Friday, November 17, 2017

The Lion Man: an Ice Age Masterpiece

Lion Man from three angles. Stadel Cave, Baden-Württemberg, Germany, 40,000 years old. © Ulmer Museum.
The British Museum in London is currently holding an exhibition entitled ‘Living with Gods’ which runs until 8th April 2018. Among the exhibits on show is a remarkable carved figurine called Lion Man which is on loan from the Umber Museum in Germany.
The Lion Man sculpture found in Stadel Cave, Baden-Württemberg, Germany, made from mammoth ivory, has been described as a masterpiece. It is 40,000 years old providing the oldest known evidence of religious belief. It stands 31 centimetres tall and has the head of a cave lion with a partly human body. This is the oldest known depiction of a being that does not exist in physical form but symbolises ideas about the supernatural. In 2017, UNESCO acknowledged Stadel Cave as a World Heritage Site.
Found in 1939, scholars believe that the Lion Man makes sense as part of a story that might now be called a myth. The wear on his body caused by handling suggests that he was passed around and rubbed, perhaps, as part of some ritual.  An experiment using the same sort of stone tools available in the Ice Age indicates that Lion Man took more than 400 hours to make.
Archaeological discoveries in other caves in this region include small sculptures often found with large amounts of stone tools and animal bones that indicate people lived in the shelter of the daylight areas of these sites. Hybrid creatures, half-man and half-beast also appear in cave drawings in France.
The Lion Man. Stadel Cave, Baden-Württemberg, Germany, 40,000 years old. The oldest known evidence of religious belief in the world. © Ulmer Museum.
Lion Man may represent a shaman whose preferred costumes were often hides of the more dangerous Ice Age animals. A shaman is a person who acts as intermediary between the natural and supernatural worlds, using magic to cure illness, predict the future and control otherworldly forces. From ancient times, the lion has been viewed as a symbol of the masculine virtues of courage and strength. Shamans still exist today in the Amazon region and Australia.
Stadel Cave, where the Lion Man was found, is different. It faces north and does not get the sun. It is cold, and the concentration of debris accumulated by human activities is much less than at other sites. Lion Man was found in a dark inner chamber, carefully put away in the darkness with only a few perforated arctic fox teeth and a cache of reindeer antlers nearby.  Archaeologists think that Stadel Cave was used as a place where people would come together occasionally around a fire to share a particular understanding of the world expressed through beliefs, symbolised in sculpture, and acted out in rituals.
Many fragments were overlooked in the cave when the pre-war dig was abruptly terminated due to the outbreak of World War 11. However, archaeologists have recently discovered previously unknown fragments of the figurine and are piecing it back together. This work has prompted some experts to question if, perhaps, the 40,000-year-old statue represents a female shaman? Scientists hope to resolve a decades-long debate.
Those who believe that Lion Man is in fact a woman are convinced that primitive societies were matriarchal. An image of a 14,000-year-old human body with an animal head discovered in the Las Caldas cave in Spain is obviously female. The head looks like that of an ibex, while the lower part of the body is clearly female.
Prehistoric religion reflected people’s need to understand the world and explain disasters. Through rituals and offerings, ancient societies sought to bribe or appease the divine forces controlling the world or its individual components. Since Neanderthal times, people have practised rites that showed concern for their dead, perhaps linked to a belief in an afterlife.
These new revelations offer a greater insight into the mind of the prehistoric sculptor, who created the figure some 40,000 years ago. His ancestors had migrated to Europe, which had been controlled by the Neanderthals, shortly before.
Lion Man has provided us with at least some insight into religious belief and practice 40,000 years ago. We can never hope to understand the mindset of these ancient people, but the significance of this tiny figurine is clear from the sheer number of hours it would have taken to make it. It is worth pondering that this work was undertaken at a time when our early ancestors would have struggled simply to survive during harsh climatic conditions.

