Monday, May 20, 2019

The Irish Beaker People

Newgrange Passage Tomb

In previous blog posts I discussed the Beaker culture, characterised by its bell-shaped pottery, including DNA evidence for the movement of these early people. When the Beaker culture arrived in Britain and Ireland 4,500 years ago, it was brought by migrants who almost completely replaced the existing inhabitants within a few hundred years. Beaker burials are distinctive and include Beaker ware or pottery.
In his paper Into the west: placing Beakers within their Irish contexts, the author Neil Carlin, points out that the Beaker culture in Ireland is viewed as being rich in settlement evidence. Funerary evidence, on the other hand, is more scarce consisting primarily of collective burials in original megalithic tombs or as secondary burials in earlier sacred sites. Evidence of the Beaker people has also been found in cists and pits.
Example of Beaker Pottery
Beaker Artefacts
Ireland is known for its Beaker-associated copper industry. For example, Beaker pottery was found during the excavation of an ore-processing camp connected with the Early Bronze Age mine at Ross Island, Co. Kerry. Neil Carlin’s paper lists the following items as examples of Beaker origin: polypod bowls, wrist-bracers, V-perforated buttons, basket-shaped earrings, early gold discs, lunulae, copper daggers, small disc beads, small convex scrapers, barbed and tanged arrowheads as well as hollow-based arrowheads.
In Ireland, different types of Beaker objects are rarely found together but in Britain several different Beaker associated objects tend to occur together in the same context. The dating of the Beaker evidence in Ireland remains poorly understood although one archaeologist has argued that the use of Beaker ceramics continued from 2500/2400 to 1900 BC. Finds of beaker pottery in Ireland are mainly found in pits along with artefacts such as lithic, burnt and unburnt animal bone and the charred remains of cereals and fruit.
Stone-lined Pit
At Monadreela, Co. Tipperary, a stone-lined oval pit produced evidence for in situ burning and contained 110 sherds from at least 10 Beakers, fragments of cremated human bone, a large quantity of hazelnuts and acorns together with a small polished stone axe.
Burnt mounds are the most common prehistoric monument in Ireland with over 7,000 examples identified. At Cherrywood, Co. Dublin, a spread of burnt stone and charcoal consisted of two layers that produced ten sherds of Beaker pottery from one pot, 33 lithics including a convex scraper and two hammer stones, and an animal tooth. The tooth was radiocarbon dated to 2400 -2100 BC. Under the mound were eight troughs one of which contained sherds of Grooved Ware.
Early Bronze Age Burial
Wedge Tombs and Cists
Beaker pottery has been recovered from at least 13 of the 25 wedge tomb sites excavated and has been associated with human bones often from collective burials including inhumations and cremations. The construction of wedge tombs has been dated to the period 2400-2050 BC.  
Beaker pottery has been found in eight cists together with burials. At Gortcobies, Co. Derry, fragments of cremated human bone accompanied by convex scrapers, sherds of Late Beakers and a pygmy bowl were recovered from a rectangular stone chamber at the centre of an oval cairn. Neil Carlin points out that, overall, there are very few Beaker grave goods from cists.
Gold lunula, Monaghan
(c)National Museum of Ireland
Portal Tombs and Passage Tombs
Beaker finds from portal tombs are much less common and are usually associated with disturbed deposits. Beaker pottery has only been found in one portal tomb at Poulnabrone, Co. Clare, where two Beaker sherds and a hollow-based arrowhead were found. However, these could not be positively associated with human remains from this tomb.
V-perforated buttons have been found in four passage tombs, including the Mound of the Hostages at Tara, Co. Meath, where three were found in the passage. One button was associated with a bronze awl and a crouched inhumation with a bowl beside its head. A disk bead necklace was also found in the passage with another crouched inhumation and two bowls.
Many Beaker objects have been found in natural locations such as bogs, mountains and rivers. Neil Carlin points out that copper metalwork is mainly retrieved from bogs which have produced 46% of all axes (n= 400) and 40% of all daggers (n= 15). Sixteen of the 44 lunulae and two possible gold discs have all been found in bogs. Battle-axes were mainly deposited in rivers. Only two out of 15 copper daggers and a single lunulae have come from rivers and lakes.
In Ireland, only a relatively small number of burials with Beaker artefacts have been identified which contrasts with the situation in Britain. Most of the pottery is been found in pits while many of the non-ceramic artefacts come from natural places such as bogs.
Bowl-inhumations, which consist of a crouched inhumation within a cist accompanied by a pot beside the head, appear to represent the Irish version of Beaker burials after 2200 BC. These burials tend to be accompanied by grave goods including boars’ tusks, flint scrapers, arrowheads, knives, awls and bangles, bone toggles, belt rings, beads and buttons of jet-like materials.
Neil Carlin notes:
Currently, there is no evidence to suggest a direct association between the construction of any large-scale earthen monuments and the use of Beakers in Ireland. In fact, no monuments apart from one possible pit circle, a few ring ditches and many wedge tombs and cists were created by Beaker users. This differs strongly from the association of Beakers with the erection of monuments like Silbury Hill and possibly also the Stonehenge blue stones in the south of Britain.
Reconstruction of a Beaker burial
(c) National Archaeological Museum of Spain, Madrid.
Beaker objects in Ireland do not seem to have shared the same associations with the dead that these objects did in Britain. It has been suggested that deposits in graves related to the individual and those if natural places with the wider community. Neil Carlin suggests that this may indicate that there was not the same preoccupation with individuality that has been proposed for Britain. In Ireland, communal identities were expressed through the construction and use of wedge tombs and the re-use of Neolithic megalithic tombs.
For further information see:
Into the West: placing Beakers within their Irish contexts.

