in chapter 3, Finlay’s (2003A) reading of the site suggests that the burnt lithics found there represent more than simple discard – she has suggested that the high level of burning of the lithics, which altered their appearance similarly to bone, represents purposeful acts; she suggests that the lithics were being metamorphosed. Therefore, what this highlights is that we are not dealing with two ‘type-sites’: a ritual and a profane. Lough Boora is not simply an economic campsite, a convenient stopping place in a seasonal round. Rather, the tasks at Lough Boora were carried out in landscape infused with ritual: the taskscape is a ritual taskscape. This is not to suggest that the landscape was simply a homogenous spread of ritual locations, without special places acknowledged and demarcated. But rather, that the tasks carried out at, and the perception of, ‘mundane’ sites such as Boora were enmeshed in the world view of the communities who visited and stayed at them. Indeed, the use of the term “ritual” is problematical in that it creates a binary division between the ritual world of religious or spiritual actions and the mundane world of setting up camp, hunting, gathering, lighting a fire, disposing of “waste”, where these are inextricable fractions of life. In terms of the revisiting and reuse of locales, such as witnessed at Hermitage, what is interesting is that while the bog encroached the site at Lough Boora and altered its topography and ecology, Later Mesolithic material was found in the peat during excavations, suggesting a reoccurrence of activity here at a much later stage when the place have physically changed. Is this a fortuitous find, simply because this area happened to be excavated, or does it signify something more about the re-visitation of this locale?

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6.4 Taskscapes in the Later Mesolithic

In this section I will discuss Mesolithic taskscapes by the waters, primarily using the evidence from Lough Allen as an example. I will then look away from the waters, to discuss the taskscapes in the woods, and then follow with a discussion on human-animal relations. I will conclude with a discussion on the question of regionality and mobility.

Taskscapes by the waters

Lough Allen has produced the second largest assemblage of Mesolithic material in the west. Here, as at Lough Gara, the drainage schemes have lowered the water levels, enabling submerged shorelines to expose material. In all 98 scatters were found during this thesis’ fieldwalking survey around the lake, with the largest scatter – and the largest concentration of scatters – from the southwest of the lake at the outlet of the Shannon River at Mahanagh. Here, a low knoll forms a peninsula with the river along the north side, and the lower part of Lough Allen along the other. The majority of the lithics were found along the strip of shore where the Shannon exits. Here, hundreds of lithics are apparent along the shore, and visibly eroding out of the bank.

Figure 6-4 Lough Allen lithic scatters

Plate 6-2 Mahanagh, Lough Allen, at low summer levels, with the River Shannon exiting on left

On the opposite side of the river bank, there is a lack of lithic scatters, with these only starting once you leave the river behind and approach the next peninsula to the north. Similarly, on the north shore of the lake, where the Shannon enters, there are lithic scatters apparent on the east shore (Kilgarriff and Annagh Lr.), where the river runs to the left, but on the opposite side (Ross Beg Glebe) there is a distinct lack of lithic scatters. So, for both of these areas, the lithics are concentrated where the river is running from right to left as you face it from the shore. However, at the outlet of the smaller river at Drummans Lr. and Derrinvorey, a different pattern is apparent, with finds from both sides of the river, but from further away from the outlet, along the lake shore itself.

Previously (p. 109), I suggested that Gibbons et al.’s comparison of the River Island findspot to that of Cormongan did not make as much sense as a comparison with the Drumman’s Lr. or Annagh Lr. findspots. I suggested that these areas – of findspots at the mouths of rivers – can be seen in terms of communities’ movement in the landscape, with the river mouths as focal points of arrival and departure: as socially construed nodes in the landscape. What is interesting about the Cormongan and Cornashamsoge survey is that the two areas within these townlands’ stretches with the densest concentration of finds are by two very small streams that run down a short stretch the adjacent mountain. How does this relate to my suggestion of social nodes in the landscape? While clearly not access points for movement away from the lake as in the case of the previous two, they could nonetheless be considered as landmarks on the lake itself.

While there would seem to be an emphasis on the mouths of watercourses, it is clear that a lot of the material does not come from these locales, but rather from the shoreline in general. These range from single finds to discreet scatters of lithics. The conventional reading of these finds would be that they represent either a) the casual discard of tools, b) the remnants of knapping episodes on the shore, or c) the erosion of caches of material. However, these pragmatic, naturalistic explanations may not be considering the complexity of the deposition of material – a complexity not fully understood but usually glossed in terms of subsistence activities. This complexity of lithic deposition was undoubtedly tied in to the world view, and ritual practices, of the communities involved. For a long time archaeologists dismissed this aspect of lithics:
“To make a D scraper, collect a flint nodule (1) at full moon, (2) after fasting all day, (3) address him politely with “words of power”, (4)… strike him thus with a hammerstone, (5) smeared with the blood of a sacrificed mouse …Technical and scientific progress has of course just been discovering that (1), (2), (3), and (5) are quite irrelevant to the success of the operation prescribed in (4). These acts were futile accessories, expressive of ideological delusions. It is just these errors that have been erased from the archaeological record” (Childe, cited in Lucas 2001, 93).

While the asperity of Childe’s remark probably stems somewhat from his general iconoclasm, it mainly follows from the dominant modern belief that the making and use of things can be stripped of their social context: that technology can be analysed in terms of its use in subsistence and the economy with the social side of life analysed separately. In the same vein, Hawke’s ladder of inference maintained that technology is on a low rung of the ladder and hence a straight forward topic to analyse and describe. Childe’s comments suggest that the “futile accessories” – or what he would regard as the epiphenomenal aspects of technology – have been erased from the record. However, it can be argued that they have actively shaped the patterning of the archaeological record: for example, in the caching of lithics in Mesolithic Ireland (Finlay 2003B; Warren 2006). The interpretation of this caching of material highlights the opposing views on technology: whereas Woodman et al. (1999, 79) have suggested that the cache of axes found at Ferriter’s Cove represents the economic, embedded procurement strategies of the community, Warren (2006, 27) has suggested that this, and other, caches represents the community’s relationship with the stone working material, their relationship with the landscape, and their relationships with one another. In a Neolithic context, O’Sullivan’s discovery of a lithic scatter along with human remains, floral and faunal remains, as well as a basket highlights that these ephemeral lithic scatters must be considered in a more holistic sense than in pure subsistence terms. The sense of a ritualistic taskscape, being played out in a ritual landscape, should be considered on equal terms to the economy to which it is intimately fused. Therefore, these scatters that we find on Lough Allen and elsewhere may have a more complex history of deposition rather than casual discard, or economically motivated caching. Indeed, the difficulty with using a term like casual discard is highlighted in the instances outlined in Chapter 3, where we have evidence for Mesolithic activity, but no lithics.

