The Archaeology of Ancient Ireland

Prehistoric Ireland. Little remains of Irish dwellings that predates the sixth century a.d. The abundance of wood and the difficulty of working stone with primitive tools undoubtedly accounts in part for this. In addition, the primitive farming practice of depleting the fields and then moving on to new ones made the laborious erection of a permanent stone dwelling unfeasible. Moreover, livestock constituted a major part of the wealth of the time, and the pasturing of flocks required considerable mobility, since the animals lived as foragers and were not, for the most part, fed grain from the laboriously worked fields. Furthermore, there were at that time no towns or even villages where artifacts might accumulate over a considerable period of time. At the most there were quasi-permanent encampments such as the royal sites of Cruachan and Emain Macha.

Burial sites, however, are another matter. Court graves and passage graves can be found dating from as early 3,500 years b.c. (Harbison 5-ff). A court grave (or court tomb) was divided into two basic parts: a long chamber which contained smaller compartments in which remains were deposited, and a large open-space or court at the entrance to the chamber. The court was semi-circular and marked off by large standing stones. The chamber was roofed by a stone mound which tapered toward the back. Presumably the open court was used for rituals associated with burial.

Variations on these burial sites are portal tombs or dolmens and wedge tombs. Portal tombs consisted of three or more standing stones capped typically by a large monolith and, with the exception of the portal, buried under an earthen mound. Erosion over the millenia--these structures were built between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago--has laid the stone skeleton bare, and the resulting structure gave rise to the term dolmen or stone table. These constructions were once thought to be the altars of the ancient Druids. Wedge tombs were similarly constructed but distinguished by their wedge-shaped burial chamber. These tombs were constructed between 3,500 and 4,000 years ago.

Passage graves (or passage tombs) consist of a burial chamber communicating with the outside by a passage of considerable length. Typically the passage is walled with large standing stones and roofed by large flat stones. The burial chamber may likewise be walled by standing stones but may be roofed with large flat stones if the span is not wide or, in the case of wide spans may have a corbeled roof. In the case of large tombs, the burial chamber may have several side chambers. Both burial chamber and passage are contained within an earthen mound, with the burial chamber near the center of the mound. These mounds may be quite large. The famous passage grave at Newgrange is contained within an oval mound with a diameter of around 300 feet. Along with Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth, all located in the Boyne Valley near Drogheda, are perhaps the best known. Newgrange has been determined to be around 5100 years old (3100 b.c.) (Harbison 7). Other unexcavated mounds, mostly in the West, may also contain passage graves. Perhaps the best known of these is the massive one located on the top of Knocknarea, a mountain a few miles west of Sligo Town, which legend says contains the body of Queen Medb. This mound, like the passage graves of Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth, is associated with the ruins of a number of smaller passage graves.

Early Christian Ireland. As has been noted elsewhere, there is little archaeological evidence, aside from graves and some grave goods concerning prehistoric Ireland. However, on the basis of what we have learned about Ireland in the early Christian period--and assuming that known practices have antecedents in that time about which we know little--we can make some guesses about the late pre-historic period.

One practice which spans the late pre-historic period and the early-Christian period is writing in ogham. The introduction of ogham is, in fact, one of the events which marks the transition of Ireland from a pre-historical period to an historical one. Ogham is a uniquely Irish form of writing, and the earliest record of it is around 300a.d., several hundred years before the large-scale introduction of Christianity into Ireland. Named after Ogmios, the Celtic god of writing, ogham's basic characters equate with (and probably are based upon) the Roman alphabet. The actual forms of the letters and their relationships to one another suggest that Ogham may have evolved from the use of a tally stick, that is a notched stick on which crude records of quantities of, for example, grain or cattle could be kept or a rudimentary calendar inscribed. Once the notion that certain notches or groups of notches could stand for phonemes, it would be a short step to using a tally stick as a form of rudimentary letter. In any case, it is ill-suited for conveying any but the briefest of messages. Carved on the corners of standing stones, which is the form in which it has survived to the present, ogham is read from the bottom up, with the angle of the corner being the baseline. If the message is too long to fit on one side, then it is continued down the opposite edge. These inscriptions are typically ceremonial or monumental in nature and are not used for ordinary communication. Over three hundred ogham stones have been found in Ireland, mainly in the south and the southwest.