In A. M. Jones & G. Kirkham (eds.) Beyond the Core: Reflections on Regionality in Prehistory, 2011
OXBOW Books 2011

Thursday, April 25, 2019

New Human Species Discovered in the Philippines

The excavation site at Callao Cave, Luzon Island, Philippines.
(c) Callao Cave Archaeology Project
A new human relative?
A recent article featured on reports that researchers working in a cave in the Philippines claim to have found a new, previously unknown, species to add to human history. This hominin (any member of the group consisting of all modern and extinct humans and great apes - including gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans - and all their immediate ancestors) was probably less than four feet high and had some of the characteristics of modern people but also anatomical features from much earlier hominins. 
The latest in a series of finds of early humans in the Philippines was made by archaeologists as they were digging in the floor of Callao Cave on Luzon island. A team of experts, led by Professor Philip Piper, from the Australian National University, found several fossils unlike anything else in the world. The fossil remains included adult finger and toe bones, as well as teeth. The femur bone of a juvenile was also unearthed. The remains are estimated to be about 50,000 years old and date from a time when several human species co-existed on the planet.
Five upper teeth of a single individual provisionally named 'Homo luzonensis
(c) Callao Cave Archaeology Project
The height of the new humans was determined by the size of the tooth and the other bones although more evidence is required to confirm this. This newly discovered species may be related to Homo floresiensis found on the Indonesian island of Flores which was also under four feet in height. The new species of human had ‘long, curved fingers and toes’ suggesting that it was as comfortable scrambling up trees as walking upright. This previously unknown species has been provisionally named Homo luzonensis.

Humans Migrated ‘Out of Africa’ a Lot Earlier than Previously Thought
It is now known that modern humans evolved in Africa around 300,000 years ago before migrating to other continents. In January 2018 a group of archaeologists from Tel Aviv University working at Mount Carmel, Israel discovered the upper jaw bone of a Homo sapiens in a layer of sediment with tools previously attributed to Neanderthals. This discovery pushed back the date for human migration out of Africa by about 40,000 years confirming the theory that there was more than one expansion phase with different groups leaving over a long period.
The Neanderthals thrived in Europe for around 300,000 years before modern humans arrived. Excavations in Ibex, Vanguard, and Gorham’s Caves in Gibraltar have revealed evidence of Neanderthal occupation dating to possibly as late as 28,000 years ago. This makes Gibraltar the most recent Neanderthal occupation site yet discovered. The ancestors of modern humans interbred with Neanderthals and another extinct line of humans known as the Denisovans. Modern humans, Neanderthals and Denisovans shared a common ancestor who lived roughly 600,000 years ago.