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Friday, September 29, 2017

Urlaur Abbey - County Mayo

Urlaur Abbey - County Mayo
The Dominican Friary (Abbey) at Urlaur was founded in 1434. A papal bill dated 18th March 1434, issued by Pope Eugene IV granted Fr. William Nangle and Fr. Thomas O’Grogan permission to remain in Urlaur and erect a regular monastery. Edmond Costello and his wife, Fineola Cusa, daughter of O’Connor Dun, were generous benefactors and they financed the building of the Abbey. It became the burial place of the Costellos.
The Church is rectangular with doorways in the western and southern walls, windows and three gothic arches. There is an aperture where lepers could rest and hear Mass. The Abbey also had other buildings such as the kitchens, the refectory, the boathouse for a quick escape and, up the steps, the dormitory where the friars slept.
The Urlaur Pattern is still held each year on the 4th. August to remember the feast of St. Dominic. The chief duty of the Dominicans was to preach. They also helped the sick and lepers and provided shelter for pilgrims and travellers though living on charity themselves.
The Dominicans are named after their founder Saint Dominic who was born in Spain in 1170. He chose a life of penance and poverty and gathered together a band of preachers in southern France in the early part of the 13th century. The preachers were sent to cities where the Universities and other seats of learning were to be found. The Dominican Friars came to Oxford and London in 1221 and to Dublin in 1224 and are known as the Order of Friars Preachers. The Order spread quickly through Ireland forming communities and churches. Twenty-Four Dominican communities were founded in Ireland in the thirteenth century.
In 1385, the MacDermots Roe are said to have established the Dominican Priory of the Holy Cross at Cloonshanville, near modern day Frenchpark in County Roscommon. Theobald Dillon got possession of Cloonshanville after the dissolution of the Monasteries. The Dillon’s settled in Ireland after the Norman Conquest in 1169 and were a landlord family from the 13th century in a part of County Westmeath called 'Dillon's Country'.
Four Altars
It is said that Myles Costello who lived in Creggane-na-gCrann erected the Four Altars, near Ballaghaderreen, sometime between 1720 and 1750. He was a descendant of the Costello’s of Castlemore. The priest who celebrated Mass at Ateen-taggart in Bockagh, near Ballaghaderreen, also read Mass here when circumstances permitted and usually resided with the Costello family in Creggane-na-gCrann. Rev. Thomas Costello, whose family built the Four Altars, died on 21st March 1846 at the age of 77 years and is buried beside the St John’s Church in Tiverton, Devon.
The Costello’s of Tallaghanmore or Edmondstown were another branch of the family. The last member of this family was Captain Costello who built the residence of the Bishop of Achonry. This latter family became Protestants somewhere around the beginning of the 19th Century. It was said that Sir Robert Peel, who was Chief Secretary for Ireland (1812 to 1818) and later became British Prime Minister, the man who established the Royal Irish Constabulary (the Peelers), regularly visited this family of Tallaghanmore for the shooting season.
Most monasteries in the West escaped suppression until the reign of James 1. Following inquisitions in 1608 and 1610, the friary was declared suppressed and its lands given to Sir Edward Fisher. Later it passed into the hands of Sir Theobald Dillon although the friars went on living quietly at Urlaur.
Stairs leading to the Dormitory
Urlaur Abbey
The situation deteriorated further under Cromwell. Fr. Dominic Dillon and Fr. Richard Overton of Urlaur were put to death at Drogheda. Cromwellians killed a Fr. Mac Costello and Fr. Gerard Dillon died in prison. Despite the mayhem and terror of the time, eleven Dominicans met at Urlaur to discuss the affairs of the Order.
In 1698 the friars were forced to flee the Friary again because of the Penal Laws. Facing the threat of transportation and possibly death, five friars remained in the area including Fr. Pierce Costello and Fr. Redmond Costello. The late 18th century saw the Friary in ruins and a dwindling community. The last friar was Fr. Patrick Sharkey who died in 1843.
‘The Friars of Urlaur’ is dark but highly amusing tale of morality whereby the Friars seek to banish a foul and evil spirit which had invaded their peace. The story appears in ‘Legends of Saints and Sinners’ a book of Irish Christian folklore, collected and transcribed by Douglas Hyde and published in 1915
Some evil spirit found its way to Loch Urlaur. It came at first in the shape of a black boar. One day the friars were walking by the brink of the lake when they saw the big black boar. It let a screech out of it and rose up then on its hind feet screeching and dancing for a couple of hours. Then it leaped into the water and an awful storm followed with lightning and the thunder, and everybody thought that it was the end of the world.
After much tormenting by the creature, the friars enlisted the help of the bishop to rid themselves of the evil spirit. "Seize the villain, seize him," says the bishop. "You didn't seize me yourself," says the villain, "when I was your pet hound, and when you were giving me the meat that you would not give to the poor people who were weak with the hunger; I thank you for it, and I'll have a hot corner for you when you leave this world."
The evil spirt was finally destroyed by a local piper who was said to have done more good on this world than all the priests and friars in the country.
Urlaur Abbey now lies in ruins but the annual pattern held on 4th of August brings locals and visitors to the area. Mass is celebrated in the old Abbey and a sense of peace is evident among the hallowed stones.