"The sorts of knowledge, understandings, and awareness that derive from one’s encounters with their material world are neither neutral nor “merely” practical; they also reconfirm one’s understanding of the world and how it should be worked. Technological knowledge, then, has both a transformative and political potential. Technology always has the possibility of being about relations of power…Technological practice…is not simply the activities and physical actions of artifact [sic] production and use, but the unfolding of sensuous, engaged, mediated, meaningful, and materially grounded experience that makes individuals and collectives comprehend and act in the world as they do” (Dobres 2000, 5).
In contradistinction to the views of a disembodied technology, this quote from Dobres highlights the grounding of technology in the social arena – whereas Hawke’s ladder analogy separates social relations and technology, and Childe divorces production from its social context, it can be countered that these are in fact ineluctably fused. Indeed, Ingold (2000, 314) has stated polemically that “there is no such thing as technology in pre-modern societies”. By this he refers to the fact that, as the modern concept of technology stands – as a sphere of activity separated from social relations, and as a means of mastery over, and distance from, nature – it did not exist until relatively recently. Rather, the remains of lithic technology we find as scatters of stones were a part of the communities’ relations with the world and with themselves. How they used and deposited the stones was contingent on their understandings of their world view, rather than an ahistorical, pragmatism. The difficulty is in relating the patterning available to us to a historically contingent society.

The material used by the communities on Lough Allen in their stone working was dominated by chert. It would appear that the chert, siltstone, and volcanic types were available locally. However, it should be cautioned this identification of the material was based on a rapid assessment of the material by the geologist, and what is needed is a careful scrutiny of the material to assess their provenance. In terms of the volcanic types used, while some has been identified as tuff, the rest is unspecified as volcanic. It is unclear whether all of this was derived locally. Therefore, while we can for now say in a vague, general sense, that the chert, siltstone, and volcanic rocks are “local”, this is probably masking a considerable difference in the provenance of the lithics, which ultimately has consequences on our understanding of the movement of material across the landscape. This movement of material is predicated on the differing activities of the communities in question – from the actual sourcing of the material from its original place in the landscape, to the various relations of exchange between different groups in an area.

The provenance of the “local” chert at Lough Allen is also problematical. There appears to be a number of different kinds of chert in the assemblage, including banded and striated chert, with colours ranging from light grey to dark grey, and from dark blue to black, with these different colours also being dull to glossy chert. One of the difficulties is that a single outcrop of chert can reveal a wide variation in the appearance of chert. According to the OSI maps there is a chert outcrop a few km to the southwest of the lake, and another two a few km further again to the west. These may well be the source of some of the chert. If this is the case, the chert may have been removed in blocks from the outcrop, and brought to the various locations on the lake in the form of cores, and then worked into blades and so forth. However, it is unclear to what extent chert was available closer to the actual working areas.

A flake and a core of a non-local, non-carboniferous chert were identified in two of the scatters from Lough Allen: both were from the eastern side of the lake at Cormongan and Cornashamsoge, and found 1.2km apart; it is unknown from where this material originated. The flint from Lough Allen is also non-local, and almost half of the flint artefacts came from, again, Cormongan and Cornashamsoge, even though these areas had only a quarter of the total finds. Mahanagh, the largest collection from the lake, had only four flint pieces, which included one core. Therefore, this shows us the convergence of taskscapes and communities of practice on the lakeshore. While we have locally derived stone being collected, worked, and used at various locales dotted around the lake, we also have the arrival of distantly derived material to the same areas.

We can suggest that the non-local material arrived at the lakeside through different methods. For arguments sake, we could say that the flint core, C05:1:1090, originated in Antrim.[2] The possible exchange relations for this core to arrive at Lough Allen could have involved a convoluted route from the northeast of the island, rather than a direct, utilitarian, trading route. This core may have passed through various communities on its way, and its value may have waxed and weaned along the course: an entangled object’s (sensu N. Thomas 1991) net worth as a material is socially constituted to a greater extent than its straightforward utilitarian value. The core may have been a part of exchanges used to foster an alliance, resolve a dispute, as an act of magnanimous kindness, or a debt of gratitude. The convergence of the local and non-local stone at Lough Allen brings different nodes of the landscape together – the stone is not just extracted from its source to then become a reified commodity, but probably brought with it the personality or qualities of its source (Bradley 2000, 41), or at least the stories told of the source. This sense of the personality of the source can be manifested sensuously: when cracking open a core collected from the beach, the smell of the sea wafts out with each hit.

The communities of practice who received this flint core at Lough Allen then proceeded to work the core, alongside others working the local stone. The sound resonating from the flint core as it was being knapped would have been distinctly different to the local material’s sound. The different material would have called for subtle changes in the technique used to perform the task at hand. The core C05:1:1090 does not show signs of quality knapping, and may in fact be a fragment of an exhausted core. The flaking appears to be opportunistic knapping of the core, as opposed to the more structured approach to the piece seen on other cores from the same scatter. Could this be a signature of a child’s knapping of the flint; did this young knapper – with more experience working local material – pick up an exhausted core of his or her elder sibling or parent, and proceeded to flake off some corners of the core, using the techniques that he or she watched the elders using on the material usually available? Was this child given this core, told stories of who brought it to the lake, and from where the flint came? The value of this core would have shifted from its initial collection, to its end point on the shore of Lough Allen, where its value again differed between the older and younger knapper.

Plate 6-3 Flint core C05:1:1090, from Mahanagh, Lough Allen

From Lough Gara, two cores may be representative of novice, or children, knappers: both of these chert cores (MNI Coolnagranshy E118:22 and MNI Tawnymucklagh E115:1-42 [T 19/55]) exhibit what can be described as the “football syndrome” (Hammar, pers. comm.). The football syndrome is where the novice knapper removes flakes ineffectually, so the core becomes so rounded that it is difficult to remove any more flakes, leading to the abandonment of the ball-shaped core.