Humans and chimpanzees are very closely related and separated about 7.4 million years ago.  There is only a 1% difference between the chimpanzee genome and our own suggesting that we have a common ancestor. Homo sapiens represents the last of a long line of hominin races that once consisted of five different species spanning four continents.
Homo Sapiens Sophistication
Most human traits are found in lesser degrees in other species. Researchers point out that humans, compared to other apes, are highly social, primarily use culture to adapt to their environment, and are very skilled at language. These traits have allowed humans to be much more adaptable and resilient in the face of a changing environment. Other animals, including great apes and dolphins, have capacities for abstract thought and language skills but these abilities are especially pronounced in Homo Sapiens.
Thanks to new techniques, including advances in DNA analysis, it is now possible to learn more about extinct species of human than ever before. The evidence is pointing not to one unbroken chain of human ancestors but a rich family tree with several offshoots. Our family tree is now filled with not only direct ancestors like Homo Habilis and Homo Erectus but also cousins and distant relatives like Homo Neanderthalensis and Homo Denisova.
Homo Heidelbergensis
Homo Heidelbergensis or Heidelberg man walked the earth about 600,000 years ago in Africa, parts of Asia, and Europe and is believed to be the direct ancestor of Neanderthals. They were using stone tipped spears to hunt large prey and may be the first species of homo to intentionally bury their dead.
Homo Denisova
One of the more recent discoveries of an extinct human species was made at the Denisova Cave in Siberia as recently as 2008. Advances in DNA analysis has made it possible to sequence the genome of Homo Denisova. Some people in Tibet have traces of Denisovan DNA in the same way that some Europeans have a minute percentage of Neanderthal DNA. In 2018, some ten years after the discovery of Homo Denisova, at the Denisova cave a small fragment of bone was positively identified as the direct offspring of a Neanderthal and a Denisovan. The female offspring, nicknamed ‘Denny’, had survived to approximately 13 years of age.
Skeleton of Neanderthal Child found at Roc de Marsal, Dordogne, France
(c) Musee National de Prehistoire
Neanderthals May Have Pioneered Cave Art
In 2018 scientists revealed the origins of some cave art in Spain was Neanderthal rather than human. The discovery supports the theory that Neanderthals and modern humans were not as different to one another as previously presumed. An international team of scientists dated the calcite (crystal) layer which had formed on top of the ancient artwork and concluded that the art must have been there beforehand and must be older than it. Results revealed the artwork predated the arrival of modern humans in the region by a minimum of 20,000 years.
Researchers in the Philippines claim to have found a new, previously unknown, species to add to human history. The remains are estimated to be about 50,000 years old and date from a time when several human species co-existed on the planet. This new species has been provisionally named Homo luzonensis and was probably less than four feet tall. This exciting discovery gives new meaning to the phrase ‘We are not alone’!
For more information please see:

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Raising a glass to the Beaker People

Beaker Culture Diffusion
from Wikipedia
A recent paper entitled The phylogenealogy of R-L21: four and a half millennia of expansion and redistribution by Dr Flood, a former Principal Research Scientist at The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, provides some interesting insights into population changes in Britain and Ireland over a period of 4,500 years. Dr Flood argues that it is likely that the L21 genetic mutation originated in the large Beaker colony in south-west Britain around 2,500 BC. From there, it was carried by sea into north-west France, Ireland, north-west Spain and the Middle Rhine, which today have a high incidence of L21, and into Northern England and Scotland.
Around 100 BC, a second major R-L21 expansion was initiated in Ireland and Scotland. Dr Flood suggests that this is consistent with a collapse in the population of Ireland, followed by a rapid expansion. It is thought that a severe weather event, famine and/or epidemic occurred around this time. Famine, plague and war tend to be closely associated. Ireland has suffered regular severe famines, as has Northern Europe more generally.
Ireland’s isolation meant that there were many diseases to which the Irish would not have acquired immunity. Examples of diseases that later devastated the New World include smallpox, influenza, typhoid, yellow fever and pertussis. Typically, these diseases wiped out 95% of newly exposed populations.
Genetic Change
Every movement of people throughout history has produced different challenges. The environment and the way that humans lived meant that the genetic code of different branches of human beings mutated. Within a population group those individuals with a certain mutation may have greater survival rates than those without. Those without the mutation would die at a faster rate and therefore the mutated gene spreads.
One reason many Africans are naturally resistant to malaria is because 33,000 years ago the genetic structure of the African population group changed (mutated). Because Europeans had already migrated out of Africa, they did not carry this mutation and therefore many are not resistant to malaria.
Reconstruction of Beaker Burial
Beaker People
When the Beaker culture extended to Britain and Ireland 4,500 years ago, it was brought by migrants who almost completely replaced the existing inhabitants within a few hundred years. The assumption that people today are directly descended from the people who always lived in that same area no longer stands. Human populations have been moving and mixing throughout history. These people have been credited with introducing metalworking to Britain and spreading the Indo-European language group.
In genetic terms, L21 is a major branch of the general Y-haplogroup R1b that has dominated Western Europe since the early Bronze Age. About 37 per cent of men in the British Isles are R-L21, and two-thirds of the Irish.
The Vikings
From about 793 AD Viking raiders from Scandinavia began to assault the coastline of the British Isles. The Vikings occupied most of the Scottish Isles and the Isle of Man initially and established large port settlements at York, Dublin and along the south and east coast of Ireland. These invaders took huge numbers of slaves to run their agricultural holdings, mostly from now overpopulated Ireland and Scotland. It is reported that in a single day, they took 1000 slaves from Dublin and their genetic inheritance is visible today. It is thought that about 90 per cent of Nordic L21 men may be descended from slaves taken in raids.
The Diaspora
From the 1840s, much of the population of Ireland, Scotland and Cornwall went abroad as economic refugees. About 10 million Irish have emigrated and today over 40 million North Americans claim Irish heritage. Following the Highland Clearances and the dissolution of the Clans around 1750, the Scots began to emigrate, and today around 50-million people identify as being of Scots or Scots-Irish heritage, even though the population of Scotland is only 5.3 million.
The dating of the L21 mutation to around 2,500 has been supported by the presence of Bell Beaker sites all over Britain and Ireland dating from before 2400 BC. For example, Cornwall has an abundance of Beaker sites including round barrows and cairns, henges, stone circles and stone cist graves. The Cornwall/Devon area was a major dissemination point for R-L21 and is likely to have had the first large settlements in Britain.
Dalriada Overkingdom
The situation in Scotland is complicated by an invasion of the west coast of Scotland by Irish Gaelic speakers who eventually seized power from the Picts and gave Scotland its rulers, its Gaelic language and its name. Dr Flood argues that the expansion of the mutation M222 in Scotland is the only clear example of a concerted move by the Ui Neill group into Scotland, establishing the Dalriada overkingdom of Argyll and Antrim.
Bottlenecks in our genetic history
A population ‘bottleneck’ occurred around 74,000 years ago when the volcano that produced Lake Toba in Indonesia erupted and ejected 2,800 cubic kilometres of volcanic ash. Sunlight was blocked out through the entire Southeast Asia, South Asian and Arabian Peninsula and ash formed a thick layer on the floor. Only 10,000 people are thought to have survived this cataclysmic event, and these are now known as our distant ancestors.
Example of Beaker Pottery
The genetic mutation known as L21 originated in the large Beaker colony in south-west Britain around 2,500 BC. The Beaker people expanded over a period of a few hundred years, creating widely separated colonies in north-west France, Ireland, north-west Spain, the Middle Rhine and into Northern England and Scotland. These people have been credited with introducing metalworking to Britain and spreading the Indo-European language group. The so-called Bell Beaker, which gave the culture its name, may even have been used to drink alcohol!