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Wednesday, August 2, 2017

St Columba (521-597 AD)

Iona Monastery
Photograph from Flickr
Archaeologists have uncovered conclusive evidence that a wooden hut traditionally associated with St Columba at his ancient monastery on the island of Iona dates to his lifetime in the late sixth century. Samples of hazel charcoal unearthed during an excavation of a wattle and timber structure on Iona 60 years ago have been radiocarbon dated to the period Columba lived in the Iona monastery. The structure is believed to be the monk's "cell" where he prayed and studied in isolation. The results show the hut dated back to between 540 and 650 and Columba died in 597.
In the Life of St Columba, written 100 years after his death by his successor Adomnán, he was described as often writing in his cell on a rocky hillock, called Torr an Aba or "the mound of the abbot". It is believed that the Cathach, a manuscript of psalms reputed to be Columba's own writing, would have been created in his cell.
St Columba at Bridei's Fort
Painting by Joseph Ratcliffe Skelton

Much of what we know about St. Columba is due to Adomnán, the ninth Abbot of Iona, and his book, the Vita Colum Cille (Life of Columba). Saint Columba (521 - 597) was an Irish abbot and missionary who is credited with spreading Christianity in what is today Scotland. He founded the important abbey on the island of Iona.
As soon as he was old enough, Columba was taken from the care of his priest-guardian at Tulach-Dugblaise, or Temple Douglas, to St. Finnian's (c 495-c 589) training school at Moville. Later, he attended the famous monastic school of Clonard, headed by another Finnian (470-549), who in later times was known as the "tutor of Erin's saints".
Columba loved books, and spared no effort to obtain or make copies of Psalters, Bibles, and other valuable manuscripts for his monks. His former master, Finnian, had brought back from Rome the first copy of St. Jerome's Psalter to reach Ireland. Finnian guarded this precious volume jealously, but Columba got permission to look at it, and secretly made a copy for his own use.
When Finnian was told of this, he laid claim to the copy. Columba refused to give it up, and the question of ownership was put before King Diarmaid, Overlord of Ireland. His decision in this early "copyright" case went against Columba. "To every cow her calf," reasoned the King, "and to every book its son-book. Therefore, the copy you made, O Colum Cille, belongs to Finnian."
Columba had another grievance against the King. Prince Curnan of Connaught, who had fatally injured a rival in a hurling match and had taken refuge with Columba, was dragged from his protector's arms, and slain by Diarmaid's men. It is said that the war which soon broke out between Columba's clan and the clans loyal to Diarmaid was instigated by Columba. At the Battle of Cul Dreimhne his cause was victorious, but Columba was accused of being morally responsible for driving three thousand unprepared souls into eternity.
Columba's own conscience was troubled, and on the advice of an aged hermit, Molaise, he resolved to atone for his offense by exiling himself and trying to win for Christ in another land as many souls as had perished in the terrible Battle of Cul Dreimhne, near modern day Drumcliff, Co Sligo.
Torr an Abba
                 Site of St Columba's Cell
In 563 AD Columba left Ireland and settled with the Gaels of Dál Riata, where he was granted the Island of Iona to found his monastery. Columba was a useful asset to the Gaelic warrior kings. His monastery provided education for their sons, he was a close advisor to the king, and he served as a diplomat to the king’s neighbours in Pictland and Ireland.

