Saturday, March 25, 2017

Ireland’s earliest burial site

Recently, analysis of an axe over 9,000 years old, found at Ireland’s earliest burial site, in Co Limerick, has provided an insight into the ancient burial practises of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. The highly-polished stone axe, known as an adze, was made especially for the funeral of a very important person, whose remains were cremated and then buried at the site. The axe, believed to be the earliest fully polished adze in Europe, was only used for a short time, and then intentionally blunted.
9,000 year old polished axe
Hermitage, Co. Limerick
The burial site on the banks of the River Shannon at Hermitage, Castleconnell, Co. Limerick, dates to between 7,530 and 7,320 BC. The site was discovered 15 years ago, and contained burial pits holding the remains of individuals who had been cremated. The grave appeared to have been marked by an upright post.
Archaeologists believe that this object was probably specially made for the burial and was used as part of the funerary rights, possibly to cut the wood for the pyre for the cremation, or to cut the tree used as the grave post marker.
Drawing showing Hermitage polished axe in position next
to wooden post marking grave
More evidence of life during the Mesolithic Period is gradually becoming known with around twenty important sites identified around Ireland. Mount Sandel, near Coleraine, Co. Derry, is the oldest Mesolithic site in Ireland and dates from about 8000 BC. However, the recent announcement that scientists had dated a fragment of butchered bear bone from a cave in Co. Clare to 10,500 BC, may push back the date for human occupation in Ireland by 2,500 years.  Archaeologists discovered the remains of two individuals in Killuragh Cave, Co. Limerick and these were dated to 7,200-6,500. The early Mesolithic in Ireland runs from 7000 to 5500 BC, and the later Mesolithic from 5500 to 4000 BC.
Lough Gara - Co. Sligo
Closer to home, the survey of Lough Gara by Christina Fredengren (2002) and a radiocarbon-dating programme carried out between 1995-2000, together with the artefacts, have shown that this lake was heavily used during the Mesolithic Period.  One of the posts found in this lake produced a radiocarbon date of 4230–3970 BC, indicating activity in the latest phases of the Mesolithic. A piece of brushwood from the same area was dated to the early Mesolithic, showing that there was human activity on the lake around 7330-7050 BC (Fredengren, 2002).
Mesolithic material has been recovered from other nearby lakes such as: Lough Allen, Co. Leitrim, and Urlaur, Co. Mayo. These two lakes are connected to Lough Gara via the river system
The Lough Gara collection of stone axes is the largest Mesolithic assemblage in the West of Ireland. Killian Driscoll (2014) points out that evidence for the Mesolithic Period in the West of Ireland has gone largely unrecognised. In areas such as Lough Gara and Lough Allan, the extent of the evidence has been overlooked.
Image of House
Mesolithic Period
The discovery of this very early axe offers a rare and intimate glimpse into the complex funerary rituals taking place on the banks of the Shannon over 9,000 years ago. Burials of the early Mesolithic period are extremely rare, with only a few examples in Britain, mainly from caves.

The Hermitage cremations reveal that ritual played an important part in life and death in the early Mesolithic period. It is now clear that the production of polished stone axes was also highly evolved by this time. The strategic location of Hermitage on the bank of the Shannon provided many important benefits for these early settlers. For example, they may have controlled a fording-point on the river which would have been a strategic trading location as well as a diverse catchment area for food. It also gave assess to the interior of the country by means of Ireland's longest river.

Tracy Collins and Frank Coyne (2003) Early Mesolithic Cremations at Castleconnell, Co. Limerick. Archaeology Ireland, Vol 17, No.2 (Summer,2003).
Driscoll, K., Menuge, J., and O'Keeffe, E. (2014). New materials, traditional practices: a Mesolithic silicified dolomite toolkit from Lough Allen, Ireland. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, Vol. 114C pp. 1-34.
Christina Fredengren (2002) Crannogs: A study of people's interaction with lakes, with particular reference to Lough Gara in the north-west of Ireland

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