ARCHAEOLOGISTS discovered prehistoric flint tools which suggest human beings lived on Rathlin Island 7,500 years ago - around 1,000 years earlier than previously thought.
The five-year survey by a University of Ulster team, sponsored by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA), was the most comprehensive ever taken into the island’s archaeology.
In addition to the survey’s fieldwork on the island, researchers investigated artefacts that are held or documented in other museum collections on both sides of the Irish Sea.
Project leader Dr Wes Forsythe, of the Centre for Maritime Archaeology at Coleraine, said the quantity and quality of flint tools and ceramics unearthed during the survey have greatly exceeded researchers’ expectations.
The team unearthed prehistoric sites that had not been recorded previously.
Dr Forsythe said: “Finding a flint in north Antrim is not surprising in itself but finding hundreds of worked flint tools in one area, scattered across three fields that we chose at random because they had just been ploughed for spring seeding, is pretty remarkable anywhere.
“Rathlin had a real richness of prehistoric finds.”
A book by Dr Forsythe and his colleague Rosemary McConkey describes the survey and its findings.
‘Rathlin Island: An Archaeological Survey of a Maritime Landscape’ was launched at a ceremony on the island recently.
The illustrated text describes new evidence about prehistoric and medieval settlement and the kelp industry, fishing and agriculture.
Finds included a huge haul of flint tools, polished axe-heads, pottery, a bronze finger-ring and lignite jewellery.
Post-holes detected inside one cave during excavation are thought to be the first such examples discovered in the United Kingdom.
The discovery is important because it indicates the erection of a structure on poles, perhaps a protective screen or windbreak – an aspect of early human activity in caves not previously found here.
Dr Forsythe said: “For archaeologists, Rathlin has always been something of an enigma. It is always throwing up things that disrupt the pattern of how we understand prehistory, and it’s still doing it. I don’t think there is a parallel anywhere in Ireland or Britain for post-holes inside a cave.”
The Vikings’ first documented raid in Ireland was on the monastery at Rathlin in 795 AD and Dr Forsythe hopes that future excavation might unearth another link with the Norsemen, at a spot known as “the Dane’s Burial” in the north of the island.
“It is possibly a very rare example – and it would need to be tested by excavation – of a Viking ‘boat burial’,” he said.
“The site looks as if it has been damaged some centuries ago, maybe by people looking for gold in it. Nevertheless it is a mound which is boat-shaped, and which was never recognised before this particular survey.”
NIEA will call on the survey when deciding on future planning applications.