|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|
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.
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