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[The True Origins of Irish Society Copyright © 2003 by Desmond Keenan
Hard copy of book available from and]

Chapter Four

                     Full Flowering of Neolithic Society

                   (3,500 BC TO 2,500 BC)

Summary. This chapter describes the full flowering of the Neolithic Period before the discovery and use of metals. Agriculure, both the tillage and pastoral branches, were fully developed. In the Near East towns and cities developed and the arts and sciences. The wheel was invented and the art of writing, of making pottery, mathematics and the calendar. Writing allowed us a glimpse, for the first time, of religious worship, myth and ritual. The later period was characterised by great constructions of stone called megaliths. The various designs on the pieces of broken pottery which survive are of immense value in determining the cultural relations of various groups.





Developed Neolithic Culture in Ireland

Megalith Builders 



            This chapter deals with the full development of society in the Middle East, Europe and Ireland, the uneven development which occurred where quite large towns developed in some places while in other areas the low rainfall or poor quality of the soil favoured a nomadic or semi-nomadic culture based on the keeping of flocks and herds. One feature of this period was the building of constructions with huge stones (megaliths) even in places where there were no cities. Ireland is famous for its megaliths and the megalithic culture represents the greatest development of the Neolithic farming culture in Ireland before the age of metals. There is no sharp distinction between full-blown Neolithic cultures and the earliest Bronze Age cultures. The presence of metal at archaeological sites merely indicates that the use of metal had arrived at that place.

The Neolithic period, unlike the Palaeolithic, was one of constant development, though this was not even, nor were all developments adopted everywhere. Nor did developments equally affect all groups and classes in a given society. It has been observed that some crofting communities in Ireland just before the Famine differed little from the earliest farmers who settled in Ireland.

            Techniques were improved in agriculture, new varieties of cereals developed and cultivated, the ass, the horse, and the camel domesticated, besides sheep, goats and cattle. Irrigation was developed and organised. Skills were developed in the working of brick and stone and in the arts of construction. Social organisation developed so those great projects of drainage, irrigation, building, or warfare could be carried on. Science in the form of astronomy and mathematics, was developed. The greatest invention was the art of writing, and it too was to be developed and simplified until we reach the system we have today. Warfare became increasingly common.

But on the whole the period was peaceful and the climatic conditions favourable. There were no real obstacles between Mesopotamia on one side and Ireland on the other. The great development of the city-states in Mesopotamia, and the kingdom in Egypt coincided with the construction of the great henges, mounds, and passage graves in Western Europe. The rapid spread of the use of bronze soon after shows us how quickly a useful discovery could spread.

 Gold, which occurs in a pure state naturally, was collected and used from about 4,000 BC. Copper, which is also found occasionally in a pure state in nature, was probably found somewhat earlier. Silver, which does not occur naturally, was discovered when techniques for refining copper by means of fire were discovered. The end of the Neolithic period, just before the Bronze Age is often called the Calcholithic period, from the Greek words khalkos (copper) and lithos (stone) meaning the Stone Age with some use of copper. 

The City in Egypt and Middle East

            While agriculture and the arts of weaving and ceramics were spreading throughout Europe the Neolithic culture in Mesopotamia and Egypt was developing into what is called civilisation, namely a society based on the town. Civilisation was described by Gordon Childe as comprising the use of the plough, the wheeled cart, animals trained to harness, the sailing boat, the smelting of ore, the discovery of wine and fermented drinks, the solar calendar, standards of measurement, writing, methods of reckoning, specialised craftsmen, city life, and the production of a food surplus sufficient to support those who did not produce their own. This was achieved in southern Mesopotamia by 3000 BC. This introduced the period called the Bronze Age. These developments were entirely independent of the discovery of metal, and they would have continued and developed if smelting had never been discovered. The art of writing, and the making of inscriptions in stone, do not need metal tools. It is possible to inscribe characters and designs by using a hard stone to grind a softer one. It was with these that the designs on the stones at Newgrange were produced.

Though town life did not arrive in Ireland until the coming of the Vikings, Ireland can be reasonably described as civilised, in Gordon Childe's sense, from the coming of Christianity, for it was then connected with towns outside the area, or developed substitutes for them in the monasteries. Despite the lack of towns in the heyday of the development of Irish society in the Early Bronze period we can note the smelting of ores, the solar calendar, sailing boats, specialised craftsmen, and perhaps a method of reckoning. But the great megalith builders relied on purely empirical methods. 

            In the 4th millennium BC the first known civilisation in Childe's sense in the world developed at Sumer in Southern Mesopotamia. There the art of writing was developed, and ox ploughing with oxen; there the metal sickle was developed. The wheel too was invented, both for vehicles and for the potter’s wheel. The sun-dried brick was improved and hardened by firing in a kiln. With the brick came the development of the arch and true architecture. The ox was bred now for its usefulness at work, whether ploughing, drawing loads, or threshing. The ass was domesticated long before the horse. The ass was commonly used for riding on in the time of King David c 1000 BC and was still a royal mount in the days of the prophet Zechariah about 520 BC. The old einkorn, or single kernel wheat was replaced by superior varieties.

