Ancient Ireland - Prehistory, Archaeology, Paleogeography, Geology
PreHistory + PaleoGeography + Archaeology
A collection of findings from Archaeology, Geology and other scientific endeavor.
The following table is meant only as a general guide to some of the early Irish epochs
The Old Stone Age (Palaeolithic): Long ago to 8500-7500 BC
The Middle Stone Age (Mesolithic): 8500-7500 to 4000-3500 BC
The New Stone Age (Neolithic): 4000-3500 to 2500-2000 BC
The Early Bronze Age: 2500-2000 to 1300-1200 BC
The Late Bronze Age: 1300-1200 to 700-500 BC
The Dark Age: 700-500 BC to 200-150 BC
The Iron Age: 200-150 BC to 450-500 AD
The early Christian period: 450-500 AD to 800 AD
The Viking Age: 800 to 1075 AD
Medieval: 1075 to 1550 AD
Please note that dates given here are estimates based on current opinion and evidence, and are subject to change. The convention used on this page is to indicate radiocarbon dates in lower case letters (bc), versus the use of upper case letters (BC) for alternate dating estimates.
The Ice Ages
Caught in the ebb and flow of the last Ice Ages over the last 2 million years, Ireland was at various times largely glaciated and completely land-locked as a part of the continent of Europe. Ireland was an island about 125,000 years ago when the sea level appears to have been very close to its present position. The sea level dropped 130 m (426 feet) or more during the interval from around 30,000 to 15,000 years ago, when Ireland became part of continental Europe [again], and sea levels have been generally rising ever since, albeit at a much slower rate. The image to the left represents the land mass of Europe near the time of the last glacial maximum (minus the ice sheets and the ocean water). Take a close look at the "British peninsula" and the outline of Ireland and Great Britain upon it.
In and around 20,000 years ago the area that would later reform the British Isles was mainly covered by a thick sheet of ice. This was during the last maximum expansion of the polar ice caps when sea levels were about 120 meters lower than today. To get another view of the British Isles when they were not islands, see this Pleistocene age reconstruction (circa 18000 radiocarbon years ago) of the outline of the
European continent, or also see
After a period of about 18000 BC - 16000 BC the thick glacial ice could expand no more and slowly began to melt or evaporate. At the same time the sea levels slowly began to increase. The figure to the left represents Europe in a period just after the ice sheet recedes from southern Ireland. Take special notice of the land mass connecting northern France with Ireland. If you have a little patience (and QuickTime) then view this wonderful little
Ice Age animation which helps visualize how the ice sheets expanded and sea levels decreased. Run in reverse this animation provides a great look the birth of the island of Ireland. This image and animation was contributed by and copyright of Planetary Visions.
By about 12000 BC plant cover began to appear in Ireland. For a thousand years, Ireland was a place of open meadows. Possibly still not an island, Ireland begins to take shape about
12,000 to 11,000 radiocarbon years ago (perhaps 11500 to 10000 BC). The following map gives a little more detail of the
peninsula that would become the British Isles as the sea levels continued to increase.
About 11000 BC junipers began to appear. This, tough, low-statured evergreen survives well on poor soils, and thrived in the warming climate. Other plants and animals, including the Giant Deer and Reindeer, also arrived, crossing land bridges from the English mainland ito Ireland. At 11,000 to 10,000 radiocarbon years ago (or perhaps 10500 to 9000 BC) the ice fields are shown to have receded a great deal as shown on
this map, as well as on
Estimated between 11000 to 9000 BC the earth's temperature fluctuated, dropped overall, and subsequent periods of glaciation again occurred in Ireland. Possibly due to disease and/or a loss of food supply, the Giant Deer (Megaceros) became extinct in Ireland and the Reindeer disappeared from Ireland.
Dates on the freshwater sediments found on the shelf of the Irish Sea, coupled with the results of geophysical modelling of Earth crustal rebound from ice loading, suggest a severence of any landbridge connection between Britain and Ireland by 10000 BC (again, plus or minus a few thousand years depending on the paleogeographic model). It is interesting to note on the figure to the left that 15000 years ago the landbridge was thought to be in the south, at a time when the glacial ice (in red) had receded into Ulster and northern Scotland (click for larger view). This image is copyright of K. Lambeck, P. Johnston, C. Smither, K. Fleming and Y. Yokoyama from their article entitled
Late Pleistocene and Holocene sea-level change
After about 9000 BC, the climate again warmed, the juniper spread, and the birch appeared in large numbers for the first time. Pine, elm and other forest trees also appeared, and Ireland began a long-term process of forestation. Other plants and animals crossed the land bridges as well. Red deer, wild boar, possibly bears, red squirrels, pine-martens, Wolves, foxes, stoats, and eagles and other birds of prey took up residence. Fish and game birds were soon present in abundance.
