3.2 : Killuragh, Co. Limerick 93E0175
Site location: NGR 177800/149700
Peter Woodman and Jane O’Shaughnessey
Fig.3.2.1: Location map of Killuragh, Co. Limerick
Killuragh Cave lies on the eastern edge of a limestone reef whose summit is just over 60m above sea level (Fig. 3.2.1). The eastern escarpment faces out onto the flood plain of the Mulkear River. The escarpment is up to 10m in height and at one point, a flat terrace lies up to 2m below the summit. The known entrances to the cave system are at the northern end of the terrace.
The cave was first investigated by the then landowner, the late Mr. Benny O’Neill. The archaeological significance became apparent when along with a bone assemblage, he recovered a flint hollow scraper and what was thought to be a polished stone axe. Mr O’ Neill recalled that much of the bone and the stone axe came from at least 2 ft (0.60m) below the surface of the deposits and were mostly in a small area which lay at the junction of the entrance passage and the main chamber. This material was reported to the National Museum of Ireland. This included artefacts, human and animal bone as well as fragments of burnt material and flecks of charcoal. As a result, two archaeological investigations of the remaining deposits and in the vicinity of the cave were undertaken.
The Cave System
There are two entrances into the main chamber and it was at these locations that most of the archaeological deposits were discovered. The chamber is quite small, measuring 1.0-1.5m in width, over 1m in height and a maximum of c.2m in length. Passage A (Fig. 3.2.2) extends to the south of the main chamber and after several metres it becomes too narrow to allow for easy investigation. Passage B (Fig. 3.2.2) extends from the northern edge of the main chamber and appears to continue westwards into the knoll as an extension of Entrance 2.
Fig.3.2.2: Plan of Killuragh Cave
Other potential collapsed and infilled entrances were noted both on the terrace as well as lower down the escarpment slope. A resistivity survey of the adjacent parts of the knoll was undertaken by Geoarc in the hope that it might detect some evidence of a more extensive cave system. Due to the depth of rock and other technical problems this survey met with little success.
The initial investigations of November 1993 concentrated on the remaining deposits in the main chamber. They revealed the following layers:
- 0.10-0.20m of loose soil.
- Layer of grey brown silt, originally up to 1m in thickness. This layer may also have had a layer of blackened stones at its base. The archaeological material appeared to be concentrated within this layer.
- Layer of orange silt and sand which contained no bone or charcoal.
- Stiff orange red clay formed the floor of the cave.
The excavation recovered quantities of animal as well as what is now recognised as human bones. One weathered flint blade was found.
The spoil heaps from both sets of investigations remained on the terrace. In the autumn of 1994 Mr. O’Neill, on digging into the spoil heaps, began to recover other archaeological artefacts. Initially he recovered a number of pot sherds but eventually he began to find a series of flint artefacts including a blade, a large flake fragment, a second hollow scraper and several microliths. After the new material was reported to the National Museum Mr. O’Neill removed most of the soil to the farmyard where as a result of his meticulous and tireless perusal much of this material was extracted, albeit ex situ. Mr. O Neill also recovered several other objects from the immediate vicinity of the cave.
It was then decided to carry out further excavations of the cave system and its vicinity along with a re-examination of the spoil heaps with the aid of water sieving. As the residues had to some extent been dispersed it was impossible to establish if items such as copper fragments and small beads had become inadvertently introduced. Only one more microlith was recovered although further small quantities of bone were also found including a Giant Deer (Megaloceros giganteus) metacarpal fragment.
The 1996 excavations
The aim of this second phase of excavations was to recover any evidence of activity relating to the cave. These excavations used water sieving as a standard procedure. Test trenches were opened both within and in the immediate vicinity of the cave and in the area of the terrace. The various investigations suggest that little trace of use of the terrace either survives or else that the terrace was not used. Mr. O Neill found a chert scraper in the vicinity of one trench. There are however, indications that material was either introduced or washed into the cave from outside. This is based on:
- The almost random selection of bones.
- The occurrence of lithics in varying but mostly patinated or weathered condition.
- The occurrence of material, especially Mesolithic material, in the fissure at the base of Entrance 1.
- The apparent concentration of more than 1m thickness of soil in the cave adjacent to the exit from Entrance 1.
