Report by Sandra Millsopp
On 12 March the audience enjoyed a talk by Moira O'Rourke of the North Down Museum where she is the heritage development officer for Ards and North Down Borough Council. Her subject was the archaeology of County Down, focusing especially on the area around Strangford Lough. Her talk was illustrated by pictures of sites and finds as well as reconstruction drawings.
The first people came to Ireland in the Mesolithic period, c8000 – 4,500 BC. There are more sites belonging to this period around Strangford Lough than in any other part of the county. The people of this period were hunter gatherers and lived close to the coast. Ireland at this period was mostly tree-covered. They did not stay long in one place and so their sites are rather ephemeral. They used rivers to move further inland. When salmon were in the rivers they would go there in their boats.
They used tools made of stone. Small ones could be mounted on sticks using animal sinews and then these were used for fishing or to kill animals. All parts of the animal were used.
The Neolithic period lasted approximately from 4,500 to 2,500 BC. Farming was introduced to Ireland, probably by new arrivals bringing cattle with them. There are fewer sites of this period around Strangford Lough compared to those from the Mesolithic period. People were now going further inland and clearing land for crop growing.
The most visible upstanding remains are stone structures such as dolmens and court cairns. These were made by whole societies, not individuals and this means that there was a more organised society with someone in charge. Traces of circular houses have been found where the roof touches the ground to ward off the rain. Stone axes have been found, with intensively worked smooth finishes. A log boat was discovered in Greyabbey Bay dating from 3,200 BC. It was not removed from the site as it needed to kept in wet conditions. It has been protected so as to preserve it. Such a boat could be used to cross the Irish Sea. Travel by water was easier as there were no roads and the forests were full of dangerous animals such as bears.
The Bronze Age was the next period, dating from 2,500 to 300 BC. The population was still small. People lived in circular huts in villages. The only prehistoric village to have been found was at Corrstown near Portrush. It is possible a new people came to Ireland with new ideas. Bronze was made with tin from Cornwall and copper from southern Ireland. It was used to make swords, socketed axes and other tools. Pottery bowls have been found at Comber and Mount Stewart. These were food vessels, mostly from burials. Gold ornaments were also made such as the neck ring and bracelets found on Cathedral Hill in Downpatrick. They may have been an offering to the gods or buried for safety.
The Iron Age lasted from 300 BC to about 400 AD. Few remains from this period have been found. There was a hut site at Scrabo. It is possible that sites from this period remain to be discovered. One important find was a decorated scabbard from Lough Neagh.
The Early Medieval Period ranges from about 400 to 1150 AD. A plethora of sites exists from this time, mostly raths or fortified farmsteads. These were surrounded by ring ditches and would protect cattle at night. Cattle were the main currency of the time. Slaves were worth nothing compared to animals. Crops were not grown inside the raths which were usually built on the lee side of hills. There were also ecclesiastical sites such as Nendrum. The earliest known tidal water mill in Europe was found nearby. It dates from the early seventh century. Water from a mill pond operated a sluice which turned the wheel. Fish traps have been found near Greyabbey. The fish got caught when the tide went out. They were possibly made by the lay people who worked for the monasteries.
The Medieval Period dated from 1150-1550 AD. The Normans had now arrived in Ireland and built motte and bailey castles and later stone tower houses. The latter included Skettrick and Kirkiston. Another form of settlement was the crannog, an artificial island in a lake. These were joined to the mainland by causeways. People lived in the huts built on the island. There is also evidence of post-medieval activity around Strangford Lough. This includes the growing of kelp on stones in the lough. It was collected, dried and burnt and then used to fertilise fields.
Finally the speaker discussed the question of how do we know about the sites. One method is the use of early maps. We were shown a selection portraying east Ulster. The earliest date from the middle of the sixteenth century. They were hand drawn and showed the sites which were considered important at the time, including churches. By the early nineteenth century printed Ordnance Survey maps were being made and these recorded known archaeological sites. Modern aerial photographs are important in showing sites such as crop marks which were not visible from the ground. Concentrated surveys of particular areas such as Strangford Lough can add greatly to known sites. New technology such as drones and LIDAR can be used to survey sites. Volunteers can contribute to work such as the Ulster Archaeological Society survey team and National Trust Volunteers. Other useful sources for the archaeologists are geophysical surveys, photographic collections, diaries of antiquarians and artefacts in museums. Publications may also contain useful information such as the early nineteenth century Ordnance Survey Memoirs.