            Egypt that had been fairly backward suddenly sprung to the forefront of progress. Various small villages or towns using pottery had sprung up since the discovery of agriculture. By about 3100 BC the whole of the Nile valley was under the control of one ruler and what became know as the Old Kingdom commenced. Monumental mortuary building were built, the predecessors of the pyramids. The picture writing devised in Sumer was adopted and developed into the characteristic hieroglyphic writing. In China too the picture writing was taken over and was developed in an entirely different manner, the aim being there to draw the picture with the fewest strokes. A peculiarity of the Semitic languages brought about a totally different development of writing in the Middle East. Semitic words were formed basically with three consonants and vowels to form two syllables, and these could be modified by adding regular consonants before or after and by changing the vowels. In practice therefore it was possible to convey meaning quite accurately by only writing the consonants.

The Near East outside the Towns           

            There were many parts of the Middle East where there were no towns, and where the economy was pastoral. Though the narratives concerning Abraham date from the Bronze Age it is clear that the same conditions prevailed in areas of pastoralism in the Middle East as did in Europe. Abraham was a wealthy sheikh and equal in military power to the chiefs of the local cities. One text says he brought 318 men to battle. He had numerous oxen, asses, sheep, and camels. He paid four hundred shekels of silver for the site of a grave.


            The city did not develop in Europe, but many of the new developments found their way there.

            Towards the end of the Neolithic, or Chalcolithic period, in Eastern Europe the culture of the Russian or Pontic herders had developed by 2,500 BC, i.e. at the beginning of the Bronze Age into a rich culture called the Kurgan culture after the Russian city where many of its remains were found (kurgan is the Russian for mound). Its chief characteristic was the burial mounds over a pit grave. The graves were filled with rich furnishings that indicated the wealth of the people. Copper, gold, and silver ornaments were found showing that the use of metal was known. They had wagons with solid wheels probably derived from Mesopotamia. They too were pastoralists. It is not always clear why a pastoral form of life prevailed over tillage. The most obvious reason would be the absence of rain in the growing season, but normally where grass will grow wheat or millet will grow. It would seem that in this area there was a small group speaking proto-Indo-European. Nothing is known of the origin of this language, or the people who spoke it. But experts in linguistics have concluded that around 3000 BC it was a single language. Its speakers may or may not have known of the use of metal. By 2000 BC Greek, Sanscrit, and Hittite had already split off from the parent tongue.

            In Central Europe what are called the Battle-axe, Single Grave, or Corded Ware cultures had developed. These too came at the end of the Neolithic period, and were contemporary with the Kurgan culture. Their pottery was decorated with impressions of cords. The shape of the stone battle-axe is derived from a copper original, and they had some knowledge of copper working. The theory that the Battle-axe cultures were derived from the Kurgan culture and represented the spread of the Indo-Europeans cannot therefore be sustained. The features that distinguish the Battle-axe cultures are burials in single graves often under mounds, wheeled vehicles, probably domesticated horses, battle-axes and a copper metallurgy. These features distinguish them from earlier residents in the region.

            The most characteristic feature of the later Neolithic period in Western Europe is the great number of great stone tombs and monuments. These are discussed at more length under megalithic remains in Ireland. Among the most impressive of the megalithic remains were those at Carnac in Brittany.

            Though agriculture, and in places the building of megaliths was well established in western and central Europe by the beginning of the Bronze Age, the older Mesolithic culture still extended across northern Europe and Siberia as far as China. But these Mesolithic hunter-gatherers were by now trading with the Neolithic farmers and were getting pieces of pottery from them. The characteristic shape of their axes was being derived from metal patterns. [Top]           


            Some authors (like L. and J. Laing for example) are very dismissive of Neolithic religion. According to them it was not very different from superstition; things had to be done or avoided to avert bad luck; there were myriads of deities in every tree, hill and valley; spirits had to be appeased by rituals like throwing salt over the shoulder; communal ceremonies only took place as part of other rituals like harvests, markets, or rites of spring. Nor was there any development during the Bronze or Iron ages, and the description fits in well with what we know of religion in Ireland just before the coming of Christianity. So there was nothing like what we would call personal religion, no personal gods or shrines in the home or locally, no deity to whom the individual addressed personal prayers or sacrifices, no moral element. This seems to have been true even in the period of Celtic domination; the Indo-Europeans had, after all, just a variant of the Neolithic religion. This is however a very restricted view of religion.

If one takes a broader view like that of Rudolf Otto in The Idea of the Holy we could say that religion permeated every aspect of life.

             But, on the other hand, the collective worship of the group, or of neighbouring groups together, whether seasonal or annual, and performed by the leader of the group or groups, was probably considered sufficient. This worship by the community might occur but once a year, but it would involve much time and effort by the whole community. The doctrine of individual responsibility in religious matters was developed by the biblical writers in the Iron Age. We should also remember that ideas of religion can decay as well as develop, and the personal invocation of various deities in time of trouble that was common in the Near East may have been widespread. It is also worth noting that outside the Near East the great myths and rituals were not written down. Elaborate myths and rituals may have survived in Gaul even after the coming of the Romans, and in Ireland after the coming of Christianity, but they were not committed to writing. It was an outsider to Ireland, Giraldus Cambrensis, in the twelfth century, who left a garbled account of the ceremonies for the installation of a chief. Such ceremonies presumably were common until the Christian consecration of  Aed Oirnidhe in 795 but neither the Christian clergy nor those families who were responsible for carrying them out wished to record them in writing. It was also a time when most Christian priests just memorised their own rites.

