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Prehistory

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Prehistory

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.

Mesolithic hunter gatherers (8000—4500 BC)

Mesolithic people did not farm or keep animals. Unlike today when we can go to the supermarket for food, they had to live off the land. They hunted and gathered supplies using stone tools made from flint. We have uncovered evidence to show that they:

  • fished in the rivers and loughs for salmon, trout, and eel

  • hunted at sea for seals, collected shellfish, and gathered seaweed

  • caught birds and collected their eggs

  • hunted wild boar and gathered fruits, nuts and berries in the forests.

The camp at Mount Sandel, near Coleraine, is an example of one of their settlements. It is a particularly well-placed site, within easy access of the river, the forest and the sea. Remains of their meals have been found showing they had a varied diet.

It wasn’t always easy for Mesolithic people to stay in the one place. Many needed to follow migrating animals, or look for foods as they came into season in different areas.

Image: Mesolithic flint tools
Mesolithic flint tools

Neolithic farmers (4500—2500 BC)

Around 4500 BC, people in Ireland began to change the way they lived. These changes were brought about by the arrival of new settlers. They farmed the land and kept animals, introducing a range of skills including the ability to make clay pots.

Stone tools such as axes helped clear the forest to make fields. The wood was used to build strong houses.

Large stone monuments were made to bury the dead. These are known as ‘megalithic’ tombs. Only a privileged few could expect such a burial. This required a large workforce to engage in difficult and dangerous work.

One of the most spectacular discoveries from the Neolithic in Ireland is the Malone Road hoard of polished stone axes. Much too large and heavy to be of practical use, their size and quality suggest that their value lay in their appearance as luxury goods.

You can see these axes on display in the Early Peoples gallery at the Ulster Museum.

Image: Neolithic house
Neolithic house

Bronze Age (2500—600 BC)

The first metal objects appear in Ireland around 2500 BC as the knowledge of metalworking spread across Europe. They were made from copper, but this soon changed to bronze – a harder metal made of copper and tin.Bronze replaced stone to make spears, axes, daggers and swords. Other types of objects include the large cauldrons and buckets used at feasts for cooking and holding drinks. Musical horns are among the more unusual items found from this period.Gold was fashionable for making jewellery of the highest quality used as bracelets, neck-rings and tiny lockets known as ‘bulla’.

Curiously, the large megalithic tombs of the Neolithic give way to simple graves. Other changes see society becoming more warlike as defensive hillforts are the largest structures built during the Bronze Age.

Image: This tiny gold 'bulla', not much bigger than your thumbnail, would have been worn on a leather string around the neck much like a locket.
This tiny gold 'bulla', not much bigger than your thumbnail, would have been worn on a leather string around the neck much like a locket.

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Bracelet

Bracelet

Penannular, circular-sectioned bracelet with two expanded terminals....

Pot : food vessel : bowl : ribbed

Pot : food vessel : bowl : ribbed

Pot : food vessel : bowl : ribbed The pot is decorated with false relief and comb impressions....

Pot : food vessel : bowl : tripartite

Pot : food vessel : bowl : tripartite

Pot : food vessel : bowl : tripartite Bowl decorated with comb impressions and approximately traingluar marks (impressed with a toothed implement) for...

Pot : food vessel : bowl : tripartite

Pot : food vessel : bowl : tripartite

Pot : food vessel : bowl : tripartite Bowl is decorated with comb impressions and false relief. A star-shaped motif occurs on the base....

Pot : food vessel : vase : tripartite

Pot : food vessel : vase : tripartite

Pot : food vessel : vase : tripartite Bears incised ornament (filled triangles are the predominant motif)....

Pot : food vessel : vase : bipartite

Pot : food vessel : vase : bipartite

Pot : food vessel : vase : bipartite Vase with incised ornament on rim bevel and exterior. Horizontal ribbing and four equidistant imperforate lugs oc...

Pot : food vessel : vase : bipartite

Pot : food vessel : vase : bipartite

Pot : food vessel : vase : bipartite. Grave 1, a pit grave, contained two urns (a vase urn and an encrusted urn) and three vases: this vase is profuse...

Pot : food vessel : bowl

Pot : food vessel : bowl

Decorated with fine whipped cord impressions...

Pot : urn : cordoned

Pot : urn : cordoned

Pot : urn : cordoned It is a large vessel divided into three zones by two applied cordons and otherwise undecorated. The area between the rim and the ...

Pot : food vessel : bowl

Pot : food vessel : bowl

Pot : food vessel : bowl Bowl decorated with incised lines, false relief and roughly oval impressions....

Pot : food vessel : bowl : bipartite

Pot : food vessel : bowl : bipartite

Pot : food vessel : bowl : bipartite Bowl decorated with comb impressions and false relief; a cruciform desgin occurs on the base....

Pot : food vessel : bowl : simple : necked

Pot : food vessel : bowl : simple : necked

Pot : food vessel : bowl : simple : necked. Sherds of a small vessel, from the chamber of a wedge tomb, bear decoration consisting of comb and triangu...

Bracelet : penannular

Bracelet : penannular

Penannular, round/lozenge-section bracelet with two slightly expanded terminals....