However, after suggesting how we can look at the communities of practice at these two lakes as having actively involved children, Finlay’s (1997, 205-6) cautioning should be remembered: she has argued that it can be erroneous to identify crudely crafted lithics with children for two reasons; for one, a novice does not necessarily have to be a child, and two, that an individual can lose as well as acquire skill during their lifetime. While I have attempted to introduce children into the taskscapes by the waters it is difficult in identifying them in the archaeological record as such. We implicitly know they must have been there, and at any given time a sizable part of the population. But as archaeological research is practiced by adults, it is easy to forget, or dismiss as less important, that children make up a substantial sector of a community. Children actively shaped the archaeological record, both directly and tangentially, therefore attempts must be made to allow them to be present in our research.

While we have noted that the distribution of lithics around the lake reflect the taskscapes of the communities, the excavation of the Mesolithic fishing traps, weirs, and brushwood platforms on the Liffey, Co. Dublin discussed in chapter 3 remind us that stone is simply the slim remains of activities: there was only one lithic found during the excavations at this site, even though there was clearly extensive Mesolithic activity here over hundreds of years, and this single burnt flint blade was found away from all of the structures (Boyd forthcoming). Therefore, where there are no lithics in an area does not indicate a blank spot of inhabitation in the prehistoric landscape, but rather, a blank spot in our identification of the landscape use. The importance placed by us on lithics, while arguably important in the Mesolithic considering the movement of stone around the landscape that is apparent on Mesolithic sites, must be tempered with the realisation that stone was just one spectrum of the material culture used in early prehistory. This aspect has been highlighted by Lozovski (2005): having excavated a site near Moscow containing 20,000 stone, antler, and bone tools, his paper titled “Mesolithic man – does he belong to the Stone Age or the Bone Age” noted that the lithics were worked lazily, while the fine work and attention to detail was instead lavished on the bone tools, and he argued that the use of bone and antler as tools was preferred to the use of stone.

There has been little evidence of bone or other organic tools on Irish Mesolithic sites, with the acidic nature of soil and bedrock not conducive to preservation (Woodman 1974, 3). The additional problem is also that researchers generally presume that organic material is post-Mesolithic, and hence material may have gone unrecognised. Little (2005, 83) has suggested this may be the case for worked bone and a wooden pin found in context with lithics in Co. Westmeath that she noted in the National Museum archives. The same may also be true of a few bone points and pins found at Lough Gara (Coolnagranshy E20:3817; Coolnagranshy [no reg. no.’s]; Rathinaun E20:549-50). As mentioned earlier, along with the lithics recovered from the River Corrib, the divers collected organic material that they thought may have been wattling, or fishing traps (N. Higgins, pers. comm.), but only lithics were regarded as Mesolithic finds by Gibbons et al. (2005). The excavation of the Mesolithic material from the Liffey, dating to as far back as 6090-5890 cal BC, suggests that this overlooked material from the River Corrib could well be Mesolithic in date, with a re-examination and dating programme needed to assess this speculation.

Another interesting find of lithic and organic material together came from Lough Scur, Co. Leitrim, on the Erne water system. Here, five flakes were found with piece of leather under a dugout canoe (Lough Scur E20: 3794): however, the leather and canoe are not dated, so again remain speculative as to their dating to the Mesolithic.

Taskscapes in the woods

At Lough Allen, I have shown the taskscapes by the water’s edge. What is important to acknowledge is that the evidence used is based upon the identification of lithic scatters along the exposed shoreline, and that no fieldwork has been carried out in the surrounding landscape away from the waters. What we have is a jaundiced view of the taskscapes in the area, which is biased against the woodlands that surrounded the lake.

The Mesolithic period has long been linked with the development of the post-glacial forests – the communities were called “Forest folk” (Childe 1957, 44), with the forest seen as a “problem” to the communities (Hawkes and Hawkes 1947, 19), rather than their home. While it is clear that the Mesolithic communities in Ireland were in fact woodland dwellers, the woods have usually been treated as simply an a priori ecozone (Woodman 1978; Kimball 2000A) or an inhibiting factor of the inhabitants’ settlement (Lynch 2002; Mitchell and Ryan 2001), as opposed to a lived-in environment. Where researchers in Britain have looked at the forest in the Mesolithic, it has tended to be towards how the Mesolithic communities altered, or managed the woodlands for their economic benefit: Warren (2001, 127) has commented, that this “concept of management…was connected to a desire amongst researchers to identify Mesolithic populations that were actually doing something significant”, as opposed to simply dwelling.

As mentioned earlier in the context of Hermitage, we have to be cognisant of the changing aspect of the woods. As we are dealing with a time span of over 2000 years for the Later Mesolithic, the composition of the woodland would have changed dramatically at both a regional and local scale. It is often stated that the forest cover in Ireland consisted of a dense canopy, with no breaks apart from the big rivers and lakes (Mitchell and Ryan 2001, 117). However, Rackham (1988, 5) suggests that considering the fact that the shrubs and trees here are shade intolerant, regular clearings, primarily through tree-fall by various agencies, must have been present to allow the trees to regenerate. He argues that the woodland was not a continuous canopy, but rather intermittently interspersed by glades (ibid., 33). These glades were not just humanly caused gaps in the forest, but rather, a natural part of the life cycle of the ecosystem. As mentioned in Chapter 2, there is evidence for openings in the woodland in Ireland (Preece et al. 1986; Molloy and O’Connell 2003). Furthermore, Rackham (1996, 28) has argued that the description of the climax forest as being, for instance, a “mixed oak forest” belies the complexity of the woodland composition; he suggests that individual stands of trees would have differing compositions. Rackham further argues that hazel should be considered a canopy tree as opposed to a tall shrub: it has been undervalued in the canopy composition because it produces little pollen if shaded by taller trees, whereas alder has been over represented due to the locations where pollen cores are taken.