Around 100 BC, a second major R-L21 expansion was initiated in Ireland and Scotland. Later invaders of Britain such as the Belgae, Saxons and Normans had a British genetic mixture from the early Bronze Age. Researchers believe that the human genome has been subject to irregular pruning including considerable decreases in genetic diversity probably resulting from natural disasters, epidemics or warfare. Perhaps we should raise a glass to these early people – slainte!
For further information see:

Monday, February 4, 2019

Must Farm – Post Excavation

Various pots during the pottery re-fitting exercise
Photo: (c) Must Farm Website

In an earlier blog post I wrote about the Must Farm settlement in Cambridgeshire, England, which is one of the most complete Late Bronze Age examples known in Britain. The settlement consists of five circular wooden houses, built on a series of piles sunk into a river channel below and seems to have been built around 1300 – 1000 BC. The houses were subsequently destroyed by fire.
Specialist Analyses
The months of excavation work have now been followed by a series of detailed scientific investigations exploring the Must Farm settlement in much finer detail. The results of this post excavation analysis so far are detailed on the Must Farm website. Almost 50 specialists are currently working on investigating 37 different aspects of the settlement focusing on its material, environmental samples and dating the site scientifically. It is during this wide-ranging specialist investigation that theories and interpretations developed during the excavation can be tested or expanded.
Selection of socketed axes
Photo: (c) Must Farm Website

