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The latest issue of Archaeology Ireland has reported the first dating evidence, ever, from a Burren area wedge tomb. In the wake of “an episode of animal disturbance”, a small sample of human bone was recovered from the chamber of a tomb, at Baur South, and dated, after funding was offered by the Shannon Historical and Archaeological Society, to a calibrated range of 2033-1897 BCE (95% probability).
There is no clue in the article, beyond that terse extract, as to what the “episode of animal disturbance” involved. Infestation by heavy scrub, especially hazel and blackthorn, has heretofore been considered the most pervasive local problem. Compare the recent photographs of this tomb, on the Modern Antiquarian website for example, with the shot from the 1950’s provided by the Heritage Council (2007, 15), or read the words of their Archaeology officer, Ian Doyle, in discussion of a relevant study in the same report;
“Scrub was found to be damaging archaeological monuments at a structural level, whereby important built elements were being displaced and dislodged, where sub-surface deposits such as cremations and burials in tombs were at risk of being disturbed and where monuments once intended to be visible as markers in the landscape were gradually becoming shrouded by dense vegetation. Moreover, there is a danger that monuments would be at risk of future loss/damage through inadvertent scrub clearance.”
The area covered by hazel scrub, in the samples, almost doubled in the 30 years to 2005, spreading by as much as 4.4% per annum in the last five years alone. As we reported earlier this year, similar findings, relating to causes of monument deterioration, were obtained by the ‘Condtion and Management Survey of the Archaeological Resource’ in Northern Ireland;
“When one focuses on sites that were largely complete, substantial or had some definable features, it was found that a much higher figure – 48% – had been damaged in the previous five years. Agricultural activity was identified as being the main cause of such damage, along with the growth of vegetation.”
Just think about that for a moment. Approximately half of all the more complete monuments surveyed were damaged in only 5 years. How much, really, could a hedge clippers cost, or a decent fence, or half an hour of a farmer’s time?
According to William O’Brien (1999,7) there were, at the time of his writing, 505 wedge tombs in Ireland, mostly concentrated in the western half of the island. Many of the tombs show traces of what might once have been covering mounds, or cairns, but their present day appearance on the landscape – if complete - is as a roofed gallery, or box, with sides defined by one, or two, rows of upright slabs and a shape that often widens and rises, like a wedge, towards an ‘opening’ to the west, or southwest.
The same author (1993, 65) has also referred to the dearth of dating evidence, before 1988, for this particular class of stone monument. Only one determination, at Island, Co. Cork, a sample subsequently found to be from Late Bronze Age interference, had been available before this date.
Due, to no small degree, to his own efforts, a number of further determinations have been obtained over the last 20 years and these dates, if representative, have refixed the class to the Late Stone Age and Early Bronze Age. Sources include a sample of bone from an unburned and headless female at Labbacallee, Co. Cork (2456-2138 BCE), samples from 9 of the unburned burials at Lough Gur, Co. Limerick (2500-2000 BCE) and an unburned human tooth, from O’Brien’s own excavation at Altar, Co Cork (2316-1784 BCE) (Waddell 1998, 92-101).
Approximately 15% of all Irish wedge tombs are located in the relatively small area of the Burren, Co. Clare, tending, for the most part, towards a simpler, box-like construction type. The new dating evidence, at Baur South, now fixes at least one of these typical Burren tombs within, but towards the close of, that discovered sequence, in the Early Bronze Age.
With such widespread similarity in fundamental tomb design, over a substantial period, it’s also tempting to speculate on what must have been the driving imperatives. Concerns possibly with death, the ancestors, or the sun and moon, are all implied by the monuments’ morphology – the same elements that frequently combine in the extant residues of other early cosmologies.
Plausible theories and notions, are numerous however. To get some idea of the complex interface that may once have existed in and around, these structures, consider the following, from Book VIII of the Brihadaranyaka-Upanishad;
“Householders who know and worship sacrificial fire; ascetics who know it in solitude, and worship it as faith and truth; pass after death into light, from light into day, from day into the moon’s brightening fortnight, from the moon’s brightening fortnight into the six months when the sun moves northward, from these months into the territory of gods, from the territory of gods into the sun, from the sun into lightning. The self-born Spirit finds them there and leads them to heaven. In that Kingdom of heaven they live, never returning to earth.
But they who conquer the lesser worlds by sacrifice, austerity, alms-giving, pass into smoke, from smoke into night, from night into the six months when the sun travels southward, from these months into the world of fathers, from the world of fathers into the moon, where they become food. As priests feed on the moon, so gods feed on them. When their karma is exhausted, they return to air, from air to wind, from wind to rain, from rain into the earth where they become food, where they are offered as sacrifice to the fire in man; offered as sacrifice to the fire in woman; then they are born again. Once more they rise, once more they circle round.”
