Created | Updated Oct 5, 2016
Neolithic Passage Tombs of Bru na Boinne | Loughcrew Ancient Irish Megalithic Cemetery
Ireland's indigenous culture is Celtic - the language, folklore and customs have been handed down since time immemorial. But in fact the Celts only arrived in Ireland in about 500 BC. There were people living in Ireland for more than 7,000 years before that. They left a lasting impression on the countryside in the form of tombs, cairns and standing stones. This is their story.
During the last Ice Age, Ireland was covered in a thick sheet of ice, except for the very south of the island. This period corresponds with the Old Stone Age (Palaeolithic) in the rest of Europe. Although parts of Ireland were habitable, there are no remains of human habitation from this period.
The ice started to melt around 12,000 BC and was gone by 8500 BC. The climate became warm and wet, more so than it is nowadays. The land quickly became covered in forest, mainly oak, elm and hazel.
The Middle Stone Age (Mesolithic) (8000 - 4000 BC)
People started arriving in Ireland in about 8000 BC. The first people were hunter-gatherers. They probably came in coracles (boats made from wooden frames covered in animal skins) from Great Britain. It is possible that they walked across from Scotland; the sea level was lower just at the end of the Ice Age, so there would have been dry land joining Ireland to Scotland. This theory was favoured in the past, because it was thought that only the northeast of the country was inhabited. It is now believed that the Middle Stone Age people lived throughout Ireland, and the theory that they walked from Scotland is not as popular.
These people left very little in the line of remains. The chemical composition of the soil in Ireland is such that even bone is dissolved over thousands of years - there are no remains of the people's bodies. Not many artefacts have survived either, other than flint axes and flint scrapers. Flint is a type of stone which is abundant in northeast Ireland. It can be easily shaped to make very sharp cutting tools. Scrapers are flints that have been chipped or carved into a concave shape. They were probably used for scraping animal hides and for working with wood. There is no pottery, suggesting that these people did not make it, because it would have survived. Most of the remains are from sites along the River Bann in Northern Ireland, but this doesn't mean the people lived only there. In other parts of the country not much has survived, but there are a few remains from each part of Ireland.
What did they eat? Although bone is dissolved by Ireland's soil, it survives if it has been burnt; burnt animal bones from fires indicate that Middle Stone Age people ate young wild pigs, hares, birds and fish. In later years, they ate deer as well. Other remains indicate that they ate hazelnuts. No doubt they had a much more varied diet, but we have no evidence of what it was.
The houses of these people seem to have been constructed on the principle of an inverted coracle. Narrow poles were placed in holes in the ground and bent over to make a hemispherical frame about 6m in diameter. This was then covered in animal hides to make it waterproof. You can see a reconstruction of one of these in the Irish National Heritage Park at Ferrycarrig in Wexford.
The New Stone Age (Neolithic) (4000 - 2000 BC)
The New Stone Age is marked by the arrival of farming in Ireland. This change from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle to agriculture did not take place overnight. Whether it was by an invasion of farmers or by the adoption of farming techniques by the Mesolithic people is still disputed, but it probably took the best part of 500 years for the people of Ireland to be fully converted to farming.
They farmed animals which were not native to Ireland, such as cows, sheep and goats. These must have been imported from abroad, most likely Great Britain, as it is a long way to bring more than 300 cows from France in boats. This is the minimum number reckoned to be needed to have a viable stock. Ireland at the time was covered in forest: hazel, elm and oak. The first farmers used wooden-handled stone axes to chop down the trees and make clearings. They would have lived and farmed in these clearings, probably planting thorn bushes around the outside of the clearing to keep wild animals out of the fields.
The Neolithic farmers grew wheat and barley, although the variety of wheat was much less productive than the modern one. They don't seem to have planted large fields of these crops. They did, however, lay out fields for grazing their livestock. They raised cows and pigs for meat, with a few sheep or goats for milk. They had a few horses and dogs. The horses were probably for moving things around the farms - they don't appear to be numerous enough to have been used for meat.
The people appear to have lived in rectangular or oval houses made by putting stout wood poles into holes in the ground, then weaving narrow sticks among them to make walls. These were probably daubed with mud to make them water and wind-proof. A thatched roof on top seems the most likely way that they were finished off. There was a fire pit in the middle of the house, with a hole in the roof to let the smoke out. The houses had internal walls as well, made by the same techniques, so there were a number of rooms. The Irish Heritage Park at Ferrycarrig in Wexford also has good reconstructions of Neolithic houses.
As well as working with wood and stone, these people made pottery. In the early Neolithic, they made round-bottomed pots. Later, they developed the flat-bottomed pot. These were often decorated with simple geometric patterns.
