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Prehistoric Mayo

It is over nine thousand years ago that man first set foot on the island of Ireland. The evidence for this is scant in Mayo as these first people were hunter-gatherers, people who threaded lightly upon the surface of the landscape, leaving very little in the way of artefacts, houses or burials. These Mesolithic people were ultimately dependent on the surrounding landscape for everything and had to hunt incessantly throughout the year in order to survive.

Around five thousand years ago a great change occurred with the coming of the Neolithic peoples, the first farmers with the skills and technology of agriculture that would be used to control their environment. In the modern world of microchips and internet super highways it might be quite difficult to imagine the impact that this would have brought, but it is the foundation stone of all modern societies in that it allowed people to store a surplus of cultivated crops for the winter season. It also enabled population growth and with it a surplus of labour not concentrated on the relentless gathering of food but able to focus on other societal projects.

In Mayo, as with other sites around the country, the pattern of what took place as the farmers set about colonising the landscape by clearing forests for the cultivation of crops can be seen in pollen studies. The amount of tree pollen decreases as the grass pollen increases. This agricultural revolution had numerous impacts on the landscape in that we now see from the archaeological evidence the remains of houses, field systems, artefacts and in particular the great megalithic burial structures that only a well organised and sustained society could embark upon building.

Not all of the energies of prehistoric societies were spent on the construction of graves but were also expended, particularly during the Bronze Age on a whole range of stone circles and alignments which cause diverse explanations to be offered for their creation, from astronomical maps, solar alignments to seasonal guides for agriculture.

The Bronze Age (c.2000 BC to c.500 BC) contains most of these stone arrangements and apart from these there is little architectural progress over the Neolithic period. But it must be noted that given the outstanding degree of craftsmanship and artistic interpretation exhibited on some of the finds of ornamental gold and bronze objects now housed in the National Museum that society was becoming increasingly sophisticated. These gold artefacts were being traded with Britain and the Continent in exchange for luxury items such as faience and amber. How this society was organised and controlled is seen in the ancient Brehon laws a set of rules, which governed Irish life well into the Christian period and on.

Check out the following sections of the website for related information:

Mayo - Vestvågøy - Mid-Argyll

Travels in Time | Overview | Themes |

Timelines | 700BC to 0 | 0 to 800AD | 800AD to 1100AD |

Landscape | Mayo | Vestvågøy | Mid-Argyll | Archaeology |

Other Media | Education | Exhibition | Publication |

Information | Bibliography | Project | Links | Contact |

This project has been supported by the EU as part of the Culture 2000 programme.