In this video, you’ll discover the evidence in the landscape of Neolithic, Norman and Plantation farmers. The archaeological legacy of the first farmers can be seen throughout Northern Ireland. They left stone features that have been buried by peat and raided by later peoples. The video explores some of these and the culture of the people who left them. The beautiful porcellanite axe-head is an archaeological icon of Northern Ireland.
DARRYL GRIMASON: Claire, what are these bamboos actually telling us here?
CLAIRE FOLEY: Well, what we’ve just done is we’ve tracked the remains of the collapsed stone wall under the peat. It’s a continuation of the stone wall we see in the landscape behind and we believe it may be a Neolithic farm boundary.
The people who built the wall were really the first farmers in this area. That’s about 6,000 years ago. They had to use very important technology, the stone axe. And this is an example, a very good example, of a porcelanite axe which is probably from either the Tievebulliagh factory on the Antrim Coast or the Brockley factory on Rathlin Island.
PRESENTER: Clearly, a major technical innovation at that time.
CLAIRE FOLEY: Oh clearly, I mean you could actually compare it to the invention of the tractor in the 20th century, from the point of view of the effect it had on the landscape.
Well what we have here is a wedge tomb. It’s a particular type of magnetic tomb which we think dates to about 2000bc. When these people built this tomb, this was viable farmland. And about 800 years later, say about 1200bc, the climate became a little wetter and a little cooler and the peat bog began to grow. And bit by bit the land just became unusable and people had to move away, and all of the remains of the farms and the tombs that had existed in the landscape became covered in peat.
Video with transcript
Later settlers were the Normans who left a heritage of substantial buildings mainly castles and churches. The featured Inch Abbey near Downpatrick is a good example, but the video explains many other impacts the Normans had on landscape and biodiversity.
VALERIE HALL: You look at the hawthorn hedge and it’s planted in straight lines. And it carves this landscape up into blocks. And this hedgerow is all part of change that took place a couple of hundred years ago.
There were some hedges at that time, but they weren’t prevalent like they are today. The hedges we have today are the hedges that would have come after that first big pulse of plantation agriculture. The hedge marked the edge of your boundary. It marked the fields for your crops. It marked the fields for stock, a different way of handling agriculture.
DARRYL GRIMASON: Tell me why they chose hawthorn.
VALERIE HALL: One of hawthorn’s other name is quick thorn, and it’s well named because it grows quickly. So if you want to get hedges well established rapidly, you’re going to have to look for something that will grow quickly. And you can take cuttings from the hawthorn slips, root them, plant them and away it’ll go. But, interestingly, of many of the hedges that we have here in this country were grown from quicks that came in from England.
There’s been a practice over the last number of years for people to go wrenching out hedgerows. And even up until today people will still cut the wildflowers that grow along the base of the hedgerows. We’ve got to stop doing that, because in a way a hedge represents the edge of a wood. These are the oasis for not just the birds but the butterflies. Probably many species of insects maybe were depleted or lost at the time when the planters were taking out much of the scrubland. These are their last oasis. These are the only places for them to go.
Video with transcript
Norman agricultural practices didn’t remove all previous landscapes – we still have fragments of ancient woodland, characterised by their distinctive species. These are researched and monitored by the Woodland Trust and the Northern Ireland Native Woodland Group.
The Plantation of Ulster resulted in yet another agricultural and therefore landscape change with straight hedges, larger fields and scrubland turned to cropland. There’s likely to be some evidence of historic settlement close to you. Can you think of a castle, a very old church, a long straight hedgerow or even an ancient tomb or earthworks?