ARCHAEOLOGY HOMEPAGE
SECTION 1 : Introduction
SECTION 2 : Multi-period sites
SECTION 3 : Mesolithic
SECTION 4 : Neolithic Settlement
SECTION 5 : Megalithic tombs and Neolithic burial practices
SECTION 6 : Bronze Age Occupation Sites
SECTION 7 : Bronze Age burial practices
SECTION 8 : Iron Age
SECTION 9 : Iron Age burial practices
SECTION 10 : Royal sites
SECTION 11 : Western stone forts
SECTION 12 : Early Medieval Period - Christianity
SECTION 13 : Ringforts
SECTION 14 : Crannógs
SECTION 15 : Medieval Dublin
SECTION 16 : Late Medieval Period
SECTION 17 : Anglo-Norman Towns
SECTION 18 : Anglo-Norman Fortifications
Acknowledgements

SECTION 5 : MEGALITHIC TOMBS / NEOLITHIC BURIAL PRACTICES

Megalithic (from the Greek megas: great, lithos: stone) tombs date mainly to the fourth and third millennia BC (c. 4000-2000 BC), at the time of the Neolithic Period in Ireland. The site function was undoubtedly various and reflected the eschatological beliefs of the community that constructed the monuments. One function was to house the dead, usually cremated remains, in communal tombs and often accompanied by grave goods. They also stood as visually striking permanent monuments on the landscape, possibly as territorial markers, reminders of the ancestors and a testament to a belief in something beyond death. In Ireland, 1500 of these tombs have been recorded and these can be divided into four  main categories; Passage Tombs, Court tombs, Portal Tombs and Wedge Tombs,  the latter being the most numerous. Many tombs do not fit conveniently into the standard classification. Megalithic tombs generally consist of a stone built burial chamber, covered with a cairn of either earth or stones, with an entrance at one end. Passage Tombs very often include spectacular stone carvings both along the exposed and hidden sections of the passage, chamber and outer kerbstones, though megalithic artwork is not confined to Passage Tombs. The Mound of the Hostages at Tara is a passage tomb with secondary Middle Bronze Age burials inserted into the external cairn. This later re-use of such monuments is not unusual.

Understandably not everyone was afforded an elaborate burial in a megalithic tomb such as that at Carrowmore Co. Sligo, however little is known of any alternative forms of disposal of the dead. The site at Annagh, Co. Limerick offers one possibility, with the cave burials providing evidence for deliberate deposition and an acknowledgement of the importance of human remains.

 

5.1 : Annagh, Co. Limerick   92E0047

Site location: NGR 16930/15810

Raghnall Ó Floinn

Fig. 5.1.1: Location Map
[OSI]

The site at Annagh is located on the slope of a low hill with extensive views to the north and east, some 15km north-east of Limerick City, close to the Tipperary border (Fig. 5.1.1). Topsoil stripping at a limestone quarry accidentally dislodged a large stone revealing a cavern (Plate 5.1.1) with two human skulls visible. Initial investigation was carried out by Limerick Corporation archaeologist Celie O’Rahilly. The excavation was later undertaken over a total of three weeks in March and again in May 1992 on behalf of the National Museum of Ireland.

Plate 5.1.1: Cave entrance with burials to rear, Annagh, Co. Limerick
[Raghnall Ó Floinn]

The site consisted of an oval chamber 4.5m long and 2.5m wide, orientated EW. The cavern had developed along a natural fault line visible in the roof. It had been blocked by a 1m long pillar-like slab. Three complete and one incomplete inhumations, all probably adult male, were uncovered. They were placed around the walls of the cavern at its western end. Cremated bone, some of it human, was also retrieved from two locations. Two complete pottery vessels (Plate 5.1.2) and the partial remains of possibly three others were associated with the burials.