The excavations at the Must Farm site revealed a varied accumulation of artefacts consisting of metalwork, textiles, animal bone, pottery and much more. Many of the objects were found in remarkable condition while others were fragmented especially the large collections of pottery and animal bone.
At Must Farm the preservation of the material left behind is excellent because of the ideal combination of charring and waterlogging. Textiles, wooden objects and environmental evidence are among the finest examples from the Late Bronze Age found in Britain.
Late Bronze Age socketed axe complete with handle
Photo: (c) Must Farm Website
Wooden Objects
Must Farm has yielded an abundance of wooden objects and implements, many of which have rarely, if ever, been seen in a Late Bronze Age site. Over the 10 months of the Must Farm excavation, archaeologists recorded over 5,000 pieces of wood ranging from woodchips to huge oak timbers.
Residue of food in one of the Must Farm
Photo: (c) Must Farm Website
One of the most widely reported finds from the Must Farm settlement has been the survival of food remnants inside many of the pots. The fire which destroyed the structures helped these organic materials to survive in a very charred form. This raises the tantalising possibility that archaeologists will be able to find out what meals were being prepared at the time of the blaze.
During excavation of the occupation deposits from the interiors of the collapsed building archaeologists recovered the shattered remains of a flint quern. The flint had been heated to a high temperature inside one of the structures during the large fire which destroyed the settlement. When the floor collapsed and the heated quern hit the water, it shattered.
The flint quern-stone has an exceptionally flat surface unlike many prehistoric examples. Characteristically, when a stone quern is used for grinding, the surface develops a prominent indentation from constant rubbing with the hand-stone. One possible explanation is that the quern was new and simply had not been used enough to develop a depression. This interpretation would support the theory that the settlement had not been lived-in for long before being destroyed by the fire.
Socketed bronze axe
Photo: (c) Must Farm Website
The Must Farm site also produced a large collection of metal tools and weapons for specialists to study. The different types of axe all date to roughly the same period during the Late Bronze Age. Many of these axes are incredibly well used and have been sharpened many times. This wear on the blades is likely to have been due to the construction of the settlement, which would have required extensive cutting and shaping of hundreds of timbers.
Environmental Conditions
The buildings at Must Farm were built on stilts, situated above a river channel, before being destroyed by an intense fire. Archaeologists noted patterns amongst the material that suggested a strong association between objects and their original positions within the Must Farm buildings.
Initial environmental evidence suggests that the river channel was shallow and slow moving, supporting the initial view of archaeologists that the material at the base of the river channel had not travelled far from where it would have fallen. Analysis of pollen data and plant remains, for example, has provided a more detailed understanding of the river channel. While it was suspected that the river was sluggish and shallow, the environmental data suggests that at times it may have been almost dry.
The study of plant remains, and related evidence indicates that the river channel had dense reeds along its course and, importantly, underneath the structures. Archaeologists suspect that the reeds created a “hairbrush” effect, catching artefacts and debris as the structures burned and their floors collapsed.  This had the effect of slowing the material as it was deposited into the channel. Artefacts simply dropped directly below the stilted buildings, thereby, reflecting their original position inside the structures.
Image showing palisade posts
Photo: (c) Must Farm Website
Footprints from the Past
During the excavation archaeologists revealed preserved footprints surrounding the palisade. It seems very likely that these groups of footprints were the result of people involved in the construction of the palisade during a time when the river was dry or shallow. Animal hoofprints are present alongside those of humans suggesting the presence of various species at the site during the construction. This amazing glimpse of a moment in the creation of the palisade over 3,000 years ago helps connect us to the people involved in the creation of the Must Farm dwellings.
Animal Bone
A range of different animals was recorded at the site including wild boar and red deer. The most prominent feature of the animal bone was a preference for wild meat rather than the domestic types typically associated with sites of this period in the Bronze Age. The inhabitants of Must Farm appear to have had definite preferences for certain joints of meat with red deer and boar forequarters present in several of the houses. Around the outside of each of the site’s structures is a “halo” of bone fragments that seem to reflect the waste of meal preparation.

The settlement at Must Farm has one of the most complete Bronze Age collections of artefacts ever discovered in Britain, giving us an unparalleled insight into the lives of the people who lived there 3,000 years ago. As archaeologists and various specialists examine the vast array of samples from this site, we can look forward in the coming years to learning much more about this fascinating and remarkable Late Bronze Age site and the Bronze Age generally.

For more information please see:

Saturday, January 26, 2019

St Brigid (450-525 AD) – Feast Day: 1st February

Saint Brigid as depicted in
Saint Non's chapel, St Davids, Wales
Who was St Brigid?
St Brigid was born in Faughart, north of Dundalk, Co Louth in Ireland, approximately 450 AD and was the founder of the first monastery in County Kildare. Her father was a pagan chieftain of Leinster named Dubthach and her mother was a Christian slave named Brocca. She is one of the Patron Saints of Ireland, together with St Patrick and St Colmcille. Probably the earliest biography, The Life of St Brigid, was written by Cogitosus, a monk of Kildare in the eighth century.

