Ancient Ireland - Prehistory, Archaeology, Paleogeography, Geology
Ireland History in Maps
PreHistory + PaleoGeography + Archaeology

Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages

A collection of findings from Archaeology, Geology and other scientific endeavor.

The Neolithic

The Neolithic, or New Stone Age, period has been cited from about 4000 to 2500 BC. The general pattern of carbon-14 dating determinations suggests that the Neolithic Period in Ireland began about 3000 bc (uncalibrated radiocarbon years). Neolithic migrant men and women were Ireland's first farmers who raised animals and cultivated the soil.

A major production and use of Irish Stone Axes is noted during Neoloithic times. Stone axes are however known to have been in use from the earliest known phase of human settlement in the Early Mesolithic Period (c. 7000 BC). Over 20,000 axes have been found. The earliest Neolithic pottery found in Ulster (Lyles Hill pottery) is similar to pottery found in northern Britain, suggesting that some of the earliest Neolithic colonists may have come to Ireland from northern Britain.

Passage Cairn Distribution Court cairns and Passage cairns (passage tombs?) may be found dating from the Neolithic, perhaps beginning as early as 200 to 3500 BC. The Passage Cairn (grave?) of Carrowmore (county Sligo) has been dated (by some) from about 4200 BC. The Passage cairn at Newgrange has been dated to about 3200-3100 BC. In all some 300 Passage cairns have been identified, with many found along a line from County Meath to County Sligo. This form of megalithic structure is distinguished as a round mound of earth and stone having, roughly in the center, a burial chamber which is reached by a passage leading in from the edge of the mound. Excavation of Passage cairns have produced cremation (burnt human remains) burials, with inhumation (interment of human bodies) being generally rarer. It is probable the Passage Cairns were Sacred Temples of Religious and Ceremonial importance, much as present day Cathedrals are primarily places of worship where Church and Royal dignitaries may be laid to rest. The astronomical alignment of some of these cairns, notably at Newgrange and Loughcrew, seem to place credence to the view they were used for ceremonial, and possibly astrological, purposes.

Court cairns (like the one at Creevykeel, Co. Sligo) are almost exclusively found in the northern part of Ireland, with large concentrations in northern Connaught and across southern Ulster. Over 350 Court cairns have been recognized as of this writing. They are generally recognizable as a long mound (of stones), with a forecourt at one end leading into a long and often subdivided chamber. Considerable variations on this basic scheme are known. Cremation burials have been associated with Court cairns, but it is not clear whether their primary function was that of a place of burial. It is worth noting that Court cairns are never grouped together as cemeteries, and in their isolation, may have served as the focal cult center for a scattered population.

Around 3800 BC neolithic agriculturists began arriving in large numbers. These early farmers were the builders of the famous mounds and passage tombs mentioned above, and which are more densely packed into Ireland than into any other country. Domesticated cattle, sheep and goats were imported to Ireland at the beginning of the Neolithic period, together with cereals.

Neolithic farmers may have lived in larger communities rather than simply in isolated farmsteads. This is illustrated by the Céide Fields site in Co. Mayo, where an extensive Neolithic field system with stone walls has been preserved below a thick layer of peat.

The oldest known Neolithic house in Ireland (or Britain) was a wooden house, 6.5m by 6m, uncovered at an escavation at Ballynagilly, near Cookstown, County Tyrone. It was radio-carbon dated to approximately 3215 bc. This is only slightly later than the first record of (domesticated) cattle, datable to about 3430 bc, in County Down.

Portal Tomb Distribution Portal tombs (or chambers) are claimed to be mainly constructed between 3000 and 2000 BC. The majority of these are found in the north of Ireland, with another concentration of tombs found along a line from Dublin toward Waterford. About 161 Portal tombs, including those more commonly called dolmens, have been found. They are generally classified as above ground burial chambers, consisting of a number of upright stones covered by one of two capstones, and sometimes placed in a long or round mound.