In any case, it’d be nice to hang on to them, intact, don’t you think?
Gormley, S., Donnelly, C., Hartwell, B. & Bell, J. 2009 Monumental Change. In Archaeology Ireland Vol. 23 No. 2; 11-13
Grant, C. 2009 Early Bronze Age Date for Burren Wedge Tomb. In Archaeology Ireland Vol. 23 No.4; 5
O’ Brien, W. 1993 Aspects of Wedge Tomb Chronology. In Shee Twohig, E. & Ronayne, M. (eds.) Past Perceptions: The Prehistoric Archaeology of South-West Ireland, 63-74. Cork University Press ISBN 0902561898
O’ Brien, W. 1999 Sacred Ground: Megalithic Tombs in Coastal South-West Ireland. N.U.I. Galway ISBN 095356200X
O’Brien, W. 2002 Megaliths in a Mythologised Landscape: South-West Ireland in the Iron Age. In Scarre, C. (ed.) Monuments and Landscape in Atlantic Europe, 152-176. Routledge ISBN 0415273145
O’Rahilly, T.F. 1946 Early Irish History and Mythology. Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies ISBN 0901282294
The Ten Principal Upanishads, (trans.) Shree Purohit Swami 1937. Faber & Faber ISBN 0571093639
Waddell, J. 1998 The Prehistoric Archaeology of Ireland. Wordwell ISBN 1869857399
This really is a book packed full of fascinating facts and ‘beyond the obvious’ sums it up perfectly. A book either to just dip into for an idle half hour or to use as a more serious reference. The entries are arranged alphabetically, beginning with Aber and ending with Zodiacal Light. There are entries on Drove Roads, ‘Druidical’ Remains, Stukeley, Well-Dressing and Winterbournes, among many, many more. The lengthy entry on Henges and Standing Stones asks the question what they were for, and Grigson argues that they may have been no more than supports for fencing with the spaces between the stones being filled with thorn, hurdles or loose stones – corrals in other words (this suggested back in 1966!).
The book is peppered with poems, one of which is by Wordsworth which Grigson has used in his dedication to Colin Banks -
Not in Utopia, subterranean fields, -
Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where!
But in the very world, which is the world
Of all of us, – the place where in the end,
We find our happiness, or not at all.
We have posted an image of meadowsweet today for two reasons.
First, at a moment when Britain and Ireland are in the iron grip of the cruellest of cold weather it is nice to remind ourselves that soon the year will turn and those balmy, heavy-scented days will once again be ours. In the words of Henry James: “Summer afternoon, summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.”
Second, meadowsweet has just been found in a bronze age grave at Forteviot, south of Perth, as described by Mike Pitts in his blog and in British Archaeology. This is by no means the first time meadowsweet pollen has been found in such contexts but it has never been clear whether it was associated with mead. This time there seems no doubt. The sprigs were placed there as powerfully scented flowers, tenderly laid next to the deceased’s head in a touching gesture of farewell.
There is a tendency in discussing prehistory to suggest that the ancient people were radically different from us. This discovery rather suggests the reverse, that their thoughts and emotions and practices with respect to the simple human things that matter, may actually have been just the same as ours.
Tonight the wind gnaws with teeth of glass
The jackdaw shivers in caged branches of iron
The stars have talons
There is hunger in the mouth of vole and badger
Silver agonies of breath in the nostril of the fox
Ice on the rabbit’s paw
Tonight has no moon, no food for the pilgrim
The fruit tree is bare, the rose bush a thorn
And the ground is bitter with stones
But the mole sleeps and the hedgehog lies curled in a womb of leaves
And the bean and the wheat seed hug their germs in the earth
And a stream moves under the ice
Tonight there is no moon
But a star opens like a trumpet over the dead…..
From “Winter Poem” by Laurie Lee
The Save Bremore group launched their campaign at the Martin Brennan conference at Newgrange. The group hope to highlight the threat of major industrial development to the North County Dublin area near Balbriggan.
The Bremore-Gormonstown coastline is among the most beautiful and unspoiled areas of coast left on the north east side of Ireland. The wide open beaches provide a much needed amenity in the area and are home to many varied species of wildlife and migrating water fowl. These waters are also home to rare seal colonies. Along the coastal strip badgers, foxes and hares can be seen in abundance.
However, this idyllic landscape is under serious threat of being destroyed in order to make room for a massive $300 million deep water port and the associated infrastructure, pollution and industrial and suburban sprawl that this will bring. Drogheda Port Company has launched a process to have this port included under the Strategic Infrastructure Act and if successful they could use this Act to bypass much of our current environmental and heritage protection. This must not be allowed to happen.
