It is curious that men in general, and not unfrequently men of sound sense and learning look upon antiquarians as a race of maniacs…This will be the case as long as the world exists, and still there will be antiquarians as long as the hand of cultivation has left a single trace of the barbarity or civilization of the ‘olden time’ on the surface of the earth; and when every trace is removed from the earth – which will be the case some time or other, they will then seek for historical monuments in the clouds!
John O’Donovan, Ordnance Survey Letters, 18381
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A Contemporary Archaeologist: Carleton Jones
As one of the many modern-day inheritors of the zeal exhibited by John O’Donovan’s antiquarians, NUI Galway archaeologist Carleton Jones is shown in photographs and video clips on this page investigating a Neolithic tomb on the Burren in Co. Clare. The sites he studied are located near the Parknabinnia Wedge Tomb. Professor Jones’ 2007 guidebook Temples of Stone: Exploring the Megalithic Tombs of Ireland is an engaging and approachable introduction to the monuments, as well as a useful field guide for the visitor to Ireland. It is cited in several places in the essay that follows. We were fortunate to spend some time with Dr. Jones in 1998 and 1999 documenting some of his work on the Burren.
The ancient stones of Ireland are exquisite objects in their own right, even disassociated from their ritual and prehistoric context or any accumulated folklore. Coated with moss and lichen of many earth-warm colors, weather-etched as witnesses to the passing ages, and carved by geologic forces into shapes eloquently sculpted, they have a surface richness that is a fitting setting for the magical meanings that have been ascribed to them.
According to Carleton Jones, the megalithic tombs of Ireland can be understood as “machines for indoctrinating,” designed to influence the concepts of space and time. While there were surely many others destroyed through the millennia, there are some 1,600 megalithic tombs remaining in Ireland. They were all constructed between about 4000 BC and 2000 BC.
Each megalithic monument transformed what was once a formless space into a structured place. Once a megalith was built, it constrained the ways in which a place could be experienced. Not only do megaliths provide stages for rituals, they shape the experiences of people moving around and through them.2
While it is impossible to place ourselves into the minds of the ancestors who created these monuments, evolutionary biologists tell us that our minds have changed hardly at all in the past five thousand years. By seeking to understand the structures built by the people of Ireland’s late Stone Age we have an opportunity to understand these long-deceased builders themselves.3 Since the Irish (and the British) were pre-literate societies until the tide of Roman (and Christian) culture swept through in the first century CE, they have left us no written records. Thus their stone monuments, as interpreted by the science of archaeology, are an important means of understanding these individuals and their societies.
The early Irish only began constructing their megalithic tombs after they made the transition from the hunter-gatherers of the Mesolithic to the beginnings of an agricultural culture in the Neolithic. Their world evolved from one in which humans were but a seamless element in the cyclical natural world, to one in which they could manipulate the natural world, and position a great stone tomb upon the landscape as a milestone within the linear flow of time.4
Before there was anything resembling a factual investigation of pre-literate Ireland, there were the “synthetic histories” to be found in the mythological cycles of medieval manuscripts, such as the eleventh-century Book of Invasions (Lebor Gabála Érenn). Here are found the tales of successive conquests of the island by the Partholians, the Nemedians, the Fomorians, the Fir-Bolgs, the Tuatha Dé Danann, and finally the Milesians.5
All these legendary invading tribes, led by their fabulous god-like heroes, were actually medieval inventions created by bards and embellished by scribes apparently bent upon providing for the Irish a lineage patterned after biblical and classical sources. Legends of tribal invasions aside, recent advances in gene sequencing have determined that 98 percent of the Irish men in one province are descended from one band of hunter-gathers who settled in Ireland more than 4,000 years ago.6 But the phantasmagorical settings of these stories did not prevent the early students of Ireland’s history from accepting them as fact. For example one author as late as 1931 attempted to find a validation of the stories of the Fir Bolg’s Spanish origin by finding similarities between the Iron Age halberds of Ireland and Spain.7
There were many more ancient manuscripts tragically lost, burnt by the authorities during the Reformation, than the few that were saved. But from the ancient stories that survived, the first concentrated focus on the prehistoric monuments of the country emerges.
