Forestry Focus

Wood through the Ages

This section examines the use of wood in Ireland through the ages, from the Mesolithic Period up to the Anglo-Norman and later Medieval Period.

Early wood-working techniques

Wood is, and has always been, a ubiquitous substance used throughout history as an adaptable, economical and strong raw material to make just about anything mankind has needed. Dwellings, roads and trackways, fences, eating, drinking and other domestic vessels, tools and weapons – they have all been made from wood. The skills mankind has acquired in working wood have been gathered and refined over centuries.

Between eight and ten thousand years ago, the population of Ireland was small and mostly clustered around estuaries, coasts and waterways. These people were already a sea-faring people but majority of organic artifacts, such as wood, bone and leather, do not survive in the archaeological record. As such, no actual boats have been found from this period, but it is likely that they built rafts or hollowed out canoes. There are two skills involved in this: a primary skill and a derived skill.

The primary skill is the basic manipulation and means of handling wood. It includes everything from felling the tree to stripping the bark and hewing it into the shapes required. The secondary, or derived skill is that of boat-building, complicated in itself and the more so for the primitive tools available. The fact that man had developed skills this refined is a statement about the importance and continuous use of the timber resource.

Felling, chopping, sharpening, hewing, cleaving; these are all the basic actions of pre-historic wood-working techniques, from the Neolithic through to the Iron Age. Tree trunks would have been made into planks by splitting them length-wise using wedges inserted into the wood in a line and hammered home. This technique predated the invention of the saw, and although less accurate, was used throughout Europe and continued to be so until relatively recently.

Later, polished stone axes were used by Neolithic man to fell small trees used in the making of trackways, dwellings, etc. Iron Age man is known to have chopped down an ash tree using the method of two men chopping alternately and at a constant angle. The main threat to the forests was, of course, agriculture. The movement away from the ‘hunter/gatherer’, nomadic lifestyle took people in the direction of permanent settlements and a more pastoral way of life. This in turn meant clearing land to grow crops and rear livestock.

The Mesolithic Period 7000-4000 BC

It is unlikely that any tree species survived during the last Ice Age in what was to become Ireland. The retreating ice left a land probably initially connected with Britain and northern Spain. The young, poorly formed soil left by the retreating ice flows allowed the first plants to colonise the region.

Hunter gatherer camp - Irish National Heritage Park by D Hawgood - Wikimedia

Hunter gatherer camp – Irish National Heritage Park (photo D. Hawgood)

Firstly, there were species of hardy ground vegetation which were followed by birches and willows along with alder, pine and oak. These early colonizers were later joined by ash, whitebeam, cherry, aspen, juniper, arbutus and yew.  The spread of species such as lime, beech and horse chestnut, although suited to the Irish climate, was prevented by the disappearance of the land bridges and were subsequently introduced by man.

The land was, in the main, sparsely populated by Mesolithic people. They were largely nomadic, living in tents and temporary shelters made from animal skin and moving around the coastal areas and rivers as the seasons and availability of resources dictated. There is, however, evidence of a settlement at Mount Sandel, Co. Derry, where post holes in arcs were found, surrounding a hollow and a hearth.

Ireland’s moist climate has meant that most of the organic evidence left by these people is no longer in existence. However, the stone items are well preserved and catalogued. Early Mesolithic tools are known as microliths due to their small size. These small flakes of flint would have been set in a bone or wooden handle to make a useful tool. Later Mesolithic artifacts were larger, heavier and clumsier than their early counterparts. These blades are called ‘Bann Flakes’ and are unique to Ireland. Mesolithic people were hunter/gatherers and their impact upon the vegetation was small. Their primary uses of wood were for building shelters, fuel and making tools and weapons. It is difficult for modern man to imagine the forests of these times. They would have been huge, silent and majestic, with very few people in evidence.

Between five and six thousand years ago, the Mesolithic people were joined by Neolithic farmers, and the decline of Ireland’s forest cover began. The movement toward agriculture necessitated the clearing of tracts of woodlands at a local level. Some stone buildings, such as tombs and houses, survive from this period. However, most were constructed from wood and survive as ‘negative imprints’.

The Neolithic Period 4000-2500 BC

Neolithic sickle  by W Sauber - Wikimedia

Neolithic sickle ( photo W. Sauber)

By 4000 BC, the economy and the appearance of the landscape had changed significantly throughout Ireland. Neolithic people had arrived from mainland Britain and had settled in farming communities made up of extended families, introducing the new concept of agriculture. They also brought new skills which enabled them to make polished stone axes, flint scythes, quern stones and scrapers (used in the processing of animal carcasses), and pottery for domestic use and as grave goods.

