28 May 2022

Local History: The Bronze Age: What a farmer in Shantallow discovered in 1987

Local historian and genealogist, Brian Mitchell examines what the local area was like in the Bronze Age

Local History: The Bronze Age: What a farmer in Shantallow discovered in 1987

From the evidence gathered in recent years it has been shown that a village existed in Shantallow during the Bronze Age.

Local historian and genealogist, Brian Mitchell, has written a book called 'Derry: A City Invincible'. We are publishing extracts from the book. In this latest article, Brian examines what the local area was like in the Bronze Age.

One Autumn’s day in 1987 a local farmer ploughing his hill-top field, overlooking the River Foyle, hooked a large flat stone, of dimensions 5 feet by 4 feet, and brought it to the surface.
There it remained while the winter’s frosts worked to break up the soil.
It was members of Shantallow Local History Society, out searching for flint fragments, the evidence of prehistoric settlement, who on coming across this large flat stone realised it was perhaps the capping stone of a Bronze Age grave.
The Archaeological Branch of the Department of the Environment was called in, who, on one very wet March day in 1988, carried out an emergency dig.
Small village
What they found convinced them that here in the townland of Shantallow, on the fringe of the present-day city of Derry, in the early years of the second millennium BC, lived a small village community of farmers who had trade connections with the flint-mining areas of County Antrim, and who in a nearby cemetery buried their dead.
The stone which had lain undisturbed for some 4,000 years was, in fact, the capping stone of a cist tomb.
Around 2,000 BC a circular pit, 4 to 5 feet deep, had been dug on the brow of a small hill, 250 feet above the River Foyle.
In the middle of this pit slabs of stone had been laid on edge to create a stone box, 4 feet long by 2 feet wide.
The corpse, with his or her knees folded up to its chest, had been placed in this coffin on its side.
Rotted away
Only part of the skull and part of the leg bone remained of this skeleton, as the rest of the body had rotted away through contact with the soil.
Behind the neck of the corpse was an earthenware pot in the shape of a bowl and decorated with jagged imprints.
This bowl had been made specifically for the burial ceremony.
It is clear that these people believed in some form of afterlife, as the bowl would have been filled with food or drink to sustain the body after death in the journey through the underworld.
The cist in which the corpse lay was then roofed with a capstone. In this case, as occurred on other sites, the grave wasn’t marked above the ground with a mound of earth.
The farmer had inadvertently uncovered on this hill-top site a Bronze Age cemetery.
Short cist
This distinctive form of burial, in a short cist with an upright bowl-shaped food vessel, is not unique to Ireland.
It has been found all over Europe, even as far east as Russia. It represents the spread of the so-called Beaker peoples, named after their pottery, who originated in lands around the mouth of the Rhine, then spread to Northern Britain and from there to Ireland. Around the early years of the second millennium they had reached Shantallow.
These people were settled pastoralists who introduced metal-working into Ireland.
Near the cist in Shantallow fragments of flint, which is not a native rock of this area, were found, and the area of their greatest concentration marked the spot where a small community lived.
Shantallow clearly supported a Bronze Age village.
The flints were fashioned to be used as arrowheads and thumbscrapers.
The arrowheads would have been used in hunting while the thumb-shaped flint scrapers would have been used in the preparation of animal skins before they were cured.
Clothes would have been made from this leather.
No metal artefacts were found, but in other cist burials hundreds of metal implements have been found.
Ireland possessed abundant supplies of copper, and these people exploited in a large way Irish copper and gold, as evidenced by the metal axes, knives and daggers they left behind.
Their most outstanding personal ornament was the sheet-gold lanula, a crescent-shaped neck ornament.
The settlers at Shantallow were primarily livestock farmers.
With their metal axes they would have begun to clear some of the surrounding forest to expose good pasture land. Here cattle were grazed for their beef.
They would also have grown wheat, oats and barley, with the grain being ground on saddle-querns.
Within an earth enclosure, perhaps topped with a palisade of timber stakes, the early inhabitants of Shantallow would have lived in small, single-room, circular wicker huts.
Their houses were probably built of posts and wattle rods.
Thin saplings
Strong posts were driven into the ground, and thin saplings of hazel, elm or ash were woven between them to form the walls. Then the walls were plastered with daub in which mud was mixed with straw.
This mixture dried very hard to create a sturdy homestead.
The roofs would have been thatched with straw or rushes obtained from marshy ground.
Our early settlers at Shantallow would have only made a small impact on the forests which clothed this area.
Only the hill top would have been cleared of wood.
On a clear day, rising above the trees that swept down to the banks of the Foyle on both sides of the river, the early dwellers of Shantallow might have spotted, some two miles to the south-east across the river, smoke curling up from open hearths on Rough Island in Enagh Lough.
Finds of late Stone Age and Bronze Age pottery fragments on this island, lying almost in the middle of the lake, roughly circular in shape, with a diameter of 150 feet and now largely overgrown with trees and shrubs, identifies this as a settlement site around the same time as the community of Shantallow were burying one of their members.
This site on Enagh Lough, termed a crannog, was formed by a platform of timber, overlain with a layer of packed stones almost 3 feet deep, being placed, timber by timber and stone by stone, on top of a marshy island created by glacial dumping during the last Ice Age.
Bronze spearheads, flint flakes and abraded stones, worn away by man’s rubbing or scraping, attest to its settlement in prehistoric times.
Around the edge of the crannog there may have been a defensive palisade of timber stakes with lighter branches of wattle woven in and out through them.
Very similar
The houses inside, built of wicker, wattling and daub, and the lifestyle would have been very similar to those at Shantallow.
Barley, wheat and oat impressions found on the pottery fragments are evidence of the cultivation of these crops in fields around the shore of Enagh Lough.
In addition to farming their own food, the inhabitants here exploited the fish and fowl associated with a small lake.
No names or even exact dates can be identified against these Bronze Age settlers of the Derry area.
But we do know that they did exist, and that they began man’s first tentative exploitation and alteration of the local environment.

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