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Going Over: The Mesolithic-Neolithic Transition in North-West Europe$

Alasdair Whittle and Vicki Cummings

Print publication date: 2007

Print ISBN-13: 9780197264140

Published to British Academy Scholarship Online: January 2012

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197264140.001.0001

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Parallel worlds or multi-stranded identities? Considering the process of ‘going over’ in Ireland and the Irish Sea zone

Parallel worlds or multi-stranded identities? Considering the process of ‘going over’ in Ireland and the Irish Sea zone

Chapter:
(p.542) (p.543) Parallel worlds or multi-stranded identities? Considering the process of ‘going over’ in Ireland and the Irish Sea zone
Source:
Going Over: The Mesolithic-Neolithic Transition in North-West Europe
Author(s):

Gabriel Cooney

Publisher:
British Academy
DOI:10.5871/bacad/9780197264140.003.0026

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses the Mesolithic–Neolithic transition in Ireland. The ideas of identity encompassing places, pasts and presents, and people and things are seen as providing an important reference point in considering the various strands of evidence and inter-play between large-scale environmental and social processes and lives lived locally.

Keywords:   Ireland, Mesolithic–Neolithic transition, identity

Introduction

THE TOPIC OF THEMesolithic-Neolithic transition continues to prompt extensive scholarship, a variety of academic opinions as well as considerable passion, as seen for example in Rowley-Conwy’s (2004) article in the recent special issue of Current Anthropology on agricultural origins and dispersal into Europe and the varied responses to it. However, despite the major research efforts that are being made to understand what ‘going over’ meant, much of the work tends to take place within particular disciplinary fields or research areas with a limited degree of discourse between them, a point that has been well noted with regard to the relationship between palaeoenvironmentalists and archaeologists (e.g. Tipping & Tisdall 2004, 71) but could equally well be made in other contexts.

The parallel worlds in the title refer then to the variety of ways in which research in archaeology and related disciplines currently approaches the study of the process of ‘going over’ that is said to mark the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition. There are a number of reasons for this phenomenon, for example, the increasing extent to which researchers tend to focus on particular themes and explanatory approaches, the fact that the transition marks the interface between different traditions of archaeological scholarship, a point that has been often noted (e.g. Pluciennik 1998; Thomas 1988), and the increasing focus in archaeological research on coming to grips with the variety, messiness and localness of the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition in contrast to the ‘big picture’ approach taken in other disciplines, for example genetic studies. Another relevant factor is that there have been significant changes over the last thirty years in what are regarded as the most relevant and appropriate data sets to inform us about the transition. The cumulative effect is that (p.544) approaches to the problem sometimes seem to run on parallel tracks, rather than informing and being informed by other strands of the discussion. This has resulted in a fragmentation of the discourse and the presentation of very different and partial views of the transition, even in the consideration of particular regions or dimensions of the evidence. Added to this is the paucity of the baseline data on which many of these lines of research actually rely, not just in archaeology (see Kinnes 1988; Woodman 2000a) but also in other areas. For example, in genetics DNA sequences that have been given significant explanatory status for prehistoric events and processes are often determined from small samples of living individuals in particular areas (e.g. Hill et al. 2000; Wilson et al. 2001). While we acknowledge these problems (although their extent can get lost in the translation between disciplines), the approaches that are adopted to facilitate academic analysis and discussion spill over into historical narrative as we still oversimplify the division between foraging and farming societies (Pluciennik 1998, 61), creating a sense of parallel worlds in the past.

How then do we progress? What I would like to suggest is that deliberately seeking to engage with different strands of research is both useful and necessary. An unfortunate aspect of the debate around Rowley-Conwy’s (2004) recent valuable review paper is the polarisation of views and approaches as either processual or post-processual, which seems somewhat anachronistic and unhelpful at this stage. Consideration of context and agency, grappling with understanding the messiness and complexity of Neolithic lives (e.g. Whittle 2003), have to go side by side with understanding the constraints of the archaeological record. It is not a case of either empathy or the empirical record, but considering both. This also means that in looking at an area or region such as Ireland we need to take a multi-scalar approach to consider the working out of the relationships between larger-scale processes and the way in which lives were lived out in local contexts and conditions.

Discussing the start of the Neolithic in Scotland, Warren (2004, 91) begins by considering Ingold’s (2000) approach to identity. Ingold argues that there are two ways of constructing identity: first genealogical, in which origins provide the basis for identity, and second relational, where it is the construction and maintenance of links between persons and things that are at the heart of who people think they are. These ideas of identity can be regarded as complementary. Helms (1998, 23–54) has pointed out that small-scale societies are always concerned to a greater or lesser extent both with ancestral origins and how the on-going activities of the living, including their treatment of the dead, fit with the past. This sense of identity encompassing past and present was also vividly caught by Arthur Miller, writing about his desire as a playwright to convey a sense of human lives in which past and present are held concurrently, neither ever coming to a stop (Miller 1987, 131). Jones (p.545) (2005, 216) has argued that in different parts of Europe during the Neolithic persons were constituted relationally, through specific sets of connections between people, place(s) and things. In the account below considering the transition in Ireland, these ideas of identity encompassing places, pasts and presents, people and things are seen as providing an important reference point in considering the various strands of evidence and inter-play between large-scale environmental and social processes and lives lived locally.