Mitchell and Ryan (2001) have noted that the trees left in the Irish landscape are of a diminutive size compared to what would have grown at the time; for instance they suggest that oaks would have reached 27m in height. These trees would have grown for hundreds of years. This temporality of the woods is a critical aspect of the relations people had with the environment. Whereas a human life can be measured in the yearly cycle of a deciduous tree over the seasons, the fact that a tree would have stood for generations of human life marks them out as different from animals and other plants. On a smaller temporal scale, Brown (1997, 112-5) has commented that whereas today’s floodplains are relatively free from debris and fallen trees, in a forested landscape this would have been considerably different. Fallen trees and organic material can dam rivers and alter the channels; the evolving channels lead to the terrestrialisation of channels, and the creation of new ones. Brown (ibid., 124-5) suggests that the floodplain forest on the River Lee, near Macroom, Co. Cork possibly represents the best analogy of the Cool Temperate Mid-Holocene alluvial forests. Here, the maze of anastomosing channels run through woodland, from the wet species such as willow and alder on the wetter islands and margins to the dry species such as oak and ash on the higher islands and islets. This small floodplain woodland has 20 species of trees, 83 species of flowering plants and ferns, and 62 species of moss and liverwort (Brown 1999, 20). We can suggest that the Mesolithic communities living by the River Corrib and other rivers would have inhabited a similar landscape to this, in stark comparison to the almost treeless, channelled river of today (Pl.’s 6-4 and 6-5).

Plate 6-4 Bottom image: Gearagh, River Lee; top image: River Noire (Cross and Kelly 2003, 162)

Plate 6-5 Jordan's Island, River Corrib, showing treeless river banks (Google Earth 2006)

As we have seen, the evidence for the Later Mesolithic consists of lithics found along the north and west coast of the region, along the Shannon system, as well as in the interior of the region. However, the distribution of material is biased towards the two lakes of Lough Gara and Lough Allen, where drainage schemes have exposed lithics on the shoreline. The consistent pattern in the distribution of material is the dominance of waterside locations when compared to post-Mesolithic material. However, this patterning is sometimes misstated – for example, Fredengren (2000, 137) has suggested that “all recognisable human activity in the Mesolithic took place in the border zone between land and water”, and she argues that this was so due to the Mesolithic inhabitants’ cosmological relationship with water. This is would appear to be an erroneous reading of the distribution of Mesolithic material: while the Mesolithic material is undoubtedly gravitated towards water, the Bally Lough project (Zvelebil et al. 1996), the Lough Swilly Survey (Kimball 2000A), and material from the northeast (Woodman et al. 2006, 266-7) have shown that Mesolithic material is not restricted to the border zone alone. The known distribution of material from Lough Gara and Lough Allen has been created by the drainage schemes: the only areas investigated on these lakes have been the exposed shorelines, entailing that the distribution of material – both Mesolithic and post-Mesolithic – away from the lakes is almost unknown.

In terms of the west of Ireland, the finds mentioned in the previous chapter from Clonnaragh, Urlaur, Prospecthill, Streamstown, Leedaun, and Ballycurrin Demesne, are, while all found near water, not related to the border zone itself. Therefore, apart from the evidence produced from the drainage schemes of the two lakes, half of the findspots in the west are away from the land/water border zone. Indeed, the find of the retouched point from Prospecthill, Co. Galway (C05:1:501) highlights a find from inside the woodland itself – while today the findspot of this lithic is about 700m from the coast, in the Mesolithic a lower sea-level of 3-6m would mean that the coast was 2-3 km away, as the bay is shallow around this point. The closest river is also 2km away, highlighting that this lithic is not related to a waterside location, but rather deep in the interior of the woodland itself. Again, the two Mesolithic finds from Clonnaragh, Co. Roscommon, are not directly related to water, but rather would have been in the interior of the woodland as well.

A key to the landscape perception of hunter-gatherers is suggested as being paths (Ingold 2000, 147; Tilley 1994, 27). Indeed, Ingold has commented that “the image of life as a trail or path is ubiquitous amongst…hunt[ers] and gather[ers]”. Obvious pathways in the landscape are the rivers, lakes, and sea, which were traversed using boats. But looking into the woods themselves, we can suggest that paths would have been of importance:
“Some routes through the tress were long established – the track to the riverside from the tents themselves, or the route onto the floodplain for the large gatherings of the community. Other routes were trod once and once only. In a similar way old paths from a previous year’s visit towards good hunting grounds may still have been viable and could be retrodden. Possibly some spring and summer growth needed to be cut back in order to maintain important routes. Some people may have outlasted particular paths, whereas some paths had always been there. Treading the same paths as a now deceased parent, or an elder sibling now married, may have been an important part of the biography of particular individuals. Paths had differing durations and the scar of erosion created by the routines of labour may, in turn, have shaped the activity of those following. Particular routes through the trees created certain views and vistas – in a very subtle way structuring a community’s experience of the local world. Learning traditional paths, their names and the names of the features of the landscape visible from these routes were a vital part of socialisation” (Warren 2005, 73-4).
This eloquent quote from Warren’s book on Mesolithic Scotland highlights the embedment of humans in the landscape, and the temporality of the landscape. The paths were not there simply as an access way to somewhere, but rather were an integral part of the community itself. The journey itself is as important as the destination. Looking back to the taskscapes at the water’s edge, we can see that the waters and the woods are not two diametrically opposed parts of the landscape. Rather, they were together the dwelling place of the communities. As I suggested in chapter 4, we can view the platforms by the waters as personalities in the landscape, so too can we suggest that the paths that connected these constructions to other nodes were also personalities.

It has been argued that the Later Mesolithic lithics were essentially a wood working kit (Woodman and Anderson 1990). From the excavations of the fishing traps on the Liffey, we have possible evidence of the coppicing of trees; there is also evidence for the selective use of hazel at the site, even though other suitable types of trees were available. In a wooded environment, we can suggest that the Mesolithic communities understood the woods intimately, in terms of both the physical and spiritual properties of the woods. As Ingold (2000, 145) has commented, the trees themselves would have been considered animate, spiritual beings, not just the animals that lived in the woods. In a similar vein, Bloch (1998, 40-1) has expanded on the ritualistic implications of plants, arguing that the importance of plant sacrifice has been neglected in ethnographic accounts, possibly because “it is a less spectacular subject for ethnographic films than the essential staple of animal sacrifice that characterises this form of entertainment”. He further argues that transformative potential is the central fact of ritual symbolism, and the “symbolic power of trees comes from the fact that they are good substitutes for humans” (ibid., 40). Maclean (1993, 2) outlined the possible range of edible flora available in Ireland, listing a minimum of 120 possible species available, with more available in restricted geographical areas. She comments that this is simply those possible as availability will not guarantee use – cultural factors also dictate what is considered acceptable for consumption (ibid., 6). In Zvelebil’s article (1994) he outlined evidence for plant use in the European Mesolithic, citing 71 sites (5 from Ireland) that produced evidence for edible plants, and he lists per site the variety of plants found there. He cites Lough Boora as producing evidence for hazelnuts. However, this is taking a minimal view of the possible plant use, with others available in the area, as O’Connell’s (1980) pollen analysis highlights. The use of plants went beyond food as well. Plants, lichen, and fungi would have been used for medicinal purposes (Allen 2004). It is arguable that the use of fauna and flora for food, medicine, clothing, and shelter, would have been understood on the basis of the mythopoesis of the landscape and all its constituents.