Pot : food vessel : bowl : bipartite

Pot : food vessel : bowl : bipartite

Pot : food vessel : bowl : bipartite Bowl labelled 'Garton, Templepatrick', from Co. Antrim? No details of discovery but according to museum register ...

Pot : food vessel : vase : bipartite

Pot : food vessel : vase : bipartite

Pot : food vessel : vase : bipartite A bowl decorated with a comb-impressed lattice and vertical lines of coarse twisted cord impressions....

Pot

Pot

Pot...

Pot : food vessel : bowl : bipartite : variant

Pot : food vessel : bowl : bipartite : variant

Pot : food-vessel : bowl : bipartite : variant The bowl is decorated with comb impressions and false relief, a comb-impressed cruciform design occurs ...

Pot

Pot

Reconstructed pot...

Sleeve-fastener

Sleeve-fastener

Sleeve-fastener with decorared bow connecting the two flat discs....

Pot

Pot

Reconstructed pot...

Pot : food vessel : bowl : tripartite

Pot : food vessel : bowl : tripartite

Pot : food vessel : bowl : tripartite Bowl decorated with neat comb impressions and false relief. A shoulder groove bears seven imperforate lugs. The ...

Pot : food vessel : bowl : simple

Pot : food vessel : bowl : simple

Pot : food vessel : bowl : simple It is decorated with roughly D-shaped impressions, comb impressions, incised lines, and two zones of oval motifs for...

Bulla

Bulla

This Bulla, found near Downpatrick, takes the form of a tiny purse or bag, which is sometimes described as heart-shaped. It has two main parts; the bo...

Pot : food vessel : pygmy cup

Pot : food vessel : pygmy cup

Pot : food vessel : pygmy cup Tub-shaped vessel. Very heavy crude vessel with thick walls. Rim simple but internal area decorated for a distance of 0....

Pot : food vessel : vase : bipartite

Pot : food vessel : vase : bipartite

Pot : food vessel : vase : bipartite Grave 8, a pit, contained a vase bearing roughly incised ornament...

Sleeve-fastener

Sleeve-fastener

Sleeve-fastener with decorared bow connecting the two flat discs....

Pot : food vessel : vase : tripartite

Pot : food vessel : vase : tripartite

Pot : food vessel : vase : tripartite Bears short incised lines on its rim and its exterior bears an unusual decorative design of large incised filled...

Pot : food vessel : vase : bipartite

Pot : food vessel : vase : bipartite

Pot : food vessel : vase : bipartite Incised ornament...

Pot : food vessel : vase : bipartite

Pot : food vessel : vase : bipartite

Pot : food vessel : vase : bipartite Bears impressed ornament on rim bevel and incised ornament on exterior....

Pot : food vessel : pygmy cup

Pot : food vessel : pygmy cup

Pot : food vessel : pygmy cup Tub-shaped. No details of discovery. Flat rim carrying simple decoration of six incised lines spaced between rim and bas...

Ear-ring : bar-twisted

Ear-ring : bar-twisted

Bar-twisted ear-ring with tightly coiled spiral decoration....

Bracelet : penannular

Bracelet : penannular

Penannular, circular-sectioned bracelet with two slightly expanded terminals....

Pot : urn : cordoned

Pot : urn : cordoned

Pot : urn : cordoned Three cordons encircle this otherwise undecorated vessel. The rim is simple....

Pot : food vessel : vase : tripartite

Pot : food vessel : vase : tripartite

Pot : food-vessel : vase : tripartite A small vase decorated with incised lines; some incised ornament occurs on the base. There is a very slight foot...

Pot

Pot

Pot...

Pot : food vessel : pygmy cup

Pot : food vessel : pygmy cup

Pot : food vessel : pygmy cup...

Pot : urn : encrusted

Pot : urn : encrusted

Pot : urn : encrusted This is a large vessel, decorated over its total area with applied ornament. The rim is bevelled inwardly and arranged in tiers....

Pot : food vessel : bowl : ribbed

Pot : food vessel : bowl : ribbed

Pot : food vessel : bowl : ribbed Bowl with sparse decoration consisting of irregular impressions and impressed or incised lines....

Pot : urn : cordoned

Pot : urn : cordoned

Pot : urn : cordoned Two very low cordons encircle this vessel. The rim is flat on top and with no internal bevel. Decoration is restricted to one ban...

Pot : food vessel : vase : bipartite

Pot : food vessel : vase : bipartite

Pot : food vessel : vase : bipartite Grave 17, a pit protected by a few stones, contained a vase bearing incised ornament....

Pot : food vessel : pygmy cup

Pot : food vessel : pygmy cup

Pot : food vessel : pygmy cup Miniature vase, undecorated; four small perforations occur on the concave neck....

Bracelet : penannular

Bracelet : penannular

Penannular, lozenge-sectioned bracelet with two expanded terminals....

Pot : food vessel : bipartite

Pot : food vessel : bipartite

Pot : food vessel : bipartite Bipartite bowl found lying on its side on the paved floor near the centre of a sub-rectangular cist in a cemetry mound. ...

Pot : urn

Pot : urn

Pot : urn...

Pot

Pot

Reconstructed pot...

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