The Later Irish Mesolithic

To set the chronological and cultural context it seems appropriate to start with a brief outline of the Irish Later Mesolithic (6500–4000 cal BC). An up-to-date summary is provided as part of the discussion in Costa et al. (2005). The later Mesolithic in Ireland is distinguished by the switch from a composite/ microlith-using tradition to the use of broad blades, and flakes of related form, which were retouched for use as hand-held tools. The best known of these are butt-trimmed forms. Ground stone axes also form part of the lithic assemblage. It has been suggested that many of the stone tools were used for woodworking (Anderson & Johnson 1993; Costa et al. 2005, 20). Lithic production appears to have taken place near sources and tool blanks were brought to occupation areas (Woodman 1987). Much of the material is concentrated in low-lying coastal and wetland areas but some material does occur in more upland areas (Woodman 2003, 10–11). While the dominant view of the Later Mesolithic is a period characterised by low-density, highly mobile settlement (e.g. Woodman & Anderson 1990) with a heavy reliance on gathering and fishing, the evidence is open to suggestions of more extensive activities in some locales (e.g. Cooney & Grogan 1994, 18–24; Costa et al. 2005, 30) and the use of places, such as stone platforms at the edge of lakes, on a persistent, ongoing, renewed basis (e.g. Fredengren 2002, 137). There are indications of the importance of the symbolic dimension to Mesolithic lives in patterns of deliberate deposition and the occurrence of material in unusual contexts, as on the small island of Dalkey off the Dublin coast (see discussion in Leon forthcoming).

The Early Irish Neolithic

The summary given here is based on the discussion in Cooney (2000a, 14–15 with full references). There the early Neolithic was defined in time terms as extending from 4000–3600 cal BC. In material culture terms the period is marked by the use of carinated bowl pottery and what Woodman (1994) has (p.546) identified as a number of key items in the lithic assemblage: leaf-shaped arrowheads, convex end scrapers and plano-convex knives. Ground and polished stone axes made from a wide variety of sources (Cooney & Mandal 1998) are also a feature. It seems probable that organised axe production was taking place at specific sources, the significance of which is returned to below. There is evidence for the use of domesticated animals, especially cattle, and cereals (McCormick 1986; Monk 2000). A range of site types with a wide geographical spread can be dated to this period (Sheridan 1995). Notably these include occupation sites, often with rectangular structures or buildings. Large hill-top enclosures occur (Danaher 2004; Logue 2003; Sheridan 2001) and concepts of enclosure are used at varying scales and with what appears to be varying intent (Cooney 2002). A range of mortuary structures were in use, including megalithic tombs and wooden mortuary structures. The location of sites and activity areas dating to this period suggests recurring patterns and traditions of life based on complex and intimate knowledge of the landscape. It is important to emphasise just how much new data about this period are coming from the major increase in development-led archaeological work in Ireland since the mid-1990s (e.g. the suite of papers on Neolithic structures in Armit et al. 2003). This has the potential to transform our understanding of this period. For a number of reasons, notably the character of the archaeological record, its location and visibility, this work has not enhanced or extended our knowledge of the Later Mesolithic to anything like the same extent (Woodman 2003, 15). We should of course be careful that this is not uncritically seen as a direct reflection of a low level of activity during the Later Mesolithic.

Changes in this Insular World

The focus of this paper is understanding how the changes that we can document between these two periods happened and their consequences. In approaching the archaeological record and human context in which changes occurred we need to understand the multi-stranded nature of identity. It is also worth remembering that the research framework that we use to interpret these changes has a historical trajectory, which influences the way we think about issues. In the late 1960s Case (1969a; 1969b) contributed two papers to the debate on the transition which are still of value and influence. The notion of a short, sharp transition around 4000 cal BC, which is currently widely favoured (e.g. M. P. Richards 2004; Schulting 2000; Schulting & Richards 2002a; 2002b but see Milner et al. 2004), has in effect been mooted in the literature since at least the early 1970s. At that time the basis of change was the elm decline at 3200 BC (uncalibrated) which was seen as a critical turning (p.547) point, even by those who were promoting the idea of a preceding, pioneering phase of the Neolithic (e.g. Edwards & Hirons 1984). But rather than reviewing the course of explanatory discourse over the last few decades, what is more important to do, in the spirit of the challenge set out in my introduction, is to chart what are the major strands of change in the period before and around 4000 cal BC that form the context in which ‘going over’ occurred.

Climate change

As someone who has been critical in the past (e.g. Cooney 1993; Cooney & Grogan 1994) about the somewhat simplistic way in which accounts of the impact of climatic change on the lives of prehistoric people were often given, it has been salutary to read recent research which is based on very good baseline data and takes a nuanced view of the complexity and diversity of human response to climate change (e.g. Bonsall et al. 2002; McDermott et al. 2001; Tipping & Tisdall 2004). From a number of sources of evidence, for example, changing proportions of ice-rafted detritus in the North Atlantic, lake levels, high charcoal frequencies and peat humification patterns, a major event can be identified at the beginning of the Neolithic period. Bonsall et al. (2002, 15) suggest that the change was associated with drier conditions and an increase in the annual temperature range. Tipping and Tisdall (2004, 73), arguing for a cooler climate, suggested that impacts may have been most keenly appreciated in coastal areas, where a cooling of the seawater may have altered the lifecycle patterns of fish and brought increased storminess.

