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Comber's ancient artefacts

Comber sits at the confluence of two rivers – the Glen and the Enler - on a verdant drumlin close to Strangford Lough: in fact the very name of the town comes from an old Irish word ‘comar’ meaning the meeting place of two rivers. In ancient times, this was prime real estate and our ancient ancestors chose this site for its agriculture, fishing and accessibility: after all, Strangford Lough was the ‘M1’ of its day in an age of sea-travel.
These early inhabitants of the lough-shore have left clues to their diet, their lifestyle and their culture and there have been various ‘finds’ made in Comber over the years.
Based largely on the research of the late Norman Nevin MBE, Comber Historical Society is now pleased to present this article on curious objects and artefacts from Comber’s history which have turned up over the years.

Earliest Settlers
The earliest evidence of human habitation of Ireland dates from about 9,000 years ago. These early inhabitants left clues to their diet and their lifestyle, particularly their tools and weapons. It is believed that these nomadic people travelled slowly down the Dundonald valley to make their settlements around Strangford Lough where fish and fowl were plentiful.

One of the earliest pieces of evidence of our ancestors in the Comber area can be found on the Ballynichol Road, just south of the town. The Neolithic inhabitants of Comber buried their dead in court-tombs and ‘The Five Sisters’ is a fine example of one such site. An excavation in 1955 uncovered bone fragments of an adult together with numerous pot-sherds of western Neolithic-ware and very small fragments of a possible beaker. They also unearthed a hollow scraper and worked stone.

Urn Finds, 1800s Our Bronze Age ancestors buried their dead in box-like graves built from stone slabs and known as ‘cists’. These often contained earthenware urns and food vessels. In 1858, some of these were unearthed beside the river near the Primary School.

The Ulster Journal of Archaeology described one of these urns, in the possession of Mr S Andrews, as “a food vessel, five inches high. The lip of the rim is ornamented with radial striations. The surface of the body consists of horizontal ridges and grooves, the latter decorated with short jabs in one or two rows, on some of the upper ridges set in slightly herringbone fashion. The uniformity and thoroughness of the design and the desire to leave no portion of flat surface are unusual in Irish food-vessels”.

Urns have also been discovered at the entrance to Andrews’ Bleach Green in 1850; by a farmer in Ballyloughan in 1885; and on the site of the Primary School when it was built in 1937. These are now in the Museum in Belfast.

In 1882, a letter tells of an old man named Mr McMorran of Cherryvalley who had found an ‘urn’ in one of his fields. The urn ‘or dish’ which had been covered by a stone is described as being “composed of small flags set tightly into one another and inside of it was human ashes”. It noted that Mr McMorran had found similar urns in the same field.

The Rough Island Finds, 1936
Some of the early inhabitants of Strangford Lough encamped on a safe place, an island, later called Slesny and later still Rough Island, at Island Hill. Here they caught any little animals that they could and gathered berries, roots and nuts, while from the sea they caught fish, seabirds and gathered all kinds of shellfish. They used axe-like implements of chipped stone; and they sharpened pebbles of flint to use as pointed knives - or mount on a shaft to serve as an arrow or spear-head.

In 1936, a team of Americans from Harvard University excavated on the island for flints and other traces of habitation. They came across an abundance of core and flake axes, microliths, Bann flakes, cores, blades and bladelets, including five blades finished in a style ‘unknown in the rest of Ireland’ – making Rough Island one of the richest sites of its kind in the country. They also uncovered a ‘midden’, seven or eight feet high, which was where these early inhabitants threw the shells and bones from the animals and shellfish they ate.

Axe Head Discoveries, 1965
Further evidence of the tools and weapons used by our ancestors turned up in the second half of the 20th century. In 1965 some boys were sent to clear stones away from the new playing fields at Comber Secondary School to allow the new grass to be cut. Neil Whitham and Jim Swindle discovered a curiously shaped stone, which later was identified as a flint axe head. It is now in the Museum in Belfast.

Two Finds in 1975
An arrowhead, of great beauty, was found by Mr. William Steele, when digging the garden of his new home on the Glen Road, in 1975. This example of craftsmanship shows the development of skills among the inhabitants of the area. Many of the grave goods such as the leaf-shaped arrowheads are the product of long practised and refined skills and their pottery vessels are of very high quality.

In the summer of 1975, Mr. James Baxter of Castle Buildings crossed the Cricket Green to the place where a mechanical digger had been working, as he wanted a bucket of sand for his garden. Twenty-eight feet below the level of the Cricket green he found a curious stone in the sand. It was Silurian slate, perfectly smooth and rounded, obviously caused by the action of water - either the sea or a great river as the Enler had once been.

Bronze Age Discovery
In the early 1980s, shortly after the river had been cleaned and deepened, Leslie McWilliams was fishing near Ballyloughan when be saw something shining on the bed of the river. He waded in and found what proved to be a bronze spear head. It is now in the Museum. This was most unusual as nothing had been found south of the Lead Mines in Newtownards that was made of bronze.

Mount Alexander Site, mid-1980s
In the mid 1980s, Peter Carr discovered an early Mesolithic site in the townland of Mount Alexander, again just by the River Enler where, at that time, there may have been a small lake. Two hundred and twenty pieces of worked flint were found here, including blades (simple and retouched), bladelets, flake axes, blade-end scrapers, waste flakes and cores, plus two slightly unusual oblique arrowheads and someone’s trusty pick.

Comber Abbey Stones, 2002
A number of carved stones (reputedly held by the Andrews family in “The Old House” in Castle Street – where Supervalu sits nowadays) were brought in 1931 to the garden of “Aureen House” in Comber Square. There, the gardener assembled them into a crude display and they remained undisturbed, but slowly deteriorating.

In November 2002, the stones were removed, cleaned, preserved and stored by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency who identified them as 15th century ecclesiastical stones, probably from a doorway and originating in the old Comber Abbey. The collection consists of 19 carved stones of various sizes - ten of these form a partial window arch including a figurehead as the keystone. There are currently plans underway to display these stones in the new South Transept of St Mary’s Church of Ireland in the Square, site of the original Abbey.

Nendrum College Discoveries, 2008
During the building of the new secondary school, a number of items were unearthed including a leather sole from a shoe; a door handle with a ceramic knob; seven pieces of flint; and sixteen pieces of post-medieval pottery.

St Mary’s Church of Ireland Objects, 2008
While the ground was being prepared for the foundations of the new South Transept of the Parish Church in the Square, archaeologist Dr Brian Sloan of Queen’s university made some interesting discoveries, including a 17th century glazed roof tile and shards of medieval coarse Ulster pottery dated to 1250AD.

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