The history of Derry is a story well told but what do we know about our prehistoric ancestors?
It’s hard to imagine the banks of the River Foyle without buildings, roads and the Peace Bridge but during the Neolithic Period (New Stone Age) the Derry as we know it simply didn’t exist.
The Mesolithic period was populated by a nomadic people who travelled the land looking for food and then moved on to the next place. The Neolithic period c. 4000-2400BC saw a major shift in how people lived in Ireland. Instead of nomadic tribes the people started to settle in various locations across the island; this was largely down to the introduction of animals, agriculture and the concept of stock piling food and supplies.
This new period gave rise to the construction of buildings, houses and forts. One such building associated with the Neolithic period is the megalith (meaning ‘great stones’ from the Greek megas lithos). The megalith was used as a place for the people of the time to bury their dead and it also functioned as a place for ritual and religious ceremony.
An exhibition on the history of megaliths in the North of Ireland was unveiled at the Tower Museum on Friday morning by the Mayor of Derry Councillor Maurice Devenney.
The exhibition, which offers free admission, explains everything there is to know about megaliths and reveals some interesting facts.
“The North of Ireland represents just less than 20 per cent of Ireland’s landmass but contains 679 megaliths (c.47 per cent of total), which indicates substantial prehistoric activity within the region,” explains Head of Museum Heritage Service for Derry City Council Roisin Doherty.
The exhibition is on loan from the Down County Museum and will be open to the public until the end of September.
“There’s a rich and vibrant history of megaliths in the North West. For example, one of the most impressive megaliths can be found in Ballybriest near Draperstown in Co. Derry. Archaeologists found the remains of seven people one of which was a child. The megalith was used to honour and bury their dead and I think that it goes a long way in showing the relationship our prehistoric ancestors had with the land.”
Megaliths have been discovered right across the North West and Roisin encouraged local people to take an active interest in the history of where they live.
“The North West we know now and the North West during the Neolithic period were two very different places,” said Roisin.
“Up until that time Ireland was a place a populated by nomadic tribes who exhausted one of the part the land before moving on to the next.
“The Neolithic period brought with it developments in agriculture amongst other things. Instead of moving around all of the time the people decided that they would be better off if the stayed in one place. This was when they started to build structures like megaliths.”
Archaeological studies at sites where there are megaliths have unearthed some amazing discoveries about how the people lived.
“I think it’s fascinating to think about how the people lived during the Neolithic period. We are able to learn so much.
“Exhibitions like this one are an excellent way of engaging with the public and if they learn something new about the place they live then that has to be seen as a good thing. I’d encourage anyone to come along and have a look for themselves. We have story boards detailing the history of the megaliths and we have small wooden models for the children to play with. It’s a wonderful exhibition and we are very grateful to Down County Museum and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency.”
The Megalith Exhibition is open to the public until the end of September. For further information contact the Tower Museum on 028 7137 2411.