The early medieval manuscripts preserve—or invent—tales of these sites in the collections of Old and Middle Irish tales called the Dindsenchas, the place-name stories. These stories, compiled between the tenth and twelfth centuries CE, provide a “…sacred geography for the pre-Christian sites in Ireland. All the places listed in these stories are connected with the old gods.”8
The History of Irish Archaeology
The first authors to write purely descriptive accounts of Ireland’s prehistoric monuments were visitors to the island. And the first of these was Giraldus Cambrensis, whose visit in 1185 resulting in the publication of his Topographia Hibernica. He provided useful descriptions of some sites, such as the fire temple at the Kildare Round Tower, or the Hill of Uisneach. However, he also transmitted much of the legendary trappings of the monuments, such as how Merlin brought Stonehenge from Ireland over to England. His writing also was characterized by his prejudices; with his family ties to those forcibly colonizing the country he was predisposed to depict the natives as “…a filthy race, a race sunk in vice…”9
Four centuries later, in 1589, an Englishman intending in settle in Ireland expressed a different view of the Irish character, and may have been the first to promote the country as a pleasant travel destination:
It is not so hot in summer as England, neither is it so cold in winter, for that the seas fretteth away the Ice and Snow there, much more then in England…Although they did never see you before, they will make you the best cheer their country yields for two or three days, and take not anything therefore….most of them speaking good and perfect English.10
During the Renaissance, visitors to Ireland who noticed the ancient stone monuments could only consider them using the perspective of the Bible, or that of the Greek and Roman classics. During this period different authors ascribed the monuments to “giants, fairies, Samson, King Arthur, the Danes, the Romans, or the Phoenicians, among others.11
For travelers in the generations to follow, the “Tour in search of the Picturesque”12 invariably included seeking out the many unusual ancient stone monuments that dotted the countryside. In his Irish Sketch Book of 1842 Thackeray wrote that Ireland is “far more strange to most travelers than France or Germany can be.”13
From the many tours and the many accounts of them that were published it is clear that the search for “strangeness” included picturesque ruins: ancient monuments, which evoked sublime emotions of melancholy.14 The early years of the Romantic Movement (c. 1720-1820) can be seen as the period when the serious study of these monuments began to occur. At this point in much of art and literature there was a new focus upon a misty and somewhat thrilling sense of “barbarian gloom.”
…the accurate and precise science which some of us would consider modern archaeology to be…began merely as an episode in the history of taste less than two hundred years ago.
Stuart Piggott, Prehistory and the Romantic Movement, 193715
Inextricably linked to the Romantic Movement was the interest in the poorly documented Druidical religion of pre-Christian (and pre-Roman) Ireland and England. This interest, personified by Arch Druid16 William Stukeley (1687-1765), became an important aspect of the work of the early antiquarians. The Druids, with their (according to Caesar) open-air temples and nature-based religion, coordinated perfectly with the Romantic Movement’s notion of the picturesque. Ireland’s megalithic monuments became the prime architectural territory to be ascribed to the Druids. As Piggott observed,
What more could one need to satisfy one’s romantic desires? A Druid’s cell, ivy-clad and dank, was really almost as good as that other romantic but rheumatic retreat, a hermit’s grot, so beloved of the period…It has been the fate of the megaliths, particularly the great stone circles, to be the victims of Romanticism up to the present day.17
The “rude stone monuments”18 of Ireland have interested clerics, scholars, and the general populace from at least the sixteenth century. The monuments were not, however, considered together as “megaliths” until the middle of the nineteenth century.19 The “antiquarians” who first began a methodical study of the monuments were mainly concerned with documenting the artifacts and heirlooms of the past. Archaeologists, on the other hand, seek to place the objects into a context of “the transitions, changes, disruptions, developments, causalities and affiliations which between them differentiate the past into a succession of events.”20
A reliance upon the Bible and the Roman geographers for historical information necessarily required that the ancient peoples of Ireland be traced back to either the sons of Noah, or to the nations identified by classical sources as the Caltae, Scythe, or Hyperboreans.21 But in the nineteenth century it became clear to many that human beings originated much earlier than the date of 4004 BCE derived from Biblical chronologies by Irish Archbishop James Ussher in 1650.22 Just a few decades afterward John Aubrey proposed that the megalithic monuments of England and Ireland were much older than most had thought possible, pre-dating the Romans in England and the Vikings in Ireland.23 Until Aubrey’s revelation, most scholars of his time were of the opinion that the ancient inhabitants of Ireland and Britain had neither the skills nor the community organization necessary to construct something as architecturally advanced as a megalithic tomb.
