Going to the hills and mountains for recreational purposes is a relatively recent phenomenon dating from the 18th century. However, these higher places have been the focus of human attention for millennia. Today, we value many of these upland areas solely for their recreational value, but from the earliest times they were the focus of religious practices, farming and small-scale industry. In Ireland, the physical presence of monuments evidencing these activities and the mythology associated with them can combine to create unique upland experiences.
As walkers in the Irish hills, we often encounter archaeological features, but we may be unaware of their significance. In recent times, the erection of miniature monuments on hilltops, mass gatherings on archaeological monuments for photo-shoots and the removal of stones from existing hilltop cairns have become unfortunately prevalent practices, which may damage such features. As the people that most frequent the hills, hillwalkers are perfectly positioned to ensure that at least those in our company are aware that these practices should not be condoned. Indeed, the Leave No Trace policy, which we advocate, fosters an acknowledgment that, when we venture into the hills, we should respect the environment. In the same way, this respect should extend to the archaeological features we find there. This article details some of the different types of prehistoric monuments of archaeological significance that walkers may encounter in the Irish hills and how best they can be appreciated and protected for future generations. Subsequent articles will elaborate on the theme and deal with monuments from more recent centuries that we may encounter on our hikes.
The relative inaccessibility of the uplands (areas 200-1,000m above sea level) has ensured that archaeological features often survive where elsewhere they have been removed or destroyed by centuries of human activity. However, over the millennia, upland settlement by humans has increased. The evidence for this comes from placenames, archaeology, literature and oral traditions as well as scientific investigations. Numerous surveys, regional studies and examinations of individual hills and mountains have made worthwhile contributions to our knowledge. A comprehensive and invaluable study entitled Local Worlds: Early Settlement Landscapes and Upland Farming in Southwest Ireland was completed by William O’Brien in 2009 and is a benchmark for future archaeological studies of these upland areas.
The first human inhabitants of this island arrived during the Mesolithic (8000-4000BC) and survived by hunting and gathering. The stone tools necessary for this existence were made from chert and flint. The general absence of these materials from upland regions suggests limited use of this environment by
these earliest settlers. The Neolithic period saw a gradual transition from a hunter-gatherer society to a farming one.
Around 4000BC, the arrival of domesticated animals and cereals resulted in population growth and a more settled lifestyle. While there is evidence of small-scale habitation in some upland areas centred on stone-knapping (the shaping of stone so that it can be used for a variety of purposes, including the manufacture of stone tools), the information available suggests that the uplands generally remained unsettled during the onset of farming. However, the settled lifestyle afforded by farming did lead to the development of religious beliefs, some of which centred on rituals associated with higher ground. The more than fifteen hundred megalithic tombs scattered around the country in upland areas are testament to this.
Megalithic tombs are classified into four main types: court tombs, portal tombs, passage tombs and wedge tombs. Both passage tombs and wedge tombs are often encountered in forays into the hills.