Historic Monuments 1

Early human settlement, dolmens and Navan fort

The earliest evidence for the human habitation of what is now Northern Ireland comes from sites like Mountsandel on the river Bann, Co Londonderry . About 7000BC, in the early Mesolithic period, a hunter-gatherer community seems to have repeatedly erected a series of small huts and dug pits for food storage and rubbish disposal. Post-holes, burnt bones and flint tools have all been excavated here.

After 5500 BC, the later Mesolithic period, there is evidence, mostly from Antrim and Down, of coastal and riverside settlement, including specialised industrial sites for flint working. In examples of industrial sites include, the raised beach at Curran Point in Larne and a site at Carnlough, further up the Antrim coast.

By 4500 BC, farming communities appeared, bringing with them new domesticated plants and animals. These settled farmers began to clear the forests of oak and hazel and erected large stone structures, including monuments in which they buried at least some of their dead. These Neolithic structures include some of the best known and most impressive of the historic monuments of Northern Ireland.

Prehistoric sites of the Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age, the Creggandevesky court tomb
Court tombs or ‘horned cairns’ are the most common Neolithic structures in the north of Ireland. An impressive example is the court tomb at Creggandevesky, near Carrickmore in Co Tyrone. In use around 3500 BC, the Creggandevesky court tomb consists of a gallery of three chambers entered from a court enclosed by projecting limbs of stone, which form the ‘horns’ of the cairn. 

Excavated from bogland in the early 1980s, the Creggandevesky court tomb would have been roofed with overlapping slabs of stone. Cremated bone and grave goods were recovered from the interior chambers and 11 other court tombs have been found within a ten mile radius.

The Legananny dolmen
One of the most impressive of more than 150 dolmens or ‘portal tombs’ known in Northern Ireland, the Legananny dolmen stands on the slopes of Slieve Croob in Co Down. Three upright stones support a large capstone, beneath which would probably have rested the skeletal remains of one or more people. Originally, a stone cairn would have covered the Neolithic tomb, but few traces of this remain.

Other portal tombs in include the Ballylumford dolmen in Islandmagee, Co Antrim and the Ballykeel dolmen in Co Armagh. Elsewhere in Co Down, there are dolmens at Annadorn, Goward and Kilfeaghan.

The Giant’s Ring
On the southern outskirts of Belfast , on a rise overlooking the river Lagan, the Giant’s Ring is a 180m diameter circular enclosure of a type archaeologists call a 'henge monument’. This structure encloses the remains of a passage tomb. Probably dating from around 2000BC (late Neolithic or early Bronze Age) the site’s social or ritual function is unclear, but excavations and aerial photography show that the Giant’s Ring is part of a complex landscape of tombs, standing stones and other circular enclosures.

Beaghmore stone circles
Near Cookstown in Co Tyrone, the Beaghmore stone circles were excavated from the surrounding blanket bog in 1965. The site comprises a complicated arrangement of stone circles, cairns and rows of stones, which appear to be aligned towards the midsummer sunrise. Six of the seven stone circles form pairs, with cairns containing traces of cremated bones close by. A seventh circle is crowded with closely packed stones known as ‘the dragon’s teeth’.

Navan Fort
The most important and impressive of Ireland’s ancient monuments, Navan Fort is identified with Eamhain Mhacha, the capital of ancient Ireland . A few miles west of the historic city of Armagh , this huge hilltop earthwork, with two mounds enclosed by a ditch and massive bank, was not actually a fortification in prehistoric times. While the ditch and bank structure may be a late Neolithic henge monument like the Giant’s Ring, the larger mound within the enclosure has a complicated history of occupation.

Navan Fort is part of a complex of late Bronze Age, Iron Age and early Christian era structures. The ‘King’s Stables’, less than a mile to the west, appears to be a late Bronze Age artificial pond, probably for ritual use, with both human and animal bones discovered there. ‘Haughey’s Fort’ is a further outlying and is an example of a late Bronze Age hillfort.

Further Reading
Standing Stones and Other Monuments of Early (1984) by Kenneth McNally; Early : An Introduction to Irish Prehistory (1989) by Michael O’Kelly; The Lost History of Ireland: An Enquiry into the Pre-Christian History of the Gaels (1991) E J Sweeney.