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.
Excavations and Archives – digging up the past
Part of the archaeological collections are made up of objects found during excavations or ‘digs’.
During the dig detailed notes, drawings and photographs are made. These help to record and explain how things were found. The objects that are recovered and these records, are known as the ‘archaeological archive’.
Archaeologists working on a single site may recover just a few, or many thousands of objects. These can stored by different institutions and museums.
What have I found?
Many important objects are found by people who are not archaeologists.
If you think you have found something of interest, please let us know by following these guidelines. We can discover more about the past by keeping a record of these finds. While we will try our best to identify your object, it is not our job to decide how much it is worth.
Contact the Historic Environment Division (HED) if you are interested in knowing more about the monuments people built in the past. This government body controls archaeological excavations. You can discover more about these monuments through their Sites and Monuments Record.
Reporting your find
The law requires people to report any objects of archaeological significance that they find to the museum. For more details, see the Historic Monuments & Archaeological Objects Order (Northern Ireland) 1995.
If you can, please contact us by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) with a photograph of your find and provide as much detail as possible:
- your contact phone number
- your name and address
- when and where you found the object
- the size of the object (or a scale in the photograph)
- a description of the object, including what it is made from (if you can tell)
We will contact you when we have read your email and performed some preliminary research. Please do not bring the find into the museum, there may be no one on hand to help you.
What happens to my find?
The museum will return your find to you after it has been photographed and recorded. You may be asked if you wish to donate the object to us.
Certain finds reported to the museum may be treasure. These are mostly gold or silver objects that are over 300 years old. Please note that individual gold and silver coins are not treasure.
The coroner will be informed of your discovery. The object will be kept until your case is heard in the coroner’s court. If your find is indeed treasure, you will be entitled to a finder’s reward, shared with the owner of the land where the item was found.
More details regarding Treasure can be found from the Department for Communities web site.