Stone Age 7000 BC-2500BC
The first people to come to Ireland arrived about 9000 years ago, after the last Ice Age. This period is known as the Mesolithic, or ‘Middle’ Stone Age. Ireland was covered in trees and these first people lived by hunting, fishing and gathering, moving from place to place and building campsites like the one you see here. They caught fish, sometimes using beautifully woven fishtraps, and hunted birds and animals for meat, especially wild pigs. They also collected nuts, berries, wild apples and all kinds of seeds. When they first arrived, they used tiny chips of stone called microliths to make blades, arrows and harpoons; later they started using much heavier blades of stone. They spread widely throughoutIreland, following rivers inland and travelling down the coast. Their way of life was so successful that it lasted, virtually unchanged, for 3000 years.
Around 6000 years ago, the first farming communities appear in Ireland. They began to clear farmland from the forests, planting wheat and keeping cattle, sheep,goats and pigs. This period is known as the Neolithic, or New Stone Age. What made it ‘New’ was that these people had learnt to grow their own food and keep animals, rather than depending on hunting or gathering. This also meant that they tended to stay in the same place for much longer. They had learnt to make pottery, which was useful for cooking and storing food and drink. Farming started in the Near East about 9000 years ago and over the next 3000 years the idea spread from there all across Europe. Groups of farming families moved with it, while some hunter-gatherer communities began to settle down and farm themselves. New people must have come toIrelandat this time as none of these new crops and animals (except pigs) are native to this country, while their houses and pottery are like those used by farmers elsewhere inEurope. Their houses were quite different to what existed earlier: they were rectangular and built of timber – either oak planks, wattle or a mixture of both – and they were quite large, up to 15m in length. The roofs would have been high-pitched and thatched, like the one you see here. The houses were divided into two or three rooms, with doors and sleeping areas and would have been quite comfortable. We know from pollen evidence that there were fields of grain nearby.
These first farmers were also great architects and engineers. All across western Europe, Stone Age farmers built great monuments called megaliths (from the Greek for ‘big stone’). Because burials are found in these monuments, archaeologists describe them as ‘megalithic tombs’. However, burial was probably just one of their functions: some acted as territorial markers and were positioned high in the landscape, others were used to track the movement of the sun, and all were probably places of worship, either of the ancestors or the gods. There are four types of megalithic tomb in Ireland: passage tombs, where the inner chamber is reached through a long tunnel; court-tombs, which have a courtyard in front of the main entrance; wedge-tombs, so named because the internal chambers are wedge-shaped; and portal tombs, like the one here, which have a giant capstone partly balanced on two ‘portal’ or entrance stones. All were covered to some extent with a large cairn of stone. About 1,500 megalithic tombs are known fromIreland.