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Neolithic farming (c. 4000 BC - 2500 BC)


(2) Creevykeel court cairn Creevykeel court cairn in Co. Sligo, dating from the third millennium BC - 77k

Some early cultures in the Middle East used wild cereals for food, and by about 8000 BC new varieties of cultivated wheat appear. A later development was the use of pottery, and discoveries of pottery and grains of cultivated cereals at archaeological sites mark the slow spread of Neolithic farming across Europe. Geneticists have suggested that this wave of advance explains the patterns found when they analyse the frequencies of various genes in European populations. The farming revolution did not reach the British Isles and Scandinavia until after about 4000 BC. The analysis of pollen in different levels of lake sediment indicates that land was being cleared for agriculture in Ireland by about 4000 or 3800 BC.

The earliest Neolithic pottery found in Ulster (Lyles Hill pottery) is similar to pottery found in northern Britain, suggesting that the earliest Neolithic colonists may have come to Ireland from northern Britain. The pottery bowls were made by winding coils of clay in a circle to form the sides of the bowl, smoothing them, and finally firing them on an open fire. Later Neolithic pottery is decorated with dots or lines in the surface of the clay.

Neolithic axes found in Ulster are often made from porcellanite, a type of stone found at Tievebulliagh in Co. Antrim or at Brockley on Rathlin Island. These axes would be flaked into the rough shape of an axe and then polished with an abrasive stone such as sandstone. Over 1400 porcellanite axes have been found, mostly in Ulster, but also in other parts of the British Isles. About 160 of these axes have been found in Britain, showing that axes were an important item of exchange. Flint was also used for arrowheads, knives and scapers, and was traded to areas which did not have natural sources of flint. One of the implements most commonly found is the scaper, which was presumably used to prepare the hides of cattle.

One of the earliest Neolithic houses was found at Ballynagilly, Co. Tyrone. It was a substantial rectangular structure, intended for year-round use. The walls were made of oak planks and there were postholes in the middle of the house, probably to support a pitched roof. Radiocarbon dating indicates that the house was built about 3700 BC. Neolithic farmers may also have lived in larger communities rather than in isolated farmsteads. This is illustrated by Céide Fields site in Co. Mayo, where an extensive Neolithic field system has been preserved below a thick layer of peat.

Perhaps the most spectacular remains of Neolithic life are the various types of megalithic tombs found in Ireland. Court tombs (like the one at Creevykeel, Co. Sligo) and portal tombs are mostly found in the northern part of Ireland, but wedge tombs are concentrated in the west. In the case of court tombs, the court was probably used for some type of ritual, while some of the chambers within the cairn were used for burials. There are some passage tombs in Ulster, but they are not quite as spectacular as the best-known passage tomb in Ireland - New Grange, Co. Meath.

See also:
The Man in the Ice

(1) Hunter-gatherers
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(3) Bronze Age
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