The Arrival of Humans
The first definite evidence of human settlement in Ireland dates from 8000 to 7000 BC. They are known from early archaeological findings to have made an appearance in the far north in the lower Bann valley near present-day Coleraine and in the southwest in the Shannon estuary. Later they are thought to spread northeast along the coast of Antrim and followed the Bann upstream to Lough Neagh. They also settled down to an industrious existence on the shore of Larne Lough just north of present-day Belfast, where they chipped flints for implements. These people, mesolithic hunter-gatherers without domestic animals or farming skills, huddled for the most part along the coasts and waterways. As a consequence, these early arrivals had little impact on the environment.
One of the earliest claimed radiocarbon dates for the human inhabitation of Ireland was about 7490 bc. The sample that documents this date was obtained from a primitive settlement that contained charcoal remains at Woodpark in County Sligo.
The oldest peats within the vast areas of Ireland's peatlands were formed in the midlands about 9000 years ago
(c 7000 BC). Over time the following trees make their appearance into the peat deposits archaeological record: birch, willow, pine, hazel, elm, oak, alder, and lime.
England was still thought to be connected to the European continent by a land bridge at around
8000 radiocarbon years ago (or perhaps 6900 BC) as displayed in the link.
One of the oldest and best documented sites of early human habitation on Ireland is Mount Sandel, County Derry, investigated by Peter Woodman in the 1970s. The excavations uncovered hearths and postholes from early Mesolithic dwellings. Radiocarbon dates show the site was occupied about 7000 - 6500 bc. Early Mesolithic people mainly used small flint blades called microliths, many of which have been found in the area around the site. In the absence of large animals at this period in Ireland these Mesolithic people appear to have relied upon a diet of wild boar, birds, fish and hazelnuts.
Another documented site of a similar age to Mount Sandel is Lough Boora, near Kilcormac in County Offaly. Although dwellings were not found, an assemblage of flints and polished stone axe-heads were also recorded for this Mesolithic site. Further documenting the more widespread appearance of Mesolithic people in Ireland (than was first thought) include the flintwork found in the valley of the Blackwater in Munster.
A wide range of dates have been offered for Ireland to become a separate island, i.e. for the closure of landbridges between Britain and Ireland. Estimates have generally ranged anytime from about 10000 BC to 5700 BC. Once Ireland became an island the days of easy migration were over, and subsequently, any animals that couldn't fly or swim could only make the journey by means of human intervention. Long after the connection between England and Ireland was severed, England was still a peninsula of Europe, and so the migration of plants and animals moving northward into the lands abandoned by the ice continued to enter England for some time after the flow to Ireland had been cut off. As a result, England developed a much greater variety of plants and animals than Ireland. There are approximately 30% less species in Ireland's natural environmental record (e.g. plants) in comparison to Britain.
It is possible, even likely, that there was migrant human habitation previous to the Mesolithic era, although no conclusive remains have survived, distinctive of succeeding settlements. It is important to note, that no extensive excavation efforts have been staged as yet (c. 1994) to explore the sites which could possibly date to earlier periods.
Throughout Ireland, the Later Mesolithic appears to consist of short-term encampments associated with aquatic ecosystems. Ireland's oldest known boat, a canoe, is dated to about 5000 BC during the later Mesolithic period.
The next period in Ancient Irish history included the Neolithic, or New Stone Age.
Europe during the last 150,000 Years
Paleomap Project - mapping back millions of years ago.
Ice Coverage Reconstructions since the Last Glacial Maximum.
Visualization Libary at Planetary Visions.
The Irish Sea 15,000 years ago from the Geodynamics page at the Australian National University.
Sea Level Changes and Ireland
Old Irish-Gaelic Surnames
- Gailge comparison to anglicized surnames.
Norman Surnames of Ireland
- including Cambro-Norman, Welsh and Flemish.
The Tuath and Barony of Ireland
- the baronies of Ireland and the clans associated with them.
Ireland History in Maps
Take a geographic stroll through Irish History --
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