Monday, April 20, 2015

Lough Gara and Ireland's Mesolithic Period

Lough Gara Lake
Archaeologists can tell us a great deal about the Irish Neolithic period or New Stone Age and subsequent times such as the Bronze and Iron Ages as well as medieval times. There is evidence of the past all around us in the form of cairns, portal tombs, boulder burials, standing stones, crannogs and, of course, the ubiquitous ring forts. Much less, however, is known about the Mesolithic Period or Middle Stone Age. What was life like for those early settlers living around Lough Gara and similar lakes in the West of Ireland?

It has been suggested that these early people moved from the sea to the lakes and inland in a seasonal cycle. The winters were spent hunting wild pig in the forests, while in the spring people moved to the sea to collect oysters. At the beginning of summer they followed the fish like salmon and eel upriver.

The land which now comprises the island of Ireland came about following the collision of two continents about 430 million years ago. The formation of Ireland in its present shape only occurred 12,000 – 10,000 years ago. There is some evidence that animals such as bear, woolly mammoth, red deer, giant Irish deer, horse, and wolf roamed Ireland around 40,000 to 20,000 years ago. The remains of mammoths have been discovered near Crumlin, Co. Antrim that date from over 40,000 years ago. The next 7,000 years (18,000 -11,000 BC) was probably the height of the glacial period (Mallory, 2013).

By 12,000 BC the climate in Ireland had become increasingly warmer and the ice sheets were melting. These conditions allowed the gradual spread of trees and other plants northwards into Britain and Ireland. Because of the lack of large areas of grasslands, mammals and other animals became extinct. By 8000 BC Ireland was separated from Britain. This helps to explain why Ireland has a poorer range of native plants and animals and appears to have been settled by people much later.

Mallory points out that there is no evidence that people settled in Ireland earlier than 10,000 years ago. The Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age lasted for about 4,000 years and is divided into two periods: Earlier Mesolithic c 8,000 – 6,500 BC and Later Mesolithic 6,500 – 4,000 BC.

Flint Implements
More evidence of life during the Mesolithic Period is gradually coming to light with around twenty important sites identified around Ireland.  Early Mesolithic communities are characterised by the use of flint cores, flakes, and ground and polished axes. The Later Mesolithic Period saw a shift to the use of larger stone implements and the continued use of stone axes.

Mount Sandel, near Coleraine, Co. Derry, is the oldest Mesolithic site in Ireland and dates from about 8000 BC. Archaeologists discovered traces of a series of huts that had been re-built from one occupation to the next. These early houses had been built using bent rods or poles and measured six metres in diameter with a hearth located in the centre.
Building a Replica Mesolithic Hut - Mount Sandel

Recently, archaeologists discovered the remains of two individuals in Killuragh Cave, Co. Limerick. Bones from this site have been dated to c 7,200 – 6,500 BC. At Castleconnell, Co. Limerick, the cremated remains of a complete adult were found, accompanied by a polished stone axe and two microliths or small flint blades. The grave appeared to have been marked by an upright post. This burial was dated to c 7,550 – 7,300 BC. 

The survey of Lough Gara by Christina Fredengren and a radiocarbon-dating programme, together with the artefacts, have shown that this lake was heavily used during the Mesolithic Period.  One of the posts found in this lake produced a radiocarbon date of 4230–3970 BC, indicating activity in the latest phases of the Mesolithic. A piece of brushwood from the same area was dated to the early Mesolithic, showing that there was human activity on the lake around 7330-7050 BC (Fredengren, 2002).

Where did the first Irish settlers come from? Scholars believe that the most likely ‘homelands’ of the earliest human colonists in Ireland are Scotland, Isle of Man and Wales.

Lough Gara
Most Mesolithic artefacts have been found in or near water, just as at Lough Gara. Mesolithic material has been recovered from other nearby lakes such as: Lough Allen, Co. Leitrim, and Urlaur, Co. Mayo. These two lakes are connected to Lough Gara via the river system.

The Lough Gara collection of stone axes is the largest Mesolithic assemblage in the West of Ireland. It is likely that the waters, and especially the running waters of the river, were seen as places where depositions of suitable objects could be made.

Killian Driscoll (2014) points out that evidence for the Mesolithic Period in the West of Ireland has gone largely unrecognised. In areas such as Lough Gara and Lough Allan, the extent of the evidence has been overlooked. Where lakes have been drained, much evidence can be found, but this creates a bias against areas away from the shores as well as from lake where no drainage has taken place.

Christina Fredengren (2002) Crannogs: A study of people's interaction with lakes, with particular reference to Lough Gara in the north-west of Ireland
J.P.Mallory (2013) The Origins of the Irish
Driscoll, K., Menuge, J., and O'Keeffe, E. (2014). New materials, traditional practices: a Mesolithic silicified dolomite toolkit from Lough Allen, Ireland. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, Vol. 114C pp. 1-34.

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