Pigs, pits and persistent places during the Irish Mesolithic

  • Jonathan Small

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


The hunting of wild boar and the digging and filling of pits are known to be common activities practised by Irish Mesolithic hunter-fisher-gatherers; however, previous research has not used modern scientific techniques to investigate them. These activities represent different scales of the complex relationships between Irish Mesolithic communities and the landscapes they inhabited. Further investigation of hunting and pit-related activities will permit insights into the ways in which Mesolithic people interacted with the surrounding physical world. Multi-isotope analysis is used for the first time to explore the interactions between Irish Mesolithic hunters and wild boar, investigating boar diets and mobility. The isotope data are contextualised with a consideration of wild boar ethology and Mesolithic mobility patterns. Early Neolithic Sus remains have been included in the study to provide a comparison with the Mesolithic data, and to explore early husbandry and swineherding. Based on the results of strontium, oxygen and sulphur isotopes it is argued that wild boar were generally hunted in the local environments of settlements, at locations known by hunter-gatherers through everyday engagements. It is also clear that individuals were sometimes hunted at greater distances from sites (>10km), perhaps as part of regular journeys for foraging, resource collection or exploration. Consistently higher nitrogen isotope values indicate that the Neolithic Sus included in this study had a greater contribution of animal- derived protein in their diets, suggesting the possible human-mediated addition of food to Sus diets. Variations in strontium, oxygen and sulphur isotopes have been interpreted as indicating that a free- range approach was used to manage Early Neolithic Sus populations. The revisiting of the Mount Sandel excavation archive has permitted the examination of the role of Mesolithic pits and the processes involved in pit-digging and pit-filling. The database approach has led to new interpretations of how the pits were used, based on shared characteristics and patterns, rather than investigating single pits in isolation. Specific categories of fill have been identified and have been interpreted as evidence for an organised system of waste disposal, involving material originating from different site activities. Together, the investigation of wild boar hunting and pit-digging has contributed to detailed accounts of Mesolithic use of the physical world. The two scales of analysis, the landscape and site scale, inform discussions regarding the significance of place, and how places become persistent.

Date of AwardDec 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SponsorsAHRC Northern Bridge Doctoral Training Partnership
SupervisorPaula Reimer (Supervisor), Dirk Brandherm (Supervisor), Laura Basell (Supervisor) & Janet Montgomery (Supervisor)


  • Mesolithic
  • hunting
  • landscape
  • pits
  • wild boar

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