The introduction of Christianity into Ireland resulted as well in the introduction of the Roman alphabet in which the Irish language was recorded by monks, and this alphabet, with its greater flexibility, soon replaced ogham.

The remains of thousands of ring forts or raths can still be found in Ireland, although in recent years many have been damaged or destroyed for agricultural or commercial reasons. A ring fort was a small settlement of some sort surrounded by one or more earthen embankments in a roughly circular shape. The interior diameter can range from 50 to over 200 feet. The interior is sometimes sited on a natural or artificial mound. There may also be a souterrain, a subterranean room used probably for storage. The term "fort" is somewhat misleading since most of them were probably farmsteads for which the embankments (probably supplemented by wooden palisades) served as enclosures for domestic animals and protection against wild predators as well as a deterrent to attack from human beings. Some sites (for example, Tara) were associated with royalty and/or had ceremonial purposes.

Associated buildings were wooden or wattle and daub and for the most part have not survived. Some of these constructions may possibly date from the Iron Age, although few can be identified as having been constructed before the fifth century a.d. Nevertheless, on the premise that they didn't spring into being unparented, one must conclude that some more ephemeral form, perhaps a simple wooden palisade, must have been in existence at an earlier time. Since the time of their appearance follows the introduction of improved agricultural methods , which tended to cause farmers to stay and improve land rather than exhausting it and moving on, there may have been as well a corresponding tendency to develop more elaborate sites for the placement of buildings and animals.

Stone-walled ring forts or cashels are essentially the same as Raths except that they are surrounded by drystone walls rather than earthen embankments. There are even a few sites on which both techniques are used. Cashels are more frequently found in the west of Ireland where stone is more easily acquired and excavation in the stony earth is correspondingly more difficult.

Hill forts are very similar to ring forts, differing in that they are sited on hills and use the natural slope of the hill as an addition to the embankment.

Promontory forts, like hill forts, incorporate the local topography into their construction. Located on promontories with sheer sides, these sites require a wall or walls only on the side on which approach is possible. Unlike ring forts and crannogs, there is considerable evidence that many of these were constructed during the Iron Age and were then occupied (or re-occupied) during the Medieval Period.

Crannogs (from crann = tree) are lake or marsh dwellings. They may be located wholly or in part on natural islands, but they were frequently constructed on artificial islands built up of brushwood, clay, timbers, and stone held in place by pilings. These were often topped by defensive palisades. They ranged in size from 50 to 150 feet in diameter. They are inherently defensive constructions. Since they could be reached only by boat or footbridge, they generally couldn't shelter animals which had to be left on nearby dry land even during attack. Rising waters frequently covered the sites of crannogs, and the resulting waterlogging preserved the remains of buildings. As a result, a clearer picture of the buildings and day-to-day activities of these lake dwellers is available than is the case with those living in ring forts. As in the case of ring forts, there is little convincing evidence that these constructions existed prior to the fifth century a.d.

The earliest Christian buildings (i.e, churches and monastic buildings) were, like the dwellings of the inhabitants, wooden, and have not survived. However, beginning sometime during the eighth century a few stone churches were constructed, and by the eleventh century these became common. Early stone churches were characterized by structurally unnecessary projections (antae) which appear to be imitations of the preceding wooden structures. Later stone churches began to take on Romanesque characteristics, and in the early twelfth century, Cormac's Chapel was constructed as part of the ecclesiastical complex on the Rock of Cashel. This building was fully Romanesque. Beginning sometime during the tenth century, stone round towers were sometimes built in association with churches and monasteries. These towers had multiple functions, places for the ringing of bells, watch towers, places of refuge in times of attack, and places to store valuables.