His monastery on Iona became world famous. Together with SS Canice and Comgall, he spread the gospel to the Picts. Iona’s fame as a missionary centre and outstanding place of learning ultimately spread throughout Europe, turning it into a place of pilgrimage for several centuries to come.
Adomnán lists Saint Columba's prophetic revelations, which are attributed to the saint's ability to view the present and the future at the same time. Most of the chapters begin with Saint Columba telling his fellow monks that a person will soon arrive on the island or an event will occur. Columba is said to have displayed some strange behaviours, including banishing women and cows from the island, claiming that “where there is a cow there is a woman, and where there is a woman there is mischief”.
It is said that Columba was prevented from completing the building of the original chapel until a living person had been buried in the foundations. His friend Oran volunteered for the job and was duly buried. Columba later requested that Oran’s face to be uncovered so he could bid a final farewell to his friend. Oran’s face was uncovered and he was found to be still alive but uttering such blasphemous descriptions of Heaven and Hell that Columba ordered that he be covered up immediately!
Another story relates how on one of his journeys, St Columba come across several Picts who were burying the body of a man who had been killed by an aquatic monster which lived in the River Nesa. This story has been interpreted as the first written reference to the Loch Ness Monster. It goes on to say that Columba then saved another man from the monster by ordering the beast to retreat, which it did.
Book of Kells c 800
The monks of Iona produced countless elaborate carvings, manuscripts and Celtic crosses but, perhaps, their greatest work was the beautiful Book of Kells, which dates from c 800 AD, currently on display in Trinity College, Dublin. Shortly after this the Vikings raided Iona and many of the monks were slaughtered and their work destroyed. Within 50 years, they had extinguished the light of this great monastic settlement. Columba’s relics were removed in 849 AD and divided between Alba (Scotland) and Ireland. 
Columba died on Iona in 597, but his monastery’s influence continued to grow, leading to the foundation of new monasteries in Ireland and as far away as Lindisfarne in Northumbria. His feast day is on 9th June.
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Monday, July 24, 2017

The Moneen Cave Skeleton: the harsh reality of 17th Century Ireland

The Burren, Co Clare
Archaeology has the remarkable ability to bring us face to face with the past. During the initial exploration of Moneen Cave, outside Ballyvaughan village in the Burren, Co. Clare, by cavers in June 2011, a human skull was found in the chamber. Subsequent archaeological excavations led to the recovery of further cranial fragments at the same location. The excavation of the site also revealed an artificial rectangular niche and a disturbed human skeleton - minus the skull. Moneen Cave lies close to the summit of Moneen Mountain at an altitude of 166m.
