Can you imagine what Ireland was like for the first people to arrive here? Our archaeology collections offer a window into the past by studying objects, the remains of settlements and monuments to the dead.These tell the story of how people lived, worked and treated their ancestors, from prehistory to medieval times.
Prehistory refers to a time long ago when as far as we know, people could not read or write. To help us understand what life was like at this time, we need to examine objects and look for clues.
There are three broad prehistoric periods, each named after the materials that people made their tools from.
The earliest is the Stone Age that is itself divided into three periods:
- Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age)
- Mesolithic 8000 BC—4500 BC (Middle Stone Age)
- Neolithic 4500 BC—2500 BC (New Stone Age)
We are not sure if Palaeolithic people lived in Ireland, so the story of the first settlers begins in the Mesolithic, or Middle Stone Age, some 10,000 years ago. Read more by clicking the Prehistory link below.
Early Medieval Ireland (400—1200AD)
Saint Patrick is believed to have brought Christianity to Ireland. With Christian teaching came writing and for the first time there were accounts of news and events as they happened.
Churches and monasteries became the focus of people’s lives. Most people lived in farms known as raths. In a few places such as Armagh, others began to settle in towns.
Fine metal objects, such as the Clonmore shrine, were designed for use in church ceremonies. This small decorated container was probably made in Armagh in the 7th century. It was used to hold the relics of a saint.
The Vikings shattered this religious way of life. They swept down from Scandinavia landing along the coast. Their shallow longships penetrated far inland by river. They ransacked monasteries and pillaged raths. Nowhere seemed safe.
Eventually they began to settle down, trading and building homes. Dublin was their main port and many Vikings burial have been found there.
This period of calm did not last long as new wave of invaders were ready to land.
Late Medieval Ireland (1200—1600 AD)
In 1066 the Norman (French) king, William the Conqueror, famously defeated English King Harold at the Battle of Hastings. England became a Norman kingdom.
Just over a century later, in 1169, these Anglo-Normans began an invasion of Ireland. They built strong stone castles as symbols of power to help control the local population. Carrickfergus Castle is a good example of such a stronghold. It made Carrickfergus the most important town and trading port in the north of Ireland.
Their presence was resisted by the older, Gaelic way of life. Fighting would continue between Irish chieftains and English lords for the next five centuries. Typical weapons and armour of this period include helmets, swords, and crossbows.
Despite this ongoing conflict, trade flourished as seen in the greater number and variety of coins. Many were hidden and not recovered until more recent times, often found by accident.