1 Introduction

The Mesolithic period under consideration in this thesis covers approximately 4000 years of the story of human habitation in Ireland by communities of hunter-gatherers, starting from c. 8000 cal. BC. The ambit under review takes in the six counties – Clare, Galway, Leitrim, Mayo, Roscommon, and Sligo – that lie to the west of the Shannon River, which runs through the middle of Ireland for approximately 400 km. The Shannon and its adjoining lakes form the eastern borders of the Co.’s Clare, Galway, and Roscommon; they form the southwestern border of Co. Leitrim, and also divide the county in half; a part of Co. Sligo’s southern border is defined by one of the Shannon’s tributaries – the Boyle River and Lough Gara – and this tributary rises in the extreme east of Co. Mayo (Fig. 1-1).

Figure 1-1 Counties in the west of Ireland under consideration

This approximate date of 8000 cal. BC marks the end of the last glacial period and the onset of the Littletonian Warm Stage. At this time, Ireland witnessed the recolonisation of the flora and fauna, including humans, after the last glacial period, the Nahanagan Stadial (with the likelihood that some cold-tolerant flora and fauna had remained on the island during this cold spell). The Mesolithic period had for a long time been seen as an interval period: a diminutive hiatus between the epoch of the Late-Glacial Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers and the epoch of the Neolithic farmers (in Ireland commencing c. 4000 cal. BC). Along with their definition as having lived by hunting and gathering, a significant identification of the Mesolithic is therefore concerned with a temporal definition.

In Ireland, the evidence for the Mesolithic was until relatively recently severely biased towards the northeast, chiefly due to the fact that the northeast has a long tradition of amateur lithic collectors. This collecting was partly enabled by the raised beaches and extensive diatomite cutting, both of which provided collectors with suitable places to recover lithics. The northeast is also the source of Irish flint deposits, and this was until relatively recently taken as a reason for the preponderance of evidence from there. Indeed, the flint deposits were considered the raison d’être of people having settled on the island in the first place. Over the last generation of research, it has been realised that the Mesolithic communities in Ireland inhabited the entire island from early in the Mesolithic, and not just the northeast where flint was plentiful.

However, while we now have evidence of Mesolithic occupation throughout the island, our understandings of the Mesolithic communities who inhabited the west of Ireland for these 4000 years have been hampered by a lack of sustained, critical research. In the literature on the Mesolithic in Ireland, the west of Ireland has either had a cursory treatment (Waddell 2000; Woodman 1978), or not been treated at all (Cooney and Grogan 1999). As Gibbons et al. (2005) dealt only very generally with parts of the west, and Fredengren (2002) dealt with only one area, and Woodman et al. (1999) only mentioned some locations in passing, it was difficult to attain a fuller understanding of the Mesolithic in this quarter of Ireland. Therefore, this thesis began with the objective to review the available evidence for the lives of these communities, and to undertake a series of fieldwalking programmes to critically assess these areas, and to develop possible strategies for further, longer-term research.

On initiating this thesis it became apparent that all was not as bleak as it seemed: two projects on the Mesolithic in the west had been undertaken. Warren (2004), lecturer at UCD, had begun a preliminary excavation of a Mesolithic quartz scatter when this thesis was initially being formulated. This excavation represents the first targeted research excavation of a Mesolithic lithic scatter west of the Shannon, and excavations of this site have continued for three seasons so far (Warren, pers. comm.). In Co. Clare, Lynch (2002) had undertaken some fieldwork in parts of Co. Clare towards an MA thesis. The map below (Fig. 1-2) shows the distribution of possible Mesolithic evidence at the onset of this thesis.

Figure 1-2 Possible Mesolithic finds cited in previous literature

Section 1.1 will discuss the aims and methods of this thesis. This will then be followed in Section 1.2 by an outline of the structure of the thesis.

Top of Page

1.1 Aims and methods

The following section describes the aims that this thesis decided to address at the onset of the research programme. This is followed by the methods which were used to achieve these aims.


1. The initial aim of this thesis was to understand the character of the early prehistoric period, west of the Shannon. What is the character of the material culture of the Early and Later Mesolithic? What is the character of the material culture of the Mesolithic – Neolithic transition?
2. To understand how people have inhabited, and utilised, this landscape from a diachronic perspective; and to assess how this understanding from a diachronic perspective can give insights into a synchronic perspective.
3. To establish any degree of variability between inland and coastland in the region: to assess how this variability pertains to the Mesolithic; and how this pertains to the Early Neolithic.
4. To establish any degree of regionality in the Mesolithic that would seem to be apparent in the Neolithic material culture.
5. To analyse and interpret the evidence in terms of a social archaeology of the period. This will involve producing a coherent record of the Mesolithic and Mesolithic-Neolithic transition evidence for the region.