Plate 5.1.2: Decorated hand-made earthenware bowls, Annagh, Co. Limerick
[Raghnall Ó Floinn]

Burial I was a crouched inhumation. Limewash extended over the torso and substantial sherds of a decorated bowl, apparently dislodged from a shelf above lay over the burial, in the torso region. Sherds of a second decorated vessel were found at the northern end of the burial below the knees. Two decorated vessels, a necked bowl of Drimnagh type and a simple round bottomed bowl, were placed on a ledge above this burial. Some burnt animal bone and a cow’s tooth were placed between the vessels and a perforated antler tine was fused to the vertical face of the ledge between them. Burial II was a crouched inhumation, the flexed knees resting against the chamber wall. At the base of the spine was a flint discoidal knife with the head of a bone pin to the west of the burial. Sherds of an undecorated coarse vessel came from the skull area. Burial III was disarticulated skeletal remains of one person that appeared to have been slipped down from a narrow ledge to the north. Burial IV was a scatter of human bone along the south side of the chamber. There were no large long bones, pelvises or skull. Amongst them were small sherds of a coarse undecorated vessel.

This site clearly demonstrated the deliberate deposition of human remains in a cave during the Neolithic and the practice of collecting disarticulated bones from one area and depositing them at another in what appeared to be a systematic way. The inclusion of various ‘grave goods’, such as pottery, a large flint knife/scraper, a bone pin, sheep’s teeth and deer antler, is also significant for comparison with other Neolithic burials such as Kilgreany Cave, Co. Waterford and Caherguillamore, Co. Limerick. The high level of preservation was a vital factor in this discovery and the location emphasises the presence of burial places, which are not easily recognisable and therefore seldom investigated.

References

Ó Floinn, R. 1993  ‘Annagh, Co. Limerick’, In I. Bennett (ed.), Excavations 1992. Wordwell Ltd. Bray. 41-42.

Ó Floinn, R. 1992  ‘A Neolithic cave burial in Co. Limerick’, Archaeology Ireland 6(2), 19-21.

5.2 : ‘Listoghil’ (Tomb 51), Carrowmore, Co. Sligo 96E0020

Site location: NGR: 16623/33347           SMR: SL014-20922

Goran Burenhult

Fig. 5.2.1: Location map of Listoghil, Carrowmore, Co. Sligo [OSI]

The megalithic cemetery at Carrowmore, Co. Sligo is located on the Cúil Irra peninsula, between Ballisodare Bay, to the south and Sligo Bay, to the north. It lies at the foot of Knocknarea Mountain, topped by the cairn known as Maeve’s Grave (Miosgán Méadhbha) and forms part of an extensive Neolithic ritual landscape. Carrowmore megalithic cemetery is the largest in Ireland and amongst the oldest in Europe. The majority of the tombs excavated dated to between 4200 and 3600 Cal BC. In the mid nineteenth century between 60 and 80 monuments were recorded in the area, though originally the cemetery was probably larger. Ten tombs were excavated between 1977-2000 producing valuable information regarding the dating, construction and use of the tombs.

The second series of investigations was carried out on a number of the sites in Carrowmore from 1994-2000, one of the most interesting being the investigations at Tomb 51 known as Listoghil in 1996 (Plate 5.2.1). It is expected that the final report on the second excavation campaign at Carrowmore will be published in 2004. The Proceedings from the Stones and Bones Conference in Sligo of 2002 will be published as a British Archaeological Report (International Series) in late 2003 (information from excavator).

Plate 5.2.1: Aerial view of Tomb no. 51, Carrowmore, Co. Sligo
[Goran Burenhult]

