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.
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.
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.