Mesolithic People: Bann clubs and the Riverford culture

Were these unusual stone artefacts once used by Ireland’s first settlers?

Hunting and gathering was the way of life of the first settlers in Ireland, who lived during the Mesolithic period from 8000 – 4000 BC. At this time the landscape was mostly covered with woodland and wetland. The woodlands, rivers, lakes, coast and sea were homes to many plants and animals that provided different foods for these people.

Living a nomadic life, they concentrated their activities on the waterways, moving sites depending on the availability of resources. The Mesolithic people were experts at using the natural materials from their environment around them… perhaps today we have much to learn from these ancient people who once survived and adapted to their landscape, where we now live.

 

Mesolithic People

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Evidence for the Mesolithic people is limited in Northern Ireland, but excavations at Mount Sandel, County Londonderry and Newferry, County Antrim, have found human activity from this time that tells us about the huts they lived in and the food they ate. With few examples of burials from this time, dates from Mount Sandel, near Coleraine, remain the earliest signs of human presence in Ireland.

Artefacts found from these sites and others from along the river Bann can help us understand the hunter-gatherer way of life of the Mesolithic people. Examples of these stone artefacts can tell us about their activity and include a range of flint objects, worked or ‘knapped’ into shape by the people of this time. Examples of these artefacts within our collections include microliths, Bann flakes, core axes and flake axes.

Image: Microliths are very small blades of flint. A number of them may have been put together on a piece of wood to make a cutting tool or harpoon.
Microliths are very small blades of flint. A number of them may have been put together on a piece of wood to make a cutting tool or harpoon.
Image: Named after the river Bann where many flint flakes have been found, Bann flakes are large butt-trimmed, leaf shaped blades. Used as tools or weapons, they may have been attached to wooden handles and used as spears.
Named after the river Bann where many flint flakes have been found, Bann flakes are large butt-trimmed, leaf shaped blades. Used as tools or weapons, they may have been attached to wooden handles and used as spears.
Image: Core axes were made by striking flint flakes away from the central core. Used as tools, perhaps for chopping wood, it is likely they were mounted on a wooden handle. The finer flake axes may have been used for shaping the wood for weapons, tools or building houses
Core axes were made by striking flint flakes away from the central core. Used as tools, perhaps for chopping wood, it is likely they were mounted on a wooden handle. The finer flake axes may have been used for shaping the wood for weapons, tools or building houses

 

Bann Clubs

Alongside these artefacts, a number of unusual stone artefacts have also been found along the length of the river Bann, in the Lower Bann Valley area. Over time, these stone implements, including clubs, were turning up with regularity in this area, often dismissed by antiquarians and archaeologists, they were later called ‘Bann clubs’ – but are these objects associated with the Mesolithic people?

Image: Illustration of ‘Riverford’ club-types
Illustration of ‘Riverford’ club-types

 

Riverford Culture and antiquarians

In the 1930s, based on the findings of these unusual stone implements throughout the waterways of Ireland, Adolf Mahr (the then Keeper of Antiquities and Director at the National Museum of Ireland) proposed a concept of a Riverford People or Riverford Culture.

As these clubs were turning up in clusters they could not be overlooked. The idea of the Riverford culture was put forward suggesting that near to where these clusters were found, there were ancient settlements that could be attributed to a Riverford People. The absence of flint with these artefacts distinguished these Riverford people from earlier Mesolithic groups. Alongside clubs, it was thought that the Riverford People used other implements such as axes, adzes, chisels or cleavers, found throughout the Bann valley, possibly once lost due to river crossings or having been washed into the riverbed from these settlements.

Areas were antiquarian collectors were active in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries may have also explained why clusters of these stone artefacts were appearing. With the rise in interest in antiquarian matters at this time, there was a growing market for forgeries, which many believed these artefacts to be…but if not forgeries what exactly are they?

Image: Stone club found at Toome Bar. Adams collection
Stone club found at Toome Bar. Adams collection

This club is on display in the Early Peoples gallery at the Ulster Museum. It was found at Toome Bar, Lough Neagh and collected by the antiquarian collector Rev. W.A Adams in 1919. In a letter from our archives, Adams suggests that clubs like this would have ‘been used by fishermen. Fishing by clubs (frequently on a shallow shore) was a common practice in primitive society’.

Rev W.A. Adams. Antiquarian collector
Rev W.A. Adams. Antiquarian collector
Letter from Rev W.A Adams, antiquarian collector
Letter from Rev W.A Adams, antiquarian collector

 

Stone clubs in our collection

Similar examples of these Bann clubs do exist in Orkney and Shetland and other collections in Ireland. Inspired by a recent enquiry of a similar object for identification, we looked at other examples of stone clubs in the collection.

Image: BELUM.A166.1.1913  - This stone artefact was originally part of the Robert Day collection, recorded as a celt or hand club. It is recorded that it was said to be the  ‘Slipper of  Finn ma Cool's wife’s sister. Found under one of Finn ma Cool's finger stones at Conna 1890’.  It is an interesting example of how folklore can be attached to archaeological artefacts. It certainly appears to have what may be a handle and was perhaps once used by prehistoric fishermen.
BELUM.A166.1.1913 - This stone artefact was originally part of the Robert Day collection, recorded as a celt or hand club. It is recorded that it was said to be the ‘Slipper of Finn ma Cool's wife’s sister. Found under one of Finn ma Cool's finger stones at Conna 1890’. It is an interesting example of how folklore can be attached to archaeological artefacts. It certainly appears to have what may be a handle and was perhaps once used by prehistoric fishermen.

Other examples of stone clubs in the collection include

Image: BELUM.A2831 -  a Mesolithic polished axe or salmon club, found at Clough, County.Antrim, part of the Grainger collection.
BELUM.A2831 - a Mesolithic polished axe or salmon club, found at Clough, County.Antrim, part of the Grainger collection.
Image: BELUM.A3866.14 – handled club, part of the Grainger collection
BELUM.A3866.14 – handled club, part of the Grainger collection
Image: BELUM.A24452 – Late Mesolithic stone club, found where the two rivers the Furlough and the Blackwater meet.
BELUM.A24452 – Late Mesolithic stone club, found where the two rivers the Furlough and the Blackwater meet.

These artefacts were most likely used to stun or kill fish, including salmon or eels from the river Bann.

 

Other unusual objects

Examples of other stone implements that were thought to be associated with the proposed Riverford culture include pebble maceheads, possibly used as weights for fishing and other perforated stone artefacts.

Image: BELUM.A22709 – pebble macehead
BELUM.A22709 – pebble macehead
Image: Bone point
Bone point

A number of bone artefacts were also found during dredgings of the river Bann from the 1930s. The majority of these implements are called Bone Points. They were dismissed has having no connection with Mesolithic people until a series of radion carbon dates proved they were. No longer dismissed as anomalies, it is thought they were shaped into points and used as tools for fishing. 

 

Were these unusual stone artefacts once used by Ireland’s first settlers?

Stone artefacts once suggested to be associated with a proposed ‘Riverford Culture’ inform part of a current debate around their use and in some cases the question of their authenticity. Whether they are ‘Riverford clubs’ or axes, they are certainly stone implements that do not conform to recognised categories. If they are not forgeries, then perhaps like the bone point, they date to the Mesolithic. Alongside evidence of sites in the area, they then may help to tell us how prehistoric people exploited Irish waterways and coasts for fish and other sources of food and how Mesolithic people adapted new ideas to their locality.