The discovery of the Moneen skeleton brings into sharp focus the hardships endured by many, including children, in the not too distant past. The small size of the skeleton led archaeologists to think it was of a young child. Analysis of the teeth, however, revealed that the remains belonged to someone who had died aged 14 to 16 years old. DNA analysis confirmed the individual was a teenage boy. Investigations of the skeleton revealed incredible details about the boy’s life.
Researchers found evidence of stunted growth, almost certainly a result of malnutrition and hunger. The adolescent measured 4 ft. 1 inch in height which is the equivalent of an average 8-year-old child by modern standards. Scientists discovered evidence on the skeleton of chronic infections and vitamin deficiencies. The bones also revealed evidence of a poor diet with little meat but high in carbohydrates.
Radiocarbon dating in Queen’s University Belfast revealed the teenager had died sometime between 1520 and 1670. There was no evidence to suggest that this individual suffered a violent death. Historian Dr Ciarán Ó Murchadha has suggested that the most likely timeframe for the boy’s death is during the Commonwealth period (1649-1660), when Clare endured nearly two decades of famine, warfare, disease, and mass human casualty.  
Poulnabrone Dolmen, Co Clare
Dr Marion Dowd, IT Sligo, who investigated the Moneen Cave discovery, states:
“All the evidence from the various specialists told us the same thing: this boy suffered periods of extreme hunger and malnourishment every year, probably for the entire duration of his short life. We do not know who he was, but there are a few details we can be certain about. Isotopic analysis by Dr Thomas Kador at University College London indicated the boy was local to the Burren. We can imagine he was born and reared close to Ballyvaughan village.”
How the teenager came to be in the cave is a mystery. According to Dr Dowd:
“We found the remains within a small rectangular niche in the wall of the cave. It was a small space, just about big enough for a teenager to crawl into. The position of the bones suggests the boy curled up in this small space and died there, alone in the cold.”
We can only speculate about the boy’s final hours.
“Perhaps he was seeking refuge - this was a time of religious persecution and political instability - or he may have been ill, or both.” she added.
The earliest object found during excavations in Moneen Cave was a broken flint flake of late Mesolithic or Neolithic date. Archaeologists also discovered a Bronze Age antler hammerhead and over 345 sherds of pottery, analysis of which indicated the presence of at least six different undecorated vessels dated to c. 1100-1000 BC.
It is thought that the material from Moneen Cave may represent votive deposits placed in the cave as some form of religious act. The cave may have been regarded as a sacred place in the landscape. It would appear that Moneen Cave was never occupied as no evidence of habitation, hearths or domestic debris was found and the chamber was extremely small and cramped.
"All in all, the excavation provided a very poignant insight into a life that was harsh and ended tragically for this boy in the not too distant past,” said Dr Dowd.