Near the end of the nineteenth century Ireland’s ancient monuments were studied in two methodical surveys. The first was W.G. Wood-Martin’s Rude Stone Monuments of Ireland, an exploration of the megaliths of Sligo and Achill Island. In 1897, The Dolmens of Ireland by William Borlase described hundreds of megalithic tombs of all varieties throughout the entire country. These early antiquarian studies, descriptions without speculative interpretations, provided later archaeologists a detailed record of some monuments that were later lost.24
The decade 1833 to 1844 saw the most significant enterprise yet in the study of Irish archaeology. Working for the Irish Ordnance Survey, George Petrie and his team, including scholars John O’Donovan and Eugene O’Curry, created an exhaustive study of monuments and the folklore attached to them. Unfortunately, Petrie’s attention to detail was a bit too exhaustive for those who controlled the government purse, and the first volume, on Co. Derry (1839), was also the last.25 Petrie’s later book (1845) on Ireland’s Round Towers set to rest the wide-ranging speculations regarding their supposed pre-Christian origin.
In the twentieth century the development of more sophisticated and meticulous archaeological excavation techniques, including the documentation of all finds and their locations in the excavation, provided reams of information, much of it of continued value to researchers. A state-sponsored survey begun in 1949 attempted to describe all known megalithic tombs in Ireland, interpreting the findings through a cultural and historical perspective.26
Meanings of the Monuments
Although there may have been a previous population in the last ice age (c. 9,000 BCE) most scientists today believe that the first human inhabitants in Ireland, Mesolithic hunters who used flint tools, arrived by boat from Scotland around 6800 BCE. But by 3700 BCE new groups of people who understood how to cultivate the land began to arrive. The arrival of these early farmers, who used polished stone implements, marks the start of the Neolithic era. These people brought their cows with them when they landed on the Irish shore and cleared the primeval forests to create their pastures. They lived in wooden huts with thatched roofs; structures with more permanence were reserved for their dead. To commemorate the deceased notables of their communities they began to construct the great communal tombs that mark the beginning of the megalithic monument era in Ireland.27
To raise great landmarks such as megaliths could be as much a celebration of economic success as a reaction to economic crises. The crucial question is why the dead, or some of them, were so important at this period. There is no doubt that these great tombs, far more impressive than would be required of mere repositories for bones, were the centres of ritual activity in the early Neolithic: they were shrines as well as mausoleums. For some reason, the success of farming and the veneration of ancestral…bones had become bound up together in the minds of the people.
Ronald Hutton, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, 199128
The megalithic monuments of Ireland are usually categorized by architectural style into court tombs, portal tombs, passage tombs, and wedge tombs. Other megalithic monuments, some also connected with burial rituals, include standing stones and stone circles. Some of the megalithic tombs may not conform completely to a single category, since through the millennia a monument may have undergone transformations by different generations who each used it for their own purposes.29 These monuments, built of large stones, required teams of community members working together in an organized fashion. Since many more people were required to build a tomb than could possibly be buried within it, only some, presumably important individuals, were allotted burial spaces. While the stones used in the tomb construction were rough and unworked, their positioning was carefully considered, usually with an alignment to the rising or setting sun on a particular day of the year.
