Prehistoric art

Stones in the Irish Landscape

DSCF5688When I think about my travels in Ireland, stone comes to mind. We often think of green fields rolling down to the sea, and there are many places of lush green, misty forests, and soft fields with grazing sheep. By far and away, stone shapes this place. From rugged coastlines to ancient standing stones carved with a language we no longer can understand, people have lived with the stone and shaped it into shelter, art, fences, and steps. Some of the places carved out of stone, like Skellig Micheal, are beyond belief. Reading Sun Dancing by Geoffrey Morehouse brought the lives of theDSCF5682 monks there to life, and the carving of over 700 steps to reach their small settlement as close to heaven as possible. I like to include the Skelligs on our tours- there is no place on Earth quite like them. It takes effort to reach them, effort to climb to the top, effort to understand what they were up to. One must travel by boat over an hour, and often it is DSCF5683impossible to do so. The steps are dangerous and tricky, and the higher one goes, the more one can feel what made this place special. So many mysteries remain about this place, but a sense of the inhabitants becomes real as you sit in a former cell, with only a small opening facing east, or gaze at the garden plots they used, carved from stony cliffs, and enriched with seaweed to build the soil. The difficult problem of gathering drinking water alone can amaze and confound! Yet they did, they managed, and they sought out a refuge in the ocean far from others to achieve their quest.I look forward to returning toDSCF5686 Skellig Michael, and hope to share this place with others who wonder as I do.

The ancient stones from prehistory also intrigue me. For years I have studied Irish art history, and am especially drawn to the standing stones with intricate designs, motifs and symbolism. For this reason I love to show these to people in hidden glans and on hilltops, as well as more famous carved stones such at those at Bru na Boinne, also known as Newgrange. Come along on one of our tours and let your imagination be ignited by the stones!

Stone carving at Newgrange..ciirca 5,000 BC

Stone carving at Newgrange..ciirca 5,000 BC

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Irish archaeology in the Burren

Poulnabrone Dolmen

Standing proud in the stark landscape of the Burren Co. Clare, the iconic megalithic tomb at Poulnabrone is one of Ireland’s most photographed archaeological sites. Dating from the Neolithic period, this distinctive monument has revealed a wealth of information about the lives and burial customs of Ireland’s very first farming communities.

Poulnabrone is classified as a portal tomb by archaeologists, and there are approximately 174 of these monuments in the country. The majority are located in the northern half of the island, although outliers exists further south, especially in counties Clare and Waterford. The tombs generally consist of two large portal-stones defining the entrance and a back-stone, all of which support the roof-stone. The roof-stone can be of considerable size, with the largest example at Brownshill, Co. Carlow weighing circa 100 tonnes.

It is not known how these very large stones were moved and raised but it probably involved a combination of wooden rollers, ropes and man/animal power. It is possible that ramps of earth and stone were used to haul the large roof stones into place and some portal tombs have evidence for denuded cairns, which may have been used for this purpose.

Paulnabrone dolmen

Poulnabrone represents one of the very few Irish portal tombs that have been archaeologically investigated. This excavation, which was carried out by Ann Lynch,  uncovered the remains of twenty two people, sixteen adults and six children within the interior of the tomb. Of these bodies only eight could be sexed and these were equally split between males and females.

The bones were disarticulated and appear to have been placed within the tomb in a de-fleshed condition. This suggested a complex burial ritual, where the bodies were firstly stored or buried elsewhere until they decomposed. The bare bones were then transferred to the portal tomb for final interment. A number of the bones contained scorch marks suggesting that they had been held over a flame prior to burial, possibly during a purification ritual.

Poulnabrone tomb

Specialist analysis of the skeletal remains have given us a remarkable insight into the lives of these Neolithic people. They appear  to have experienced relatively short lives with only one person being older than 40. They also worked hard and were used to carrying heavy loads as evidenced by the arthritic condition of many of the neck and shoulder bones. Analysis of the teeth revealed that they suffered from periods of either malnutrition or infections, especially between the ages of three and six.

Evidence for violence was also encountered amongst the burial remains.  A depressed fracture, possibly caused by a stone projectile was identified in one of the skulls, while a broken rib bone may have been caused by an aggressive blow. Even more startling, a fragment of a flint projectile point, probably and arrow head was found embedded in a hip bone. There was no trace of infection or healing so the wound must have occurred around the time of death.

The radiocarbon dates from Poulnabrone indicate that the burials were deposited at regular intervals over a period of 600 years between 3800 and 3200 BC.  This suggests that the monument was probably a significant place of burial where only certain members of the community were allowed to be interred.

Artifacts Poulnabrone

A variety of artefacts, presumably representing grave goods, were also recovered from the burial chamber. These included a polished stone axe, two stone beads, a decorated bone pendant, a fragment of a mushroom-headed bone pin, two quartz crystals, several sherds of coarse pottery, three chert arrowheads and three chert/flint scrapers.

Thus the burial evidence from Poulnabrone has given us rare glimpse into the lives of our early ancestors. It appears that they endured a relatively tough existence, that involved hard physical labour, childhood illnesses, occasional violent attacks and early deaths.  Although only a small section of the community were deemed worthy of burial in the tomb, there is  little evidence for gender or age discrimination, with both male and female remains present as well as young and old. Prior to interment their  bones appear to have been stored elsewhere and this may indicate that they were venerated as ancestor relics. Why certain individuals were chosen to be buried in the seemingly exalted location of a megalithic tomb, however, remains a mystery.

References 

Jones, C. 2004. The Burren and the Aran Islands:exploring the archaeology. Collins Press.

Waddell, J. 1998. The Prehistoric Archaeology of Ireland, Galway University Press

(originally posted by Irish Archaeology on Facebook) 

The Burren is a fascinating area, with many archaeological sites, and is included in our Wild Atlantic Way tours!

Categories: Ireland, Prehistoric art | Tags: , , , , ,

The ancient Irish landscape

 

 Photo by Joan Slack

Kilclooney Mor, ancient megalithihc site in Donegal

 

There is so much available on the internet these days, and I love to share the work of people working to increase awareness, share beauty and art, and provide insight into ancient places in the land.

One such person I have discovered is Ken Williams at Shadows and Stone:

http://www.shadowsandstone.com/

The site is so well done and has some gorgeous photography.

Also, the Beara tourism site has loads of great material and images:

http://www.bearatourism.com/archaelogical.html  Castletownbere The Beara Peninsula is a hidden gem of Ireland, still very wild and pristine, authentic in every way. It is a favorite place of mine due to its rugged landscape, exceptional beauty, and fine people!

I will continue to add more sites of interest, but check these out to learn more about ancient Ireland.

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