Woodland change

In a comprehensive review of the elm decline, Parker et al. (2002) conclude on the basis of dates from 139 sites that it dates to between 6300–5300 cal BP (or broadly 4300–3300 cal BC), but that the probability distribution of the dates indicates that it was a uniform phased event across Britain and Ireland. For Ireland, O’Connell and Molloy (2001, 123) consider the elm decline, a readily identifiable and pronounced feature in most Irish pollen diagrams, as a near-synchronous feature dating to c. 5800 cal BP (3850 cal BC). Current interpretations suggest that both the climatic change discussed above and human activities were involved in the elm decline (e.g. Edwards 2004, 61–3). It seems that around the same time oak populations also decreased in many areas of north-west Europe (Baillie 1995; Leuschner et al. 2002). Now in this scenario where it is difficult to disentangle climatic change, vegetation change and human intervention, there is a possibility of circular argument. Brown (1997) has shown it can be very difficult to know whether early farming activity created woodland clearings or made use of natural openings. What (p.548) Bonsall et al. (2002) suggest is that these changes provided the context for the adoption of agriculture, the indicators of which appear just after 4000 cal BC. As O’Connell and Molloy (2001, 123) put it, ‘Neolithic landnam, when present, invariably follows the elm decline’ (which of course does not exclude the possibility of farming preceding it).

Agricultural indicators

Monk (2000) has reviewed the evidence of cereal remains from Ireland. There have been further discoveries since his review (see for example Moore 2003), backing up the view that cereals were an integral part of the subsistence economy, at least in Ireland (see Cooney 2000a, 40–1; 2003, 49) from that time. The occurrence and recognition of cereal-type pollen prior to this date continue to raise debate. The cautious view is that this material cannot be seen as indicating farming, as this interpretation has been shown to be unsustainable and that questions remain about the identity and source of the pollen. On the other hand it is argued that the failure of an early pioneer phase of agriculture to leave archaeological traces might be a reasonable, if awkward, assumption (see Edwards 2004, 60; O’Connell & Molloy 2001, 123). The latter view has been recently sustained by the very early dates for domesticated cattle bone as a result of the excavations at Ferriter’s Cove, Co. Kerry (Woodman et al. 1999) and the project to date the Irish Quaternary fauna (Milner & Woodman 2005; Woodman et al. 1997; Woodman & McCarthy 2003). These cattle are clearly introduced (Tresset 2000; 2003) and are significantly earlier than the earliest dates for domesticated sheep, pig and goat after 4000 cal BC. The earlier of two dates from Ferriter’s Cove implies that cattle were brought to Ireland around 4600 cal BC (it seems best to exclude from discussion the very early date from an undiagnostic large bone from Sutton, Co. Dublin). In terms of who brought them the scenarios either involve indigenous hunter-gathers travelling by boat or people coming in the other direction bringing cattle from Brittany, where domesticates appeared around 5000 cal BC (see Milner & Woodman 2005; Tresset 2003; Woodman & McCarthy 2003 for a discussion of the cultural context of these contacts both in Brittany and Ireland).

Material culture changes

Woodman (2000a, 247–9) remarked that one of the most overlooked aspects of the transition is the contrast between the diversity of Mesolithic lifestyles in Britain and Ireland and the degree of similarity of early Neolithic material culture across the two islands. Now this has to be supplemented by the comment that these similarities are clearest in material dated to after 3800 cal (p.549) BC and transcend what appears to be very considerable regional diversity in settlement practices. As regards the problem of the period between 4000–3800 cal BC, as Whittle has recently put it: ‘What was going on around 4000 cal BC remains stubbornly and frustratingly unclear and certainly varied’ (Whittle 2003, 150).

The relatively uniform culture package that then emerges has been outlined above for Ireland, but in broader terms for Britain and Ireland it can be summarised as composed of a similar range of lithic artefacts, carinated bowl pottery, enclosures, wooden mortuary structures under long and round mounds and various types of megalithic tombs including simple passage tombs/graves, portal tombs/dolmens and varieties of megalithic long cairns. The background to this material is seen as contact with various areas in north-west Europe (a general point and problem long recognised: see Kinnes 1988; Whittle 1977).

What has undergone considerable review since the 1970s is the mechanisms by which these contacts occurred. To bring the story up to date, what Whittle (2003, 150) has recently termed filtered, small-scale colonisation and indigenous acculturation operating in tandem, currently seem to offer the best human context for understanding how these material culture changes. Sheridan (2000; 2003a) has suggested that the pottery and megalithic monument at Achnacreebeag near Oban on the west coast of Scotland, with strong parallels in Brittany around 4000 cal BC, offer an example of the former. She has argued, furthermore, that this background might also provide a context for early coastal passage tombs in Wales and Ireland (Sheridan 2003b, 13–14). O’Sullivan (2001, 89–90) in discussing the archaeological and palaeoenviron-mental evidence from the Shannon estuary in the early to middle fourth millennium cal BC suggests that it indicates people who were living a ‘forager-farmer’ lifestyle. So whatever their background people here were accommodating life to take account of both new resources and older lifeways. The type of interaction zone that might have facilitated the inter-operability of both of these processes has been discussed by Woodman and McCarthy (2003, 32–4).

