Saturday, March 8, 2014

Archaeologists find bones of a Stone Age child and an adult in tiny cave

Knocknarea Mountain with Maeve's Cairn on Top
The Irish News edition of 28th February 2014, reported that archaeologists at IT Sligo had found bones of a Stone Age child and an adult in a tiny cave high on Knocknarea Mountain. Radiocarbon dating has shown that they are 5,500 years old, which makes them among the earliest human bones found in the county. While this discovery is very exciting it is not entirely surprising, given the rich archaeological heritage of the county. The find provides important new evidence of Knocknarea’s Neolithic past and a prehistoric practice known as “excarnation” or de-fleshing.

Researchers discovered a total of 13 small bones and bone fragments in an almost inaccessible cave in November 2013. Three of the bones were from the child aged 4 to 6 years and 10 were from an adult aged 30 – 39 years. They included foot bones and fragments of skull. It was not possible to establish gender.

Archaeologists believe that the adult had been placed in the cave about 300 years before the child, who died about 5,200 years ago. The small number of bones and their small size suggest that the cave was an excarnation site. This process involved a corpse being placed in a cave and, after decomposition, the dry bones being transferred elsewhere. Fragments were sometimes accidentally left behind.

Dr Marion Dowd of IT Sligo is quoted as saying:  “When people died in prehistory, their corpses were sometimes laid out in caves. After one or two years, when the flesh and soft tissue had decomposed, the dry bones were collected and removed to another location.”

The final resting place of these ancient remains will probably never be known but this area of Sligo is rich in megalithic burial sites. Maeve’s Cairn, also known as Miosgan Meadhbha, is situated on the top of Knocknarea Mountain and must be a possibility. It has not been excavated but archaeologists believe that it belongs to the Irish megalithic tradition and dates from c3,200 BC - around the time the remains were deposited in the cave. It is the largest monument in the region and comparable to the Boyne Valley monuments in size and age.

Knocknarea Mountain overlooks Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery, which is the largest cemetery of megalithic tombs in Ireland. It is also among the country’s oldest megalithic cemeteries with dates ranging between 4,500 – 3,500 BC. The meaning and function of these early stone monuments remain one of the mysteries of archaeology. It is known that the Megalithic tradition died out about 5,000 years ago when it was at its peak.

The earliest dates from the excavated tombs at Carrowmore centre around 5,000 BC with the latest about 3,000 BC. Archaeologists believe that most of the monuments were erected and used between 4,300 and 3,500 BC.

Listoghil Megalithic Tomb - Carrowmore
It is known that during the building of Listoghil, the main monument at Carrowmore, ritual activities took place involving extensive fires and these have been dated to 3,650 – 3,450 BC. A number of pits had also been dug during these ritual activities. Two cremations containing the remains of several humans were deposited in the circle behind the southern and western kerbstones and these were dated to 3,550 BC. The recovery of a piece of human skull dated to 3,500 BC shows that inhumations took place within the building period.

The discovery of 5,500 year old human bones in a cave on Knocknarea Mountain reminds us of the importance of Co. Sligo in pre-historic times and provides evidence for the practice of “excarnation” or de-fleshing prior to final burial.

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