It appears that even if much of the material was in secondary contexts the exploration of the cave has produced evidence from the following periods.
1) A late glacial phase represented by the presence of Giant Deer bones that may have been derived from the compact orange clay. It is represented by one radiocarbon date (Sample 4).
2) An early Mesolithic phase represented by the microliths and human remains. Human bones from two individuals have been radiocarbon dated to the Early Mesolithic (Samples 1 and 2). Some of this material may have occurred in a layer of red silt as well as in the Entrance 1 fissure. The microliths consist of a group of mostly narrow obliquely blunted points. Normally the Irish Early Mesolithic is associated with scalene triangles, rods and needlepoints. As noted at Mount Sandel however, some groups of oblique point can also occur. A number of other early Mesolithic sites including some Mesolithic cremations from Hermitage (Collins and Coyne 2003) are known from the vicinity
3) The final stage of the Mesolithic is represented by two radiocarbon dates (Samples 9 and 6). It is not unusual for later Mesolithic phases of activity to lack a substantial presence of artefacts. It is possible that the weathered flake fragment (No. 4) could be the tip of a large butt trimmed form – a large complete example was found nearby on the banks of the Shannon (Collins in preparation).
4) The Neolithic is represented by two radiocarbon dates (Samples 3 and 8) and two hollow scrapers.
5) The Bronze Age appears to be represented by pottery and four radiocarbon dates (Samples 5,7,10 and 11).
The context of the red deer bone is uncertain (Sample 12) and it may be have been derived from this cave or another in the immediate vicinity.
As will be apparent from Table 1 much of the material comes from the reinvestigation of the spoil heap and it should be noted that most of the artefacts were recovered by Mr. O’Neill.
In total 39 sherds of pottery were recovered (Table 1) and all except one sherd were from the investigation of the spoil heap. One large sherd of flat-rimmed pottery was found and is decorated with a shallow incised line below the rim. A similar incised line occurs on another sherd and these sherds appear to come from one or perhaps two thick walled, bucket-shaped vessels of coarse gritted fabric.
These contain a high percentage of good quality artefacts and aside from two tiny flakes from outside the cave the rest of the artefacts listed in Table 1 are either good quality blades or retouched tools (Plate 3.2.1).
Plate 3.2.1: Flint Assembly
Human Remains: Approximately 150 fragments of human bone were recovered. Power (in preparation) has suggested that the remains of at least seven individuals, three mature adults and four children are identifiable. No articulated skeletons appear to have been present and there is no evidence of deliberate placement of selected bones and as so often occurs, cave bones can only be identified on an individual basis. Some bones show signs of burning but as the cave site may have been used for fires in more recent times, it is difficult to know whether cremation took place in prehistory. An analysis of the human remains has identified a selection from a complete range of bones from the skeleton. Samples 1-3, 5, 6 and 9 were submitted for radiocarbon dating.
A large selection of animal bones was recovered during the various investigations. Besides the Giant Deer bones (Sample 4 submitted for radiocarbon dating) it includes a range of bones from domesticates and wild species as well as a significant number of bird bones. (Mc Carthy in preparation). The most noticeable absence is that of fish bones.
Killuragh Cave represents an important addition to the archaeology of Irish Caves as it shows the intermittent use of the cave and cave area throughout much of prehistory. The human remains from the cave are important addition to a sparse record of human remains from the Mesolithic period in particular. The work at Killuragh has of course been complemented by the recent discovery of early Mesolithic cremations nearby on the banks of the Shannon (Collins and Coyne 2003).
Table I: Numbers of artefact and human remains
||Spoil heap investigation
|Hollow scrapers (nos.)
|Microlith and microblade fragments
|Polished axe bragment
Table II: Radiocarbon dates
||d 13 C
||Giant Deer metacarpal
||4730 – 4460 BC
Collins, T. and Coyne F. 2003 ‘Fire and Water–Early Mesolithic cremations at Hermitage, County Limerick’, Archaeology Ireland. Vol. 17. 24-27.
O’Shaughnessy, J. 1994 ‘Killuragh, Co. Limerick’, In I. Bennett (ed.), Excavations 1993. Wordwell Ltd. Bray.
Synopsis written by Professor Peter Woodman (2003).