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Newsletter Blast from the Past: Irish Megalithic Tombs

Originally Published May 2007

Last month I said that one of the more notable changes started by the early Irish farming culture was in the burial of their dead. There is little surviving evidence of burial customs among the earlier hunter-gatherer peoples of Ireland, but starting around 4000 BC we see the first funerary monuments in the form of megalithic structures consisting of massive rocks that were often covered with soil and sod.

These late stone age large stone constructions were actually a custom throughout Atlantic Europe and pre-date the numerous stone circles that were assembled later during the Bronze Age. Around 1500 megalithic tombs have been identified in Ireland.

Newgrange


Little is known about the homes or social organization of these tomb builders, but it is clear from the size of some of the monuments that they must have had a fairly well organized social structure. The huge mound at Newgrange is estimated to contain 200,000 tons of stones. Using sledges, logs as rollers, levers and counter-weights as tools, various calculations have said that it would have taken 300 or 400 laborers as long as 20, or 30 years to transport the materials and construct this mound which cover an area of over an acre.

These tombs are divided into 4 styles

Wedge Tombs

Wedge tomb
Wedge tomb at Poulnabrohn.

are the most common in Ireland, with over 400 that have been identified by archaeologists. They are called ‘wedge’ tombs because of their
distinctive shape, being taller and wider at the front, and lower and narrower at the rear. These date from the later end of the Irish Neolithic period up to the Bronze Age with some dates showing them to be between 3000 and 4000 years old.

Passage Tombs:
(Such as NewGrange, see link above, as well as the Knowth Passage Tomb where the burial chamber is reached along a distinct, and usually low passage. Later ones, are sometimes covered with a cairn of earth or rocks. Most of the passage tombs were constructed around 3,000 B.C.

Court Tombs:

Court tomb
The Creevykeel Court Tomb

A long rectangular or trapezoid cairn was raised over several burial chambers. The tombs had an elongated curve of stones delineating an outer area at their entrances, called a court or forecourt which usually faces the east. The cairns can be up to 30 meters long, 14 meter wide at front and 7 wide at rear. In some cases
the courts appear to have been designed to accommodate the mourners at the burials. There are over 300 Court tomb sites in Ireland, located mainly in the upper half of the country. Common artifacts found in court tombs include sherds of round bottomed pottery bowls, leaf or lozenge shaped flint arrowheads and hollow scrapers made from flint. Also a few javelin heads and polished stone axe heads have been recorded.

Portal Tombs: (once called Dolmens)

Ballykeel Portal Tomb
Ballykeel Portal Tomb

These are more common in western Ireland and may be the best known of the Irish burial tombs, possibly due to some impressive and easily accessible sites still remaining. The people who built portal tombs seem to have had some connections or similarities to the court tomb builders since similar artifact have been found with both, and they both tend to appear in lowland settings.

For the most part these all of these tombs were used for communal burials for cremated remains not for single bodies. It has also been suggested that some of the tombs may have been more than simple burial monuments to ancestors and possibly created as declarations of territorial rights.

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Blogger for The Celtic Croft and owner of MacGregor Historic Games http://historicgames.com

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