            We know little or nothing about the spread of religious rites throughout the world of the Neolithic farmers. But when groups became bigger various constructions were built, some of immense size, which can only have a religious purpose similar to that in the temples of Egypt and Mesopotamia about which there are written records. When the ritual became more elaborate we can assume that the duties of keeping the knowledge and the performing the duties were assigned to a priesthood. The priests, as in the Bible, would have been the members of a particular family. The priesthood was however a specialised function. It was connected strictly with sacred rituals or rites, and their associated myths or explanations. More general questions concerning the supernatural would still have been the province of the shamans or their successors. Though there is no direct proof of this, one can see these shamans as the predecessors of the file in Ireland, the druid in Gaul, the vates in Rome and the nabi or prophet in Israel. These pronounced on religious matters usually in verse form. In France at least, according to Caesar, the druids to whom such matters were assigned, were drawn from the aristocracy, though this was not necessarily so at first or always. First in the cities of the Middle East, and then in Ireland and elsewhere, knowledge became specialised, and distinct categories emerged. In the Bible, for example, the ritual codes of the temple priests, the secular historians of the Davidic court, the historical religious traditions, and the moral code and secular law, and collections of moralising aphorisms can be clearly distinguished. The separation is not complete and the law is combined with the historical religious traditions, and secular wisdom that developed elsewhere into philosophy merges with religious beliefs. At this relatively early period, it is reasonable to assume that there were in Europe two categories of religious persons, priests in charge of the rites at religious sites, and file in charge of giving general advice regarding the supernatural.

One of the most basic concepts in the written religion of the ancient Near East was the creation of the world that was viewed as the creation of a cosmos or ordered world. The word cosmos comes from the Greeks and means an ordered world. The opposite of order was chaos. The Hebrews envisaged chaos as formless waters in total darkness (Gen. 1.2). Everywhere in the world order was to be seen, the movements of the heavenly bodies, the passage of the seasons, the coming of the rains (or the rising of the Nile). But this order was fragile and there was always the possibility that it might return to chaos. So human life and religion should be devoted to the safeguarding of the order. If the sun and the moon failed, and the seasons did not keep their appointed order, all human life must fail. It followed that the most important function of a ruler was to carry out proper ceremonies to ensure that the seasons would not fail, through the anger of the gods, or any other reason. It was always possible for a human being to offend a god, who would then punish the whole tribe of whole people, by sending plagues, or by stopping the rains.

            In the oldest recorded religious myths in Mesopotamia from around the fourth millennium BC the worship centred on the natural powers and other phenomena essential for economic survival. The dying god, the power of fertility and plenty, is a typical figure (Jacobsen 21). In Mesopotamia this was represented by the myth of Tammuz and Ishtar, in Egypt by Osiris and Isis. The essential point in the myth was that the god, Tammuz or Osiris, descended into the Underworld, and all crops and natural life failed on earth. Then the goddess Ishtar descended to the Underworld and released him. In the Egyptian version Osiris is slain and cut to pieces, but his sister Isis collects the pieces together and he is made king of the Afterlife. The myths of Osiris get confused with those of the sun-god Re (Hooke 67ff). If we can hazard a conjecture we could conclude that in the British Isles at least the Egyptian version of the myths was the stronger, for there was the same emphasis on the burial of the important dead in enormous tombs. At Newgrange the entrance to the burial chamber under the very centre of the mound is so constructed that the sun, on rising on 21 December, shines along the tunnel and lights a stone in the burial chamber.

            If we continue with the assumption that the culture and the language of the Neolithic farmers was more or less the same in all parts of Europe and South West Asia we can look to Mesopotamia and Egypt for some indications of what the religion was like. We would conclude that there was a priesthood with elaborate rituals and myths in connection with the greater cult centres. We should conclude too that the great ritual events were enacted in connection with particular aspects of the solar year.

            More particularly, the custom of burying important people in great mounds should be connected with the burials in the pyramids, and the religious beliefs connected with those burials. Belief in survival after death was widespread in all the Neolithic cultures as far away as China. But there was not any generally accepted beliefs regarding the nature of the afterlife. The Hebrews took survival after death for granted but considered the abode of the dead a drab, sad place, to be avoided at all cost until the last possible moment. But it was not a place either of reward or punishment. The presence of grave goods in many other cultures seem to indicate a more sanguine view of the afterlife, and a belief that a person's surviving relatives could make life more comfortable for the deceased by providing necessities or luxuries for him. Indeed many burial rituals seem directed at ensuring that the departing spirit did indeed depart and found an abode of peace. For an unquiet spirit could cause no end of disturbance for the survivors. The concepts of Christianity are derived from the religious beliefs of the ancient cities. And when Christianity came to be preached outside that area there was a large common core of beliefs. The duty of the Christian preachers was to build on the old beliefs and to correct any errors they found in them. It is reasonable to conclude that there were important burial rituals similar to those of the Egyptians, that there were carried out by the priests at the cult centres, and that only the very rich or powerful received these rites. The shaman or file would attend to the needs of the lesser folk. 