The court tombs, the portal tombs, and the early small passage tombs all began appearing in the Early to Middle Neolithic periods (c. 4000-3500 BCE). The largest passage tombs, built in the Late Neolithic, were followed by the construction of wedge tombs, which continued into the Bronze Age.
The building of megalithic monuments came to an end in Ireland some time around 1800 BCE. There were at least two factors involved: one was a profound climate change that proved disastrous to agriculture and may have upset a long-establish belief system involving the veneration of tribal ancestors. Ireland, which at the start of the Neolithic (c. 5000 BCE) had a climate similar to today’s south of France, slowly but consistently grew colder and wetter at about the time of the end of megalith construction. By 1400 BCE the trend grew much more severe, turning marginal farmland into moors and bogs useless for agriculture. The last megalithic tomb built in Ireland may have been a wedge tomb constructed in the centuries just after 2000 BCE.30
At the same time the small clan-based social structures of the Neolithic were evolving into the larger and more organized societies of the Late Bronze Age (c. 1000-600 BCE) with groups centered around chiefs and regional kings. One exception might have been the passage tombs of Brú na Bóinne, built around 3000 BCE. These massive engineering projects could only be built by cultures with a level of social organization perhaps two millennia ahead of the rest of the country.31
These tombs consisted of a long stone cairn, with the semi-circular arms of a “court” leading out from the wider end. Deerpark Court Tomb, in Co. Sligo, is one example (left). The cairn’s entrance led to a stone chamber containing the burial(s). Ireland has some 400 of these, most in the northern third of the island.32 While other types of Irish megalithic monuments also occur in Britain, on the Continent, and elsewhere around the globe, court tombs are found only in Ireland. The axis of the tomb generally runs west to east, with the opening to the burial chamber facing east. It is presumed that the court was where rituals were held during the burial activity or in later commemorative practices. Some examples have two forecourts, at opposite ends of a long cairn, with each court leading to its own burial chambers.33 The chambers of court tombs contained either buried or cremated remains, along with pottery, animal bones, and stone tools. Over the millennia most court tombs have been pilfered for their mounds of stone, so that only the supporting side stones remain.
The small tribal cultures responsible for the court tombs used them as sacred sites for many centuries. The descendants of those interred visited the sites for ritual observances, perhaps tied to seasonal changes. There may have been shamans who actually entered the tombs to interact with the bones in an effort to persuade the ancestors to intervene in the lives of their progeny. Carleton Jones noted:
The dead were not left to rest in peace. We have already seen the architectural evidence that shows megalithic tombs were much more than simple containers for dead bodies, archaeologists have also uncovered evidence for the manipulation of the remains of the dead. At a minimum, this shows an active interest in the dead. Quite probably, it shows that the living were interacting with the dead to bring about changes in the world of the living. The dead may have been dead but they were probably not gone. Much more likely is that the dead had become spirit ancestors with which the living communicated through a whole series of different rituals – a ‘cult of the ancestors.’34
In the centuries after 3000 BCE, however, some tribes abandoned and sealed off their court tombs, turning away from the religion of their ancestors.35 Other court tombs may have continued to be used for ritual observances for centuries afterwards.