Diet…and people?

The recent surge of evidence from stable isotope analysis that there was a dramatic shift in diet around 4000 cal BC with a switch from maritime to terrestrial resources, as indicated by changes in the sources of protein in human diets (M. P. Richards et al. 2000; Schulting & Richards 2002a; 2002b), is perhaps the single most influential factor in the major reconsideration of the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition that is now taking place. The wider implications of this shift were set out by Schulting (2000, 32–3) in the following manner:

(p.550) The people of the earliest Neolithic in Britain built monuments for their dead, used novel resources such as pottery (Herne 1988) and appear to have subsisted primarily on domesticated resources. This suggests that for the most part the adoption of ‘Neolithic traits’ was an all-or-nothing affair in Britain, perhaps forming part of a sociopolitical and/or economic strategy wherein piecemeal adoption did not make sense.

Not surprisingly there is continuing debate about the extent, abruptness and causes of this dietary change (e.g Milner et al. 2004; Lidén et al. 2004; Thomas 2003). It is appropriate to comment here that the principle of equi-finality, which Edwards (1989) and Brown (1997) identified as a major problem in the interpretation of human impact in the pollen record, applies even more strongly in the context of human dietary choice and constraints. However, it is widely accepted that at a minimum there is a consistent pattern of a more dominant terrestrial signal in the diets of people after 4000 cal BC compared to before. This does not exclude the consumption of marine food by people during the Neolithic (Hedges 2004, 37; Milner et al. 2004, 18).

It is against this background that we can look at the evidence from Ireland. Somewhat surprisingly here in the context of the overall model of Later Mesolithic settlement, the general emphasis on a marine-based diet in the Mesolithic data set from Britain (M. P. Richards 2004, 87), and the small number of human bone samples, the individuals dating to the fifth millennium cal BC from three sites (Ferriter’s Cove, Rockmarshall, Co. Louth and Killuragh Cave, Co. Limerick) indicate a range of reliance on marine resources. This runs from a heavy reliance at Ferriter’s Cove, a less extensive reliance at Rockmarshall and what looks like a reliance on terrestrial/freshwater resources at the inland site of Killuragh Cave, Co. Limerick (Woodman & McCarthy 2003, 33–4). On the other hand the post-4000 cal BC pattern of an emphasis on terrestrial resources (Woodman 2000a, 240, citing the evidence from the skeletal remains in the portal tomb at Poulnabrone, Co. Clare; Schulting 2004, 23) does seem to apply in Ireland also.

While the isotopic analysis has had a major impact in recent archaeological debate, facilitating discussion of the transition as short and sharp, the area of biomolecular research where most work is currently being carried out is in genetics. This has led to the proposal of the term ‘archaeogenetics’ to describe the application of genetics to understanding the human past (Renfrew 2000, 3). Considering the genetic evidence it is important to remember the difficulties of using modern data, the limited data sets that are often used, the issue of accurately calculating the rate and character of genetic change over time (the molecular clock) and the consequent problems in tying genetic patterns to specific time spans, let alone specific processes or events in the past (M. P. Richards 2004, 84–5; Zvelebil 2000, 69–74). This is clearly a crucial question in terms of the interpretation of the transition in human (p.551) terms. From their study of DNA of the paternally inherited Y-chromosome, Chickhi et al. (2002, 11013) concluded that large numbers of people were involved in the introduction of farming to Europe. Looking at mtDNA, which is maternally inherited, M. P. Richards et al. (2000, 1251) suggested that the immigrant Neolithic population accounted for less than a quarter of the modern European mtDNA pool. Renfrew (e.g. 1996; 2000, 9) has suggested that the Neolithisation of Europe provides us with a good case study of the relationship between linguistic origins, farming dispersal and the evidence from molecular genetics. The linguistic introduction of proto-Indo-European to central and western Europe is envisaged by Renfrew as a result of farming dispersal, which in turn is seen as being reflected in the patterning in the genetic evidence.

Turning in more detail to Ireland, it has been suggested that an east to west variation in the Y-chromosome pattern within the island reflects a genetic distinction between people in the west, whose genetic ancestry reflects the indigenous inhabitants since the time of first settlement at 8000 cal BC, and those in the east whose genetics indicate a greater influence of subsequent migrants from the Neolithic period onwards (Hill et al. 2000). Furthermore it has been argued that about 13% of the pattern of mtDNA in Ireland can be attributed to a putative Neolithic origin (McEvoy et al. 2004). This would be consistent with the diminution of the genetic impact of Neolithic migrants towards north-west Europe. McEvoy et al. (2004, 696) go on to suggest that since there is no distinct geographical pattern to the mtDNA of putative Neolithic origin within the island this indicates that the ‘females who arrived after the initial settlement were not restricted to east-facing regions…either they were mobile after arrival in the east or other regions of the island were in direct contact with the continental source populations’. Not surprisingly given the difficulties outlined above, this level of interpretation of modern genetic data as it pertains to the transition is the subject of continuing debate (e.g. Hill et al. 2000; Bradley & Hill 2000; Cooney 2000b; 2001; Ó Donnabháin 2001; Woodman 2000b). It is easier to concur with the broader view that genetic affinities seen in the Atlantic zone of Europe are the result of both a shared ancestry that dates back to recolonisation at the end of the last Ice Age and subsequent contacts (McEvoy et al. 2004).