The Beaker People
In other parts of Europe, the race known as the Beaker People appear to be quite distinct from the other Neolithic people. They made a different type of pottery, called 'beakers', which were narrow and tall with a flat base. They had a lot of other stuff as well that was different, including metal. It is thought that they introduced metallurgy to Britain, for example. They buried their dead in a different type of grave. It is even claimed that they were physically different, with different shaped heads.
In Ireland, it is not as clear-cut. The distinctive beakers of the Beaker People have been discovered in many places, but without all the other things you would normally find in Beaker sites. There is very little evidence of metallurgy and the few metal implements might have been imported. The Beaker period in Ireland, therefore, may have been caused by Beaker pottery and techniques being imported from Britain without any invasion of a different race. The Beaker period is considered to be the last part of the Neolithic (New Stone Age).
The Neolithic people left very little lasting remains of their life in Ireland. But once they were dead, it was a different matter. They built enormous stone tombs for their dead, many of which still survive today. There are over 1,200 megalithic tombs still existing in some form in Ireland. (The word 'megalithic' means literally 'large stones'.)
All of these tombs contain a chamber formed of upright slabs ('orthostats'). The chamber had a doorway with two upright slabs facing each other and a sill across the top. The doorway was usually blocked by a lesser slab of stone. The top of the chamber was covered either by slabs which went the whole way across or by 'corbelling' which is a process of overlapping slabs. Bodies were cremated before being placed in the tomb, a single tomb often holding the remains of many people. Often as well, pottery bowls were placed in the tombs.
In most types of tomb, the chamber was then covered by a hill of stones and clay called a 'cairn', with only the doorway showing. In modern times, the cairn is often missing and the stones are all visible. Tombs with cairns can be divided into three main types:
Court tombs are found almost exclusively in the northern third of the country. There are about 330 of them known today. The cairn was long and narrow. The chamber was long and was often divided into a few separate rooms, sometimes with rooms to either side of the main chamber as well. There was a semicircular paved area in front of the doorway, open to the sky and typically big enough to hold a crowd of about 50 people. This 'court' was presumably used for funeral rituals.
Passage tombs had enormous circular cairns and there was a long stone-lined passage from the doorway into the chamber. There are about 300 known passage tombs, the biggest and most well-known of these being Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth at the Brú na Bóinne site. They were usually built on hills or mountaintops, to be seen from a long way away. Passage tombs often had decorated stone slabs, unlike the other types of tomb where no art of any sort has ever been found.
Wedge tombs, of which about 400 are known, are found mainly in the south of the country. They are much smaller than either of the others. The chamber was low and narrow, often only a metre high and usually tapering.
The other main type of tomb was the Portal Tomb, often called a dolmen. There are about 160 of these in Ireland. They had no cairn; there was sometimes a low hill of clay around the base to hold the stones in place, but the whole thing was designed to be open to view. The stones on either side of the doorway, the 'portal stones', ranged from 50cm to 3.6m in height, but were always taller and heavier than all the other stones. There was almost always a single enormous 'capstone' to cover the tomb. This could be as massive as 100 tons in some cases. It was set at a sloping angle of 30 to 45 degrees.
In the Beaker period, most of the tombs are of the Wedge Tomb type. This is a distinctively Irish type of tomb which does not appear anywhere else, which is further evidence that the makers had not just come to the country from Britain. In many of these, beakers were found buried along with the cremated bones of the dead.
The Bronze Age (2000 - 700 BC)
The Bronze Age started with the arrival of metal and metallurgy in Ireland.
In the early Bronze Age, most metal was copper, with a large amount of arsenic in it. This was mined locally in mines in the south of Ireland and in Wicklow. The arsenic was probably not added deliberately but was a naturally occurring constituent of the copper ore. Mining was done in tunnels going horizontally into the hillside to a depth of about 10m. Tunnelling was probably done by lighting a fire against the rock face and then pouring cold water over it. This would cause the rock to crack. It could then be chipped off with stone hammers.
It has been estimated that to smelt 20kg of copper, it would be necessary to mine one tonne of ore and to chop down 100 oak trees to feed the furnace. The manpower needed to do this was considerable, so metal was a rare and valuable commodity.
In later years, bronze was used instead of copper. This is an alloy of 90% copper, 10% tin. Ireland is not noted for its tin mines, but there is more than enough tin occurring in Wicklow to provide for all the bronze in Ireland. It is also possible that the tin was obtained through trade from Cornwall in Great Britain.
Axes, knives and daggers were made by moulding and then hammering and polishing. Cauldrons were made by hammering ingots flat, reheating the metal if necessary to make it malleable. Many large cauldrons were made from sheets riveted together.