Plate 6-6 Woodlands, Co. Mayo

Human-animal relations

In looking at human-animal relations during the Mesolithic, I am reliant on evidence from outside of the west. With Belderrig the first site to be excavated, only now do we have definitive faunal remains in the west, the bone pins and boar tusks from Lough Gara notwithstanding.

Discussions of the subsistence practices, or hunting and gathering, of the Mesolithic communities in Ireland invariably comment on the impoverished nature of the flora and fauna on the island. However, it is arguable that impoverishment is a relative term. What was there was a bewildering array of foods that the Mesolithic communities could have obtained. As mentioned in chapter 3, on assessing the isotope readings for the Mesolithic human remains, Woodman et al. (1999, 143) asked could the interior of Ireland have supported Mesolithic people without a reliance on salmon. Clearly, it would seem that it could. When looking at the faunal subsistence of the Mesolithic communities, an important point to bear in mind is that we are not looking at just how people survived by eating, but rather at the relations people had with their neighbours – the animals – in the woods and the waters, as well as with themselves: as Jordan (2006, 92) has put it, subsistence involves a symbolic and cosmological dimension, and as well as social negotiation. He argues that material signatures of these are visible in the archaeological record, but usually glossed over in the hunt for economic and ecological questionings (ibid., 96). Looking at the Irish context, and taking into consideration the poor preservation rate of bone, an interesting omission from the faunal record on Mesolithic sites is the bear. The bear is universally singled out as a special animal, due to their human-like appearance, footprints, excrement, and omnivorous diet, as well as because they are “manifestly intelligent” (Ingold 1986, 258). The lack of bear remains on Mesolithic sites in Ireland does not necessarily indicate a taboo with eating them or killing them for their hides due to these anthropomorphic qualities (ibid.). Rather, Jordan’s (2006, 97) example from Siberia highlights that there, the bones of the bears were treated in very specific ways, and not discarded or deposited in a similar fashion to other faunal remains.

As mentioned previously, while Woodman (1985, 75) interpreted the goshawk bones from Mt. Sandel as being present as the bird would have been attracted by bird traps set while hunting for pigs. Mitchell and Ryan (2001, 115) have commented on the possibility of the Goshawk from Mt. Sandel and Dalkey Island having been used in falconry. Although the skills of falconry have traditionally been viewed as an arrival from the east, and as “definitely the product of an advanced civilisation” (Epstein 1943, 497), this stems from a belief in diffusion as the sole means of invention, and also a disbelief in the skills of ‘primitive’ peoples as surmised by Epstein (ibid.): “only a wealth of leisure, great patience, sensitivity and ingenuity, not ordinarily shown with regard to animals by primitive peoples, will make a successful falconer”. While of course this prehistoric falconry aspect remains a speculation, I argue it is a useful speculation as the goshawk is renowned as the favoured bird for falconry, especially suited to hunting with dogs (Falconry 2006). This idea of the tamed bird of prey, as opposed to the domesticated bird is also interesting in that it opens up questions as to the nature of the domestication of animals, and peoples relationships with animals. A number of authors have suggested that we should – due to the lack of evidence for a suitably timed land bridge – probably be surmising that the Mesolithic communities may have introduced wild boar onto the island of Ireland, just as the wild deer were introduced in the Neolithic period (Green and Zvelebil 1990, 86; Woodman and McCarthy 2003, 37). To these can be added Lynch’s comments on the possible human introduction of badgers and pine martins mentioned in chapter 3. This thesis is similar to that of the ‘transported landscape’ discussed in the context of the hunter-gatherers in the Pacific islands; this idea of transported landscapes also includes flora (Gosden 1994, 25). While these were not domesticated animals per se this notion opens up the whole question of human-animal relations to a greater extent, rather than the dichotomous relationship between the domesticated and the wild such as developed by Hodder (1990).

Commenting on the Achaur Indians and other Amazonian groups, Descola (1993, 131) highlights how, although they are horticulturalists, they have not attempted to domesticate animals even though they do tame animals. He comments that this should not be seen as a failing as such on their part – a lack of technical know-how – as they are adept at handling and domesticating plants. Rather, it is due to their understanding of the world. He surmises that “along with the Achaur, many Amazonian tribes regard the beasts of the forest as subject to the spirits that protect them; accordingly they are already domesticated as they possibly can be” (ibid.). Around their houses, they very often have tamed animals, usually the young of animals hunted, with Descola noting that some of their houses “resemble positive Noah’s Ark”, and once tamed they are never eaten (ibid., 130).

Zvelebil (2005) has discussed this issue of the taming of animals, suggesting that it has its origins in the Palaeolithic, which intensifies in the Mesolithic. In Ireland the one domesticated species was the dog, and in the Scandinavian Mesolithic the numerous dog burials at Skateholm attest to the special relationship this animal played in the communities (Larsson 1993, 52-3). One of the richest graves in terms of grave goods was that of a dog, with the animal buried with a deer antler along its spine, flint blades at its hip, and a decorated antler hammer at its chest – the antler and the blades were placed in the same manner as male human burials. Again, as in the human burials, red ochre was used. It was suggested that at Skateholm I, 6 of the 8 dogs’ burials were placed in a delimited area. This was taken as possibly meaning that the dogs were treated similarly yet differently (ibid.). However, dogs were also buried with humans, and it was suggested that the placement of decapitated dogs in human burials is signs of sacrificial rites. One difference between human and dog burials is that dogs were never placed with animal teeth, whereas humans often were (Larsson 1990).

