Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 29 November 2014

Derry Stone Age village sheds new light on life 6,000 years ago

A 6,000-year-old Stone Age village excavated in Londonderry has been heralded as being of global significance.

The settlement is seen as of world importance as it is only the second of its type found in Ireland and is unique in the range of activities found to have been carried out there.

Archaeologists have found evidence of early farming techniques, ancient artwork and even battles on the site, which was fortified with a wooden palisade.

Some of the thousands of artefacts uncovered at the early neolithic settlement will now go on display for the first time ever in an exhibition opening in the Tower Museum tomorrow. The ancient community was discovered in routine excavation work undertaken during the construction of Thornhill College girls grammar school in Culmore in 2000.

Dwelling structures, decorated pottery, flint weapons and a tree-lined fortification — one of only two in Ireland — were among the rare finds.

Among the unique finds at Templemore were rounded and pierced stone beads which are believed to the earliest record of ornamental adornment in Ireland.

The largest of these — the Thornhill bead — was used in the City of Culture ‘Voices’ film.

Leading Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) archaeologist Paul Logue said the site could hold its own with any others discovered in Europe and was as important as Derry's Walls.

“It is just as important as the Walls, although whereas the Walls were built 400 years ago, this was built 5,500 years ago, possibly even more.

“In terms of understanding the neolithic period in western Europe, this is a site that can hold its own against many sites in Europe,” he said.

Margaret Edwards, education officer at Derry City Council’s Heritage and Museum Services department, said the exhibition had been several years in the planning. The artefacts were originally taken to NIEA’s Belfast headquarters where they have been examined, studied, categorised and stored for over a decade.

“It is hard to say how many families lived on the site but within it we have found bits of pottery, axe heads, a flint knife scraper for skinning animals, a saddle quern stone to grind grain.

“It is very significant because it gives archaeologists and historians the chance to learn more.”

“One of the most interesting things about the site is the Thornhill bead. With the other things that were found there we know there was trade and exchange going on with other parts of the North West and into Tyrone and other parts.

“Stone axes were made of a type of porcellanite stone which is not local but from the Antrim Plateau.

“Similarly the flint is not local to Derry and must have been brought in from somewhere else.

“The site is quite close to the river and there would have been easy access to trading as well as fishing. They also found evidence of conflict architecture.

“We make the point in the exhibition that aggressive behaviour on the island is not something unique to our time. Even 6,000 years ago humankind had its darker side.”

The excavation covered an area of 400 square metres and it is thought there may be other important discoveries waiting there.

Mr Logue confirmed last night that three other sites were earmarked for excavation in partnership with Derry City Council.

The identity of these has yet to be disclosed.

Background

Interest in the Thornhill site spread after members of the Templemore Archaeology group discovered worked flint items in what was then an open field. In 2000, construction work to replace the old Thornhill College was well under way. Before work began on the carpark to the front of the school, just off the Culmore Road, however, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) were brought in to carry out a routine investigation. Working together, NIEA, the Planning Service, Derry City Council and others including then Thornhill College principal Sister Christopher, agreed to extend the dig and it was conducted over six months from April to October 2000.

10 discoveries at the Thornhill site

1 Five rectangular and circular structures believed to have been houses.

2 An extremely rare palisade enclosure made of tree trunks around the perimeter. The only other similarly fortified site from the period is at Knowth near Newgrange in modern day Co Meath.

3 Flint arrowheads used to hunt .

4 Decorated pottery fragments.

5 Flint and stone tools made from materials only available in other parts of Ireland — showing evidence of trade.

6 Evidence of battles taking place.

7 Evidence of early agriculture and a move from hunting and gathering.

8 A saddle quern (millstone) for grinding grain.

9 Quartz items at a site where rituals were possibly carried out.

10 Unique rounded and pierced stone beads which provide the earliest evidence so far of personal adornment in Ireland.

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