With metal it is possible to have detailed engraving in a way that is difficult with stone and pottery. Bronze implements often had intricate patterns engraved on them. These were usually abstract geometrical patterns.
In later years, far more elaborate work was produced, including socketed axe heads and spear heads, sickles and for the first time, swords. There were very few shields - it is likely that shields were made from wood or leather and have not survived. They also made musical horns - these ranged from about 80cm to 150cm in length and had large mouth holes. There are both end-blown models and ones with the mouth hole in the side. They were more akin to a didgeridoo than a modern trumpet. Whether these were used for music or for fanfares is not known.
There was a vast amount of gold in Ireland during the Bronze Age. There are gold mines in Wicklow, but not enough to account for all the gold in the country at that time. It seems likely that it came from Central European mines, by trading.
The National Museum of Ireland in Dublin has about 18kg of gold artefacts, but it is estimated that there was about 100 times that in circulation during the Bronze Age. Torcs, lunulas and gorgets are three different types of neck adornment that were popular, as were rings and bracelets. A torc is made from a long thin strip of metal which is twisted into a helical shape, then bent into a circle to go around the neck. A lunula is a flat piece of metal in the shape of a crescent. A gorget is similar to a lunula except that it has circular 'bosses' at each end.
Most Bronze Age burials were in cists (pronounced 'kists'). These were small rectangular holes in the ground (80cm x 50cm x 50cm) usually lined with slabs of stone. Either the body was cremated before burial or the knees were brought up to the chin and the body was rammed into the grave. A small pot was usually placed in the grave beside the head.
Another type of popular burial was the 'pit and urn' burial. A circular hole was dug and sometimes a slab placed at the bottom. The human remains were put in the hole and an upturned urn was placed over them, after which the hole was filled in.
Many Bronze Age burial sites had a hill of clay built over the cist. This is called a 'barrow'. Barrows differed from megalithic tombs in that there was no doorway or hollow chamber. It was just a hill on top of the grave.
Bronze Age Stones
The Bronze Age people erected stone monuments: standing stones, stone alignments and stone circles. It is not known what the purpose of these was.
Isolated Standing Stones
There are many isolated standing stones in Ireland. The main feature of these is that they are tall and narrow, and set into a hole in the ground. They vary from 1 to 6 metres in height. The bases of a few of them have been excavated and Bronze Age burials were found underneath. It is possible that they were all gravestones.
Southern Stone Circles and Alignments
In the south of Ireland, mainly in west Cork, there are many stone circles with usually five (but sometimes as many as 13) standing stones. There are usually two stones which are taller than the others and are set parallel to make a sort of doorway into the circle. The stone directly across from these two is usually a 'recumbent' stone. That is, it is low and wide rather than tall and narrow like the other stones. The axis of the circle which runs from the recumbent stone through the doorway is usually aligned with one of the major points of the compass such as northeast to southwest, or east to west.
In the same part of the country, there are many stone alignments. These consist of between three and seven standing stones in a line. They are usually fairly tall stones, but not necessarily all the same height or with any apparent pattern.
Northern Stone Circles and Alignments
Stone circles in the north of the country are concentrated in Counties Tyrone and Derry. They are very different from the southern ones, featuring many stones. They are often grouped together - in one place there are seven circles and 11 alignments.
Northern stone alignments are normally found associated with stone circles. They have many small stones, typically half a metre in height and all of the same height. They can have as many 24 stones in the alignment.
Bronze Age Cooking Sites
Bronze Age people left behind large number of cooking sites known in Irish as fulacht fia. These consist of a pit which is lined with wood and filled with water. There is a fire nearby in which large stones are heated. When the stones are hot, they are put into the water which comes to the boil. Food is cooked in the boiling water. When the water and stones have cooled down, the stones are fished out and thrown into a pile. They are not reused, because they crack and break when they are placed in the water. Modern experiments have shown that enough water to cook a deer can be brought to the boil in about 30 minutes, and that the deer can be cooked in about three hours.
The Iron Age (700 BC Onwards)
The change from Bronze Age to Iron Age in Ireland is not clear-cut. The date of 700 BC is generally accepted as a good guess. There's not much in the way of real hard evidence. Although iron is a more versatile metal than bronze, it rusts and does not survive the centuries well. So the hard evidence of the arrival of iron has nearly all rusted away.
Some time between about 700 BC and 300 BC, a Central-European Iron Age people called the Celts arrived in Ireland. They brought with them a whole new world of language, culture, art, metallurgy, building practice and warfare. A new chapter in the history of Ireland had begun.