            By religion we mean not just a belief in a god or gods and personal prayer to him or them, but the whole complex of beliefs, actions, rituals, personnel, and structures connected with the supernatural, or what was perceived as supernatural. Consider the following text from early in the second millennium BC from the ancient Near East,

            "Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said 'Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it'. And he was afraid and said, 'How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God and this is the gate of heaven'. So Jacob arose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head for a pillow, and poured oil on the top of it. He called the name of that place Bethel [The House of God]; but the name of the city was Luz at the first" (Genesis 28.16-19).

            Here we see a man having an experience of the supernatural in a dream, and when he awakes he is fill with awe and dread.  He believes that the god El dwells there, or has made an appearance there, and that this spot therefore is where god will answer petitions like a chief sitting at the gate of a town. So he carefully marks the spot and performs a religious rite there. It was the common practice then to mark off the site with a boundary fence or wall to distinguish the sacred from the profane, and to prevent accidental desecration of the site. Or perhaps to set limits to the activity of the god; to keep the god in rather than to keep people out. The practical purpose would have been the same: to keep people from blundering into a sphere of divine power.

            The idea of religion as a perception of the supernatural and the human response to this perception was developed by Rudolf Otto.

"...everything seems to behave as whimsically as the events in dreams. Uncontrolled as the contents of experience may be in this state of mind, they would appear to be so lively, mysterious, and fascinating, as well as terrifying, that the whole of nature is suffused with an atmosphere of the awesome and uncanny. The German religious historian Rudolf Otto referred to such an atmosphere as the 'numinous'". ("Religion," Microsoft (R) Encarta. Copyright (c) 1994 Microsoft Corporation. Copyright (c) 1994 Funk & Wagnall's Corporation.)

            "Early Roman divinities included, in addition to the di indigetes, a host of so-called specialist gods whose names were invoked in the carrying out of various activities, such as harvesting. Fragments of old ritual accompanying such acts as ploughing or sowing reveal that at every stage of the operation a separate deity was invoked, the name of each deity being regularly derived from the verb for the operation. Such divinities may be grouped under the general term of attendant, or auxiliary, gods, who were invoked along with the greater deities. Early Roman cult was not so much a polytheism as a polydemonism—the worshippers' concepts of the invoked beings consisted of little more than their names and functions, and the being's numen, or power, manifested itself in highly specialised ways." (Encarta 96 Roman Mythology)[1]"Roman Mythology," Microsoft® Encarta® 96 Encyclopaedia. © 1993-1995 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved. © Funk & Wagnalls Corporation. All rights reserved. 

The author goes on to note that this practical businesslike Roman religion fostered piety and religious discipline. It is impossible to guess how far religion as described in the old Roman Republic reflected beliefs and values of 2000 years earlier bearing in mind that some things changed slowly, and some not at all.

            It must be remembered that in religion, as in all other aspects of human activity, all concepts and words have to be invented, and developed, beginning with the vague idea of the 'numinous' or 'supernatural, and like other aspects of culture was spread by diffusion. This development, like many others, took placed in the Middle East, and its final development reached Ireland in the shape of Christianity. But in the absence of all written records we can only speculate how much of the earlier developments reached Ireland. The most we can do is to assume that there was some general connection between religious ideas and practice in Ireland and the Middle East. This aspect should be kept in mind to balance the rather disparaging view of ancient religion given by the Laings.

Arts and Sciences

            The practical skills that were arrived at in constructing henges and dolmens, and above all the pyramids have astonished all who have examined them. By continuous experimentation in every field they were able to build up an immense body of empirical knowledge. For example, all the substances that could be used for cleaning, fuller's earth, natron, potash, soda, resin and salt, palm oil, castor oil, lyes from wood ash etc. were noted, and classified and finally written down (Hawkes and Woolley 668).

            The knowledge of mathematics and the calendar before the invention of writing cannot be determined. In Egypt various rules for manipulating figures for practical purposes such as calculating areas and volumes were devised. A decimal system of numeration was developed perhaps as early as the time of the building of the pyramids (op.cit. 669).  In Babylon true mathematics are known from Sumerian times. Their system based on the number 60 survives for various purposes until the present day, as in time and measurement of degrees in a circle. (op.cit. 674).

