Irish Archæology

The original Internet guide to Irish archæology - established 1995.


on the
Tables of
contents of
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Irish Archæology - what we find:

Ireland has been continously inhabited since the end of the Ice Age. The first few thousand years are known as the Mesolithic period. The inhabitants were nomadic hunter-gatherers who left little in the line of structural remains, and are recognised mainly by their stone tools. The introduction of farming began the Neolithic period, when the most iconic structures of prehistoric Ireland were created - the dolmens or portal tombs and the passage tombs like Newgrange. These represent a new set of religious beliefs which accompanied the spread of farming. The need to keep track of the seasons led these early farmers to track the movements of heavenly bodies, especially the sun and moon, so that many of these tombs (which may have been seen as temples rather than just tombs) are carefully oriented to allow observations.

The Neolithic farmers still used stone tools and weapons, and when metalworking was invented life changed so radically we talk of a new era - the Bronze Age. The efficiency of warriors wielding bronze swords and spears against an army of 'Flintstones' must have contributed to these changes. From our point of view, looking back today at what we can find, the most noticeable change is that the great tombs have died out, and burials take place in small stone box-like graves which we call cists. But probably the best-known features of the Bronze Age is the superb gold jewellery - torcs, gorgets, bracelets, etc.

In a world where people were used to fine gold and bronze, the first iron objects to be brought in must have looked rather crude. 'Cheap... shoddy... that stuff'll never catch on', they probably said. Actually, that was the least of their worries. Something seems to have gone horribly wrong at the end of the Bronze Age. The population shrank, a lot of farmland was abandoned and started to go back to nature. People stopped making all those gold ornaments. Deteriorating climate? plague? famine? we don't know yet. We don't find a lot from the Iron Age, but what we do find is a new art style. It is found on metalwork and carved in stone - a style which came from the Central European people whom the Greeks called 'Celts'. We used to think that the people themselves had invaded and settled, but it now seems that very few actual people arrived: it was more a spread of ideas and fashions.

The next change was certainly a spread of ideas rather than people. Christian missionaries, including the famous Saint Patrick, came to Ireland in the 5th century AD. Over the next few centuries, Christianity gradually replaced paganism. Its most visible effect in archaeology only came when building in stone started to become popular, with the round towers and High Crosses which are now seen as typical of Ireland. Much of the fine metalwork for which the period is renowned was also inspired by the Church. It was also in this period that farmhouses were built in circular enclosures surrounded by one or more ditches and banks. These were the ringforts or raths - the most common archæological monument in Ireland.

In the 12th century, both church reform and the coming of the Anglo-Normans led to building in stone becoming the norm for churches, monasteries and castles. It is these great stone buildings which are typical of the high mediæval period. The Church continued to produce fine metalwork in the form of reliquaries etc. These were now in a more standard European Gothic style. This was also when pottery returned to Ireland, having hardly been used at all since the end of the Bronze Age - people must have used wooden, metal and leather vessels. Now came the green-glazed pottery, sometimes decorated with cartoon-like faces, which is so typical of mediæval sites.

The mediæval period conventionally ends with Henry VIII and the Reformation, and of course that was the end of the monasteries, but the things which archaeologists find changed more slowly. Families who lived in tower-houses put in a few new windows or a fireplace, or occasionally even an extension, and the late mediæval parish churches were usually not rebuilt if they remained in use. New varieties of pottery were imported. The wars of the mid-17th century were a watershed, and the material culture from then on is noticeably more 'modern'. Typical finds from the later period are clay pipes and glass bottles. Industrial archaeology becomes important, as we study mills, early factories, and the beginnings of rail transport.

The Internet
Relevant material on the Internet falls into three categories. Firstly, webpages of museums, companies, Government departments, organisations etc. These give brochure-type information, introducing the organisation, giving contact details and other useful information. They are the equivalent of full-colour brochures, but even the smallest local historical society can afford to have one. Secondly, full publication of texts, pictures and maps online. This is particularly useful for out-of-copyright material such as old journals and county or diocesan histories. Thirdly, there is a great mass of informal material ranging from chat groups and Facebook pages to tourists' holiday snaps and video clips of sites they visited. Finding your way amongst all these sources can be difficult. I hope this website helps in your explorations.

Thaddeus C. Breen

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Thaddeus C. Breen
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