More than 180 portal tombs have been identified in the country, most in the same area as the court tombs, but also in Co. Clare and in the southeast of the island. These monuments were previously called “dolmens, and were known as “cromlechs” by the early antiquarians. The Poulnabrone Dolmen, in Co. Clare, (left) is an iconic example. These stone chambers have taller uprights at one end, with the capstone usually sloping backward and resting on a lower backstone. Many of these capstones are of prodigious size, weighing from 20 to 100 tons. Some may have been enclosed in mounds, now removed, but most probably were always exposed, with only a low bank of earth or stone built to stabilize the uprights. Carleton Jones suggests that while the same groups of people may have constructed both portal tombs and court tombs, they were very likely intended to be used in different ways. These tombs are often sited in proximity to waterways, or other routes leading into settled areas, rather than being located immediately adjacent to a settlement.36
While the first passage tombs, small and modest stone burials, are noted from the Early Neolithic (c. 4,000 BCE), the magnificent structures of Brú na Bóinne and elsewhere in Co. Meath date from the Middle to Late Neolithic. The Loughcrew Passage Tomb Cemetery (right) holds a number of excellent examples. Ireland is home to some 240 of the structures, which also occur along the European coast. The basic passage tomb construction consists of a circular stone or earthen mound which may be up to 80 m (262 ft) in diameter, with a dry-stone corbelled-roof interior chamber featuring several distinct burial niches in a cruciform arrangement. These contained the cremated remains of multiple individuals. The deposits could also include “Carrowkeel Ware” pottery, and other artifacts.37 The chamber connects to the outside by a narrow stone-lined passage, which may be as long as 20 m (66 ft), but could also be less than a meter long. Large stones set around the perimeter of the mound’s exterior provide support to the mound and are often decorated with abstract patterns created by the megalithic artists. These carvings are also found in the interior of some tombs, most spectacularly at the Brú na Bóinne tombs and at Loughcrew. Most passage tombs were built on prominent heights. Some are clustered in a veritable passage tomb necropolis, such as the mountaintop Neolithic cemeteries of Loughcrew and Carrowkeel. The entranceway of a passage tomb may point to the rising or the setting sun. Most renowned is Newgrange, which is aligned with the rising sun of the winter solstice. As Carleton Jones observed,
The alignments of many megalithic tombs on significant sunrises or sunsets in the yearly calendar certainly show that seasonal changes were ritually acknowledged, and the rays of the sun penetrating the dark recesses of the tombs may also have been seen as the mating of a male sun god with an earth mother goddess. It has also been suggested, however, that the importance of allowing the sun to penetrate into the tomb was not to mate, but instead to provide a means of exit for the souls interred within. So we can see that different interpretations of the same phenomenon are possible.38
The last of the megalithic tombs constructed in Ireland were the wedge tombs, with a burial chamber that becomes lower and narrower toward the closed end. Co. Cork’s Altar Wedge Tomb is a good example (left). These tombs date from the later Neolithic to the Bronze Age, a time frame also known as the Beaker Period.39 They are often found on slopes that may have allowed the deceased ancestors to look down upon the homes of their descendants. Some wedge tombs have an antechamber that is closed off from the main chamber of a “septal” blocking stone. Like the earlier tombs, they held in addition to cremations grave goods such as pottery, stone tools, and even an early bronze axe. The wedge tombs are more commonly found in the west of the country, perhaps because by the late Bronze Age the now well-organized societies were developing social and economic relationships within their Atlantic maritime connections.
Stone Circles and Standing Stones
Other megalithic monuments, namely stone circles, standing stones, and stone alignments were not usually built to house the ashes of the dead. Drombeg Stone Circle, in Co. Cork, is one example (right). Stone circles and alignments are thought to have ritual significance, perhaps connected to celestial events. Glyn Daniel postulated that the circles evolved from natural clearings in the forest, which were symbolically supplanted by a ring of wooden posts, and then by an enclosure of stones.40 These stone circles, actually a ring of standing stones with their broad sides facing the center of the ring, were first constructed in the late Neolithic, and continued being built into the middle Bronze Age. Solitary standing stones, which may have been monuments to the deceased, alignments to natural landscape features, or even boundary markers, are thought to date from the Late Neolithic to the Iron Age (c. 2400 BCE to 500 CE). They may be as short as half a meter (20 in) or as tall as six meters (20 ft). Many of the Iron Age examples were dedicated to specific individuals with the carved characters of ogham text.41 A few late Iron Age stones have extensive decoration in the La Tène style.