            They had a calendar based on lunar months consisting of either 29 or 30 days that had to be adjusted each month. They also had a solar year of 365 days and the device of periodically doubling the length of one month to make the solar and lunar calendars fit. The people in Mesopotamia had no era but the Egyptians had. The Egyptian year of 365 days was based on the inundation of the Nile. Lunar months that fixed the times of services of the priests were fitted into this. Their year consisted of 12 months of 30 days and an extra five days. However, the inundation of the Nile did not commence on exactly the same day each year. It was noticed, as early as the First Dynasty (c3000 BC) that the heliacal rising or reappearance of the star Sirius usually coincided with the commencement of the inundation and it was taken to mark the new year. They also realised that with a year of 365 days instead of 365 and ¼ it would take 1,460 (365 x 4) years for Sirius to rise on its original date. As the Egyptians called Sirius Sothis the cycle was called the Sothic cycle.  Though the observation had no practical value other than for dating events, the chief interest lies in the fact that the very first day of this calendar must have coincided with the beginning of a Sothic cycle, i.e. either in 4241 BC or 2781 BC. They would also have needed some system of writing large numbers, and been able to do simple multiplication or addition. The purpose of a calendar was to ensure that annual rites were performed at the proper times.

            The needs of agriculture and of religious worship and a calendar require a close watch on the movements of the heavenly bodies. The stars and the planets were associated with various deities, and the comings and goings of the divine beings too had to be carefully observed and precautions observed lest disaster befall (Hawkes and Woolley 687). For practical purposes, whether for the orientation of buildings or other constructions, or the observance of feasts, close observation and regular adjustments were all that were required. Predicting future events such as the phases of the moon was not attempted before the first millennium BC. But careful records were kept from the earliest days in Sumer.

            Probably the greatest of all the arts developed at this time was the art of writing, but it was to be many millennia before its full potential was realised. Our modern society is totally built on the arts of reading and writing and anyone who cannot read is severely disadvantaged. Documents and forms must be read and filled in. Streets have names; buses have their destinations written on them. Even in the last century shops still had pictures or signs. A man could fill many offices in society without being able to read. He could become a policeman for example. But even then his inability to make notes and keep records would bar him from promotion. But in the early days of the cities people relied exclusively on memory. All laws were memorised and were usually committed to verse to aid memory. The tribal accounts of ancestors were memorised. The genealogies of men and animals were held in memory. A man’s status depended on is ancestry. (In the sixteenth century the O’Cahans could recite their ancestry through 30 generations.) The entire worship of the temples, the mythologies, and the psalmody was held in memory. Until recent centuries the Christian clergy memorised all the one hundred and fifty Psalms of David.

            The first uses to which writing was put were as aids to memory or as checks on memory. It would be easy for a man to ‘forget’ how much tribute he owed the temple priests. But if little marks were made on a clay tablet to remind both sides how much was paid then it was not so easy to ‘forget’. As late as the twelfth century AD the clerics of the royal exchequer cut notches in rods, or tally sticks, to remind the largely illiterate laity how much they owed to the royal exchequer. The marks written down were the minimum required to aid the memory. In the Semitic languages only the consonants were written down. In the Egyptian hieroglyphics words but not their pronunciation were written. The pronunciation of Egyptian words can be conjectured partly from the much later Coptic which used a Greek alphabet with vowels, and party from how foreigners, especially Greeks, wrote Egyptian names in their own language. The pronunciation of ancient Hebrew can be determined partly from vowel marks added in the Christian era and partly from Greek translations in the Hellenistic period. Similarly when one king was writing to another the writing was merely a confirmation of what the herald or messenger announced. Or if a chief pronounced a decision in council a chief officer like the chancellor would inform the scribes later so that they could write it down. To this day, if the Pope gives a verbal decision any cardinal present can relay it to the notaries.

            But gradually writings took on a life of their own. They could be read by people who were not the principals in any transaction. The documents could be copied and multiplied, and spread far and wide. As systems of language and thought developed religious and philosophical thinkers could record their thoughts in a permanent fashion for their students or for other thinkers. That was however far in the future. For us the most important thing is that we are given names of people and places, some important and some unimportant, and we are gradually able to write history. Regarding those in the region of the city cultures we learn quite a lot. But in regions which had no writing for millennia to come we have to be content with the remains of the material cultures discovered by the archaeologists, padded out with comparisons with the habits of similar cultures of a later date. Having left no writings or inscriptions of any kind we do not even know what languages they spoke. [Top]


             We have noted the development of the city in the Middle East and the material developments associated with it. There was in both Egypt and Mesopotamia a corresponding development in social organisation, namely the military monarchic ruler. At first the individual city states had their own local rulers or kings, but then a ruler of Akkad called Sargon I succeeded in conquering all the other city states and forming the first true kingdom. About the same time the First Kingdom was formed in Egypt when strong chiefs from the south conquered the whole Nile valley.

            Once one city developed the idea of concentrating all power into the hands of a single ruler, everyone had to follow suit. In the Book of Judges the story is told of how the Israelites fared in the Promised Land. The loose form of government where the patriarchal ruler of each family or tribe was responsible for local affairs and defence proved inadequate. So they sought to develop a monarchy of their own. Samuel told them

‘These will be the rights of the king who is to reign over you. He will take your sons and assign them to his chariotry and cavalry, and they will run in front of his chariot. H will use them as leaders of a thousand and leaders of fifty. H will make them plough his ploughland and harvest his harvest, and make his weapons of war and the gear for his chariots. He will also take your daughters as perfumers, cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields, of your vineyards and olive groves and give them to his officials. He will tithe your crops and vineyards to provide for his eunuchs and officials. He will take the best of your manservants and maid servants, of your cattle and your donkeys, and make them work for him. He will tithe your flocks and you yourselves will become his slaves’ (1 Sam 8, 11-17; though this text dates from the Iron Age, the system of monarchy dates at least from the Bronze Age of even earlier).

