Pre-Christian Ireland by Peter Harbison


Pre-Christian Ireland deals with the archeology of Ireland’s prehistoric period up to the coming of Christianity. The author of this book was trying to make a survey of this period taking into account the updated research and finds made of that period up until the time of the printing of the book. This book uses for its main sources archeology, radiocarbon dating and dendrochronology or the science of tree-ring dating. To a certain extent the author achieved his goal.

The author kicks off the book with an explanation of what prompted the writing of the book, and a survey of the history of research in the area of Irish prehistory. He discusses dendrochronology and radiocarbon dating, the innovations made in those two field and the uses made of them in archeology. An interesting summary of the history of archeology in Ireland and the archeologists who made these discoveries is also presented in the first chapter, this I feel gives the reader a sense of how difficult it was to get the records he/she is now reading. Also it makes one wonder about all the things that were lost under a farmer’s plow and the idea that we should not disturb the ancestors. However, if we don’t then how can we learn about our history?

A look at the geographical location of Ireland is how the author chose to start the second chapter. Coupled with a good map of Europe and the map provided at the beginning of the book, a reader who has never been to Ireland will be able to get a good idea of where Ireland is and what makes it special, namely its sea. The Irish Sea gives Ireland the edge of being near to main land Europe and also isolated from it. The sea provided the trading routes that the Irish Sailors depended on and also the way settlers or raiders came from. It also gave the Irish the look into new spiritual and economic developments. The author also gives us a topographical survey of Ireland’s landscape. This discussion of the topography gives the reader an idea (all be it a simple one) of what kind of natural resources the Irish had. Harbison chose to start his discussion of Ireland’s first settlers at the beginning of the Ice age. This is to set the stage for the arrival of the first settlers, and what they may have seen the first time they set foot in Ireland. He discusses the land bridges between Britain and Ireland and how vegetation, animals, and later people could have used them as a walkway into Ireland. There seems to be evidence of the existence of settlers around the Mesolithic period, with evidence of houses and campsites much older then the ones in Britain. They were hunters and fishermen, and they may have used flint tools.

The third chapter is all about the farmers and the megalith builders, otherwise known as the Neolithic period of Ireland. From examining stratified pollen we know that the earliest date for woodland clearance was from 3895 and 2965 bc, in the southwestern part of Ireland as well as in the opposite side of Ireland and in this side there is evidence of the people who did the clearing. The Neolithic people came in probably from Scotland in small groups clearing land and planting, then moving inland as the lands became infertile; this is evidenced by the re-growth of forests after a few hundred years. The next generations after that though settled down in enclosures which probably held 4-5 families at a time and they were near Court Cairns, which makes us, think that the same people built them. The first houses that could be identified purely as Neolithic were found in southeast Limerick. Though nothing as big as this house was found again with the rest of the finds producing round huts, kitchen middens, and pottery as proof of the Neolithic people. A lot of potsherds were found in Neolithic sites, including burial sites. This indicates the sedentary nature of the Neolithic people. Ireland has 1200 megaliths that probably served as tombs for the Neolithic people and some of the people who came after them. These can be grouped into four major types; Court Cairns, portal tombs, passage tombs, and wedge tombs. These four types seem to be concentrated in the North, in the south the picture is different. In the south we find single burials, quite what the significance of this is, is unknown. I guess it would be interesting to see just what about our assumptions about these sites were true. Did we infer the right things or did we just associate with them things that WE think they might mean?

The Beaker pottery in Ireland is interesting because it was not used the same way as it was in continental Europe and Britain. There it was used as a burial beaker, in Ireland however, it was more associated with domestic activities. It was also found in wedge tombs, again not as a mode of burial. The author in this chapter takes us through a discovery of standing stones and stone circles, different types of burials and the items found in them, and that leads us gently to the rise of metal working. It was really an interesting combination. The most interesting part to me was not just the objects, but what we can glean from them. An emphasis on new techniques and manufacture, a change from communal to personal, perhaps even increased wealth and the emphasis on status are just a few things that are communicated.

The Golden Age talked about in this book is the time from Early Bronze Age to the Late Bronze Age. It was so called because of the amount of the Gold found in hoards in Ireland. The Late Bronze Age is also when the first Hallstatt C influence started to appear. Not a lot of information is known about this time because there is a limited about of burial places and settlements that can be dated to that time. This chapter was interesting because it gives us some idea of what might have been there and is missed by the archeology of today, which is mainly the only way we can learn about the time. Things like what the Irish bartered for the huge amount of gold hoards found if indeed the gold was not domestic, or the difference in tastes between the north and the south could be indicative of an outside influence that is different for each side. A lot to think about.

The last chapter of the book mostly spoke about the how the Celts may have come to Ireland. Different theories were presented and discussed giving us the pros and cons of each. The chapter also talks about the Hillforts and assembly places and about what kind of influence the Romans MAY have had on Ireland.

In the Epilogue the author explains his vision of the book. He tells us that since the people had not written their history down the only way to tell the story is by looking at what they left behind, monuments, settlements and objects. It is up to the archeologist to flesh out the picture based on these objects. I think that for most people who are interested in history an incomplete picture is better then no picture at all. And yet how do we know that the archeologist who is fleshing out the picture is not doing so based n his own biases and/or proving or disproving someone else’s picture? In a lot of books I’ve read the biases are visible, some are forgivable and others are not. I guess one only has to be careful enough and to cross reference as many things as possible.

In general the book is a very good appraisal of the archeological evidence that we have for the period of prehistory in Ireland. I did feel however that the author missed the boat by trying to present only the archeology without giving in ideas of what he thinks these objects fit together to give a more human picture. The way he presented the dates is also very confusing at times, sometimes I didn’t even know what date he was talking about. On the plus side it was not a dry book either, you get the sense of the enthusiasm that the author has for his subject matter, which is mostly missing from many archeology books.

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2 thoughts on “Pre-Christian Ireland by Peter Harbison

  1. bwitch says:

    May I ask who is the author if this book, it appears to be missing from the review?

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