1. Defining the region

The first consideration of the methodology of this thesis was to define the region under consideration. Here, the immediate concern was that the River Shannon is an arbitrary division between the east and west of Ireland: it is a convenient division for us between east and west, something to be bridged, hence the county and provincial boundaries for the most part obey its course. In defining the regional divide between east and west in prehistory: how does this translate into something meaningful; is it a hindrance? In looking at the question of regionalism in the material culture of the Mesolithic, how does the River Shannon act: as a conduit or barrier? The second consideration, which relates to both defining the region, and questions on regionalism, is the western seaboard. The region under scrutiny consists of hundreds of km of coastline. In defining the region as a whole, how does the coast interplay with the rest of the interior? And thirdly, how does this region fit in context of its island setting.

2. Establishing the character of the archaeological evidence and cataloguing the material

In order to establish the character of the material culture for the Mesolithic and Mesolithic-Neolithic transition for the six counties under review, an extensive literary review was undertaken, which was followed by five weeks of research in the National Museum; this museum work included both a review of the archives (topographical files) and the artefacts themselves. These five weeks spent in the museum was matched by another five weeks organising and assessing the information gathered in the museum. I have reviewed and catalogued all of the Mesolithic and Neolithic material culture housed in the museum for the six counties, which were provenanced as non-excavated finds. As well as this, I looked at a wide selection of Mesolithic and post-Mesolithic finds from excavated contexts for the six counties, as well as looking for Mesolithic material which was provenanced to townlands and parishes on the east bank of the River Shannon, i.e. for Co.’s Cavan, Limerick, Longford, Offaly, Tipperary, and West Meath.

3. Fieldwalking

The fieldwalking consisted of two main parts: the first was the formulation of three case study areas, and the second involved selective fieldwalking by visiting old findspots to assess these areas as to whether they were suitable for further longer-term research.

Case studies:

The case studies were formulated in order to intensively examine three areas in order to develop our understandings of the prehistoric inhabitation of them. The research for these case study areas involved: a detailed study of conditions, past and present; an evaluation of the character and location of the areas; a focused, intensive fieldwalking programme; and an examination of the wider context of the areas.

1. Lough Corrib and environs, Co.’s Galway and Mayo. This area was chosen as a case study as there were a number of findspots located around the lake and River Corrib, but no sustained fieldwalking programme had been carried out. Between the Lough and River Corrib, a total of 70 km of the shoreline and river bank was fieldwalked. The survey also included the examination of all erosion scars, and cattle poached ground in the vicinity of the shoreline and river bank walked (a more detailed methodology of the fieldwalking programme can be found in the relevant sections in chapter 5).

2. Lough Urlaur and environs, Co. Mayo. This area was chosen as there had been one Mesolithic find in the area, but again, no fieldwalking programme had been carried out. This fieldwalking included the survey of the entire shore of Lough Urlaur and the adjoining erosion scars, as well as in the area close to the original findspot of the Mesolithic find; three other lakes nearby were fieldwalked, but as these were in places bog fringed, the entire shores were not fieldwalked.

3. Tawin/Maree area, Co. Galway. This area was chosen as a case study for the Mesolithic and the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition; this small area had turned up 139 stone axes, which is 33% of Co. Galway’s axes, and Woodman et al. (1999) had suggested that these may be Mesolithic. No other lithics – Mesolithic or post-Mesolithic – had been found. Initially, the methodology was to examine all erosionscars, but with the availability of ploughed fields, it was decided to fieldwalk a selection of these. In total, 25 ha were fieldwalked, with a survey coverage of 66%, and 100% in three fields.

Fieldwalking – additional fieldwalking locations:

The research of these three case study areas was undertaken along with additional areas where a full case study was not carried out: this included visiting the old findspots of Mesolithic material to investigate for further material, and to assess the conditions of the locations for their suitability for further, longer-term research projects. These areas included Lough Allen, Co.’s Leitrim and Roscommon, Tully, Co. Leitrim, Clonnaragh, Co. Roscommon, Turloughnaroyey, Co. Galway, Streamstown, Co. Galway, Big Island, Co. Galway, Skehanagh, Co. Galway, Lough Inchquin and Lough Atedaun, Co. Clare, and Lough Cullin, Co. Mayo.

