No clear evidence has yet emerged to demonstrate the presence of humankind in Ireland during the Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age) period, a time during which much of Ireland was covered by ice sheets. A flint flake from gravel deposits at Mell, near Drogheda, Co. Louth, is the earliest known artefact found in Ireland. Fashioned elsewhere, perhaps between 300,000 and 400,000 BC, it was deposited subsequently by an ice sheet near the Irish coast. From around 12000 BC, the ice sheets melted and woodlands developed, providing a habitat for wildlife that migrated to Ireland via land bridges from Britain and mainland Europe. By around 7000 BC, the earliest Irish settlers were hunting animals, especially wild pigs, gathering wild plants and shellfish, and fishing in lakes, rivers and the sea.
Excavation of the earliest settlements in Ireland has produced tiny blades and points of flint and chert, called microliths that were used in composite harpoon-like implements. Scrapers and stone axes were also utilised. By around 4500 BC, larger flake implements called Bann flakes (so-called because many were found on the shores of the River Bann in the north of Ireland) replaced earlier forms, and polished spearheads of slate or mudstone appeared.
By around 3700 BC, the first farming settlements had been established. Farming was based on imported domesticated cattle, sheep and goats, and on cereals such as wheat and barley. Flint-bladed sickles were used to harvest grain that was ground to flour on saddle querns. The farmers lived in rectangular timber houses, and household goods included pottery bowls used for storage and cooking, while flint javelin heads, arrowheads, blades, knives and scrapers were used for a range of functions. Factories for the quarrying and production of stone axes are known. Some axes may have had ceremonial functions, while the wearing of axe amulets and the deposition of axes in burials would appear to confirm their important status.
Megalithic (large stone) tombs such as portal tombs, court tombs and passage tombs were used for communal burial. This exhibition displays a reconstructed passage tomb incorporating decorated stones from several ruined tombs. However, the precise significance of the decorative motifs on these stones has been lost. Pottery, mace heads, small polished stone balls, beads, amulets and pendants were deposited ritually with the dead, along with phallic-shaped stones and bone pins that may have been associated with fertility rituals. Towards the end of the Neolithic (New Stone Age) period, circular ceremonial enclosures were built of earth and wood, while flat-based pottery and a new form of flint arrowhead made their appearance. The oldest intact Irish vessel is a huge logboat from Addergoole Bog, Lurgan, Co. Galway, hollowed out from the trunk of an oak tree around 2500 BC. It was around this time that the knowledge of metalworking was introduced to Ireland, together with a distinctive type of pottery called Beaker Ware that, all over Europe, is found in association with early metalworking. Ceramic bowls, sometimes with projecting feet, are also known, as are similar vessels carved from wood.
At Mount Gabriel, Co. Cork, a wooden pick, shovel, stone mauls and tapers of resinous wood to provide light were among the equipment found in mines dated to the Early Bronze Age. The earliest metal objects produced in Ireland were flat axes of pure copper that could be cast easily in single-piece stone moulds and hardened by hammering. Later, these were replaced with two-piece stone moulds, allowing for the making of tools and weapons of increasing complexity. A further development was the process of mixing copper with tin to produce bronze. Other products included knives, daggers, sickles, awls, spearheads, razors and halberds (a dagger-like blade attached to a long wooden pole).
The earliest metalsmiths were buried in megalithic monuments known as wedge tombs. However, around 2200 BC these began to be replaced by separate burials of one or more persons either in simple pits or in stone-lined graves known as cists that are sometimes found clustered in cemeteries. In keeping with earlier burial practices, the remains were cremated, but in a new development, unburnt bodies were also interred, usually in a crouched position. Highly decorated pots known as Food Vessels and – very occasionally – other personal possessions accompanied the dead. Gradually, cremation became popular once more, and the burnt bones were placed in large decorated pots called urns, which were inverted in the graves. Different types of urns – Vase, Encrusted, Collared and Cordoned – were used, and in some cases, Food Vessels and tiny vessels called Incense Cups were placed with them, accompanied occasionally by daggers, beads, pins and ceremonial stone battleaxes.
From about 1200 BC, climatic deterioration and other factors resulted in a period of development and innovation. The dead were cremated and sometimes placed in undecorated urns, often buried at the centre of small ring ditches. Metalsmiths made spearheads, rapiers, axes of a type known as palstaves and a range of smaller tools. After 900 BC the production of large numbers of weapons, especially swords, and the deposition of hoards suggest a period of violence and uncertainty. Other weapons and tools were produced including shields, cauldrons, spears and axes as well as tools such as chisels, gouges, punches, tweezers, sickles and knives. Bronze horns were cast in moulds and these are among the oldest known musical instruments from Ireland. Crude, coarsely-made pottery was used for cooking, storage and as containers for the cremated bones of the dead. Wooden trackways were constructed across bogs, and at Doogarrymore, Co. Roscommon, two wooden wheels from a cart used in the 400 BC were found in association with such a trackway.