Left: over 10,000 pieces of worked flint have been recovered from the site. © Northern Archaeology Consultancy.
Archaeologists have unearthed the earliest known evidence of human life in Ireland at the site of a new bypass development in County Antrim.
The archaeological works at the Toome Bypass site in Northern Ireland have not only recorded the earliest known signs of human activity on the island, but suggest that the first farms began to appear there 200 years before previous estimations.
A real treasure trove, the area where the dig has been focussed has yielded artefacts from the last 9,000 years, taking in the Mesolithic, Neolithic and Bronze Ages right up to the nineteenth century.
Right: alongside flints like these, evidence of traditional Irish 'fulachta fiadha' or cooking pots was found. © Northern Archaeology Consultancy.
"It is a fantastic find, colleagues have been saying to me it is really a once in a career find," explained Site Director, Paul McCooey.
"It was just amazing, 10,000 individual pieces of struck or worked flint. We have examples of every type of known flint existing. Along with these we got some microlith flints dating from nearly 7,500 BC. These are the flints used by the earliest recorded men in Ireland, so we are right back to the original recording of life in Ireland."
"If that wasn't enough, we started to find structures and to date we have four definite structures, which could be described as houses. The finds associated with them tend to point to them being late Mesolithic."
Left: the bypass site was divided into four sections, with the area marked in red yielding this phenomenal find. © Northern Archaeology Consultancy.
Experts from the University of Belfast have now been brought in to conduct preliminary tests of the structures and artefacts, with dramatic results.
"It would appear from their results that we have found the first farming in Ireland. I am stressing that it is very, very rough data, but we seem to have put farming back by at least 200 years."
"So, what we have got here is not only a late Mesolithic site, but there is Neolithic pottery and flints which could mean what we are dealing with was the transition from hunter gatherers to farming and in that case the site is even more exciting than we first thought."
Right: it is hoped that many of the artefacts will be put on public display in the nearby village of Toome. © Northern Archaeology Consultancy.
Although the site is too dangerous for the public to visit, Mr McCooey confirmed his intention to put a collection of items on display at the nearby community centre in Toome.
It is also hoped that the artefacts will eventually be on show to the public at Ulster Museum. "We would welcome it," explained a spokesperson for the museum, "but while we would expect to get it we don't have the automatic right to get the material."