Why Drogheda Port needs to expand has not been clarified. The ten state ports in Ireland are all under performing, all have spare capacity and all urgently need aid. Industrial production is in free fall, jobs are being lost and our economy may never again reach the heights obtained when this development was first planned. Experts tell us that the world of production will move to Asia and that a service and smart economy will survive here, yet the plans for this port proceed as though the opposite is true.
This planned “all in one” gigantic port will rob Dublin city of its port, it will mean less employment and less chances for all the other struggling ports. It will centralize shipping into a narrow built up and deeply populated channel area bringing with it the dangers of spills, pollution and accidents. It makes no sense under any modern form of thought. The Save Bremore group call for an independent study based on the economic now, on the reality of the future, before a development is allowed which will again wreck our history, heritage and environment.
The heritage in question here consists of the Bremore Passage Tomb Complex- a National Monument, a series of several unclassified monuments in the Knocknagin townland as well as the mid 16th century Newhaven Bay.
As with Tara, the surrounding landscape consists of a rich archaeological heritage.
Eminent Archaeologist Prof George Eogan has stated that “Bremore may have been the first point of entry for the settlements of what is now known as Fingal/East Meath and the Boyne Valley area”.
According to Dr. Mark Clinton of An Taisce ” the two cemetery complexes must be considered within the greater context of other passage tombs nearby at Knowth, Dowth and Newgrange”, and also that ” it would be more appropriate that the World Heritage site of Brú na Bóinne be extended to include the Bremore- Gormanstown complexes rather than Drogheda Port extended to include them. In terms of archaeological importance Bremore is comparable with Tara: Tara started with a passage tomb known as The Mound of the Hostages and developed over different periods: likewise the Bremore tombs would appear to be the start of Brú na Bóinne. The parallel is clear- no Mound of the Hostages no Tara: no Bremore no Newgrange”
Prof Cooney of UCD also had this to say; “ There is agreement across the archaeological community that if they were bulldozed it would be a national loss given the number of sites we know, the potential significance of them and the fact there’s a complex of them”.
Joe Fenwick, Dept of Archaeology NUI Galway told the Save Bremore group that “In terms of archaeological importance the passage tomb cemetery at Bremore can be compared with The Mound of the Hostages; one of the earliest monuments to have been built on the Hill of Tara’
The Save Bremore group invite you to join our campaign .
Carmel Diviney 0876100771
Brendan Mathews 0857077678
The Cove in winter. Image credit Littlestone
Circles in Time: Photo competition to mark the turning of the year at Avebury.
Anti-lovers walk: 14 February, 10.30am – 12.30pm.
Discover the Avebury Landscape: 18 February, 10.30am – 1pm.
Photo courtesy PDPhoto.org
by Littlestone. Heritage Action.
“A coach penetrating deep into the sacred heart of the Avebury complex, never right!”
Image credit Arcturus
The Diamond Stone (or Swindon Stone) in the corner of the north-west sector of the Avebury Henge is thought to be one of the few stones in the Avebury complex that has never fallen or been moved. In other words this massive megalith, which is some four metres high, three metres wide and over a metre thick (and estimated to weigh nearly fifty tons!) has stood in its present position since it was first erected there some four thousand years ago.
The Diamond Stone (fourth stone at top closest to road) as recorded by William Stukeley in his 1724 Groundplot of Avebury
But for how much longer will this ‘diamond’ from our megalithic past remain unmoved, let alone undamaged? The Diamond Stone sits perilously close to the Swindon-bound A4361 that runs through Avebury, indeed one corner of the stone hangs over the fence between the grass verge and the road itself and is subject to constant (and during the morning and evening rush hours heavy) vibration from passing traffic. It is astonishing that the local authorities have only recently introduce a 30 mile an hour speed limit through Avebury but is this enough to reduce vibration to the stone let alone minimize damage to it should it be hit by a passing car, bus or heavy goods vehicle?
The Diamond Stone at the edge of the Swindon-bound A4361. Image credit Moss
Surely the answer is to narrow the road at this point (increasing the grass verge nearest the megalith) and install road signs with alternating priority arrows. This would have the effect of distancing the stone from the road, reducing vibration to it by limiting the speed of traffic passing by, and would also have the added benefit of making the road safer for people crossing between the north-west and north-east sectors of the Henge. This is not rocket science; road signs with red and black arrows indicating priority are found all over the country so why not here? With a little imaginative planning two simple electronic road signs could be installed and programmed to change their priority with the flow of traffic during the morning and evening rush hours.
There has been an appalling amount of destruction of, and damage to, the Avebury megaliths over recent centuries, and the Diamond Stone is sadly yet another tragedy waiting to happen there – let’s act now to protect this monument from our ancient past from similar damage before it is too late!