Looking at the question of human-animal relations and the fluidity of the boundaries between humans and animals, Conneller (2006, 161) has suggested that unless the specific conditions at play in the Mesolithic are investigated, the pronouncements “run the risk of adding to the list of ‘banal phenomenological truisms’ that have become common in many ‘post-processual’ Mesolithic narratives”. She adds that her work showed that deer remains were treated differently at Star Carr. However, this would seem to miss the important point that human-animal relations are not solely centred one species of animal. Rather, as Ingold (2000, 50-1) has outlined, the distinction between the modern western view of organisms – with their essential nature as pre-specified prior to entry into the life process – is fundamentally different to hunter-gatherers. Using the example of the Cree, Ingold shows that for them life is not pre-specified, but is described as continuous birth: “to be alive is to be situated within a field of relations which, as it unfolds, actively and ceaselessly brings form into being” (ibid., 51). Therefore, personhood is as much a part of non-human animals and plants as it is for humans. This suggests that even though we may see special treatment of certain animals, such as Conneller has suggested for deer at Star Carr, this does not mean that the communities there did not view all animals as open to personhood, but rather that they were treated differently for another reason.

What is curious about the possible Mesolithic transport of fauna to Ireland is that they seem to have forgotten to bring deer. As Finlay (2000, 68-9) has commented, the deer, and deer hunting, are prominent motifs in Mesolithic studies. The discovery of deer frontlets at Star Carr that may have been used as a headdress, has entrenched the economic and symbolic importance of deer, so much so that Fredengren (2002, 113) has suggested that the antlers of extinct giant deer found at Lough Gara may have been used in a similar fashion. However, it could be argued that the Mesolithic communities would have been more involved with their more contemporary companions, the boar. Rather than imagining the communities at the time donning massive antlers, it may be more apt to regard the tusks of boars, which have also been found at Lough Gara, as more suitable apparel. It is noted that the Irish Mesolithic hunter-gatherers have been described as fisher-hunter-gatherers. Looking at the relations that people had with fish, the idea of appearing like a salmon or an eel would not seem to have the same romantic image as much as the shamanic practices of wearing deer frontlets. However, the stone carvings from Lepenski Vir have been suggested to represent half human half fish beings (Mithen 1994, 129), suggesting that the relations people had with animals were not restricted to those on terra firma.

What these aspects of human-animal relations highlight is that analyses based on optimal foraging strategies, or resource maximisation (e.g. Kimball 2000A) must be tempered with the understanding that subsistence is not a straightforward research agenda. Moreover, peoples’ relations with animals did not begin and end with the animals that they either ate or killed for hides. Just as the flora in the landscape was not just a repository of resources to be exploited, the animals were more than just provisions waiting to be used.


It is argued that the lithic technology of the Mesolithic communities in Ireland does not exhibit any degree of regionality, with this suggesting sustained contact of the communities throughout the island (Cooney and Grogan 1999, 25) – this is seen in contrast to the perceived regionality of the Neolithic period. However, it is important to note that the sense of regionality in the Neolithic discussed by researchers does not usually discuss Neolithic lithics as showing signs of regionality, therefore the comparison with the Mesolithic is not comparing like with like. Woodman et al.’s (1999) excavation at Ferriter’s Cove suggested that a degree of diversity in the lithic repertoire is apparent in comparison to other Later Mesolithic sites, and they regarded this as an artefact of the raw materials used. Nevertheless, this degree of variability can be seen in a social context rather than in a strict technological sense. For example, Petrequin (1993, 52) has highlighted that the use of a different raw material for the production of axes in an area of the Jura Mountains by Neolithic communities was constrained by the traditional techniques used: when a particular type of hard rock was no longer as readily available through exchange, the communities began to extract a local, softer rock; this softer rock required a change in technique to form the axe, but they continued for some generations to use their traditional – culturally defined – technique that was suitable for the imported hard rock. Eventually, their technique became modified to suit the new material, and this new technique continued even after the raw material reverted back to the original hard rock. This highlights that a raw material alone will not dictate how it will be worked, but that the technological choices are dependent on the cultural understandings of the “right” way to work material. Therefore, a careful scrutiny of the lithics in Ireland can show a less homogenous Mesolithic than is sometimes pronounced, and the heterogeneity may not be due solely to the raw material utilised, but rather how the differing communities approached the material.

In this thesis, I have been treating the six counties under consideration as a “region”; however, this is an artificial, convenient region as opposed to something meaningful. From a biogeographical position, it has been noted that the six counties under consideration fall broadly into two main regions: the western Atlantic fringe, and the central and south-east Ireland region (Mitchell and Ryan 2001). These two biogeographical regions are probably more suitable aspects of regionality than the block of six counties. This is not a fall back to environmental determinism, but rather, an explicit approach of a social archaeology of the period. A key understanding of the nature of humans’ inhabitation of the landscape is the sensuous materiality of their dwelling – a pine-dominated woodland will be a significantly different place to an oak-dominated woodland, and this sense of place is integral to people’s identity of themselves and their place in the world.

As we saw in chapter 4, Tilley’s (1994) account of a phenomenology of landscape treated the topography – the bare bones – of the landscape as all-important, and the flora as epiphenomenal. This would seem to be the antithesis of a phenomenological approach to the landscape. Using Bird-David’s (1994, 591) quote again, she highlights what hunter-gatherers talk about; they discuss the vegetation, not the bare bones: she comments
“occasionally, people gather, passing time together. Normally, they sit all facing the same direction…talking about the common view (e.g., commenting on a flower which blossomed over night) or about common impersonal matters (e.g., the fruit season which has just ended)”.

