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The First Farmers: 4000-2500BC

Around 4000BC we begin to find evidence of a wholly new way of life that changed the face of the Irish landscape. Consequently archaeologists have termed this period the Neolithic (New Stone Age).

This new way of life was brought to Ireland by communities that had gradually spread from southwest Asia across Europe over thousands of years. These communities had developed an economy based on agriculture and the keeping of domestic animals. Their more settled way of life permitted an increase in population which probably impelled some of the first farmers to migrate into Europe, and eventually Britain and Ireland, bringing their way of life with them.

These migrants introduced domesticated cattle, sheep, goats and pig, which, except for the pig, were all new species to Ireland. People’s diet was also vastly increased by the introduction of cereals such as wheat and barley. Greater control over food resources meant that people were able to live in permanent settlements all year round. The new agricultural economy brought with it new technologies – new polished stone axes for clearing forests, new flint tools for harvesting crops, grinding stones for processing cereal, and pots made from clay to store or cook food. Finally, people buried at least some of their dead and held their religious ceremonies at large stone monuments that still dot our landscape.

Remains of Neolithic farmsteads found in Ireland suggest a pattern of dispersed settlement not far removed from rural communities today, where families live on their own small farms scattered across the countryside. This contrasts with nucleated settlements in the rest of Europe where farmers generally lived together in villages rather than in isolated farmsteads. One of the earliest Neolithic farmsteads found in Ireland was at Ballynagilly, Co. Tyrone, dating to 3700BC. It was rectangular, measuring about 6.5x6m, and, being part of a permanent settlement, was much more substantial than the huts at Mountsandel. Trenches had been dug to support wooden posts and oak planks that served as walls. There were also internal posts that supported a pitched roof. But, just as with Mountsandel, we cannot assume that this was typical of the period. Larger sites have been found at Lyles Hill and Donegore Hill near Templepatrick, which included several houses, enclosed by an earthen bank and timber palisades respectively.

In order to establish fields for planting and pasture, Ireland’s heavily forested landscape had to be cleared. The primary tool used to fell trees was the polished stone axe. In Ulster these axes were often made from porcellanite, which is a volcanic stone that is found only at Brockley on Rathlin Island and Tievebulliagh near Cushendall. These locally manufactured axes have been found all over Ireland and Britain, indicating that they were traded with other communities.

Flint tools from this period were also traded and are much more technically refined. Lozenge shaped arrowheads were made thin and sharp by the technique of pressure flaking. Javelin heads are up to 25cms long, thicker than arrowheads and found primarily in northeast Ulster where flint sources were easily accessible. The flint knife was quite popular and is normally flat on one side and arched on the other. Scrapers are the most abundant tool found at Neolithic sites, reflecting the availability of cattle and sheep, both of which offer useful hides.

One of the important technologies introduced into Ulster by the first farmers was pottery. Vessels were formed by building coils of clay into a basket and then pinching them together and smoothing the surface both inside and outside. The pot was allowed to dry naturally before being fired in some form of bonfire. The later Neolithic sees the appearance of different styles of pottery which are often decorated by impressing lines and dots into the clay with sticks, shells, stones or even grains. The most highly decorated pots seem to have been reserved for ritual use and are often found in burial sites.