Dubthach’s wife insisted that he get rid of the slave girl. He sold Brigid’s mother to a poet but not the child in her womb for whom he was responsible. Later, the poet sold Brigid’s mother to a druid. As Brigid was filled with the Holy Spirit, she could not digest the druid’s ‘unclean’ food and

‘thereupon he chose a white cow and set it aside for the girl, and a certain Christian woman, a very God-fearing virgin, used to milk the cow and the girl used to drink the cow’s milk and not vomit it up as her stomach had been healed. Moreover, this Christian woman fostered the girl’.

When she was young, St Brigid wanted to join a convent. However, her father insisted that she marry a rich man to whom he had promised her hand. According to legend, Brigid prayed that her beauty be taken so no one would want to marry her and her prayer was granted. It was not until after she made her final vows that her beauty was restored. 

Brigid enlisted God’s help again to convince her father to give her land on which to build a convent. Her father agreed to give her as much land as her cloak could cover. It is said that the cloak grew to cover 2,000 acres of land! One of five ancient roads in Ireland that lead to Tara passed through Kildare.

According to tradition, around 480 AD Brigid founded a monastery at Kildare (Cill Dara: “church of the oak”), on the site of a pagan shrine to the Celtic goddess Brigit. Her monastery developed a reputation for hospitality, compassion and generosity. It was known as the ‘City of the Poor’. St Brigid worked with the sick, poor and outcast.
Saint Brigid's Cross 

St Brigid’s Rush Cross
On one occasion, St Brigid was sitting by the sick bed of a dying pagan chieftain comforting him with stories of her faith in God. She told him the story of Christ on the cross while at the same time picking up rushes from the ground to make a cross. Before he died, the chieftain asked to be baptised. People made similar crosses to hang over the door of their homes to scare off evil, fire and hunger. Word spread of St Brigid’s kindness and faith and the making of the cross from rushes that we know today became associated with her name.

It was said that St Brigid could miraculously milk her cows three times a day to provide a meal for visitors. According to the Celtic tradition, the guest was seen as Christ and hospitality was extended in that spirit.

Brigid invited a hermit called Conleth to help her in Kildare as a spiritual pastor. She later founded a school of art that included metalwork and illumination. It was at this school that the Book of Kildare, which Gerald of Wales praised as "the work of angelic, and not human skill," was beautifully illuminated. Sadly, this book was lost three centuries ago.
St Brigid's Cathedral

Brigid’s enduring legacy
St Brigid still lives on 1,500 years later in the minds and hearts of the people of Ireland. Brigid was extremely devout and a very strong leader. Her monastery grew and grew and people from all over Ireland came here, many of whom joined the monastery. St Patrick and St Brigid paved the way for Christianity in Ireland and later to Europe.

Hundreds of holy wells are dedicated to St Brigid in Ireland. More places names in Ireland are named after St Brigid than St Patrick himself. Place names such as Kilbride and The Hebrides are associated with Brigid.

St Brigid is associated with fertility on the land. Straw doll-like effigies of St Brigid known as Breedeag were used to bless homes.
St Brigid’s relevance today.
St Brigid appreciated the importance of the land, nature and the seasons. At a time when our planet is threatened by global warming and climate change, Brigid reminds us of the need to confront these challenges now. Today, we can learn from her example of compassion, kindness, generosity and hospitality, as the World deals with the consequences of poverty, war and population displacement.
On February 1st, 525, St Brigid died of natural causes. Her body was initially kept to the right of the high altar of Kildare Cathedral. In 1185, John de Courcy had her remains relocated in Down Cathedral. Today, Saint Brigid's skull can be found in the Church of St. John the Baptist in Lumiar, Portugal. The tomb in which it is kept bears the inscription,

"Here in these three tombs lie the three Irish knights who brought the head of St. Brigid, Virgin, a native of Ireland, whose relic is preserved in this chapel. In memory of which, the officials of the Altar of the same Saint caused this to be done in January AD 1283."

In 1905 Sister Mary Agnes of the Dundalk Convent of Mercy took a purported fragment of the skull to St Bridget's Church in Kilcurry. In 1928, Fathers Timothy Traynor and James McCarroll requested another fragment for St Brigid's Church in Killester, a request granted by the Bishop of Lisbon, António Mendes Belo.

Her feast day is 1 February, which was originally a pagan festival called Imbolc, marking the beginning of spring.

