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Newgrange, Ireland's largest Neolithic passage tomb, c. 3200 BC. One of the Boyne valley tombs.

The prehistory of Ireland, pieced together from archaeological evidence, begins with the first evidence of humans in Ireland around 10,500 BC,[1] and finishes with the start of the historical record around 400 AD. Both of these dates are later than for much of Europe and all of the Near East. The prehistoric period covers the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age societies of Ireland. For much of Europe, the historical record begins when the Romans invaded; as Ireland was not invaded by the Romans its historical record starts later, with the coming of Christianity.

Bronze Age gold dress-fasteners and torc, amber necklace, Ulster Museum

The two periods that have left the most spectacular groups of remains are the Neolithic, with its megalithic tombs, and the gold jewellery of the Bronze Age, when Ireland was a major centre of gold mining.

Ireland has many areas of bogland, and a great number of archaeological finds have been recovered from these. The anaerobic conditions sometimes preserve organic materials exceptionally well, as with a number of bog bodies, a Mesolithic wicker fish-trap,[2] and a Bronze Age textile with delicate tassels of horse hair.[3]

  • Castlederg, c. 950-800 BC

  • Late Bronze Age gold "gorget", 800-700 BC, found in County Clare. County Clare. NMI, Dublin

  • Iron Age (500 BC – AD 400)

    Iron Age has long been thought to begin around 500 BC and then continue until the Christian era in Ireland, which brought some written records and therefore the end of prehistoric Ireland. This view has been somewhat upset by the recent carbon-dating of the wood shaft of a very elegant iron spearhead found in the River Inny, which gave a date of between 811 and 673 BC. This may further erode the belief, still held by some, that the arrival of iron-working marked the beginning of the arrival of the Celts (i.e. speakers of the Proto-Celtic language) and thus Indo-European speakers, to the island.[49]

    Alternatively, many hold the view that this happened with the bearers of the Bell Beaker culture, probably Indo-European speaking, reaching Ireland during the earlier stage of the Bronze Age.[50] The Celtic languages of Britain and Ireland, also known as Insular Celtic, can be divided into two groups, Goidelic and Brittonic. When primary written records of Celtic first appear in about the fifth century, Gaelic or Goidelic, in the form of Primitive Irish, is found in Ireland, while Brittonic, in the form of Common BrittonicAlternatively, many hold the view that this happened with the bearers of the Bell Beaker culture, probably Indo-European speaking, reaching Ireland during the earlier stage of the Bronze Age.[50] The Celtic languages of Britain and Ireland, also known as Insular Celtic, can be divided into two groups, Goidelic and Brittonic. When primary written records of Celtic first appear in about the fifth century, Gaelic or Goidelic, in the form of Primitive Irish, is found in Ireland, while Brittonic, in the form of Common Brittonic, is found in Britain.

    The Iron Age includes the period in which the Romans ruled most of the neighbouring island of Britain. Roman interest in the area led to some of the earliest written evidence about Ireland. The names of its tribes were recorded by the geographer Ptolemy in the 2nd century AD.[51]

    The recorded tribes of Ireland included at least three with names identical or similar to British or Gaulish tribes: the Brigantes (also the name of the largest tribe in northern and midland Britain), the Manapii (possibly the same people as the Menapii, a Belgic tribe of northern Gaul) and the Coriondi (a name similar to that of Corinion, later Cirencester and the Corionototae of northern Britain).

    Up to about 150 BC there are many finds that show stylistic influence from continental Europe (as in the preceding Dowris Phase), and some direct imports. After that date relationships with British styles predominate, perhaps reflecting some movement of people. The Keshcarrigan Bowl, possibly made in Britain, is an example of this. Another cup found in Fore, County Westmeath does seem to be an import.[52]

    Examples from Iron Age Ireland of La Tène style, the term for Iron Age Celtic art, are very few, to a "puzzling" extent,[53] although some of these are of very high quality, such as a number of scabbards from Ulster and the Petrie Crown, apparently dating to the 2nd century AD. This was well after Celtic art elsewhere had been subsumed into Gallo-Roman art and its British equivalent.[54] Despite this it was in Ireland that the style seemed to revive in the early Christian period, to form the Insular art of the Book of Kells and other well-known masterpieces, perhaps under influence from Late Roman and post-Roman Romano-British styles. The 1st century BC Broighter Gold hoard, from Ulster, includes a small model boat, a spectacular torc with relief decoration influenced by classical style, and other gold jewellery probably imported from the Roman world, perhaps as far away as Alexandria.[55]

    The headland of Drumanagh, near Dublin and not yet fully excavated, may have represented a centre for trade with Roman Britain. Drumanagh is an example of the coastal promontory fort, using cliff headlands with a narrow neck to reduce the extent of fortification necessary. In Ireland these seem to be mainly a feature of the Iron Age,[56] with some perhaps dating to the Bronze Age, and also continuing to be used into the Early Medieval period. Although today seen as mostly dating from the early historic period, some of the perhaps 60,000 ringforts or raths in Ireland date back to the Late Iron Age. These vary greatly in size and function, with smaller ones a single-family farmstead (with slaves), or merely an enclosure for animals, and larger ones clearly having a wider political and military significance.