            Samuel could have put it differently. A king may provide adequate defence but he will be expensive. Israelite society was at this time, the early Iron Age, as we can see, stratified into at least masters and servants. The king could conscript the young men of the free families into his army of charioteers and infantry. The women of the free families could be taken to act as cooks, and perfumers, and bakers. The servants, men and women, and the working animals could be employed in forced labour. Lands could be seized to supply the king's needs and the needs of all his chief officers, and people sent to cultivate those lands and to make all his military equipment. It is not clear what status those sent to work in the royal household had, but it was doubtless little different from that of slavery as they could never leave. Finally there was a ten per cent tax on all produce of the land

            But the local chiefs and heads of families still remained in their places, and under the king still enjoyed all their local powers, and still were responsible for local government and administration. As long as the taxes were paid regularly, and the requisite numbers of warriors and women and workmen supplied to the king's officers there would be no trouble. Even later, when empires like that of the Assyrians were formed out of conquered states like Israel local administration was unchanged. The super-state was added on top. The king of Israel and the other local kings were made responsible for collecting the annual tribute from the chiefs of the tribes, and keeping the peace. Tribute and tribe are derived from the same Latin word tribus. If the tribute was paid regularly there was no trouble; otherwise their country was ravaged. Revolts occurred regularly as each new ruler succeeded to the throne, and he had to re-establish his authority by force. An organised bureaucracy and appointed prefects of provinces dated from the time of the Persians, about 600 BC and was adopted by the Chinese and the Romans, and from it is derived our modern bureaucratic administrative systems. Interestingly the Philistines never developed a monarchy but each of their five towns or cities had its own ruler. They were conquered by the Israelites after the Davidic monarchy was formed but were not finally subdued until the Persian conquest. (As late as the beginning of the seventeenth century in Ireland, the chief of the O’Neills tried to stipulate that he would be subject to the king provided that his sub-chiefs were subject to himself. This the ministers of James I would by no means allow.)

            At every level ownership of land and the limitations of exchange and of transport dictated many aspects of the organisation of society. This is not to adopt the Marxist fallacy that relations to the means of production necessarily dictated what a given society was like. What it did was to impose restraints. Every household, i.e. every extended family, had to have a piece of land to support it. If a piece of land was set aside for the support of those tending the local shrine then the local priesthood had to be passed on from father to son. So too every important smith or craftsman had to have his piece of land. Every merchant, right down to the end of the Middle Ages, had his own farm even if he lived in a town. A king or chief who had a large household to support had to have several estates with farms to support him, and he moved from one to another as the produce of each farm was used up. By the early Middle Ages, when roads and wagons were reasonably improved, it was possible for a bishop to have farms up to forty miles from his cathedral. Later still when money rents became the norm distance was no object. However, in Neolithic times this would not have been feasible. For each farm the chief would have had to appoint an overseer and this office would have been handed on from father to son. Much later, in Irish monasteries, the elective office of abbot was handed on within the family, and the office of overseer of the monastic lands was handed on from father to son.  

              Though no written records survive, it would seem from the finds of grave goods that outside the area of the city states the patriarchal system developed in a way that concentrated more wealth and power in the hands of the chief and his immediate family.

            When possessions were few and the children of the chief received favoured treatment the situation was tolerable. But when wealth and possessions increased younger sons found their position of dependence for everything intolerable. Hence the later attraction of forming or joining roving warbands to raid the neighbourhood. The successful leader of a warband stood a better chance of being chosen as chief. Or failing that they could enlist as mercenaries in a powerful kingdom.

            More important was the form of organisation that developed among the nomadic pastoralists of the steppes of southern Russia. The flocks and herds were not split and given to individual families. Instead, the local headman seems to have developed into an aristocratic chief and the extended family of relatives or descendants of the chief formed what was called the tribe. It was adopted in the whole region outside the area of the city states, in the steppes and forests of the north, in the deserts of the Middle East, and in the grasslands and forests south of the Sahara.  Not all members of the 'tribe' or ‘clan’ were related to the chief. There were always numerous servants and herdsmen attached to the tribe. Abraham had servants and herdsmen and his son Isaac had herdsmen also. There would also be captured slaves and the descendants of such slaves. Widows and orphans might seek to be allowed to join a travelling band. Traders and smiths might be attached to the ruling clan for long periods. The child of a slave wife did not necessarily have a right to membership of the family (Genesis 21.10). When a successful band conquered other peoples the vast majority of the population they now ruled would not be connected to the chief or his family. The brothers, sons, and nephews of the successful chief or leader of the warband would be given flocks and herds and a piece of the conquered territory to hold and exploit.