Consequences: on the ground, in the Landscape, at Home

The purpose of setting out major strands of change involved in the transition or ‘going over’ is to facilitate discussion of the character and consequences of (p.552) the transition, both in terms of relational identities—how people engaged with each other and the material world—and genealogical identities—how they constructed a sense of who they were and where they came from (and were going). I should stress here immediately that while the focus is on Ireland I do not believe that there was any island-wide sense of identity. As I have argued previously (e.g. Cooney 2000c), the appropriate scale to look at these issues is a regional one, recognising diversity within the island of Ireland and strong linkages between coastal areas that shared the Irish Sea as a contact zone (e.g. Cooney 2004a; Davey 2004; Sheridan 2004).

What I also wanted to suggest was a sense of the inter-woven nature of the changes. For example, it might be useful to think in terms of the novel nature of the new domesticated plants and animals that were introduced not so much as individual, separate resources but in terms of a transported landscape (Cooney 2000a, 43; Kirch 2000, 109). This significantly increased the ecological diversity of Ireland given the restricted insular nature of the native fauna and flora (see relevant discussion in Kimball 2000a). Furthermore it provided a new setting at a time when the composition of the woodland landscape was also changing (e.g. Tipping & Tisdall 2004). Those new resources undoubtedly had a special social role as has been argued by a number of authors (e.g. Cross 2003; Thomas 2003), but the clear shift to terrestrial resources indicated by isotopic analysis argues that they formed part of a more fundamental shift in diet and ideas about food. The argument over whether these terrestrial resources could have been wild (Rowley-Conwy 2004; Thomas 2003) does not apply as strongly in Ireland, where the four introduced domesticated species provide the first major suite of terrestrial resources, and where it appears that red deer were introduced at some stage during the Neolithic (McCormick 1999; Woodman & McCarthy 2003, 36–7), a pattern that is replicated in some of the Scottish island groups and is indicative of the complexity of human/animal relationships during the Neolithic (Cooney 2000a, 43).

On the other hand the shift in diet did not mean any less focus on coastal zones. This is indicated for example by the concentration of megalithic tombs in coastal areas and by the results of field-walking surveys in various areas, such as Ballylough, Co. Waterford (Green & Zvelebil 1990) and Lough Swilly, Co. Donegal (Kimball 2000b). Because of the character of the evidence such surveys may not be actually very useful in informing us about the transition itself, but they do indicate a continuity of use of coastal areas. These continued to be a significant procurement zone for lithics and other materials (e.g. Hodgers 1994; Woodman 1992). An interesting and potentially very important juxtaposition of activity in the later Mesolithic and Neolithic occurs at Belderg Beg, Co. Mayo which is currently being investigated by Graeme Warren (pers. comm.). All these data make the idea of a turning away (p.553) or ‘slighting’ of the sea seem very unlikely, a point demonstrated in discussion of the importance of the Irish Sea as a zone of movement, contact and communication (Cummings & Fowler 2004). What is clearly the case, however, is that the use of the sea, the coastal zone and their resources now formed part of a different web of relations. For example, Guttman (2005, 234–5) suggests that the fertility of Mesolithic middens may partly explain why such sites were re-settled and cultivated during the Neolithic, and why they were seen as appropriate venues for the deliberate deposition of material, including human bone.

An example of the value of thinking about this issue from different perspectives comes from the detailed archaeological and palaeoenvironmental regional study of the Oban area, western Scotland (Macklin et al. 2000). Here Mesolithic settlement in coastal areas does not seem to have resulted in disturbance of the vegetation. This changes around 4000 cal BC with the beginnings of farming, impacting initially in coastal and lowland areas and only later in the uplands. A few kilometres to the north-east is the site of Achnacreebeag, discussed by Sheridan (2000; 2003a) as providing good evidence of what might be termed an episode of leap-frog colonisation (Zilhão 2000) from Brittany. As well as the change in climate seen by Macklin et al. as prompting the shift to the new relationship between people and the landscape, post-4000 cal BC vegetational change may also have been prompted by the presence of new people, giving the basis for the kind of dialectic between the immediate and the distant that Warren (2004, 98) has discussed as an integral part of the formation of identities in the early Neolithic. In terms of the wider occurrence of early passage tombs in coastal areas noted by Sheridan (2003b) and the continued use of islands like Dalkey with a strong, prolonged history of at least periodic use in the Mesolithic (Leon 2005), the coastal zone may also have become a very important place for the re-negotiation and re-imagining of genealogical identities (see Schulting 2004, 26).