The Copper and Bronze Age

The Bronze Age in Ireland is normally considered to start in a range from 2500 BC to 2000 BC, and to end anywhere from 600 BC or 300 BC. The construction of the Passage tomb at Tara known as Duma na nGiall (the mound of the Hostages) has been carbon dated between 3030 to 2190 (14C) bc. Throughout the early Bronze Age Ireland had a flourishing metal industry, and bronze, copper, and gold objects were exported widely to Britain and the Continent. More Bronze Age gold hoards have been discovered in Ireland than anywhere else in Europe. The earliest metal tools found in Ireland were made of copper and were concentrated in Munster, where early copper mines have been noted. The prehistoric mines on the slopes of Mount Gabriel in Co. Cork consist of some 25 mineshafts. Some of the more prolific copper items that have been found from the early Bronze age include axes, daggers and halberds.

About 2150 bc the "Bell-Beaker" culture, named for the bell-shaped vessels they left behind, began to make an appearance in Ireland. The culture is known as one of more technologically advanced people, who made and used metal and finely polished stone tools. It has been suggested that with this culture may have come the original language which evolved into Irish Gaelic, a very difficut proposition to actually prove.

Wedge Tomb Wedge tombs (about 400) are considered to be built mainly between 2000 and 1500 BC, and Bell-Beaker pottery are often associated with them. Similar tombs also associated with Beaker finds are common in the French region of Brittany, and the origin of the Irish series seems connected to this region. Wedge tombs are found scattered throughout northern Ireland, with large concentrations in the west, particularly around County Clare, northern Connaught, and County Cork. For the most part Wedge tombs have long, rectangular burial chambers usually roofed with large stones, and placed in a long, wedge-shaped mound.

Other monuments to be mentioned around the Beaker-using period is that of Stone Circles. Of the more than 200 stone circles almost 100 are concentrated in the southwestern counties of Cork and Kerry, many of them consisting of no more than five stones. Somewhat unexpected in the southwest of Ireland are four stone groupings known as "Four Posters", which find their closest counterpart in northern England and Scotland. Another great concentration of stone circles is found in central and southwestern Ulster in the north of Ireland, often consisting of more stones than found in the southwest of Ireland.

The Late Bronze Age begins around 1200 BC, and brings to Ireland "a whole new range of bronze implements and weapons, such as socketed axe-heads and swords." This is an age strongly identified with the appearance of the first "hill forts" and "ring forts", a mark of Hallstatt Celtic culture, which appear only to date back to the seventh century BC in central Europe. A common type of dwelling in use at this time is said to be crannóg, an artificial island, palisaded on all sides, constructed in the middle of a lake.

The Ring Fort at Mooghaun South in County Clare shows evidence for settlement during the Late Bronze Age after its construction around 1260-930 BC (or earlier). Other evidence of ring forts seem to suggest a Late Bronze Age start for construction of this type, although a wide range of later dates have also been suggested.

Celtic Culture

Cultural change in the later prehistoric period in Ireland was traditionally explained in terms of the emigration of Celtic peoples from continental Europe. In contrast, modern archaeological research has produced a growing consensus that the period was marked by general cultural continuity with little evidence of external intrusion. Perhaps the Celtic invasion theories need to be re-examined, or more evidence found to support them. The only historical reference to a Celtic invasion is in Britain, which is that of the Belgae who conquered parts of the south east of England in 75 BC. One thing is certain and that is the impact that Celtic languages had on Ireland, as evidenced during the early Christian period beginning in the 5th century AD, and as seen today in the Gaeilge of modern Ireland.

Celtic Sword By about 700 BC, swords of the Hallstatt type start to appear in Ireland, but these were made of bronze, not of iron, so it seems likely that these were bronze copies made by local smiths. Celtic languages and culture are thought to have their roots in the latter part of the Hallstatt culture (about 800 to 475 BC) during the Iron Age in the upper Rhine and Danube valleys of central Europe.