            Power, especially in matters of war and the exacting of tribute was centred in the hands of a chief who was also the leader of the warband. Everyone coming to the chief to ask for the exercise of any of his functions had to present a gift. Anyone, especially merchants, wishing to pass through his territory had to pay a tribute. Lesser conquered tribes also had to pay tribute. Later still Christian missionaries had to present their gifts before they were allowed to preach, as St Patrick noted. He also found that the gift at times provided no protection from robbery by the chief, and his best protection was to secure the friendship of other chiefs. He also found that the only way to get justice was to keep paying the chiefs. No gift, no judgement. The chief then distributed all the tribute and the booty, mostly to his immediate relatives. A good chief did not keep the great bulk of the gifts and booty to himself, but distributed it widely with a ‘princely’ generosity. It is easy to be lavish with other people’s property.

 Windmill Hill Culture in Britain 

            The earliest farming cultures in Britain developed into a hybrid culture, exemplified by the Windmill Hill site from after 4000 BC. This secondary Neolithic is known as known as the Windmill Hill culture (Stover and Kraig 46). The people were active traders. They traded with the Mesolithic peoples who brought goods from Ireland and the Continent.  They dug out deep flint mines in places like Sussex where there were excellent flints in the chalk. There was also a well-developed pottery industry in Cornwall, the products of which were transported for long distances. The downs had by then become treeless because of constant grazing. There were great long burial mounds called barrows up to 300 feet long and containing several burials. Besides the long barrows there were great circular mounds beneath which was a stone lined tunnel leading to a burial chamber. This latter idea was probably imported from the Continent and is found only in areas where there is good stone. Windmill Hill type-pottery is found in both. There were enormous earthen circular structures called causwayed camps. These were probably corrals for cattle at the autumn roundup. Stock-rearing then and for long after was conducted on the principals of the open range, and doubtless there was as much chance of rustling as there was much later. The round-up would have involved festivities, banqueting, and marriages. They were regarded as important for they could take 100,000 man-hours to construct (Stover and Kraig 46ff; Laing, L. and J. 99ff)). Regarding their construction, can assume from what was the practice in India and elsewhere until recently, that the men dug out the soil with pickaxes and shovels made from antlers and bones, and the women carried the soil in baskets on their heads. There were also the earliest henges or rows of standing stones. [Top] 

Developed Neolithic Culture in Ireland

            There is nothing to add to what has been said above about the developed Neolithic Culture in Western Europe and Britain. Social organisation, farming techniques, beliefs, and so on were the same. As noted earlier it is likely that the ownership of property was being transferred to smaller family groups of four or five generations. Pottery reached Ireland about the beginning of this period. Its use was not necessarily widespread as wooden and leather containers could also be used. Metal was of course unknown. Later in the period corded ware reached Ireland. Small spelt wheat also was introduced. There were many parts of Ireland that had no megaliths, but there was seemingly no differences between those parts which had megaliths and those which had not. The Atlantic Period was coming towards its end with a secondary climatic optimum about 3000 BC. This was the time when the sea rose to its greatest height after the melting of the ice. The somewhat cooler, dryer Sub-Boreal period commenced about 2700 BC. Though this would favour grasslands over forests in Central and Eastern Europe, and perhaps favour pastoralism over tillage, yet in Ireland initially the differences would have been slight, and probably affecting only the tops of hills. As always in Ireland, the fact that it was largely or completely surrounded by sea would have lessened the effects of climate-change, especially with regard to rainfall. Today, Ireland is at the margin of cultivation of cereals derived from the Middle East, and oats, a Western European plant, in parts of Ireland is often the only viable cereal. This would not have been the case in the warmer Neolithic period. Grass did not predominate over forest until the Bronze Age (Bellamy 123). The domesticated horse had not yet reached Ireland.

            Neolithic populations in Northern Europe were constantly shifting the sites of their villages, and there is little doubt that this continued in Ireland until well on in the Bronze Age at least. But it was necessarily true always and everywhere. The basic reason for the shifting was the decline in the fertility of the soil, and it was easier just to shift the village every so often as another patch of bush was cleared.  But on some islands in the Orkneys where the villages were contiguous and all the land on the island was claimed, and there were rich sources of food, of fish, shellfish, and birds’ eggs to hand the villages were probably permanent. So too in Ireland, on the farms attached to the shrines the settlements of the priests were likely to be permanent. The huts of the herdsmen and tillers of the soil could be moved around, or else the infield-outfield system of cultivation could have been used. In this system, all the manure from the animals would have been put on a continuously cultivated part near the homestead. As the lighter forests were cleared there were considerable difference made to the landscape in various parts. In the north of Britain and in most of Ireland, bogs developed on the mountains. In southern Britain, the trees were replaced by grass. In parts of Ireland where Bellamy made his investigations, where an exhausted soil was abandoned it was replaced by scrub which if left alone would eventually return to forest cover. There can be little doubt that the system of the tuatha or petty chiefdoms came into existence in some form. There would be several farmsteads belong to individual extended families, surrounded by large tracts of communal grazing in forests, scrubs, and marshes. Within the more or less defined areas of the tuath, the huts and cultivated areas could be moved around.

