Microlith to Macrolith: The Reasons Behind the Transformation of Production in the Irish Mesolithic

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Introduction

The earliest reliable evidence of human presence in Ireland dates to about 8000 cal BC and the Irish Mesolithic appears to continue until 4000 cal BC (Woodman 1981). Most regions of Europe can document a gradual and sometimes continuous sequence of modifications in stone tools and their means of production in this period. But in Ireland, there is a notable difference in that the early Mesolithic (8000-7000 cal BC) and the later Mesolithic (6500-4000 cal BC) are separated by a chronological gap of several hundred years (Woodman 1978, 2000). The significance of this gap is further heightened by the contrasting range of tool types and technologies found on either side of the hiatus.

The early Mesolithic period is characterised by the production and use of a series of geometric microlithic forms, most notably scalene triangles and backed blades. Many of the microlithic and related forms are made on small bladelets. These forms can be paralleled at roughly the same date in many adjacent parts of Europe. There are also some particular local forms known in Ireland from an early date, such as the small surface-retouched needle points and flake axes (Figure 2), and it would also appear that polished stone axes occur throughout the duration of the Irish Mesolithic. It is still uncertain whether their absence from Britain, with the notable exception of Nab Head (David 1989), is a real absence or simply a failure to recognise or perhaps acknowledge their existence in Mesolithic contexts. Scrapers and burins, on the other hand, are scarce throughout the Irish Mesolithic. This can also be noted in the Isle of Man and Scotland.

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By contrast, the later Mesolithic is associated with the abandonment of the composite tool/microlith-using tradition and the adoption of new forms of tools in which large, often quite broad blades and blade-like flakes are retouched into a series of what would have been simple hand tools such as knives, reaming tools, etc. (Figure 3). The best known of these are the butt-trimmed forms including tanged examples and the more leaf-shaped so-called Bann flakes. Butt-trimmed forms seem to occur on most sites; bar forms and points seem to occur more frequently on some inland sites, while large notched pieces have been found on several coastal sites. Polished stone axes are found in abundance on certain sites, e.g. Newferry, Co Antrim (Woodman 1977). From limited microwear investigations (Anderson & Johnson 1993), it would seem probable that many of the late Mesolithic tools were used for woodworking.

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The differences in lithic production could be a priori interpreted in either cultural terms, as a population replacement resulting in the manifestation of new technological and cultural traditions, and/or in functional terms, as a shift in territorial exploitation patterns due to environmental changes or a transformation of exploitation strategies of the available resources. In this paper we explore these and other possible explanations for the Irish Mesolithic transformation.

Establishing the extent of the gap

The extent of the gap between the two phases of the Irish Mesolithic is worth re-examining. The use of a calibrated chronology shows that it is not something that has been created by extreme fluctuations in the creation of [sup.14]C in the atmosphere--indeed, the seventh millennium BC has few noticeable plateaux or steps in the calibration curve. However, the chronological gap may be to some extent a creation of the research strategy. While the number of radiocarbon dates associated with the Irish Mesolithic is approaching 100, nearly 50 per cent come from three sites: Ferriter's Cove, Co Kerry (Woodman et al. 1999), Newferry, Co Antrim (Woodman 1977) and Mount Sandel, Co Antrim (Woodman 1985). In Ferriter's Cove the dates are concentrated before 5000 cal BC, while at Mount Sandel, the dates tend to be earlier than 7000 cal BC. …