Neolithic Tombs In Ireland
Ireland's history of neolithic times left lots of beautiful ancient
sites to marvel at including the oldest buildings on the planet!
This two part article will look at some of these sites and at the
society that produced them. Little is left in terms of
archeological evidence because most materials will deteriorate within
Yet, there are some facts we know about the Irish stone age, and there are others we can deduct.
Ireland history-art on the ceiling on one of the tombs at Loughcrew near Kells. The type of art and the patterns used differ between different tomb complexes which might mean they belonged to different tribes.
Neolithic tombs are the earliest surviving buildings ever constructed. Imagine, they predate the Egyptian pyramids and Stonehenge in England by over 1000 years!
Neolithic means of the newer part of the stone age, when the only available tools to man were made from stones and wood, bones and antlers. The word megalithic means built from large blocks of rock.
The custom of building these tombs did not originate in prehistoric Ireland. There are older megalithic tombs scattered all over Europe. The tradition of tomb building reached this island via Portugal, Spain, Brittany and Britain around 6,000 years ago, i.e. around 4,000 B.C.
Irish Neolithic society must have been very well organised, and very well provided for because they had the spare time and energy to leave behind some fantastic monuments marking their place in time.
Spiral art on the walls of Newgrange tomb. All the engravings were done using tools made of rock- the work would have been painstaking.
There are some remarkably similar tombs and art work found in other places, for example in Brittany, suggesting that Ireland was part of an overall European Neolithic culture.
We are big fans of Ireland's history of Neolithic monuments and have visited a good few of them all over. Stepping into a tomb 5,000 years old most definitely gives you a very special feeling.
The air in there is moist and cool and smells earthy, the atmosphere makes you go silent. You realize that you are only a ‘speck in time’.
History Of Megalithic Tombs
- Over time, the style of tomb building changed. Initially, there were simple tripods with a heavier capstone on the roof called dolmens. Poulnabrone Dolmen in County Clare on the next photo is a typical example. Dolmens are widespread throughout Ireland.
- In comparison to the later more elaborate passage graves, dolmens would not have required the same level of social organisation to build. They could have been relatively easily constructed by an extended family.
- Dolmens were followed by court tombs, a fine example being Creevykeel in county Sligo the floor plan of which is on the illustration on the right, seen here without its’ original cairn covering. Court tombs were long mounds with an oval-shaped external court and an elaborate passage and chamber structure on the inside. The external court was likely used as an area for ritual and possibly cremation of the dead before they were interred inside the tomb.
- Passage graves like Maeve's Grave on Knocknarea in a close up on the image above are considered to be the most recent innovation in megalithic tomb building. These consist of a round dome-like cairn of loose, small rocks covering a passage with chambers inside. Most examples follow a cruciform floor plan.
- The passage tombs of the Boyne Valley, Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth, are the best known and the most elaborate examples of passage graves in Ireland. They are of international importance, with Newgrange being a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- The practice of building passage graves seems to have begun in the west of Ireland with sites like the megalithic cemetery built on the upper slopes of Carrowkeel in County Sligo, and the magnificent Cairn on nearby Knocknarea.
The passage grave on Knocknarea that you can see above just to the right of the setting sun is known as Maeve’s Grave, named after the first century A.D. queen who is buried there, according to oral tradition. Knocknarea has never been excavated, and ever since it captured my imagination as a child I have always wondered what secrets it holds.
Could it be possible that Maeve was indeed buried there standing upright facing her enemies of Ulster? It’s well possible that the tradition of burying high status members of the local elite continued in these graves long after their original construction, stretching over generations.
Knocknarea is Ireland’s most conspicuous and imposing passage grave built at the summit, transforming the whole mountain into a sacred mound. It must have struck awe into the people of the time as it still does as one drives into Sligo town.
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Regards and best wishes from Susanna and Colm.
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