Thursday, January 25, 2018

Neolithic Remains found in Co. Mayo

Ancient human remains found in Mayo date back over 5,000 years. Local hillwalker, Michael Chambers, came across the human bones in a rock-cut chamber among massive boulders in August 2016, while walking on Ben Gorm Mountain in the Nephin Beg range of west Mayo. The National Monuments Service, in consultation with the National Museum of Ireland, commissioned a rescue excavation, carried out by Dr Marion Dowd of IT Sligo.

Researchers concluded that the natural boulder chamber in which the remains were found was used for human burial practice during the Neolithic period. A least 10 individuals were placed in the chamber over a period of up to 1,200 years. One of the adult bones was dated to 3,600 BC, while a bone of a child skeleton dated to 2,400 BC.

Ben Gorm Mountain, Mayo
Image: T Kahlert via Department of Culture

Archaeologists believe that bodies were brought into the cave chamber and laid out in a pit. At some later stage, the skulls might have been deliberately broken as part of a complex burial ritual and the larger bones removed.

 “Large pieces of quartz had been placed in and around the bones. When the radiocarbon dates came through it was very exciting. Not only were the bones Neolithic, but the dates showed the site had been used for over 1,000 years,” Dr Dowd said.

Dr Dowd points out that it was not a burial site as such, but a ritual place where bodies were placed to decompose. Only a very small proportion of each skeleton was found, with most of the bones apparently deliberately removed.

 Pit in the cave which contained human remains after the excavation
Image: T Kahlert via Department of Culture

The Neolithic period was a time of change with a move from hunting and gathering to a more settled way of life associated with the beginnings of agriculture. Burial practices in this period entailed interment in large, highly visible monuments, and by ritual practices resulting in the scattering of human bones. These monuments were frequently built in the densely populated regions of the Mesolithic Period and may have been markers between the new and old peoples. They signified a lasting link between the community, the ancestral dead, and the land which they occupied.
It has been suggested that the shape of these ancient tombs is related to the type of housing favoured in an area (round, rectangular, trapezoid or irregular. Large communal monuments for the dead began to appear on the coastal fringes of Western Europe during this period.
More than 6,000 years ago, the Stone Age peoples of Western Europe began to build stone monuments over their dead as tombs and ceremonial places. This was the beginning of what has become known as the megalithic tradition of the Neolithic period.
The first small passage tombs on the summit of Knocknarea, Co. Sligo, were probably built in the first half of the fourth millennium BC, physically marking out the ritual significance of the place. A few hundred years later, the sacred space was defined by a complex system of banks along the eastern side of the mountain. The cairn known today as Miosgán Meadhbha (the legendary burial place of Queen Maeve) was probably built around this time and most likely covers a passage tomb.
High up on the north-western slopes of Knocknarea there are a number of natural caves, and in two of them human remains of Neolithic date have been found. These may have been places used for defleshing of the dead.  The caves might have played a role in the rituals linked to the monuments on the summit.
New insights into the funerary practices in ancient Ireland are being provided through studies led by a researcher at the Department of Anatomy at New Zealand's University of Otago.  The project applies modern techniques and research questions to human remains that were originally excavated more than 100 years ago. Researchers, lead author is Dr Jonny Geber, focuses on the 5000 years-old Passage Tomb Complex at Carrowkeel, also in County Sligo. This site is one of the most impressive Neolithic ritual landscapes in Europe.

Two of the tombs at Carrowkeel, Ireland. ( public domain )

             The team analysed bones from up to seven passage tombs that included both unburnt and cremated human remains from around 40 individuals. Dr Geber and his colleagues found that the unburnt bone displayed evidence of dismemberment.

"We found indications of cut marks caused by stone tools at the site of tendon and ligament attachments around the major joints, such as the shoulder, elbow, hip and ankle.”

According to Dr Geber, the new evidence suggest that a complex burial rite was undertaken at Carrowkeel, that involved a funerary rite that focussed on the "deconstruction" of the body.

"This appears to entail the bodies of the dead being 'processed' by their kin and community in various ways, including cremation and dismemberment. It was probably done with the goal to help the souls of the dead to reach the next stages of their existence."

This study shows that the Carrowkeel complex was probably a highly significant place in Neolithic society in Ireland, and one which allowed for interaction and a spiritual connection with the ancestors. The evidence suggests that the people of Neolithic Ireland may have shared similar beliefs and ideologies concerning the treatment of the dead with communities beyond the Irish Sea, according to the researchers, Dr Geber says.

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