The consequences of the transition on the inland landscape might also benefit from a sideways look. The issue of the extent to which cereal growing was practised from early in the Neolithic is one of the central questions in the debate about the extent of the role of agriculture in Neolithic lives (e.g. see Rowley-Conwy 2004, 87–90). While the number of cereal macrofossil remains is relatively small, Monk (2000) and Glynis Jones (2000) have argued that they indicate the persistent presence of cereals (see also Bogaard & Jones, this volume). This is supported by the compilation of pollen data from Ireland presented by O’Connell and Molloy (2001, 119; Fig. 1) which is interpreted as showing that cereal-growing was an integral part of Neolithic economic practice in Ireland, but also that there was no site which indicated that it played a substantial role. Tipping (1994) also pointed to the high frequency of cereal pollen in Scotland during the early part of the Neolithic. The concentration (p.554) of macrofossil remains of cereals in the centuries after the elm decline (e.g. Monk 2000), combined with the pollen evidence (O’Connell & Molloy 2001, 119; Tipping & Tisdall 2004, 76), raises the question of whether cereal production was in fact particularly concentrated in this part of the Neolithic period, rather than increasing in importance over the duration of the Neolithic as models of the gradual development of farming might suggest (see discussion below).

Figure 1. Frequencies with which 34 pollen profiles from Ireland show pre-elm decline (ED) woodland instability, earlier Neolithic woodland clearance, pastoral activity and cereal growing, and later Neolithic farming and woodland regeneration (from O’Connell & Molloy 2001).

It might be useful to think more broadly about integrating the narratives for this period derived from the pollen and archaeological records. The character of what O’Connell and Molloy (2001) refer to as woodland dynamics was clearly very varied in the earlier Neolithic. There were some places, such as Céide Fields, Co. Mayo, where the impact across much of the period was sustained (over 300–500 years) and substantial, as can be seen in construction of the co-axial field system (Caulfield et al. 1998). In other cases, as at Lough Sheeauns in Connemara, Co. Galway, the impact lasted over a period of up to three centuries, while there are other sites such as Mooghaun Lough, Co. Clare, where there is little or no sign of human impact (O’Connell & Molloy 2001, 119). This backs up the earlier observations by Edwards (1985) regarding a suite of sites investigated in Tyrone. O’Connell and Molloy also point out that there is a corresponding variety in the organisation of earlier Neolithic landscapes. One interesting contrast that they point to is that (p.555) between the field system at Céide and the lack of any similar evidence at Lough Sheeauns where there is, however, a marked concentration of court tombs and portal tombs (de Valera & Ó Nualláin 1972; Gosling 1993), as in the Céide area. The question of whether Céide stands as a unique example of an extensive, well-organised field system in the earlier Neolithic is still an important one. The pollen analysis carried out by O’Connell and Molloy (2001) at Garrynagran about 16 km to the south of Céide suggests that the long-term, substantial human impact on the woodland landscape seen at Céide appears to have been present over a larger area, within which we can include the field system at Rathlackan to the east (see Byrne 1994; Cooney 2000a, 46). This indicates that we should regard the organisation of the landscape into fields as a characteristic of a significant grouping of communities in this region.

It is also clear that the earlier Neolithic represents a very distinct period in terms of the dynamics between people and woodland settings. Both Molloy and O’Connell (2001, 123) and Tipping and Tisdall (2004, 76) comment on the evidence for woodland regeneration in the later Neolithic. In the 1970s this evidence was seen as the basis for defining two very different kinds of Neolithic (Bradley 1978; Whittle 1978). Molloy and O’Connell suggest that there may have been an abandonment of farming in some parts of the island of Ireland. Now this is not the place to explore the interesting correlation between this woodland regeneration and changes in the archaeological record, but it does support the idea that the earlier Neolithic was a particular period in terms of human impact on the environment (and environmental change), rather than being the start of a slow, evolving process of change in subsistence patterns which culminated in Bronze Age transformations.

The final comment I wanted to make in this section brings us back to the vexed question of settlement practice. One of the striking features of the explosion of development-led archaeological work in Ireland has been the recognition of the range and extent of Neolithic activity across the landscape. Dwelling obviously consisted of a range of practices, resulting in a diversity of archaeological features. One of the recurring features, however, is the discovery of rectangular buildings and they have become a distinguishing feature of the archaeological record of this period, recently reviewed in detail by Grogan (2002; 2004). There are now in the order of 60 of these structures recognised, on more than 30 sites, right across the island (Smyth, pers. comm.). It is also clear that more of these structures will be revealed. Among more recent discoveries are the two structures at Granny, Co. Kilkenny (Hughes 2005). The testing phase along the route of the M3 motorway in Meath has indicated the presence of Neolithic structures in four different locations (Deevy 2005; pers. comm.) Rather than going over points already raised in discussion elsewhere (Cooney 1997; 2000a; 2002; 2003) it might be more useful to look at the role (p.556) and function of these buildings using the inter-woven strands of argument set out above.

Parallel worlds or multi-stranded identities? Considering the process of ‘going over’ in Ireland and the Irish Sea zone

Figure 2. Plan of early Neolithic houses at Corbally, Co. Kildare (from Purcell 2002). Four other houses were found between 60–100 m to the south-west (Tobin 2003).

