Riches of Clare: Stone Age Discoveries

Clare Champion, Friday, February 27, 2004

The Riches of Clare exhibition at the local authority-run Clare Museum charts the county’s history. In this article, Fidelma Mc Donnell writes about some discoveries from Stone Age times.

The ages in human pre-history are often named from the technological advancement that set them apart in time. It is for this reason that we have the pre-historic time periods known as the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age for example.

The Stone Age is broken up into 3 periods: the Palaeolithic (old stone age), Mesolithic (middle stone age), and Neolithic (new stone age). In the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic, tools were crude and generally made of chipped flint, while in the Neolithic they were often made of polished stone. In Ireland there is no hard evidence of human occupation during the Palaeolithic era.

The last ice age ended about 10,000 years ago, this completed the physical evolution of Clare which was then ready for the arrival of the first humans during the Mesolithic. Then about 6000 years ago, during the Neolithic era, settlers spreading from the Middle East, through France, and Belgium and into Britain, began to arrive in Ireland. They differed from their Mesolithic predecessors in that they had learned to cultivate the soil, to clear the forests, to use animals such as, cattle, sheep, pigs and dogs for domestic purposes and to make pottery.

The earliest human settlement in County Clare dates to this period and is situated at Roughan Hill, Kilnaboy and was discovered by Dr Carlton Jones and Alex Gilmer in 1994.

One of the most common archaeological finds associated with the Neolithic period is the polished stone axe. Neolithic farmers set about clearing the woodland with stone axes mounted on wooden handles. They also burned areas of the forest in order to make way for their permanent farms. Modern day experimental archaeology in Denmark has shown that it would take one man roughly 20 minutes to chop down a using a polished stone axe.

Neolithic people were also the builders of the great monuments of stone found in parts of County Clare. These are called megalithic (meaning “big stone”) monuments and there are over 1500 megalithic tombs recorded in Ireland. These megaliths are broken down into three categories: court tombs, portal tombs and passage tombs.

By far the most striking example of a portal tomb comes from County Clare, at Poulnabrone in the Burren, where the remains of 21 men, women and children were found, dating from 3800 BC. Evidence from excavations at the Neolithic settlement at Roughan Hill suggested the site was contemporary with wedge tombs nearby.

Little is known of the religious beliefs of the people at the time, but the fact that pottery, beads and tools have been found in these megalithic tombs, indicate that some belief in an afterlife was held. The combined community effort required to build these enormous monuments would suggest a high degree of social organisation at that time.

Stone axes have been studied intensively in Ireland since 1991, when the Irish Stone Axe Project was initiated. The cataloguing of the various finds to date would indicate that there are at least 18,000 stone axes of Irish provenance in existence. Comparison with the estimated 4,000 axes from Scotland and 2,220 from Wales and Mid-West England indicates a density of finds over three times greater than in Wales and four times greater than in Scotland.

At Clare Museum, one of the displays is very intriguing indeed. There is a sample of the 900 stone axes found at Killaloe in the river Shannon at an important fording point in ancient times.

It is thought that critical points in the landscape, such as river fords, had particular importance for prehistoric man. Such sites were probably imbued with the spirits of the Gods. These axes are significant because of the huge number found, and they may have been deposited one at a time by individuals as a sort of good luck gesture when crossing the river, or they may have been one single deposition in an effort to domesticate or appease the spirits.

To this day when we drop a coin into a fountain and make a wish we may in some way be replicating a tradition that is 6,000 years old. By about 2000 BC, the art of extracting metal from ores and moulding it for man’s use became general in Ireland.

Gold and copper were first used and soon it was discovered that an alloy of copper and tin made a metal called bronze which had a hardness not possessed by pure copper.

This new advancement in technology marked the end of the Stone Age, although stone tools were still commonly used during this period. From this point on civilisation in Clare and elsewhere advanced with unprecedented rapidity.

View a Stone Age axe

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