Food and farming. Archaeological evidence in this matter is meagre before the Christian era, and depends at its earliest stages on the study of plant pollen. Cereal grains--oats, barley, wheat--were an important part of the diet. Sheep, goats, and swine were also raised for food and leather (and in the case of sheep and goats, milk and wool or hair). Cattle, however, were the most important domestic animals, with milk and other dairy products furnishing very important staple foods. Meat from cattle was also important, but the absence of refrigeration made the slaughtering of a large animal a more occasional matter. Hides, too, were an important byproduct. There is little mention of chickens in the earliest legal texts (Edwards 59), and in general the importance of domestic fowl and eggs in the diet of the time is unclear. The potato was unknown in Ireland until it was brought back from South America at a much later time.

It is difficult to determine how much of a role hunting played in the food supply. At higher social levels, hunting was definitely a sport and a test of skill; one can speculate that the hunting of small animals and wildfowl was an important supplement to the diet of the lower classes, but there is little proof of this. Cattle were the measure of wealth in pre-Christian and early-Christian Ireland. The importance of cattle not only economically but also in terms of status is central to the greatest of Irish epics, The Cattle Raid of Cúailnge. Horses and ponies, though not generally raised for food, were raised in large numbers for racing and battle, and for transportation and light hauling. They were not generally used for heavy hauling or plowing because the horse collar was unknown in Ireland until near the end of the first millenium a.d.

Implements, armor, clothing, artwork:

Agricultural implements. The first light wooden plough or ard may have appeared in Ireland during the late Bronze age (Edwards 60). This was incapable of doing more than scratching the surface of the soil and required an elaborate process of cross-ploughing to prepare the soil. Sometime during the iron age, the blade of this plough would have been sheathed with iron. Sometime during the early medieval period, a plough with an iron-sheathed blade and coulter was introduced, probably from Roman Britain. The coulter was a narrow, vertically mounted blade that sliced the soil in front of the heavier plough-share and reduced the effort of ploughing. Sometime shortly after the introduction of the coulter plough, a wooden mould-board was added to the top of the plough-share. The mould-board turns the soil as it is cut and makes cross-ploughing unnecessary, resulting in a considerable saving in time and energy.

Besides iron-based hand tools and domestic implements of various sorts (ladles, pins, needles, punches, saws, etc.), a most significant innovation (during the seventh century a.d.) was the introduction of the horizontal water-mill, which made the milling of grain a much less labor- intensive process.

Pottery and glass. There is little evidence of domestic pottery before the seventh or eighth centuries (Edwards 74). This souterrain ware (so called because of its frequent presence in fragmented form in the souterrains of ring-forts) was hand made, pots being built up from clay coils rather than being thrown on a wheel. Little ornamentation was used. Imported pottery can be dated no earlier than the fifth century. Much of this, particularly the amphorae and other containers, undoubtedly contained substances such as wine or oil when imported. These imports came from as far away as the eastern mediterranean, some of the pottery being of Turkish origin. Glass was used principally for ornaments such as beads and bangles. Most of the glass made in Ireland was recycled from broken imported objects.

Armor. Irish warriors were only lightly protected. They carried a small round shield, probably made of wood and hide, with a metal boss or knob at its center. According to The Tain, they also wore body armor of stiffened hide and a "crested battle helmet" (Kinsella 148-150). It is unclear if this battle helmet was also of leather or contained metal. In any case, this is a description of the armor of an exceptional man; it is unlikely that the ordinary soldier would have had even this sort of protection. Chariot horses apparently were covered with a blanket of metal plates (Kinsella 147). Ordinary soldiers carried metal-tipped lances or spears while the aristocrats carried short swords (less than two feet in length) for use in personal combat. After the Viking invasions began, the Irish adopted the longer, heavier slashing sword used by the Vikings.