For further information please see:
Sacred Heart Messenger, February 2019 – article by John Scally

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Chinese Burial Pyramids – Aiming for the Stars

Mausoleum of Han-Yang near Xian

In an earlier blog post (June 2018) I wrote about China’s First Emperor and the Terracotta Warriors. The funerary complex of the First Emperor of the Qin dynasty (3th century BC) is one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world. A recent article featured on throws some light on the celestial orientation of this and other ancient Chinese Pyramids.
Chinese Terracotta Warriors
Photo: Clare Golden
In 246 BC, King Zhuangxiang died and Ying Zheng became King of the Qin at just 13 years of age. Immediately after the unification of China in 221 BC, Ying Zheng proclaimed himself Qin Shi Huang. Qin Shi Huang was fearful of death and searched for an elixir that would make him immortal. At the same time he commissioned the building of his mausoleum at the foot of Li Mountain, 35 kilometres from the modern city of Xi’an. He ordered the palace alchemists to make potions which contained mercury in the hope it would extend his life, little realising that mercury is poisonous.
Qin Shi Huang
In death, as in life, Qin Shi Huang had everything to continue his rule: a Terracotta Army to protect him; bronze chariots for travelling; terracotta acrobats for his entertainment; an arsenal storing stone armour, stables full of horse skeletons, and his concubines buried alive with him.
The unexcavated tomb of the First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, lies beneath a huge, artificial hill of rammed earth. This hill has a square shape measuring 350 meters at the base and is over 40 meters high.

Astronomy and Feng Shui of the Chinese Burials
A new study forming part of a wide-ranging program of research on the role of astronomy and of the traditional doctrine of feng shui in the Chinese imperial necropolises has recently been published.
Egyptian pyramids are oriented to the four main points of the compass - north, south, east, and west by virtue of the very strong bonds of the funerary religion of the Egyptian pharaohs with the sky and with the circumpolar stars. A star that can be viewed from specific latitude on Earth that is visible for an entire night and for every night of the year is called a circumpolar star.
Split Alignment
Chinese monuments can be classified according to two groups.  One such group contains monuments oriented to the cardinal points (N-S-E-W), as expected. In the second group there are important deviations from the true north, all of comparable direction, and all oriented to the west of north.
Chinese Terracotta Warriors with Horses
Photo: Clare Golden
Researchers believe that the emperors who built the pyramids of the second group did not want to point to the north celestial pole, which at the time did not correspond to any star. Instead, they wanted the pyramid to point to the star Polaris to which the pole would be pointed in the future.
Researchers point to a phenomenon known as the ‘precession of the earth's axis’, which slowly but constantly moves the position in the sky in which the earth's axis points, and therefore the celestial pole. The Chinese astronomers were almost certainly aware of this. The Earth's axis rotates (precesses) just as a spinning top does. The period of precession is about 26,000 years. Therefore, the North Celestial Pole will not always point towards the same starfield. Precession is caused by the gravitational pull of the Sun and the Moon on the Earth.
Today we are used to identifying the north celestial pole with Polaris or the North Star although the correspondence is not perfect. At the time of the Han emperors the pole was still far from Polaris, and with a distance in degrees approximately equal to the deviation of the Chinese pyramids from the geographic north.
Even though Polaris is the North Star today, this has not always been the case. The place in the sky that the Earth's north pole points at changes slowly over time. In 3000 BC, a faint star called Thuban in the constellation of Draco was the North Star and astronomers calculate that in about 13,000 years from now the precession of the rotation axis will mean that the bright star Vega will be the North Star.
Map of the Growth of Qin
The Qin Dynasty was short-lived. Within five years of the First Emperor’s death, peasant rebels had stormed Xianyang and one of the leaders, Liu Bang, had taken the throne and established the Han Dynasty (206 BC – AD 220).
The Han Dynasty lasted for more than 400 years and rivalled the almost contemporary but smaller Roman Empire in the west. A census in AD 2 records almost 60 million people in the Chinese Empire.

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Thursday, November 29, 2018

Gold Rings from Lough Gara, Co. Sligo

Lough Gara, Co. Sligo
In prehistoric Ireland highly skilled craftsmen used large quantities of gold to make single objects such as torcs, bracelets and dress-fasteners or very small amounts beaten into sheet for lunulae or foil to cover base metal rings. Many years of training, practice and experience would have been required to produce work of such quality.