4. Landscape analysis- local and regional scale

In developing the analysis of the landscape, I assessed the palaeoenvironmental evidence and approached the landscape from a dwelling perspective (sensu Ingold (2000)), as opposed to viewing it as an economic resource and simply a backdrop to activities. This involved assessing the concept of the ritual/sacred landscape, and how this concept relates to the Mesolithic. How can we relate the landscape and seascape in terms of involvement in social reproduction as opposed to subsistence and economy?

5. Geographical Information System and databases

The use of Geographical Information System (GIS) in this thesis involved the use of the ArcMap 9.1 mapping programme, as well as ArcView which has been used to present the maps created in an interactive form on the accompanying CD-ROM. There were two main reasons for using GIS in this thesis. The first was to use the mapping software to analyse the data collected, and the second was to present this data and analyses in a final visual form. There are a number of pros and cons to using this mapping software:

Pros: The use of mapping software can dramatically speedup the processes of analysis and presentation of data. The mapping software allows the inputted data tobe analysed and presented in a myriad of ways, which if using paper maps would be a substantially more time consuming process of drawing maps, and necessitate the repeated drawing of multiple maps for each area. With the mapping software, the data can be quickly arranged and rearranged according to the research questions being addressed. The final data can be presented as printed maps, as well as electronic maps: these electronic maps which are on the attached CD-ROM allow the viewer to move around the map, and query the various findspots as to their attributes etc.

Cons: While one of the main positive attributes of the mapping software is that it speeds up the mapping processes, there is a steep learning curve needed to use the complex software. A considerable amount of time (intermittent periods totalling about four months) of this thesis was spent becoming familiar with the ArcMap programme, through informal training and trial and error. As well as these four months, another couple of months were spent inputting the data collected from the museum work, literary research, and the fieldwalking programmes.

As the quality of the results of the analyses is directly related to the quality of the data inputted, one of the key considerations with using mapping software is the integrity of the data used. There were a number of key problems with the data presented to me:
1. The topographical data used (digitised 1:50,000 series) was purchased from the OSI, and this dataset proved to have numerous errors in its topographical presentation. For instance, in places the 10m contour line veered into the sea, with the result that these areas had to be “fixed”, by editing the contour lines’ position. In numerous places, the polylines that represented rivers and lakes were incomplete or inaccurate, entailing that these too had to be fixed: this was an extremely time consuming process.
2. Another extremely time consuming process that was necessary was the rendering of the data into a presentable form. This was necessary as the lakes and coastline were in the form of polylines, which meant that when presenting these in map form, one could not distinguish the lakes and coastline from the adjacent dry land. Therefore, this data had to be converted into polygons which gave them their final shape as distinct bodies of water.

Data sources

1. The topographical data used for the mapping was the 1:50,000 series digitized OS maps.
2. The data used for the prehistoric monuments was the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government’s digitized SMR dataset, obtained from their website as a free download. Unfortunately, this also proved to be riddled with errors: so much so in fact that the dataset was withdrawn from their website to be corrected, shortly after I obtained it. Therefore, this dataset also had to be amended.
3. As the area covered by this thesis was in effect a quarter of Ireland, the topographical dataset used was massive, far too large for a standard computer to handle. Therefore, for the creation of a few maps that involved presenting data at the provincial scale and greater, a model of the contours was adopted from satellite imagery: the source for this Digital Elevation Model data was http://srtm.csi.cgiar.org.
4. The Corine dataset, which divided the land use of Ireland into categories, obtained from the Environmental Protection Agency, was used to present information on vegetation.
5. The data obtained from the National Museum archives pertaining to the prehistoric material culture was added to a database: this involved locating each of the townlands or findspots and inputting the coordinates, therefore creating a spatial distribution model of the prehistoric lithics from non-excavated contexts.
6. A sixth source of data was from the Irish Stone Axe Project (2006): where data on some axes was not apparent in the National Museum archives, I used the data gleaned from this source.
7. The seventh source was for the locations of the crannogs on Lough Gara. Barry Raftery kindly gave me a paper copy of the original map of Lough Gara which had the 100-plus crannogs marked on them. I then used this map to ascertain the coordinates of the relevant crannogs (those with lithics provenanced to them), and also the extent of the pre-drainage shoreline.