Clothing. Because of its perishable nature in a damp climate such as that in Ireland, little clothing survives from early periods. However, from available scraps and examination of such implements as spindles, some conclusions can be reached. The wool of sheep and goat hair were woven into cloth. The wool was often dyed before spinning. Flax was grown and processed into linen cloth in early medieval times. Tanning and leather embossing were known from early times, and leather bags undoubtedly served as containers for liquids before the common introduction of pottery. Remains have been found of rawhide shoes of the simple one-piece kind known as pampooties (these were still made and worn in remote parts of Ireland into the twentieth century. Fragments of more complex, multi-part shoes have been dated from early medieval times.

Artwork and manuscripts. Fine art as we define the term didn't exist in ancient Ireland. Artwork was decorative and, in the case of religious artwork, sometimes instructive. Cups, plates, reliquaries, book covers, brooches, pins, and decorated combs all have been found. Metal, wood, horn, and bone were used alone or in combination as the materials of these objects. While they have practical use, some have been ornamented with twisted and cast metal and set with precious stones or glass beads (which were considerably more valuable at the time than at present). Animal and human figures, as well as vines and leaves were also carved, cast, or forged as a part of these objects. Enamelling, that is the fusion by heat of a colored, opaque substance to a metal surface, was also used for decoration. Some of the most famous pieces, such as the Ardagh Chalice and the Tara Brooch appear to have been made in the late seventh or early eighth century (Edwards 137, 141).

Early stone carving was done by incising on stone slabs, and the figure of the cross was an important element in these carvings. By the late eighth century free-standing stone crosses began to appear. The earlier ones were primarily ornamented with various native Irish devices, such as interlace and spirals, etc. In later ones, human figures and scenes began to take on more importance, with scriptural scenes eventually becoming more dominant, but never entirely replacing, for example, scenes of hunting or depictions of prominent ecclesiastics or royal patrons. The earliest figural carvings tended to be relatively simple and in low relief, but as time went on, the carvings became more elaborate and in higher relief. The cross at Dysert O Dea, Co. Clare, depicts a crucified Christ and a bishop in very high relief . Free- standing figures, however, do not appear to have been attempted during pre-Christian and early medieval times.

Ireland has been justly famous for the splendor of its medieval manuscripts. It is not always clear whether these manuscripts have been inscribed in Irish monasteries in Ireland or by Irish or Irish-trained monks in Irish founded monasteries in England (e.g., Lindisfarne in Northumbria), and on the continent (e.g., Bobbio in northern Italy and St. Gall in Switzerland). Two of the most famous are in the Trinity College Library, Dublin, the Book of Durrow and the Book of Kells. The Book of Durrow , was made around 675. The most likely site of composition was Iona, according to Edwards (152), though it possibly was done in Derry or Durrow. One of the most famous and beautiful books in the world, the Book of Kells , was probably begun at Iona in the late eighth century. It is possible that it was finished at Kells.

Examples of painting, aside from manuscript illumination, have not survived in Ireland's damp climate. However, as is true of continental statuary and carving, at least some Irish sculpture very likely was painted and thus much more colorful than the gray stone which can presently be seen. We do know that paintings were used as church ornamentation at least as early as the seventh century. Edwards cites Cogitosus' Life of St. Brigit regarding the then- existing wooden church at Kildare, which Cogitosus says was "adorned with painted tablets." He also says that one entire wall was "covered with linen curtains and decorated with paintings" (Edwards 122).

(Copyright 1995, 2002, 2006 by Michael Sundermeier)


A corbeled roof is one built up by overlapping stones from the outer wall inward until they meet and are overlapped.
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Dowth Passage Grave is not presently open to the public and is in rough condition.
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The following discussion relies heavily on Edwards.
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As the human residents of Ireland developed their skills, their influence on the environment increased dramatically. The arrival of the Bronze Age in Ireland around 4,000 years ago had no great effect on the island's natural history since cutting implements made of bronze, while superior to stone, still lacked the effectiveness of iron and steel; however, around 1,700 years ago (300 a.d.), two crucial and related trends combined to increase the human impact on the environment: the widespread use of iron implements, and the introduction of more advanced methods of agriculture, including animal-drawn ploughs and ploughshares. For more extensive discussion of this, see Geology.

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Drystone: stone stacked without mortar.

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