The Mesolithic people’s nomadic lifestyle made little impact on the natural forests of the time. But now with the heavy, polished stone axes of the Neolithic Period, the impact was greater as these people cleared some woodlands for crops and animal grazing. The countryside became more organised, with people settling into community groups based around a single homestead and extended family. As pressure on the land and resources grew, the territorial protectionism became more sophisticated and the structure of society more defined. Evidence of this is extensive and takes the form of megalithic tombs. There are three basic types, each from a different period.

Court tombs- 3900-3400 BC

These resemble tombs found in Scotland and France. They comprise a narrow gallery with two or more chambers accessed through a portico and opening into a large open court which probably acted as a gathering area for mourners.

Portal tombs -roughly the same period as court tombs.

These were usually a single chamber with two uprights and a large capping stone (sometimes weighing over a hundred tons), and sealed with a stone cairn.

Passage Graves – 3400-3000 BC

These are the most spectacular of the three and those in the BoyneValley have been described as some of the greatest architectural achievements of the Neolithic people in Western Europe.

What sets the passage graves apart is their scale. While each contained only a small amount of human remains, their size would have required a considerable communal effort. This suggests that the building of these tombs was an act of people under the control of a ruler of some description, and supports the idea of an elitist and hierarchical society.

The Early and Middle Bronze Age 2500-1200 BC

The Early Bronze Age saw the arrival of the Beaker people in Ireland, so-called because of the new form of pottery which emerged with them. These elegant, well-made pots were highly decorated and were used, it is thought, for drinking alcohol or urine mixed with hallucinogenic drugs.

The arrival of the Beaker people also saw the introduction of skills associated with mining and metal working. The copper produced from the mines at Mount Gabriel, Co. Cork and Rosses Island, Co. Kerry, were mixed with tin from Cornwall to produce bronze.

Bronze Age Axe - Belfast Natural History Society - by Notafly- Wikimedia

Bronze Age axe (photo Notafly)

Many of the artifacts were cast in stone moulds and then hammered into shape as they cooled. Bronze axe heads developed and saw the introduction of raised edges which enabled the handleor haft to be fixed in a more secure fashion. More sophisticated two-piece moulds appeared, enabling the production of socketed spearheads. There was also significant production of gold ornaments such as earrings and bracelets.

Early burials were, however, inhumed individually and accompanied. Later on, however, all burials were individual and pots known as food vessels were placed in the burial chamber. This was done to ensure that the dead had sufficient food to see them through their journey into the next life.

Later again in this period, inhumation was replaced by cremation. The ashes were placed in an urn which was inverted and placed in a cist. This was then sealed by a capstone. Standing stones, stone circles and stone rows are also evident at other Early Bronze Age sites, and many of them are aligned to the rising and the setting of the winter sun.

Most of the houses were of wooden construction, made from planks or post-and-wattles with thatched or mud roofs. Complex trackways were also constructed, mainly of wood. The steady course of deforestation continued throughout this period, perhaps even more vigorously than before, as more land became settled into agriculture.

The Late Bronze Age 1200-600 BC

The Late Bronze Age is rightfully known as the Golden Age of Irish pre-history. Irish metal-working was unrivalled throughout Europe and there is evidence that society, as a result, became more aggressive and elitist.

Weapons were much more sophisticated, more purposefully designed and built for the task of warfare. Specialist wood-working tools appeared such as chisels, socketed gouges and axes. This suggests the existence of specialist carpenters.

Bronze trumpets and cauldrons appeared as a result of new sheet working techniques. More complex clay moulds allowed more sophisticated casting, resulting in the production of gold jewelry and items of outstanding quality.

It is clear that society became more structured and, at the same time, more aggressive. It is likely that Chieftains, or high-ranking individuals, wielded great power and control. At around the same time, huge and well-defended hill-forts appeared. This coincided with a concentration of high value artifacts, indicating that some people wished to hoard their wealth, perhaps to protect it.

It is thought that the Late Bronze Age ended with an economic downturn. It is believed that this may have been caused by climate fluctuations, although this factor is difficult to quantify. Some suggest that it was caused by volcanic activity or a meteor. However, it is more likely that over-farming and a rapidly expanding population played a major part.

Trackways of an increasingly sophisticated nature were constructed on such a scale as to indicate large-scale employment of skilled human resources.

The Iron Age 600 BC – 500 AD

This period coincided with the arrival of the Celts who came from central Europe and brought with them tree veneration or a belief that trees were sacred. Throughout Europe, it was the oak tree that was venerated above all else. However the Irish Celts, who originated in Spain and not Gaul, were referring to the ash whenever they mentioned a bille or venerated tree.

Early Iron Age artifacts appear on some Late Bronze Age sites and it is thought that this ‘new technology’ of iron working was quickly adopted throughout the country. However, evidence of this is very thin as there are relatively few domestic sites.

