2. Previous Research

The title quote comes from Knowles' (1889) article in which he outlined his investigations of various sandhills around Ireland. Knowles was an active collector and buyer of lithics in the 19th and early 20th century and it is estimated that his collection comprised up to 40,000 artefacts, consisting predominantly of flints from the north-east (see Woodman et al. 2006). As well as his collection, tens of thousands of other lithics were collected in the north-east at the time – a far greater number than anywhere else in Ireland. This degree of concentration of collecting in the north-east has had a profound, long-lasting legacy on our understanding of Irish prehistory; this legacy is typified by Roe and Woodward's article (this volume), where about half of the Irish bracers are from one county (Co. Antrim) out of 32, and not a particularly big county at that. Compared to other counties, Co. Antrim appears to have an embarrassment of artefactual riches.

In the 19th century, it was suggested that flint would have been a valued trade item where there was a lack of flint, and ethnographic parallels were made in material trading, such as those witnessed at the time in Australia (see Wood-Martin 1888). Knowles' (1889; 1891) work around the coast of Ireland suggested that a wide variety of raw materials had been used in prehistory; he pointed out the necessity of looking beyond the flint gaze, commenting that in areas of Ireland without flint, other materials would have been used, and warned that implements in these other materials were harder to recognise, which would lead to a substantial bias in the known distribution of prehistoric communities. A few decades later Brunicardi (1914) took a different view – she argued that because flint was not exported around the country, but local material was used instead, this suggested a 'low grade of civilisation' in these non-flint areas. By the mid-20th century, Macalister (1949) almost exclusively discussed flint in his book on Irish archaeology; he even went so far as to suggest that the use of chert in Co. Sligo (Fig. 1), and the lack of flint there, was a reason for the surmised early adoption of metal in the region. A few years earlier, Movius (1942) had published the first book dedicated to the Stone Age in Ireland. While titled The Irish Stone Age, however, the monograph was limited to discussions on the flints of the north-east: the Antrim flint supply was seen as the major attractor for settlers to Ireland. Indeed, not only was flint seen as an attractor, but during the Late Glacial period the lack of flint in the south of Ireland was seen as a reason for the perceived avoidance of the area. We can see, therefore, that Knowles' work, which had highlighted the use of a variety of materials for stone tools, was effectively ignored and flint was the perceived premier raw material and the north-east the ultimate home of the Irish Stone Age.

Figure 2

Figure 2: Distribution of Mesolithic sites as of 1978; adapted from Woodman (1978)

For the known distribution of the Mesolithic, this perception of the premier place of the north-east, as well as the concentration of collecting there, created the situation whereby in the 1970s Woodman's (1978) distribution map in the first monograph on the Irish Mesolithic was heavily skewed towards the north-east (Fig. 2). The number of sites in the midlands on the Shannon system in Figure 2 are related to finds, predominantly of chert, collected during dredging or exposed when drainage schemes lowered water tables in the mid-20th century. While these finds eventually allowed the perception that there was more to life than flint, Woodman (2003) has noted that it was initially interpreted that these midland chert sites were simply an extension out of the north-east flint Mesolithic, rather than as signatures of a valid settlement distribution in their own right. Moreover, research in the midlands, and the west in general, was sporadic if not non-existent before and since the initial discoveries of the mid-20th century post-drainage lakeshores (O'Sullivan 1998). In the last few years, however, a few of these areas have been reinvestigated; Fredengren (2002; 2004) has looked at Lough Gara, and has excavated a Mesolithic and Neolithic platform site at Lough Kinale, and Little (2007) is conducting a PhD project on some of the midland sites around the Lough Derraveragh area (Fig. 1).


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