Chance finds of several distinctive Mesolithic flint tools and working debris, together with shell middens and occasional structural remains, indicate that Islay was occupied from at least as early as 8000 BC. Many of these finds can be seen at the Museum of Islay Life in Port Charlotte. Occupation at this time may have been of a seasonal nature, taking advantage of the rich wild game and coastal food resources.
Remains such as those found at Kilellan (Burgess, 1976) and Newton (MacCullagh, 1989) indicate that the buildings of this period were rough shelters dug into the sand.
As the climate improved, the fertile lands of Islay attracted the first farmers to come and settle. The remains of their houses and tombs are scattered throughout the island. Often, sites of this period first become visible through the exposure of middens, the accumulated refuse generated within settlements. A Late Neolithic-Early Bronze Age round house dating from around 2000 BC, excavated at Ardnave (Ritchie & Welfare, 1983) was found to contain food vessel type pottery and a wide range of stone tools. The Neolithic chambered cairn tombs found on Islay are part of a group known as the Clyde tombs and would have contained a long narrow passage with a chamber to one end. While seven such tombs are known on Islay, none lie within the coastal zone.
From the mid-second millennium BC onward, the archaeological record indicates social and cultural changes occurring. Not only is there a change in burial practice, from burial within communal tombs to individual burial in cists, but this is also the time when metal working technology and metal goods arrived on the Island. Several cist burials have been excavated at Ardnave (Ritchie & Welfare, 1983) and a probable funerary pyre was excavated by the authors during the course of the coastal survey (Moore & Wilson, forthcoming). A few chance finds of bronze artefacts are recorded from Islay, although little is known of the context from which they came.
The Iron Age on Islay, extending from the mid first millennium BC to the mid first millennium AD, is poorly researched. The only known broch site on the
island is located at Dun Bhoraraic near Ballygrant. While there are numerous fortified dun sites throughout the island and especially on the coast edge, the
period of their construction and use is little known, although it is probable that a proportion are of Iron Age date. Further work will be required to determine if some of these sites were used as settlements or if they served exclusively for defensive purposes, such as look out positions. At this time, it is also likely that settlements on artificial islands within lochs, known as crannogs, were also in use. Even if all of the dun and crannog sites known to exist on Islay were in use during the Iron Age, which is unlikely, this leaves a large gap in our knowledge of how and where the bulk of the population lived at this time.
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