            The indications are that the economy of Ireland from 3000 BC onwards was a more pastoral one. This trend continued into the Bronze Age (ibid.). Again there is no obvious reason why this should be. If however warfare was endemic herds and flocks might have been easier to protect than cultivated crops. The flint factories in Antrim corresponded to the flint mines in Sussex. The advanced Neolithic Culture in Ireland may be taken as covering the same period as the Megalithic culture, namely from 3800 BC onwards. The first Beaker pottery, representing the start of the Bronze Age, appeared in Ireland about 2500 BC and is found, among other places, at Newgrange. As at Stonehenge, the appearance of beaker pottery did not prevent the continued development of the site. At this time Tara was occupied. [Top]

The Megalith Builders

            The megalithic works appear almost as soon as the farming in Western Europe, so there is no question of a simpler society slowly evolving into a more complex one. The period of the great earthworks and henges, which was in full flower in the British Isles about a thousand years after the first farmers arrived, has been called the secondary Neolithic culture. Secondary Neolithic coincided in time with the megalithic culture, but not all-secondary Neolithic societies used megaliths. The construction of the great henges, dolmens, and passage graves coincided in time with the development of the city states in the Middle East and the great works like the pyramids. Megalithic and chalcolithic are not synonymous, though both were in the Neolithic period. They are more or less contemporaneous, but megalithic refers to the period and the culture in Western Europe where great stone monuments were built. Chalcolithic cultures refers to those areas where copper was beginning to be used. The two regions did not coincide.

            There are several mysteries connected with the megaliths: how were their builders connected with the Neolithic farmers, how were they constructed, what was their purpose, what was their connection with the grave mounds, what was their connection, if any, with the pyramid-builders in Egypt, why do they occur in some places and not others?

            Apart from the centre of France they are to be found almost exclusively in a great crescent from Malta to the Orkney and Shetland Islands. They are found in the western half of Britain but scarcely at all on the eastern side. They are not found at all in the area influenced by the Danubian farmers. There are few in the Mediterranean lands

            It seems that they were all connected in some way with the burial of the dead. This was also very important in the culture of the Egyptians, but the earliest megaliths antedate those in Egypt. The pyramids in Egypt are in fact copies in stone of the earlier brick prototypes in Mesopotamia and are later than the great megalithic constructions in western Europe. On the other hand construction in stone is clearly derived from some point in the South West Asia/Mediterranean culture area. Construction in stone is a technique like any other which is invented in one place and spreads to others. The Chinese for example did not use stone, and the original Great Wall was made of packed earth. The later use of stone and brick was brought to Northern Europe by the Romans and lapsed with their departure. It was brought back again by Charlemagne's architects. So it is reasonable to connect its place of origin with the Mediterranean, and indeed in general with the wave of Mediterranean farmers who came from there. Yet, by-and-large, stone was not used for dwellings. Though it was not a feature of the earliest wave of farmers it followed shortly afterwards. It should be connected with a movement of ideas, not of peoples. It is also clearly connected with funerary arrangements.

            Three basic types of megalithic tombs may be mentioned. Court cairns are arrangements of comparatively small stones on a roughly rectangular shape ending in an open claw. The second, which give their name to the period, are in the form of a great capstone which can weigh as much as fifty tons, on top of three or fours stones. The third is a great mound with a passage formed of stones leading into a burial chamber in its heart, just as the burial chamber in the Egyptian pyramids are in their hearts. These round mounds of earth correspond to the long burial barrows of earth in England and elsewhere, so there were obviously local variations in building practice if not in belief. Yet there was no attempt, as in Egypt, and elsewhere to furnish the deceased with elaborate grave goods to assist him in the next life.

            We do not know how much timber was used in and around the earliest court cairns. The Laings suggest that there could have been a wooden portal in front and an enclosure with wooden huts within it. The body of a deceased person would have been exposed to the elements, and protected from animals, until nothing was left but bones, which would then have been interred (Laing and Laing 157f). Combined with the absence of grave goods this might suggest that the idea was to confine the spirit of the deceased and assist it on its way, and to prevent it hovering around the dwellings of the living.

            Various studies have shown that a large number of men was not required to erect the huge stones. Quite a small number of men with levers and ropes would have been sufficient. Nor was a vast social organisation like a kingship or temple priesthood required to organise the construction. The evidence we have indicates that there were no great differences in wealth in the early period, and the houses of chiefs were little different from those of others. The largest house resembled that of a petty chief in the Dark Ages after the fall of the Roman Empire (Laing and Laing 144ff).

            Court cairns were the earliest form of megalithic construction in Ireland and they have been dated to from 3,800 BC.

            The mound at Newgrange is surrounded by a circle of stones after the manner of the henges in England, and may have antedated the mound.

There was no fixed form of design, and successive generations could and did modify the work of their predecessors. As mentioned above, the passage is aligned with sunrise on midwinter day, and the circle of stones may have at first functioned as a calendar. It this were so then the calendar of the Near East had reached Ireland. The stones at Newgrange are also noted for their incised spiral decorations, of which no explanation is obvious, though clearly the design was regarded as important. The dwellings associated with it are from much later in the Bronze Age. What has been said above about beliefs and rituals in the developed Neolithic period may be applied to Newgrange and other cult and burial sites in Ireland



Copyright Desmond J. Keenan, B.S.Sc.; Ph.D. ;.London, U.K.