The arrival of the Iron Age may have begun as early as 500 BC and lasted up to 500 AD, although there have been no clear indications iron was the predominant metal for weapon making in Ireland until around the third century BC. Long earthworks such as the Dorsey in Co. Armagh and the Black Pig's Dyke, which run across much of lower Ulster, were thought to be built during the Iron Age. The earliest waves of Celtic migrants may have reached the country as early as the 6th century BC (or before) with subsequent groups arriving up to the time of Christ. The Celts belonged linguistically to the great Indo-European family. They soon came to dominate Ireland and it's earlier people, as told to us by the great Irish sagas of the pre-Christian period. If you get a chance to look through the early Stories, Myths, and Annals of Ireland you are struck by the wonderful record of great warriors, chieftains, septs and kingdoms.

The earliest possible written reference to Ireland is in the Peripolous of Himilco, the Carthaginian who wrote in the 6th century BC. In it he references Celtic tribes on the North Sea, as well as in France and Spain. Writing in the late 4th century BC Pytheus refers to the British Isles as the Pretanic islands, from Priteni, terms which allude to a Celtic connection for the islands. A Greek name for the island as Ierne, as mentioned by Strabo in his work Geography. In De Bello Gallico, written about 52 BC, Caesar refers to name Hibernia. Ptolemy produced the first map (of Hibernia) with identifiable features about the middle of the 2nd century AD. In his Ora Maritima (4th century AD), based on a Greek original of the early 6th century BC, Festus Rufus Avienus refers to Ireland as Insula sacra (holy island) and to the inhabitants as gens hiernorum. The modern country's name of Éire (Gaeilge for Ireland) is thought to be derived, among others, from an early tribal group of Ireland referred to as the Érainn (aka Iverni).

Some of the early descriptions of the [continental] Celts are from Poseidonios whose original works were written before 70 BC and survive in the works of later writers, e.g. Diodorus Siculus, Strabo, and Athenaus. Poseidonios describes a threefold division of Celtic society, the institutions of the druids, bardic praise poetry and clientship. Each of these are known in early Celtic Ireland as well as on the continent, where that which we call "Celtic" originated in central Europe.

By about 100 BC Irish bogs were being drained for more farmland, and some of the forest had been cleared. This is often associated with the arrival of La Tene Celtic culture (named after a Celtic site in Switzerland) into Ireland. The La Tène culture (which may date in Ireland from 300 BC or earlier) is represented in a unique stlye of metalwork and some stone sculpture, mainly found in the northern half of the country. Connections with northern England are apparent.

Hill Fort Hill-fort building seems very characteristic of the Iron Age, where they are more numerous in the southern half of Ireland. The hillfort at Mooghaun North, Co. Clare has widely spaced ramparts, the outermost of its impending stone walls covers an area of about 18 hectares (45 acres). It is near here that the 'great Clare find' of Late Bronze Age gold objects was discovered in 1854. One of the largest hillforts is the one at Ballylin, Co. Limerick, which covers an area of over 20 hectares (50 acres). A large proportion of hillforts found in southern Ireland, an area almost entirely lacking in La Tene decorated material, suggests a dual nature of Irish culture or population during the Iron Age.

The most important royal and ceremonial sites of ancient Ireland are those at Navan Fort (Armagh), Tara (Meath), Dun Ailinne (Kildare), Cruachan (Roscommon) and Uisneach (Westmeath). Each has its own special place in the myth and legend of early Ireland. The literary aspect of early Irish "history" include tales which are simply too great to pass by. It is with this in mind that the next few few sections of Ireland's History in Maps dedicates itself too. The following maps, up through 400 A.D., are truly a commemoration to Irish proto-history and are not meant to be historical in the true sense of the discipline.

Continue geographic stroll through Irish History -- Celtic Ireland

External Reference:
Irish Archaeology on the Internet - index of sites
The Archaeology of Ancient Ireland
Megalithia an introduction to megalithic sites in the UK and Eire
The Megalith Map - A resource for finding any stone circle or row in Ireland, ...
Mythical Ireland - New Light on the Ancient Past, the stone age in the context of archaeology, mythology, art and astronomy.

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.
Return to Ireland History in Maps home page.

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