Whilst we may be shocked by the harsh conditions suffered by a young boy in Co Clare in the mid-1600s, we should not forget that about 795 million people, or one in nine of the World population, suffered chronic undernourishment in 2014-2016 (Food and Agriculture Organisation, The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2015). Almost all the hungry people (780 million), live in developing countries whilst there are 11 million people undernourished in developed countries. 

For more information please see:

Marion Dowd (2013) About a boy: excavations at Moneen Cave in the Burren. Archaeology Ireland,                   Vol. 27, No. 1 (Spring 2013), pp. 9-12 Published by: Wordwell Ltd. 

Monday, June 19, 2017

In Search of our Ancient Ancestors – New Evidence

View from Jebel Irhoud
Photo: Flickr
A re-evaluation of early human remains and artefacts from Morocco has pushed back the advent of Homo sapiens by 100,000 years. Archaeologists and palaeontologists believe that the oldest of the fossils comes from 300,000 to 350,000 years ago. Skulls, teeth, and long bones of at least five Homo sapiens, along with stone tools and animal bones, have been found at Jebel Irhoud, Morocco since 2004. Prior to this discovery, the oldest accepted dating for Homo sapiens remains were said to be from the site of Omo Kibish in Ethiopia, dated to 195,000 years ago and Herto, also in Ethiopia, from 160,000 years ago .
Although stone tools were found all over Africa by 300,000 years ago, human fossils were thought to be no older than 195,000 years old. One possibility was that the stone tools had been made by some hominid (any member of the group consisting of all modern and extinct humans and great apes - including gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans - and all their immediate ancestors) other than Homo sapiens. Jebel Irhoud is considered to be the oldest and richest African Middle Stone Age hominin site that documents early stages of the Homo sapiens.
Composite Reconstruction of Skull from
        Jebel Irhound - Photograph: Flickr
Today, modern humans or Homo sapiens, inhabit the whole earth. Looking back over the last half a million years, the picture was much more diverse, with three distinct lineages appearing: Homo erectus in Asia; and Homo heidelbergensis giving rise to Homo neanderthals in Europe and Homo sapiens in Africa. Excavations in Ibex, Vanguard, and Gorham’s Caves in Gibraltar have revealed evidence of Neanderthal occupation dating to possibly as late as 28,000 years ago.
This dispersal out of Africa is believed to have started from Northeast Africa. Modern humans later spread worldwide, replacing earlier ancestors either through competition or interbreeding. The first fossil evidence for any modern humans outside Africa comes from the Middle East, from the archaeological sites of Skhul and Qafzeh in Israel, dating to around 120,000 years ago.
The skeleton of an adolescent early Homo sapiens was found at the Qafzeh Cave site near Nazareth, buried in a pit dug into bedrock. The skeleton was lying on its back with both arms flexed upwards and a set of deer antlers laid across the chest. The burial dates to around 100,000-80,000 years ago and may represent a form of ritual possibly indicating a belief in an afterlife. However, this early expansion of modern humans was not maintained.
The ancestors of modern humans interbred with Neanderthals and another extinct line of humans known as the Denisovans. Modern humans, Neanderthals and Denisovans shared a common ancestor who lived roughly 600,000 years ago. The interbreeding may have given modern humans genes that bolstered immunity to pathogens. The first clues to ancient interbreeding surfaced in 2010, when scientists discovered that some modern humans — mostly Europeans — carried DNA that matched material recovered from Neanderthal fossils.
There are, however, conflicting models of human expansion. The so called Regional Continuity theory suggests that Homo sapiens arose from earlier, archaic populations in many places throughout the Old World. Over time, archaic populations in Africa, Europe, and Asia developed into Homo sapiens. In this view, the lineages represented by Homo ergaster in Africa, Home erectus in Asia, and Homo neanderthals in Europe have all survived, and modern humans are their descendants.
The recent African Origin model proposes a more localised point of origin for our species. The earliest Homo sapiens fossils are found in Africa, and genetic research on living humans points to the recent evolution of our species in Africa. Genetic evidence also supports a model of expansion, with our species emerging out of Africa and largely replacing earlier, archaic populations.
Sometime after 80,000 years ago, a population expansion and migration began, which would lay the foundations of modern humans colonising the globe. Although the archaeological evidence is not conclusive, the genetic trail leads out of Africa, through the Middle East, into southern and South Asia, and all the way to Australia.
The presence of early Homo Sapiens in north Africa complicates our understanding of humanity arising in the east of the continent. Researchers used to think that there was a cradle of humankind in East Africa about 200,000 years ago, and all modern humans descend from that population. The new finds indicate that Homo sapiens is much older and had already spread across all of Africa by 300,000 years ago.
It’s possible that in the Middle Stone Age early humans spread all over Africa, aided by their new stone technology of smaller, lighter tools such as spear tips rather than larger stone hand axes. At the time, the Sahara was a lush, green savannah and not the impassable desert of today. Alternatively, humans may have already spread throughout the continent and developed Middle Stone Age tools independently.
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Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Roscommon Ringfort Gives up its Secrets