The dates of the houses are now well established, starting after 4000 cal BC, many of them apparently concentrated in the next couple of hundred years but others, like the second phase of settlement at Knowth in the Boyne Valley, Co. Meath dating to the period 3900–3600 cal BC (Grogan 2004, 111). It does appear that this is an established, repetitive, traditional aspect of life in the earlier Neolithic (Fig. 2). It is difficult to see this development in terms of practice or tradition among indigenous Mesolithic communities. Both as (p.557) a social construct and context the background of the buildings might be more appropriately sought in the filtered colonisation or acculturation referred to above. After all, the clearest links are with the wider rectangular house tradition in the Neolithic of north-west Europe, which has its ultimate foundations in the Linearbandkeramik. The buildings need to be acknowledged as part of the wider transformation of that tradition which took a range of forms, of which the emergence of long barrows and enclosures have dominated discussion (e.g. Bradley 2002, 29–34). The construction materials were provided by the large-scale use of oak from the surrounding woodland. In itself this may have been as much a manifestation of a changed set of relationships between people and the landscape as was the use of the land for agricultural purposes. In the context of the discussion above, people using these structures may have utilised a variety of subsistence approaches, ranging from a reliance on farming to strategies also involving significant reliance on foraging. The structures occur both as apparently isolated buildings within wider spreads of occupation activity, but also in clusters, for example at Corbally, Co. Kildare (Purcell 2002; Tobin 2003), and in both open and enclosed settings, the latter as at Thornhill, Co. Derry (Logue 2003).

Given the association with enclosures such as Thornhill and Magheraboy, Co. Sligo (Danaher 2004), it is clear that the rectangular structures cannot be seen just in terms of a complementary distribution with enclosures (Cross 2003, 201). Cross was writing in the context of the role of these structures as venues for feasting in the same way that enclosures are envisaged as having this as one of their functions (Thomas 1999, 201), but our discussion should recognise these buildings as both domestic and special, where it is the different use of space and food in a familiar context that actually makes the occasion special. In this sense there is no contradiction between the living scenarios and ordinary lives outlined by Grogan (2004, 105–10) and the idea that these were also places of celebration of special times and occasions. The ongoing accumulation of evidence for the number and widespread distribution of these structures supports the idea that people in the earlier Neolithic in Ireland would have perceived them as a key element in the architecture of relational identities. People were living within a house society (Cooney 2003, 51–2).

In terms of genealogy, reference has been made to links with enclosures and there are also clear, overt cross-references between rectangular timber houses and structures/mounds/cairns for the dead, as for example at Ballyglass, Co. Mayo (Ó Nualláin 1972). As noted above, enclosures and long barrows in Britain and Ireland are frequently evoked as demonstrating links ultimately back to the Linearbandkeramik and post-LBK traditions (e.g. Bradley 2003, 221; Whittle 2003, 118). The occurrence of what is the most potent signifier of the LBK tradition, the rectangular house, as a central element of relational identity in the many parts of Ireland during the early (p.558) Neolithic suggests, contra the tenor of much recent discussion (e.g. Whittle 2003, 153), that a similar reference back to a past distant in time and space, to a ‘longhouse world’, may have been invoked through the construction and use of these buildings.

Materialising Identities in Stone

The changes that happen around 4000 cal BC may be the result of both small groups of people coming to Ireland and Britain from coastal and inland areas of north-west Europe (Whittle 2003, 151), and their influence and interaction with indigenous hunter-gatherers (who may well have suffered detrimental health effects: see Doyle & Ó Neill 2003). While there are signs of continuity across the transition, seen in the continued use of specific places, both for habitual and sacred purposes, the continued use of wild food resources and the continued use of particular lithic sources, much is different and new. In the construction of social identities and use of material culture there are references to this local background. But if we think of the range of changes outlined above that were brought into different kinds of lived practice by people living in particular social and geographical settings, it is not surprising that in the Neolithic we see quite different and new kinds of relationships between people, animals, plants and things. By way of both a concluding comment and example, I would like to suggest that we can see this clearly in the working of and relationship with stone at a range of different scales, and for different purposes. This can be woven back into other strands of change.

In approaching this issue it might be useful to think of Ingold’s (2000) discussion of the attitude of hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists to their environments. To the hunter-gatherer the environment is seen as giving; with the agriculturalist there tends to be a much greater emphasis on acquisition. Accepting the danger of generalisation and of applying this as a binary opposition to what are patently complex and varied prehistoric realities, it does provide an interesting start point to thinking about different attitudes to working stone before and after 4000 cal BC. In an Irish context it is notable that stone axes were a part of the Mesolithic tool-kit (e.g Woodman et al. 1999, 77–80). It would appear that it was primarily secondary sources that were utilised, in circumstances where people may have regarded cobbles as almost ready-made pre-forms (Cooney 2000a, 195). But significant changes occur around 4000 cal BC. Given the expansion of woodland clearance and landscape management of different kinds, for example coppicing, it seems likely that the axe, as in other parts of north-west Europe, came to be associated with agriculture. The increased demand for axes and their extended (p.559) potential as an object with both functional and symbolic roles can be seen in the increasing number of axes, the range of lithic sources used for their production (Cooney & Mandal 1998), the occasional occurrence of jadeite and other axes from the European mainland and the deliberate production of axes from specific sources that highlighted their special value.