    The headland of Drumanagh, near Dublin and not yet fully excavated, may have represented a centre for trade with Roman Britain. Drumanagh is an example of the coastal promontory fort, using cliff headlands with a narrow neck to reduce the extent of fortification necessary. In Ireland these seem to be mainly a feature of the Iron Age,[56] with some perhaps dating to the Bronze Age, and also continuing to be used into the Early Medieval period. Although today seen as mostly dating from the early historic period, some of the perhaps 60,000 ringforts or raths in Ireland date back to the Late Iron Age. These vary greatly in size and function, with smaller ones a single-family farmstead (with slaves), or merely an enclosure for animals, and larger ones clearly having a wider political and military significance.[57]

    There are several ringforts in the complex topping the Hill of Tara, which seems to have its origins in the late Iron Age, although the site also includes a Neolithic passage grave and other earlier tombs.[56] This is one of a number of major sites connected in later literature and mythology with kingship, and probably had a ritual and religious significance, though it is now impossible to be clear as to what this was. Navan Fort (Emain Macha), another major hilltop site, had a very large circular building constructed on it about 100 BC. It was forty metres across, with 275 tree-posts in rings. The largest was the central post, a tree felled about 95 BC. Within the century following the whole building was destroyed, apparently in a ritual fashion.[58]

    Other large-scale constructions, requiring a good degree of social organization, include linear earthworks such as the Black Pig's Dyke and Cliadh Dubh, probably representing boundaries, and acting as hindrances to cattle-raids, and "toghers" or wooden trackways across boggy areas,[56] of which the best-known is the Corlea Trackway, a corduroy road dated to 148-147 BC, and about a kilometre long and some three metres wide.[59]

    The l

    Other large-scale constructions, requiring a good degree of social organization, include linear earthworks such as the Black Pig's Dyke and Cliadh Dubh, probably representing boundaries, and acting as hindrances to cattle-raids, and "toghers" or wooden trackways across boggy areas,[56] of which the best-known is the Corlea Trackway, a corduroy road dated to 148-147 BC, and about a kilometre long and some three metres wide.[59]

    The late Iron Age saw sizeable changes in human activity. Thomas Charles-Edwards coined the phrase "Irish Dark Age" to refer to a period of apparent economic and cultural stagnation in late prehistoric Ireland, lasting from c. 100 BC to c. AD 300.[60] Pollen data extracted from Irish bogs indicate that "the impact of human activity upon the flora around the bogs from which the pollen came was less between c. 200 BC and c. AD 300 than either before or after."[61] The third and fourth centuries saw a rapid recovery.[61]

    The reasons for the decline and recovery are uncertain, but it has been suggested that recovery may be linked to the "Golden Age" of Roman Britain in the third and fourth centuries. The archaeological evidence for trade with, or raids on, Roman Britain is strongest in northern Leinster, centred on modern County Dublin, followed by the coast of County Antrim, with lesser concentrations in the Rosses on the north coast of County Donegal and around Carlingford Lough. As Roman Britain collapsed politically, there was even settlement by Irish people, and leaders, in Wales and western Britain.[62] Inhumation burials may also have spread from Roman Britain, and had become common in Ireland by the fourth and fifth centuries.[63]

    It was also during this time that some protohistoric records begin to appear. Early Irish literature was not written down until much later, in the Early Medieval period, but many scholars are ready to accept that the saga cycles preserve in some form elements from much earlier, that give some insights into the world of the last elites of prehistoric Ireland.

    The large areas of bog in Ireland have produced over a dozen ancient bog bodies, mostly from the Iron Age. Some were found and reburied before archaeological and scientific investigation was possible. Some survive as skeletons only, but the best-preserved have retained their flesh, hair, and clothing. The oldest appears to be the Neolithic Stoneyisland Man, perhaps the victim of a canoeing accident around 3320–3220 BC.

    Cashel Man died violently about 2500-2000 BC in the early Bronze Age, and is one of the possible ritual killings; it is now thought these were deposed kings sacrificed after being seen to fail in their rule, perhaps after crop failures.[64] Two Iron Age examples of apparent elite victims of ritual killing are Old Croghan Man and Clonycavan Man, both from approximately 400 to 175 BC.[65] Other bodies appear to have been normal burials.

    Collections

    Almost all prehistoric Irish finds remain in the British Isles. Some are in local museums, but much the mo

    Cashel Man died violently about 2500-2000 BC in the early Bronze Age, and is one of the possible ritual killings; it is now thought these were deposed kings sacrificed after being seen to fail in their rule, perhaps after crop failures.[64] Two Iron Age examples of apparent elite victims of ritual killing are Old Croghan Man and Clonycavan Man, both from approximately 400 to 175 BC.[65] Other bodies appear to have been normal burials.

    Almost all prehistoric Irish finds remain in the British Isles. Some are in local museums, but much the most significant collections are in Dublin, Belfast and London. The first "national" collection for Irish antiquities was the British Museum in London, where many finds from before and after it was established in 1753 have ended up. However, from the foundation of the Dublin Royal Irish Academy in 1785 there was a local rival, which became the main destination of objects that were newly-found, or appeared on the market. The Dublin Society also formed a collection, though this was less important for antiquities. The society was founded in 1731, and by 1733 had opened a museum. Both these collections were transferred to the new "Museum of Science and Art", now the National Museum of Ireland, by 1890.[66]

    A legal dispute in which the Crown challenged the British Museum's purchase of the Broighter Hoard was won in 1903, and marked the acceptance on all sides of the Dublin museum as the Irish national collection.A legal dispute in which the Crown challenged the British Museum's purchase of the Broighter Hoard was won in 1903, and marked the acceptance on all sides of the Dublin museum as the Irish national collection.[67] This was a hoard found in what became Northern Ireland after Irish independence. Northern Ireland had seen its many important finds of antiquities passing to first London and then Dublin, and the Ulster Museum was only recognized as a national museum for antiquities in 1961. This had developed out of the collections of the Belfast Natural History Society, later renamed the Belfast Municipal Museum and Art Gallery, and was renamed again in 1961. Despite this, the pace of new finds has meant that it has an important collection.


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