The Later Life of the Ancient Monuments
Believing firmly in the diabolic origin of the earthworks and megaliths, the Saxon was moved to fear, and to that slavish respect which is the child of fear…Here, then, the potential convert, with his superstitions and aversions, lived and toiled. The monuments of earlier races were regarded with sacred awe.
A.H. Allcroft, Earthworks of England, 190042
Long after the cultures that built them disappeared, long after the purposes for which they were constructed faded from memory, the Irish megalithic monuments remained prominent on the landscape. They continued on the ground and in the consciousness of the people as “ancient and powerful places.”43 The way that a monument may be been re-used could have depended upon its location, the way in which its shape lent itself to a later belief system, or other factors.
There is little evidence of the direct Christianization and re-use of megalithic and other pagan monuments by the early Church.44 Some monuments, such as the Carnfree mound at Rathcroghan, were absorbed into kingship rituals in the historic period. Some authors have reported that stone circles were also used for the “coronation of kings and princes,”45 although the evidence is unclear. Many became firmly associated with legends unrelated to the sepulchral purposes of their creators, such as the Diarmuid and Gráinne tales told of the portal tombs, or the many monuments said to be protected by the fairies.
As no authoritative accounts exists of the erection of these prehistoric structures, all who feel interested in the subject should be considered free to form their own speculative theories, either from personal exploration, or careful perusal of the observations made by others in the same line of research.
W.G. Wood-Martin, The Rude Stone Monuments of Ireland, 188846
…modern man must always guard against dismissing the possibility of everything that lies beyond the capacity of our intellect to grasp or prove in rational terms.
Ivar Lissner, Man, God, and Magic, 196147
No age has seen a lack of those willing to put forth theories regarding the meaning of Ireland’s ancient monuments. In each generation some have used the monuments as a looking glass to reflect their own aspirations and spiritual identities. Some have developed theories regarding “ley lines” or other alignments connecting monuments one to another. Others have sought to ascribe their construction to the Druids or to “ancient astronauts.” Some have even worked to re-create ancient structures as follies or garden ornaments.48 It is clear that the very survival of a stone monument for several thousands of years does in itself lend the stones a powerful presence. The lack of any documented history regarding the monuments or their builders have “attracted the fantast to whom the stones offered visions untrammelled by facts.”
There may be obliquities of truth in some of this but such a mélange has not been conducive to more objective studies, and many archaeologists have been reluctant to tread far in the lush, lunatic pastures at the edges of their own well-tilled fields.
Aubrey Burl, The Stone Circles of the British Isles, 197649
The so-called “earth mystics” and “alternative archaeologists” have no set orthodoxy of beliefs regarding the ancient monuments. Rather they share a profound and intuitive sense of the romance of the prehistoric past. Some of them also have an equally compelling antipathy to the regimentation and social norms of the modern world. Some see megaliths as having been built by ancient peoples who possessed a “superior knowledge of the world…which has since been lost.”50 While the academic prehistorian may find such beliefs “at best irrelevant and at worst completely misguided,”51 the earth mystics offer something that the scientist may have in short supply: the capacity for fantasy and the ability to imagine how things might have been.52
History, like art and like sport, is not a fixed entity but an activity. History is the story we are constantly telling ourselves to explain to ourselves just how we came to be where we think we are. History, truly considered, is a verb, not an abstract noun. We history. From which it follows that history is not given, but made. The story that we tell ourselves is a form of self-definition and is therefore, and unavoidably, an ethical enterprise.
Barbara O’Connor, Michael Cronin, eds. Tourism in Ireland: A Critical Analysis, 199353
Click here to see all the notes from this page.
Carleton Jones’ Excavations at Roughan Hill, Co. Clare
Nearest Town: Corofin
Latitude: 52° 59′ 41.74″ N
Longitude: 9° 5′ 30.95″ W