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?

Double-walling at Lough Gur wedge tomb.

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.

Altar wedge tomb.

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?

Altar wedge tomb faces southwest, to the point at which the early November/February sun sets into the triangle of Mizen peak. This peak; Carn Uí Néit is associated with the mythical Fomorian 'Balor of the one eye', occasionally Balor Uí Néit, a solar deity who was fated to be slain by his grandson Lugh (O'Brien 2002, 169-170; O'Rahilly 1946, 60).

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