Tied up in these discussions of regionality and uniformity of lithic technology are the overarching questions of mobility in the Mesolithic. There is no consensus as to what area a single community occupied over a year, or over a generation, let alone how this area changed as generations passed, and how this may have differed between communities throughout Ireland. As discussed previously in chapters 3 and 4, the settlement patterns of the Later Mesolithic can be seen to be either mobile or highly mobile, or possibly sedentary or semi-sedentary – clearly these terms do not help much in understanding the use of the landscape in early prehistory. What is important to bear in mind is that the patterning of Later Mesolithic findspots in the landscape does not necessarily imply a mobile society, but rather, the lack of an excavated base camp such as Mt. Sandel for the Later Mesolithic implies this. Equally, if a Mesolithic base camp was excavated, for instance, on the banks of the River Corrib tomorrow, this would not mean that the Later Mesolithic communities there were not mobile. As Engelstad (1990) suggested, to be settled, or sedentary, in an habitual landscape does not entail staying in one place for a given period of time, but rather one’s sense of being settled in a landscape. Again, as mentioned in chapter 4, Gibbons et al. (2005) maintain that a Mesolithic base camp on the Corrib would have been economically and ecologically advantageous as there would have been no need to move. However, movement in the landscape may have been an important part of the Mesolithic communities’ lives, rather than a burden to overcome, or a rung of the evolutionary ladder to surpass. This movement may have been carried out on different spatial and temporal scales, by both individuals and mindful communities of practice; for daily movement in the landscape, close to a camp site; a further journey to a neighbouring community; a journey to a gathering point for various communities at certain times of the year.

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6.5 The Mesolithic-Neolithic transition

The west of Ireland holds two key areas where the debates on the transition from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic in Ireland have been based: the Ceide fields, and the megaliths of Sligo. Two very different prehistoric landscapes have been suggested for these remarkably similar areas which are 60 km apart. At the Ceide fields, the burial of the field systems, houses, and megaliths under blanket bog have provided Caulfield (1983) with a frozen picture of a highly organised, sedentary Neolithic population, with a predilection for cattle. Whereas in Sligo, the passage tomb complex of Carrowmore, and the middens on the coast, provided Burenhult (1984) with a sedentary, socially complex hunting and gathering society, which gradually became more “Neolithic” over the generations by adopting cattle and cereal growing into their economy. While Caulfield’s model saw no Mesolithic people involved, indeed saw them as being actively being displaced or barely there in the first place, Burenhult’s model saw the Mesolithic people becoming Neolithic, as they were already on the road there. They adopted cattle and pottery from farmers from the east of the country, but Burenhult did not suggest what had happened to the hunter-gatherers there or where those farmers had originally came from, and he failed to show a Mesolithic presence in the region where he argued that Mesolithic communities built the megaliths.[3]

As we saw in Chapters 2 and 3, two interpretations have been put forward as to where the arriving farmers came from: Sheridan (2003C) and, to a lesser extent Bergh (1995), have argued for a continental arrival of farmers with a fixed cultural repertoire in train, and Woodman (1993) has suggested that the lithic repertoire has affinities with Britain. A key aspect in the change between the Mesolithic and the Neolithic in terms of the identification of lithics, is that the post-Mesolithic evidence becomes more dispersed in the landscape, with a move away from being focused on the rivers and lakes. This was picked up on by the Bally Lough Project, who suggested that while this suggested a shift in the location, this did not imply a change in population. Rather, they saw this as cultural continuity, but a change in subsistence practices over time led to the use of a more widespread landscape. Woodman et al. (1999) rightly countered that using the same ecological niche is irrelevant to continuity in the population, as it only shows that farmers also used floodplains and the coast. This is something that continues to this day, and therefore not peculiar to Neolithic farmers, or a type of forager-farmer. Kimball (2000A) argued that his survey in Lough Swilly saw no continuity of population over the transitional period, as the lithic raw material procurement changed, from a use of non-local flint, to the use of local flint. However, a change in the collection of raw material does not necessarily mean that different people were collecting this material. All this means is that over the period, changes in the societal structure – due to an alteration in social relations brought on by a shift in food procurement, landscape use, and so forth – meant that their raw material procurement also changed. One does not need to posit an actual population change when looking at shifts in raw material procurement strategies. Indeed, in contemplating what happened to the Mesolithic communities that were there, Kimball (2000A, 72) suggested, in a similar vein to Caulfield, that the Mesolithic communities had possibly left that area, in other words the land was a tabula rasa.

Looking at the dating for the transitional period, there are no Mesolithic sites that postdate the 4000 BC watershed. But this should be remembered in light of the dearth of dated Mesolithic sites in Ireland. The latest dates for a Mesolithic site come from Ferriter’s Cove, with a phase of activity around the 4000 cal. BC mark, with a much earlier date returned for a cattle bone from there, which has been used in the debates on the interaction between farmers and hunter-gatherers. In both the Mesolithic and Neolithic the disarticulation and movement of bones around the landscape would seem to be a common occurrence, but in the case of the cattle bone from Ferriter’s Cove this idea would seem to have been overlooked. It is usually surmised that the cow bone there represents either a full, live animal that was brought there, or else a joint of meat. However, it may well be that all that was brought there was the bone. The bone itself may have been the important item, and not the calorific content of the flesh attached to it. As the Mesolithic communities would have been expert butchers and anatomists, and have known the skeletal structure of the fauna intimately, this cattle bone would have appeared distinctly different to them compared to the other bones they would have been familiar with.

The dates from Burenhult’s (1984) excavations in Sligo were used to show an early construction phase of monuments there. Bergh (1995, 100-2) undertook a critical review of the dating of passage tombs and outlined the difficulties in dating the construction of a stone structure, and the timing of the deposition of dateable organic material within the monument. He suggested that the 6th millennium date from Croaghaun can be dismissed as intrusive old charcoal, and that the dates (from charcoal) of 4718-4469 cal. BC from Carrowmore and 4675-4460 cal. BC from Croaghaun, should be regarded as terminus ante quem dates for the construction of monuments. There is a possibility that these charcoal deposits represent pre-monument activity, or the deposition of charcoal from some other location (ibid., 107). O’Connell and Molloy (2001) have noted a forest clearance episode at c. 4350 cal. BC, at Lough Sheeauns, Co. Galway. This date suggests that the cattle bone from Ferriter’s Cove, and the latter two terminus ante quem dates from Carrowmore and Croaghaun are not anomalously early, but may represent signs of the earliest Neolithic.