An aerial view of excavations at the medieval ringfort at Ranelagh near Roscommon Town. 
Picture: Irish Archaeological Consultancy Ltd
The recent discovery outside Roscommon Town of a Medieval ringfort that included a jewellery workshop, evidence of extensive farming and a cemetery containing almost 800 bodies, has provided a window into our past. A year-long excavation of the site has provided a picture of the settlement that was probably occupied between the sixth and 11th centuries. It is thought that in its later years it may have served as an administrative and industrial hub for a community living in a series of ringforts in the surrounding area.
There was no evidence on any maps or in local folklore to suggest the existence of a ringfort and cemetery before the site was examined by archaeologists. The ringfort may have been levelled by centuries of ploughing for agriculture, or cleared during the landscaping of an area of parkland for the nearby Ranelagh House in the early 1700s. The main enclosure continued to be used for burials and appears to have been occupied during early Christianity period. A monastery was founded in Roscommon by St Comán in the early sixth century and had become quite important by the eighth century.
Reconstruction of a ringfort at Curraheen, Co Cork, the kind of enclosure that would have been first built at the ringfort in Ranelagh, Co Roscommon. Picture: Courtesy of Transport Infrastructure Ireland
Ringforts are Ireland’s most common field monument, with about 45,000 recorded examples. Recent archaeological evidence suggests that they may have fulfilled a variety of functions such as craftmanship and manufacture, as evidenced by the presence of furnaces. Archaeologists believe that all ringforts in a region were probably occupied at the same time. Should one ringfort be attacked, help would possibly come from a neighbouring one.
Our current understanding of these structures is that they date to the Early Medieval Period, with a peak in construction between AD 600 and AD 900. They represent the enclosed homesteads of the upper echelons of Irish Early Medieval society.
According to Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII) project archaeologist Martin Jones, overseeing the work as part of a road realignment on the N61, there were at least three other ringforts within 500 metres. It is thought that this ringfort was originally inhabited by a family that rose in prominence in the area. They may have then constructed a number of other ringforts around this one, which became a centre for industrial activity.
Amber Necklace from Lough Gara, County Sligo
dated from 800-700 BC
The amount of unfinished jewellery pieces found by the archaeologists indicates they were being made in a workshop at the site. The jewellery items found include amber and jet beads, a lignite bracelet, and a brooch panel with enamel stud. A fragment of a copper alloy bracelet has been dated by its decoration to around AD350 to 550. A necklace of amber beads and lignite bracelets were found during the excavation of crannog sites on Lough Gara, County Sligo.
The substantial number of bones found across the site point to a move from human settlement to raising and slaughtering animals. The discovery of a set of iron shears of different sizes indicates processing of animal wools.
The remains of 793 people were found of which three-quarters were intact. Archaeologists believe that several of the 470 juveniles and infants whose remains were unearthed may have been placed there during the later use of the site as a children’s burial ground. A small number of crouched burials were found, with their knees pushed up to their chest, which may suggest that these were non-locals being buried according to their own traditions. Other burials showed signs of punishment or disrespect, including at least two in which feet and hands may have been bound, one of them buried face down. Two of those buried at the Ranelagh excavation site were decapitated, and several children or adolescents were placed in the ground in embracing positions.
The custom of setting apart a special place for the burial of very young or unbaptised children was common practice from early medieval times until very recently. Many of these are situated in forts or early ecclesiastical sites.
In the fifth century AD, Augustine of Hippo declared that all unbaptised people were guilty of original sin. This prompted a debate in the Church which was to last for several centuries. From the sixth century, the burial of unbaptised individuals in consecrated ground was forbidden. In 2004, Pope John Paul 11 appointed a Commission to study Limbo and it reported its findings in 2007. The report, signed by Pope Benedict XV1, stated that it reflected a ‘restrictive view of salvation’ and that it was reasonable to hope that the souls of unbaptised infants are admitted to Heaven by a merciful God.
Although children’s burial grounds are normally associated with stillborn and unbaptised children, others were buried there including people who committed suicide, mentally disabled, the shipwrecked, criminals, famine victims, strangers and even women who had not been ‘churched’ after childbirth.
A notable feature in some of graves in the burial ground excavated was the placement of items with the body. The artefacts were frequently hidden under the hair and included beads, blades, a bracelet fragment, and copper and bone pins. This may have been a hangover from pre-Christian burial practices. One young adolescent was buried with a worked antler, one of a handful of such burials recorded in Ireland.
Scholars believe that the nature of the Celtic religion itself helped in the development of Christianity. For example, a belief in the indestructibility of the souls of the dead helped in understanding the resurrection of Christ.
Some non-Christian funerary customs continued to be practiced, including burial in cemeteries not obviously associated with a church. Burned grain, antler tine and pig bones have been found in pre-Christian graves signifying some form of rite. Christian cemeteries or ‘holy ground’, in which most of the population were buried, developed from the late seventh century onwards.
For further information about ringforts and childrens’ burial grounds see:

