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Stone Age Ireland

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Natural landscapes are the product of geological, climactic and biological processes operating independently of human influence. The cultural landscape shows the works of humans over long periods of time continually changing as technological advances occur. The farmlands resulted from clearance of natural forest vegetation. Human beings introduced the raw materials of farming, the cereals and animals, at a very early period in the history of human occupancy and used natural materials for economic and social ends. Human structures of rocks, soil and plants are distinctive. They planted woodlands to beautify the landscape, to supply timber, to provide windbreaks or as habitat for game. These artificial features make up the cultural landscape and form a continuous layer over the natural environment.

Ireland was not often in the main stream of European history and experienced major continental developments in a weakened form because it is an island on the Atlantic edge of Europe. The skills and ways of life found in more central or urbanized areas are absent in western Ireland. The peripheral position preserves some of the older customs.

The colonists who came to Ireland towards the end of the 4th millennium BC found a thickly wooded environment. Neolithic or New Stone Age is when settled farming communities first began to emerge as human activity. Neolithic farming was already at a fairly sophisticated level with land divided into fields just as it is today. They cleared extensive tracts of over 1,000 acres of forest, divided into areas over a mile in length and were then sub-divided into fields of 5 to 15 acres. The principal tool used by farmers was the polished stone axe. The newcomers sought light, well drained soils which they could clear of timber. The lowland woods of oak, hazel, elm and elder were more difficult. In places in the west of Ireland today where most fields lie below the 500 foot contour, Neolithic fields extend over the summits of 800 foot high hills, altitude obviously having no effect on settlement. The mainstay of the economy was cattle, pigs, sheep and goats. Small quantities of wheat and barley grew. An ard is a simple wooden plough. The marks left by such a plough in the Ceide Fields area represent the earliest evidence of the use of the ard in the country.

Circular or rectangular houses have been uncovered. These farming peoples set posts into the ground with cross beams fitted on top, then they mounted the rafters of a low pitched roof. The walls were probably made of an interwoven arrangement of wattles which formed a frame work for a plaster of mud and straw. The roofing material is likely to have been of thatch. Lengthy occupation is indicated in some places by the erection of dwelling houses, permanent field enclosures and by the continued use of large communal tombs in favored locations. Today these burial sites are referred to as megalithic tombs and are one of the principal surviving remains indicative of the Stone Age settlers.

The development of blanket bog is often linked with exploitation of the environment by Neolithic people and the removal of the ancient forests together with changes in the climate. Over-grazing and absence of forest cover led to the leaching of the mineral soils and increased acidity forming a suitable environment for the growth of peat. Today much archaeological material is preserved beneath a blanket of peat which has grown up around the prehistoric landscape. Such remains are often uncovered during turf cutting when the fossilized tree stumps of ancient forests may also come to light.




Submitted by CelticKnot, from trip to Ireland

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