he Irish Mesolithic is sub-divided into two periods, the Early and Late and runs from roughly 7500 - 3500bc. Within this span there are variations depending on the location within the islands boundaries. The oldest sites are found in the east/north east and the most recent in the south-west at Ferrier's Cove on the Dingle peninsula.
In Ireland (see map) the Early and Late Mesolithic are differentiated by changes in tool styles and fabrication methods. Other aspects of physical culture3 seem to have remained fairly stable and consistent until the transition to an agricultural/pastoral life style.
Because of their foraging lifestyle and the biodegradability of the materials they used to construct their houses, containers, clothing and ceremonial objects, there is a great deal that we don't about these people.
Of the 170 sites surveyed by P. C. Woodman in the mid-1970s, 72% are in coastal, lakeside or riverside location. Of all the sites in Ireland, Mount Sandel in the Co. Derry in the northeast is by far the most studied. Though it can't be said to be representative of life in Ireland throughout all the Mesolithic era, it does offer us a clear enough glimpse into the day to day affairs of the first people.
Placed on a 30m high bluff above the river Bann, Mount Sandel is a few miles in-land from the seacoast. The site shows traces of fairly regular occupation for about 500 years from roughly c7010 to 6490bc. Though it has the oldest dwellings in Ireland, the age of the structures does not indicate that this was the earliest settlement in the land.
Dwellings at this site were in the form of fairly round structures about 19-20 feet in diameter. What remains of them are post-holes about 8 inches deep and angled slightly inward, suggesting that the structure had a dome shape made of saplings bent inward to meet at a joint in the center. These sapling were probably interwoven with lighter branches to form a basket like shape over which skins, turf or thatch like reeds were laid.
The "floor" of the structures was cleared down to soil level, in the approximate center of which a fire pit was dug. These are generally 1 yard across and 1 foot deep; some of the fire pits showed signs of small stake holes indicating that simple wooden structure were placed around the fire, perhaps for cooking purposes. Stones showing signs of having been in a fire were found in separate pits and also lining the fire pits. Some of these stone were probably heated in the fire, and put into leather containers to cook food.
The tools they used to hunt, (see image) prepare skins, fish and in all their daily tasks were shaped of flint4 that came primarily from the seacoast of Co. Antrim some distance to the south. The earlier pieces are small microliths, triangular shaped pieces, as well as "rods" for which the purpose is unclear, awls, "needle-points," scrapers, blades, some of which bore traces of iron pigmented red ochre,5 and small axes. In a few cases, up to 10 similar microliths were found together, placed in a such a sway as to indicate that they were originally part of a larger tool, perhaps mounted together as a projectile or harpoon for large fish.
In the later Mesolithic there is change in tool production and style, the earliest of these new tools have been dated to approximately 5500BC. Microliths are less common and heavier blades and flakes known as "Bann" flakes begin making their appearance. This change in tool types may indicate a change in food procurement strategies, whereby more emphasis was placed on making devices such as traps for fishing rather than single hook or multi-stoned harpoons. Heavier axes that are either polished or of larger proportion replace the small axes of the early Mesolithic. Heavy implements such as picks and borer also show up in the record, these may have been used in woodworking. And strangely, in contrast to the earlier work, there is an absence of stones that can be associated with hunting activities. This does not mean they did not exist. Hunting was a regular activity far into the times when stock animals and agriculture was the main activity.
By looking at several factors at a variety of sites, it is estimated that individual groups would have been made up of about 9 to 15 individuals, no more. This is in accordance with patterns found on the mainland. Because of the comparatively small amount of physical evidence on Irish soil, it is to these mainland groups that we must now turn to get a greater understanding of the social structures of these family groups.