Lough Gara-type Rings
Gold Ring ornaments (c) National Museum of Ireland
Mary Cahill, in her paper Prehistoric Gold from Co. Sligo (2013), describes a number of gold rings from Lough Gara, known as penannular rings. All but one of the rings are made of base metal covered with gold foil and are referred to as ’Lough Gara-type’ rings. Seventeen such rings are recorded from Ireland of which five are from Co. Sligo. These rings included three from the hoard found at Rathtinaun, Lough Gara, in 1954 and two from the townland of Annaghbeg or Monasteraden on the opposite side of the lake found in the 1960s.
The Annaghbeg Hoard
In 1988 the National Museum of Ireland was contacted by the Curator of the County Museum and Art Gallery, Truro, Cornwall. He had recently seen a small hoard consisting of a pottery vessel and two decorated gold foil-covered rings said to have been found either on the shore or close to the shore of Lough Gara.
After negotiations the hoard was acquired by the National Museum of Ireland and returned to Ireland. This hoard is a rare example of the discovery of prehistoric gold objects in a container and the only surviving example of the use of a ceramic vessel to contain gold or metal objects. It is also recorded that the Rathtinaun hoard was found in a wooden box with two upright wooden pegs beside it which may have been markers.
Mary Cahill describes the Annaghbeg ceramic vessel as:
 … a small coarse-ware pot with thick walls narrowing towards the rim, rounded in form and roughly U-shaped in profile but slightly waisted at the centre of the vessel. The vessel is undecorated. The outer fabric surface is buff coloured, smooth and slightly burnished but quite pitted, perhaps as a result of soil conditions since deposition. Internally the fabric varies from black to buff from base to rim. The base is slightly rounded.
Both foil-covered composite rings were made from a solid led core which is crescent shaped. Each ring is broadly U-shaped in cross-section. The rectangular strip of gold foil used to cover the ring had to be carefully fitted and stretched over the outer surface of the ring.
The rings are decorated with a simple pattern of lines and dots which have been lightly incised on the surface of the led core before wrapping the ring in the gold foil. Each face of the rings has been scored with a series of radial lines drawn across the surface. 
Very little gold was required to wrap the rings but considerable goldsmithing skills were essential to beat an ingot into an extremely thin foil and to complete the application of the foil cover. Both rings are the same size, weight and similarly decorated and were clearly intended to be a pair.

The Rathtinaun Hoard
Amber Necklace from Rathtinaun Hoard, Lough Gara, Co. Sligo
(c) National Museum of Ireland
Another gold ring was found during the excavation of Crannog 61, Rathtinaun, Lough Gara, by Joseph Raftery in 1954. It is a very small sold gold ring which narrows towards the terminals and is slightly thickened at the ends (Fig. 5). The ring is 1.3cm in maximum diameter and weighs just 5g.
A further three penannular rings in the Rathtinaun hoard are of the same type as those from Annaghbeg but with some important differences in terms of size, weight and the quality of craftsmanship. The Rathtinaun specimens show a much higher degree of workmanship. For example, the decoration on these rings is more complex and more skilfully executed. Two of the three rings from Rathtinaun form a pair and resemble the Annaghbeg rings closely in form.
The Rathtinaun hoard is rare because of the mixture of metals and organic material, the type of objects in the hoard and the exotic nature of some artefacts. It also includes objects made of tin which is very rarely used on its own as a metal, boars’ tusks, amber beads and an unusual bronze pin.

Bronze Age and Iron Age Gold
Gold Lunula from Coggalbeg Hoard - Early Bronze Age
(c) National Museum of Ireland

It remains unclear why lead was used in the making of these rings. Lead has been in use since the Middle Bronze Age as an additive to the usual copper/tin alloy, bronze, because it improves the ductility of the metal. Like tin, lead was rarely used on its own.
Although these objects are small, they are very heavy because their cores are made from lead. From the seventeen examples known to date, eight form matching pair being of similar size, weight and decorative style. It is possible that these rings are ear ornaments or ear weights. These items might also have been used as hair rings but when used as a pendant form of ear ornament the rings would be seen to their best advantage. The single rings may not have been used in pairs raising the possibility of their use as nose ornaments.
 Scholars have noted the difference between gold used in the Bronze Age and Iron Age. Consequently, at least sixty items of goldwork from Late Bronze Age have been reassigned to the Iron Age period. Mary Cahill states:
During the Bronze Age the amount of silver present varies but is never greater than 15% whereas during the Iron Age the silver content is much higher and can be as high as 25% to 30%.
 A resurgent gold-working tradition can be seen in the Iron Age when, for example, ribbon torcs were produced in significant quantities. Ribbon torcs have been recorded mainly from counties in the northern half of Ireland – Antrim, Cavan, Derry, Donegal, Mayo, Roscommon and Sligo – although some have been recorded in other counties also. They date mainly from the third century BC to the 2nd Century AD.
Given the quantity and range of artefacts from Lough Gara it is hardly surprising to find evidence of goldworking.

Based on an article by Mary Cahill Prehistoric Gold from Co. Sligo in ‘Dedicated to Sligo: Thirty-four Essays on Sligo’s Past’. Editor: Martin A Timoney (2013)
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