It is in this context that the dates for a phase of quarrying activity on Lambay, an island in the Irish Sea off the coast of Dublin, where porphyry (porphyritic andesite) was exploited on a periodic basis over much of the fourth millennium cal BC (Cooney 2005), are of particular interest. Two AMS radiocarbon determinations returned dates of 3780–3640 cal BC (SUERC-4129) and 3940–3660 cal BC (SUERC-4131), associated with undecorated, carinated bowl pottery. Here it would seem that organised axe production begins early in the Neolithic. Production at the major sources such as Tievebulliagh and Brockley (porcellanite) in Co. Antrim, north-east Ireland and Great Langdale (tuff) in Cumbria, north-west England is perceived as focused on the mid-fourth millennium cal BC and later (e.g. Malone 2001, 210). However, the occurrence of significant quantities of porcellanite at some of the early rectangular buildings in Ireland, as at Ballyharry, Co. Antrim (Moore 2003), suggests that the exploitation of one or both of the known porcellanite sources began very early in the Neolithic. Similarly the occurrence of tuff axe fragments from Langdale at the Lismore Fields settlement site in the Peak District (see Hind 2004, 141) raises the same possibility in relation to the working of the Langdale tuff source. These and other examples suggest that the contrast between axes that would have been perceived in many parts of Ireland and Britain as being made of non-local sources and axes of locally available stone was a feature of life from very early in the Neolithic. This inter-weaving of the local and the distant can be seen in other aspects of the use of stone, for example in the local exploitation of pitchstone on the island of Arran in the Clyde estuary in Scotland during the Mesolithic and its more widespread occurrence, including across the Irish Sea in Ireland, during the Neolithic (Cooney 2004b, 194).

How are we to interpret these patterns? From the point of view of changed relationships with the land following the onset of the Neolithic, it could be argued that what we see in the working of stone at special places is analogous to the idea of deliberate acquisition of, or harvesting of, the rock. The potential metaphoric connections would have been made stronger by the frequent association of axes with activities associated with agriculture. In terms of the significance of objects coming from beyond the local and familiar, Hind (2004, 141), citing Helms (1988), has discussed how such artefacts may be considered as having an exceptional potency and symbolic charge, particularly if they come from special places or sources, such as islands or mountains. These objects may have been of particular importance (p.560) in developing and maintaining relationships within and between communities. Hence the quarrying and procurement of such axes may have defined from the start what it was to be ‘Neolithic’, as opposed to being an aspect of life that developed over the course of the period.

This argument would be much more familiar if we were discussing the construction of megalithic monuments. It has been suggested recently that a useful way of viewing early monumental constructions in the west of Britain and Ireland is to see them as an assertion of regional indigenous identity at a time when the world was changing, and when there may have been intrusive pioneer populations in southern and eastern Britain (Whittle 2003, 153). This is built on detailed analyses which it is argued show that the siting of many of these monuments, such as portal dolmens/tombs, make direct reference to the local landscape (e.g. Cummings & Whittle 2004; 2005). This in turn forms the basis for interpreting these monuments as concerned with creation myths, by people long familiar with the regional landscape. Now while this seems like a plausible explanation, it should be examined in the context of what has been said above. There is no background in local late Mesolithic funerary practice for the construction of such monuments, which emerges in the context of a changed world after 4000 cal BC. The very act of working and raising stone in this way is a new practice. Looking at the setting of Achnacreebeag for which a plausible background in north-west France has been suggested, the same argument about a local referencing (see illustration of landscape setting in Sheridan 2003b) could be made. If we see portal tombs or dolmens as having any coherence or meaning as a typological class then it also has to be relevant to this debate that some of them were erected within areas cleared and organised into fields, as at Céide or in areas of long-term clearance, as at Lough Sheeauns. It is also worth remembering that in Ireland portal tombs can be seen as forming part of the long cairn tradition with its accepted European background. The cultural background to the similarities visible in megalithic monuments is difficult to see solely in a late Mesolithic background, when there are limited signs of contact between communities on either side of the Irish Sea. Rather it lies in the web of contacts, travelling between the local, familiar and the distant, exotic, always defined in immediate, lived terms that is a characteristic feature of the area after 4000 cal BC. The construction of megalithic monuments was part of how that world was built. They referred both to local lives and genealogies but also to ideas, materials and people that may have come from very different places.

Note. My thanks to Aidan O’Sullivan, Graeme Warren, Peter Woodman, Alison Sheridan, Barbara Leon and Jessica Smyth for reading an earlier draft of the paper. I am grateful to Mary Deevy, Conor McDermott and Jessica Smyth for discussion of aspects of the Neolithic rectangular structures and to Rick Schulting for his (p.561) comments about the isotopic evidence for Neolithic diet from Ireland. I would also like to thank Alasdair Whittle and Vicki Cummings for their editorial patience!

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Proceedings of the British Academy 144, 543–566, © The British Academy 2007.