In terms of the evidence for the Early Neolithic away from Carrowmore and north Mayo, the research in the museum collection undertaken for this thesis failed to reveal much evidence for an Early Neolithic lithic assemblage as defined by Woodman (1994). Indeed, only one item, a flint leaf-shaped arrowhead from Belclare, Co. Galway was noted, and this came from a cist grave accompanying cremated human remains. The fieldwalking in the Tawin/Maree area also did not show any material that could be described as Early or Middle Neolithic. The excavations at Poulnabrone, Co. Clare produced evidence of human remains from the Early Neolithic, but it would seem that these represent a redeposition of bones in a monument of a significantly late date (Cooney 2000). As of yet there is no evidence of an Early Neolithic presence in the area, so it is unclear from where these remains came. Looking at the other human remains dating to the transitional period from the west, we have the bog body from Stoney Island, Co. Galway (O’Floinn 1995) and the fragment of bone from Srahmore Cave, Co. Leitrim (O’Dowd, pers. comm.). With no material culture associated with these bones, it is impossible to tell whether they are what we would call Mesolithic or Neolithic. As mentioned, Woodman et al. (1999) suggested that the isotope reading of the Stoney Island body suggested a Neolithic diet as it returned a terrestrial signal, mirroring Schulting’s thesis on the Neolithic society having slighted the sea. However, as discussed in Chapter 3, in the case of Ireland this evidence for a switch in the diet from being marine-based to terrestrial-based must be tempered with the evidence for a terrestrial signature on some human remains from both the Early and Later Mesolithic.

The dating of the Neolithic houses has suggested that these large structures are not evidence of the earliest Neolithic activity in Ireland. As mentioned in Chapter 3, McSparron’s (2003) review of the dates suggested that they begin after 3800 cal. BC. Cooney (2000) noted that the houses seem to suggest an established tradition of building. What this does suggest is that the large structures that have been excavated are not indicative of the earliest evidence of Neolithic settlement in Ireland, but rather are a signature of a development over time. The intriguing question is what form the earliest houses took, and what caused what appears to be a distinct period of building of large structures at a later stage in the Early Neolithic. I suggest that an important point to bear in mind when considering these houses is that the term house must be used in a very wide, loose sense. These large structures, while undoubtedly dwellings, should be regarded as communal centres in the taskscape – what we must consider as well is that dwellings in the Neolithic also consisted of temporary structures such as at Knocknarea (Bergh 1995, 56).

One of the difficulties with archaeological practice is that its tools – typology, stratigraphy and radiocarbon dating – are extremely blunt chronological tools when looking at changes in societies which occurred over decades. The time frames that are more suitable to talk about are centuries. This time frame is not helpful when attempting to ascertain what occurred in a transitional period such as the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition. To complicate matters more, Woodman has noted that what is possibly a key time period, of 4200-4000 BC, witnessed considerable fluctuations of the 14C levels in the atmosphere, entailing that radiocarbon dates around this time are difficult to analyse. Archaeology is good at seeing the end results of a transition rather than the idiosyncrasies of the transition itself. These idiosyncrasies are what Zvelebil and Rowley-Conwy (1986) attempted to address in their availability and substitution model. They used this model to suggest that in Ireland, long distance contacts with the continent allowed the communities to choose to adopt farming practices, and, in a neat piece of reverse colonisation, which they then introduced to British hunter-gatherers.

The difficulty with understanding the transition is that it is hard not to view it teleologically: we are a farming society, farming prevailed. Our ancestors, the farmers, built monuments and cleared the land. Looking at the Early Neolithic in north Mayo, Caulfield (1983) implied that even if hunter-gatherers had been there, they did not utilise the land efficiently, therefore the colonists took over the land and put it to good use. This thesis of a barren, wasteful part of the country that was tamed into productivity for the Neolithic society is a predominant ideological underpinning of the colonialist agenda. What this failed to address is that Mesolithic communities had occupied that area. The excavations at Belderrig can now show a definitive Mesolithic presence there. This landscape was not simply an underutilised wildwoods, but rather home to Mesolithic communities, possibly for millennia. It was not a matter of Neolithic colonists arriving to the area and setting up home.

Taking the example of Belderrig harbour itself where the Mesolithic site is located, Belderrig translates as Red Mouth, due to the iron staining which produces the red colour. Taking the farmers as our ancestors, we could suggest that this name is of great ancestry, going back to the first settlers in the Neolithic. But what if the name is of greater antiquity? Could this name be the Mesolithic community’s name for this harbour? The point is that this locale was not a tabula rasa in the Neolithic. What is clear is that the landscape eventually changed utterly from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic when it witnessed large scale woodland clearance, and the construction of field walls. It could be argued that the Mesolithic communities only hugged the coast, with the remaining interior being a void of uncultured woods. However, as in the case of Prospecthill, with a lithic away from the coast, it would seem erroneous to regard the woods at Belderrig as being a vacuous entity in the Mesolithic.

It seems likely that the transitional period in Ireland was a protracted affair, covering many centuries. The trajectories of the transition – in terms of time frames and conditions – may have been decidedly different in various parts of the island. Small scale colonisations (Cooney 2000) may have occurred in a number of areas at different times. If we regard the Neolithic period in this area as having involved an influx of new people, clearly we must regard this influx as having negotiated with the communities that already were there. These negotiations could have been played out over generations, not just at the first instance of contact. As the historian Foster (2001, 214) has commented, the most interesting history is not that of what happened, and the eventual end result, but of the expectations that people had that failed to materialise and the unintended consequences of people’s actions. Looking at a transitional period such as the Mesolithic-Neolithic, this should be borne in mind – it was the negotiations during the period that mattered to the communities as much as the end result – but these are beyond the survey of archaeologists. These negotiations did not involve a choice of remaining a hunter-gatherer or becoming a farmer – as Cronin (1983) has pointed out, in the northeast of America at the time of the arrival of the Europeans both Native American horticulturalists and hunter-gatherers were occupying the same area, but with different uses of the landscape. There, it was not a choice of either farming or hunting and gathering, but rather both these ways of living were carried out in the same landscape. Therefore, the progressivist notion of farming naturally supplanting hunting and gathering has to be tempered with the realisation that the choice of livelihood is a cultural choice, and not the inevitability of history.

[1]Caulfield, mentioned previously, who has spent decades investigating the pre-bog field systems in North Mayo.[return].
[2]Acknowledging, as mentioned before, that the simplistic label of all flint being Antrim flint is perilous.[return].
[3]It is ironic that in north Mayo where Caulfield saw no Mesolithic participation in the Neolithic we now have evidence for Mesolithic communities, but in north Sligo where Burenhult argued for a Mesolithic hand in the Neolithic transition, we still have no evidence of Mesolithic communities.[return].

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