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By Gordon Kingston, Heritage Action

Time and the lack of written record, have tied a tight blindfold between us and prehistory, but occasionally we get the chance of a small nudge in the right direction. Following the recent collapse of its capstone,  Tirnony portal tomb, in County Derry, is to be excavated in advance of restoration. The Belfast Telegraph carries this report;

http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/local-national/northern-ireland/maghera-tomb-5000yearold-burial-site-to-give-up-secrets-14977234.html#ixzz12zx9DMOm

As you’ll read in the article, this is indeed a rare chance. Excavation involves destruction and is, therefore, a tool that must be used sparingly; a delicate balance has to be struck between the desire for information and the need for preservation (a conflict between pressures, to borrow a phrase from Jung, that; “cannot be solved by an either-or but only by a kind of two-way thinking: doing one thing while not losing sight of the other”).

Certainly, the archaeological component of all the “saddle-up boys” development activity of recent years, while it did increase our ‘record‘, seemed to have drifted well away from the consideration of ‘need for preservation’. The same need that is lost to sight, I’m convinced, by allowing the uncontrolled use of metal-detectors; wonderful, easily destructible, knowledge does rest in the ground. Here at Tirnony, for instance and in contrast, the archaeologist Paul Logue can set out his team’s hopes to; “find out more about how this tomb was built, when it was built and how it was used.”

If you do happen to be interested in the portal tombs of Ireland, Wales and Cornwall, there’s a smart and very exhaustive study by Tatjana Kytmannow, available as a British Archaeology Report (BAR 455, 2008). It’s fascinating. The monument group has been dated, from finds analysis, to the Early Neolithic; to a period in the region of 4000 – 3500 BC and, interestingly, given the emphatic thrust to the contrary in one of the comments beneath the Telegraph article, she notes that;

“There are very simple dolmens in Portugal, Spain, Brittany, and western France which are all early, earlier than passage tombs, but there are no close parallels which possess the same defining criteria. While the idea (of) erecting large monuments of stone was most likely introduced, portal tombs are only found in Britain and Ireland and have most likely developed there.”

There is to be an archaeologist’s blog at www.ni-environment.gov.uk, which should be worth checking out from time to time. It’s a good website to look through, in any case.

Kilmogue Portal Tomb; symbolism and spectacle?

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