Presentation of the material

Unfortunately, the majority of the finds in the National Museum are only provenanced at the townland level. The ideal situation in this case would be to have the finds represented as a polygon of the townland’s outline. However, the digitised data for the townland borders was not made available for this thesis, and as the area covered was so great, it was impossible to create my own dataset of the townland borders (the one instance in which I did this was for one of the case study areas). Therefore, the findspots are presented as dots. This entails that any analysis of this data is fraught with difficulties, and can lead to erroneous assumptions. While on a broad scale this does not necessarily matter so much (as the actual dot may be larger than the polygon it represents), on a closer scale this becomes critical. The maps presented in the following chapters therefore come with a serious health warning. This is stated clearly to avoid any misunderstanding. However, in a minority of instances, the findspots may be more accurate than the townland level: whether this is the case or not can be ascertained by looking at the appropriate appendix, or by using the interactive map on the CD-ROM, where each findspots’ details can be queried. Another issue with the provenancing is that a small minority of the material is either provenanced to an area only, or at the county level. Two ways have been used to present this data on the general maps: the first involved creating clearly identifiable boxes on the maps which the material could then be placed “in”; the box is then marked as poorly provenanced material. A second method has been to insert a null coordinate value, which means that this material is left off the map entirely: this has been used by the Irish Stone Axe Project. The data presented of this thesis’ fieldwalking finds represent either exact findspots, or finds grouped to a particular spot in the case of the finds from ploughed fields.

Top of Page

1.2 Thesis structure

In chapter 2 I will outline the predominant strands of thought on the prehistory of Ireland as they have been formulated over the past few centuries. This chapter will spend time delimiting and contextualising how antiquarians and archaeologists have grappled with the prehistoric past, in order to qualify how we have arrived at this juncture in our contemplation of the past, and how this previous work has shaped our present research agendas. Beginning with the antiquarians’ work as it stood before the understanding that there had been a “Stone Age” in the past and that the world was of far greater antiquity than the Bible alluded to, this selective historiography of the past two and half centuries will look at the Irish story in general, while keeping a stronger focus on work carried out in the west of Ireland.

In chapter 3 I will then turn my attention more specifically at the early prehistoric period in Ireland, outlining comprehensively the evidence for the Mesolithic and the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition. The focus of this chapter will be on Ireland in general, with a detailed discussion of the evidence for the area west of the Shannon in chapter 5, as well as in chapter 6. Chapter 3 will begin with a consideration of the post-glacial arrivals of the flora and fauna (including humans) on to the island, and be followed by an outline of the evidence for, and predominant interpretations of, the Mesolithic period. This will look at, in turn, the Early Mesolithic; the transition to the Later Mesolithic; the Later Mesolithic; and the deposition of the dead in both periods. This chapter will conclude with the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition.

In chapter 4 I will turn my attention to the theories and methods of prehistoric landscape studies, discussing how the ambivalent concept of “landscape” has been adopted and utilised by archaeologists, in Ireland and abroad, in a variety of ways over the years; particular consideration will be given to Tilley’s and Ingold’s work on landscapes and social reproduction. In the final section I will discuss, by way of a comparison with other Irish researchers’ work, how this thesis will then use the concepts of landscape in interpreting the Mesolithic evidence in the west of Ireland.

Chapter 5 will detail the museum research and fieldwork that was undertaken. This chapter will begin with a short section on the terminologies and conventions that this thesis will use in relation to the lithics: explanations of other conventions used in the fieldwalking will be explained at the beginning of the appropriate sections. The next section will detail the research pertaining to the three case study areas, followed by a section on the fieldwalking undertaken outside of these three areas. The following section will discuss the Mesolithic findspots noted in the museum research and literature that were not visited during this project. The last section will then discuss aspects of the museum research pertaining to the post-Mesolithic material.

In chapter 6 I will then bring these various strands together, and discuss our understandings of the social archaeology of the Mesolithic in the west of Ireland. I will begin with a discussion on the general distribution of Mesolithic in the landscape, and then discuss the evidence for the Early Mesolithic. This will be followed by the Later Mesolithic, where I will initially focus on Lough Allen as an example; here, I will discuss four aspects of the Mesolithic in the west: taskscapes by the waters; taskscapes in the woods; human-animal relations; and regionality and mobility. I will then discuss the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition.

Top of Page