Much of the art was based on curvilinear patterns showing some Mediterranean influence. This is known as the La Tene culture of Europe and the Irish examples included high quality, prestige items such as bronze scabbards, ornate horse bits, pins, brooches, short bladed swords and magnificently decorated trumpets.

Even though it was used to a lesser degree than during the Late Bronze Age, some spectacular hoards of gold have been found, some of it from as far afield as Egypt.

Burial customs indicate that Early Iron Age people were cremated and the remains then placed in ring barrows.

At Emain Macha, the skull of a Barbary ape imported from north Africa was found along with a series of wooden structures at the top of the hill which may have been used as temples. Another good example of a royal site is the Hill of Tara.

Fragments from carts, wooden wheels, horse bits and the construction of a 2 km wooden trackway at Corlea, reveal the nature of travel and the dependence on wood within the period.

The Early Christian Period 500-1000 AD

Ireland in the Early Christian Period was entirely rural and made up of people raising crops and stock in a mixed economy. The country spoke one language, the ancestor of Gaelic, and literacy was struggling to establish itself in the form of an Irish/ Latin bilingual script as seen on Ogham stones.

There were roughly 30,000 ringforts throughout Ireland. These were the predominant settlement type of the period. In their simplest form, ringforts were level areas surrounded by a bank and ditch to protect stock against wolves and rustlers. More elaborate ringforts may have been royal sites or regional centres, many of which contained underground passages which led from the houses to a point beyond the ringfort. These are thought to have acted as escape routes or maybe even storage areas. Many of the more sophisticated ringforts used wood in their construction.

In the 6th century, each community or diocese was ruled by a bishop. By the 7th century, however, things had changed and those earlier settlements had developed into monasteries which were more like early towns. The bishop no longer ruled and the ultimate arbiter of power was an abbot, whose position was handed down from father to son. It is clear that monasteries were far more than merely religious communities and that they supported a great many specialist craftspeople. Among these were specialist carpenters. Buildings, including churches, were still predominately wooden, although wealthier monasteries included the use of stone, often as a form of protection.

The period was another ‘golden age’ in Irish history, with tremendous artisanship and artistry flowering throughout the country. Such examples include the Tara Brooch and the Ardagh Chalice, as well as manuscripts such as the Book of Kells.

The Vikings 795 – 1170 AD

The wealthy monasteries formed an irresistible target to the marauding Vikings whose first raids took place in 795 AD at Inishmurray and Inishboffin. In the following forty years, the northern half of the country sustained the worst of the Viking raids. The object of these raids was not only the theft of wealthy artifacts, but also the capturing of slaves.

Viking boat by Ardfern - Wikipedia

(photo Ardfern)

It is clear that the Vikings were master boat-builders, as their crafts were infinitely superior to anything Ireland had seen up to that date. Possessing both sail and oars, these boats were being heavily armoured and very sturdily built, largely from oak beams. They also bore intricate designs of carved decorations.

More intense and regular raids led to the setting up of the first over-wintering encampments in Dublin and Anagassan, Co. Louth, during the 830s. The Vikings in Dublin were eventually expelled in 902, but returned with a significantly stronger force in 917 to re-establish their position. Other settlements are thought to also date from around this time.

Excavations in Dublin have revealed a remarkably structured society and distinct areas of production within communities. Construction still relied heavily upon wood, with wattle-and-daub being a common construction type. By the end of the 11th century, stone had largely replaced the earthen bank with wooden palisade surrounding Dublin.

Between 980 and 1014, significant Irish victories meant that the Vikings would never be a significant threat again. Some remained and were tolerated and absorbed into the native community.



The Anglo-Normans and the Later Medieval Period 1170-1500 AD

Trim_Castle by A Parnell - Wikimedia

Trim Castle – a fine example of an Anglo-Norman fortification (photo A. Parnell)

In 1166, Diarmuid MacMurrough, the King of Leinster, was forced to flee Irish shores by rival chieftains. In order to win back his land, he travelled to England and asked Henry II for help, promising new lands and wealth to reward his followers. Henry sent Strongbow (the Duke of Pembroke) to Dublin with a force of men.

The initial force over ran the area surrounding Dublin, known as the Pale, and quickly fortified it with wooden forts based on the Anglo-Norman system of motte and bailey. From around 1190 to 1310, these structures were replaced by stone castles which, although varying greatly in size, were basically all constructed around the same model. A massive curtain wall surrounded the entire area and was interrupted only by round stone towers. This area would have housed the Lord and would have been heavily fortified.

Towns now had a legal and civic administration, which controlled society and levied taxes.

Huge friaries were founded by Dominican and Franciscan monks in the 13th century, made of stone and wood.

By the end of the 13th century, these monastic workshops disappeared, following a ruling that the affairs of the Irish church must be conducted in accordance with instructions from the English church.