The Causeway Coast and Glens Heritage Trust area has some of the most impressive Stone Age remains in Ireland. Until 12,000 years ago, Ulster was covered in ice sheets, and there would have been no human inhabitants. As the climate improved, the first “Irish” people would have arrived in small boats. Since there were no longer land bridges connecting Ireland and Britain the first Irish people probably completed the journey in hide-covered boats, since the last of the land bridges were being swept away by rising seas.
In the 1970s a site at Mountsandel, Coleraine, was excavated, which proved to contain the earliest man-made structures found in Ireland. This is the earliest known human settlement in Ireland, dating from about 7000 BC. It was occupied by people who lived a hunting, gathering and fishing lifestyle. Nine thousand years ago, there would have been a small group of huts on this site, made of saplings, inserted into the ground in a circle, and then covered with hides, probably deerskin. The burnt bones of mammals, including wild boar, were found and also fish bones, such as salmon, trout and eels. Bird bones were found, and also hazelnuts. Many flint tools were also discovered, and there is evidence that they were constructed on the site.
This location would have been attractive because there was game available in the woods, fish in the Bann river and shellfish on the sea coast along with nesting birds, as well as flint from the coastal chalk cliffs. The excavations at Mountsandel showed that there was human life in Ireland about a thousand years earlier than was previously believed.
About 6,000 years ago, the first farming communities appeared in Ulster, introducing domestic animals – cattle, sheep, goats and pigs, and also the first cultivated cereals. The two largest Neolithic sites in the area are found near Templepatrick, at Lyles Hill and Donegore Hill. These were on a much bigger scale than the earlier remains, and show signs of fortification. Substantial quantities of pottery were found, as were stone ornaments and tools. These were clearly permanent settlements. A distinctive Ulster pottery emerged, named Goodland Pottery, after the townland near Fair Head where some of the best examples have been discovered.
The farmers needed to clear forests to create agricultural land. The old flint implements were not ideal for cutting trees, as they tended to shatter, and were replaced by axes made of porcellanite, an especially hard volcanic stone found at Brockley on Rathlin and at Tievebulliagh, near Cushendun. Examples of these axes have been found all over the British Isles, which indicate that there were “axe factories” at these sites, and that there must have been extensive trading, even at this early period. These early people left megalithic tombs, built with large stones, behind them. Amongst the many examples in this area are Dooey’s Cairn near Dunloy, Ossian’s Grave near Cushendall and The Ballylumford Dolmen, also called the Druid’s Altar, which can be found in a front garden in Islandmagee.
There have been many discoveries from the Bronze Age, which dates from about 2500 BC to about 300 BC. The largest Bronze Age settlement in Ireland was recently discovered at Corrsdown, near Portrush, during preparation work for a new housing development. Over seventy houses were discovered, built close to each other along a wide, ‘metalled’ or pave stoned, street. Many of the houses are linked to the street by short lengths of metalled or pavestone pathways, like little garden paths. This village dates from 1300-1500 B.C., and surprised the experts by demonstrating an unexpected degree of urbanisation in Ireland at this period.
Several remarkable finds from this period have been made in the Ballymoney area. These include exquisitely crafted musical horns found at Drumabest and Drunkendult, and the Dunaverney Flesh-hook, discovered by a turfcutter in 1829 and now held at the British Museum, unique in Europe in its representation of birds: two ravens and five swans. Twenty four bronze rings were discovered at Seacon More. The Kurin Beads, found at Kurin Moss near Garvagh, are of amber, which means they are not native to Ireland and were probably imported from Scandinavia.
About 300 BC people speaking Celtic languages arrived in Ireland and became the dominant group. They made their homes on raths or forts which still dot the countryside and, for extra protection, some made their homes on islands in lakes. These were called crannogs and these may still be seen at Fair Head and Loughgiel.
The Celts were celebrated for their metalworking skills. In 1896, the Broighter Hoard, a remarkable collection of gold ornaments, was uncovered by a ploughman called Thomas Nicholl, at a townland about a mile from Limavady. The Hoard can now be seen at the National Museum in Dublin. The centrepiece is a beautiful model boat with mast, yardarm, sails and fifteen oars. It also contains a small bowl of beaten gold, two bracelets, two necklaces, and a tubular collar with rich ornamentation, one of the finest examples of Celtic art. The Bann Disc, a finely decorated bronze disc from about 200 A.D. discovered in the River Bann, near Coleraine, in 1939, has become the symbol of the Ulster museum. The Dalriada Brooch, dug up in a potato field at Enagh Cross near Ballymoney in 1855 is another example, in the National Museum in Dublin, of the elaborate work of which they were capable.