Monday, May 15, 2017

Ireland's Ancient Musical Instruments

Drumbest and Derrynane Horns
National Museum of Ireland
Lough Gara, on the border between Co. Roscommon and Co Sligo, is noted for the number of archaeological artefacts recovered ranging from stone axes to saddle querns and bronze pins to bone needles. Amongst the more unusual finds reported was a bronze trumpet or horn end found on Inch Island and thought to date from 300-200 BC.
The island of Ireland is particularly noted for its collection of ancient musical instruments, covering more than 3000 years from the Late Stone Age through to the Early Medieval Period (4,200 BC – 1,000 AD).  Musical horns were usually found in hoards, occasionally associated with other artefacts. The Dowris hoard, for example, from County Offaly, was discovered in 1832 and included twenty-eight horns as well as axes, swords, spearheads, and hammered bronze buckets and cauldrons. This hoard is thought to date from the seventh century BC. Hoards tend to be located near burial mounds and ancient earthworks or under lakes and bogland that was formerly under water.
During the Late Bronze Age, there were two main types of horn in Ireland. One type was blown from the end and the other from a side mouthpiece. End-blown horns are mainly found in the southwest of the country, while the side-blown horns have a more even distribution. These were popular instruments and to-date over 122 have been discovered in Ireland, which represents over half the total number of Bronze Age horns that have so far been found in Europe and the Middle East. Some of the manuscripts the early missionaries brought to the continent contained images of trumpets and horns.
Loughnashade Trumpet
1st Century BC
The Loughnashade trumpet is one of the finest surviving horns of the European Iron Age. It was discovered during drainage works at the site of a former lake in Co. Armagh. Three other horns, which have since been lost, and a collection of human skulls and bones, were recovered from the same location.  Archaeologists believe this may have been a of ritual deposition. The trumpet dates from about the 1st century BC and measures 1.86 m in length. It is made from curved and rivetted sheets of bronze. The decorative flange at the end of the instrument is covered in an abstract floral design.
The Loch Erne horn was discovered during drainage work on the River Erne in the townland of Coolnashanton four miles south of Enniskillen in Co. Fermanagh. The wooden horn hooped with metal bands is conical, 58cm long with a metal mouthpiece.  There is an image of two of these horns being played as part of an early Medieval musical group in the Hiberno-Saxon Canterbury Psalter of the 8th century AD.
The Mayophone or ‘guth cuilce’ is undoubtedly the most unusual of all the Irish prehistoric instruments.   The original was found in a bog during turf cutting in the townland of Bekan near Knock, Co. Mayo in 1791 and is now preserved in the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin. This item has been radiocarbon dated to the Early Medieval Period (7th–8th century A.D.) 
Originally a solid piece of wood, it was split from end to end and each of the pieces was then hollowed or grooved on the inside. It was tapered and when joined again, the grooves formed a circular and conical hole through the whole length resembling that of a trumpet or horn. The two pieces were bound together on the outside by a long piece of thin brass, about an inch and a quarter wide, wrapped around them in a spiral from one end to the other. The Bekan horn is 192 cm long and made from yew. The sounding end of the instrument was originally about 8 cm in diameter.
Wicklow Pipes (c 2,120-2,085 BC)
In 2003 six carefully worked wooden pipes were recovered during an archaeological excavation at Greystones, Co. Wicklow. This discovery represents the world’s oldest surviving wooden musical instrument and has been dated to the Early Bronze Age (c. 2,120-2,085 BC). Formed out of yew wood, the pipes were found lying side by side, in descending order and ranged in size from 57cm to 29 cm long, although not all were complete. The pipes had been hollowed out, making the internal diameters approximately 2 cm across. However, there was no evidence for finger holes.
Wicklow Pipes
In early 2005, the first composition for Wicklow pipes, double bass and marimba, by Michael Holohan was performed as part of a concert in Drogheda, Co. Louth.   The early age of these pipes and the complexity of the design and manufacturing involved, place them in the forefront of recent music archaeological finds.
Researchers have discovered archaeological evidence of musical instruments in many parts of the world. The oldest musical instruments, usually bone flutes, have been found in deep caves in France and Germany and originate from the same time and near the first examples of cave art. Music has a long association with war and conquest. Some of the oldest visual images depicting war include horns, pipes, and drums.
World's Oldest Flute,
Geissenkloesterle, Germany

What are believed to be the oldest-known musical instruments in the world are flutes, made from bird bone and mammoth ivory, and come from a cave in Geissenkloesterle, southern Germany. This cave also contains early evidence for the occupation of Europe by modern humans - Homo sapiens. Scientists used carbon dating to show that the flutes were between 42,000 and 43,000 years old. Geissenkloesterle is one of several caves in the region that has produced important examples of personal ornaments, figurative art, mythical imagery, and musical instruments.
Ireland is noted for its collection of ancient musical instruments spanning more than 4,000 years, including 28 horns from the Dowris hoard, the Mayophone and Wicklow pipes. The oldest-known musical instruments in the world are flutes made from bird bone and mammoth ivory found in southern Germany, which are between 42,000 and 43,000 years old. Should you visit Lough Gara, listen carefully and, perhaps, you may hear that ancient horn echoing down the ages?

For further information please see:
John M. Coles (1967) Some Irish Horns of the Late Bronze Age, in The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Vol. 97, No. 2