The site has an important location within the surrounding group of tombs and occupies a landmark visual location, being the only tomb visible from both Ballisodare Bay, to the south and Sligo Bay, to the north, as well as from most of the other Carrowmore tombs (Fig. 5.2.1). Prior to excavation, the site appeared as a large mound and central chamber. The chamber, the area around it and a large segment of the mound were excavated (Plate 5.2.2). Megalithic art, in the form of a series of picked arcs and a pair of concentric circles with a central dot, was discovered on the front of the roof-slab of the central chamber and also inside the chamber itself. The almost intact boulder circle enclosing the mound consisted of c.100 large stones. Radiocarbon dates for the central chamber suggest it was built around 3600 BC. On the east side of this chamber, below the intact cairn, three large boulders were found which appeared to have been pushed aside during the chamber construction, possibly representing the remains of an earlier megalithic structure. Unburnt human bones were recovered, including a skull fragment with clear cut-marks. As the majority of burials at the cemetery were cremations this proves both inhumation and cremation practices were in use contemporaneously. A human cremation was found inside and associated with a boulder in the boulder circle. An intact human cremation was found close to and behind the north corner of a limestone slab found on the south side of the monument. Outside the slab, a massive stone packing was revealed as possibly the remains of a satellite tomb.

Plate 5.2.2: Central chamber of tomb no. 51, Carrowmore, Co. Sligo
[Goran Burenhult]

References

Burenhult, G. 1999  ‘Carrowmore’, In I. Bennett (ed.), Excavations 1998. Wordwell Ltd., Bray. 180-83.

http://www.hgo.se/carrowmore

5.3 : Tara, Mound of the Hostages, Co. Meath E716

Site location: NGR 29200/25972            SMR ME031-03307-

†Seán P. O’ Riordáin

Fig. 5.3.1: Location map of Mound of the Hostages, Tara, Co. Meath [OSI]

This site is located within the archaeological complex of the Hill of Tara to the SE of Navan town (Fig. 5.3.1; Plate 5.3.1). In the early Irish literature this site is associated with Cormac Mac Airt who reportedly reigned in the third century AD, however excavation proved that the site dated to a much earlier period. Excavations were carried out over two seasons in 1955 and 1960.

Plate 5.3.1: Aerial view looking north, Mound of Hostages, Tara, Co. Meath
[Cambridge University]

Fig.5.3.2: Site location of Mound of the Hostages [OSI]

The primary phase at this site was the construction of a passage tomb covered by a stone cairn. Two upright stones, probably portals, were noted at the eastern side of the cairn. An undisturbed tomb of passage-grave type was revealed behind these portals. It was a short open passage leading to a chamber roofed with three large capstones. It was filled with clay and stones which contained many burnt and unburnt burials with associated pottery and mushroom headed bone pins. A mass of cremated and inhumed bone was uncovered at the base of the fill and this represented several individuals of all ages. A decorated upright at the side of the passage had pecked decoration with concentric circles, cup-marks, wavy-lines and other motifs. 

The stone cairn was covered with a clay layer and this was part of the primary building phase. The clay covering contained some 40 Early-Middle Bronze Age burials that were secondary insertions in the cairn. All were cremated except for a young adult inhumation in a flexed position accompanied by a bronze necklace, amber, jet and segmented faience beads. The cremations were within stone cists with or without pottery or pit graves and either unprotected or in Urns or Food Vessels. One urn contained a stone battle-axe and a bronze dagger, both burnt. Similar daggers and knives occurred in five instances. One burial included two Encrusted Urns and two Food Vessels. Other cremations occurred at the foot of the mound.

This site is valuable in furthering our knowledge of a rich archaeological landscape and of investigating the information gained from early literary sources with an archaeological viewpoint.

References

Ó Ríordáin, S. P. 1955  ‘A burial with faience beads at Tara’, Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 21, 163-73.

De Paor, M. 1957  ‘Mound of the Hostages, Tara, Co. Meath’, Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 23, 220-21.

Longworth, L. 1960  ‘Notes on Excavations, 1959 (Eire)’,  Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 26, 341-42.

Kavanagh, R. M. 1973  ‘The encrusted urn in Ireland’, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 73C, 507-617.

5.1 : Annagh, Co. Limerick   92E0047
5.2 : ‘Listoghil’ (Tomb 51), Carrowmore, Co. Sligo 96E0020
5.3 : Tara, Mound of the Hostages, Co. Meath E716