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
(1868-1927)

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.
For more information please see:


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.
For further information see:
http://letterfromballinloughane.blogspot.co.uk/2016/12/migration-is-not-something-new.html


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

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Caves of Keash and Associated Monuments

Caves of Keash
Some years ago, I watched the moon rising over Keash Mountain. As I stood still, looking up at the caves, I had a clear sense that the moon was moving and wondered what our ancient ancestors would have thought about this phenomenon.
Keash Mountain, also known Keshcorran, was formed over 300 million years ago at a time when there were huge rises in sea levels and the area would have been under the sea. Geologists believe that the caves were created over a period of 40 million years due to chemical erosion of the limestone rock.
View from the Caves of Keash

The Keash Caves are located along the western slopes of Keshcorran within the rich prehistoric landscape of the Bricklieve Mountains. Sixteen interconnecting caves and fissures penetrate the base of a 15m to 30m high limestone rock face which forms a narrow band mid-way up the western slopes of the mountain. The sun-god Lugh is first mentioned in connection with Keshcorran in the 'Children of Tuirinn'.  The area to the south of Keash was called Sliabh Lugha, and Lughnasa was celebrated on top of the mountain until the beginning of the twentieth century.
Archaeologists have found little or no sign that the caves were used in the Mesolithic, Neolithic or Bronze Age. Human remains, and fragments of bone such as brown bear (12,040-11,650 BC), red deer (11,950-11,430 BC) and wolf (11,260-10,960 BC) were also recovered from the caves. The Keash dates are important as prior to this, knowledge of the range of animals that populated Ireland at this time was uncertain. Other finds from the Keash Caves included an antler point, worked bone, a bone comb fragment, two bone needles, two fragments of bone needles or pins and a whetstone.  
The human remains uncovered included a number of human teeth found, along with the teeth of other species. One isolated adult tooth, recovered from the entrance to Coffey Cave (J), was radiocarbon dated to the early Iron Age (200 BCE – 30 CE). Other teeth found scattered throughout Plunkett Cave (P) may be later, dated from the Early Medieval Period (460 – 670 CE).
It is possible that these teeth may reflect some form of ritual tradition that continued over several hundred years. A tempting possibility is that the teeth may have been placed in the caves as part of ritual activities associated with the festival of Lughnasa. At nearby Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery 168 human teeth, representing 23 individuals, were recovered as secondary insertions in Grave 27 during the Iron Age.
A prehistoric stone axe was discovered in Plunkett Cave and may have been deposited there sometime between the Late Mesolithic and Middle Bronze Age. However, several Early Medieval artefacts were found at the same location giving rise to the possibility that the axe may have found its way into the cave in early historic times.
During the 1980s a substantial hilltop enclosure was identified on Keshcorran through aerial survey. Recent fieldwork by Tatjana Kytmannow (2005) has considerably increased our knowledge about the mountain. Two cists, a cairn with cist, a possible hut site, a large enclosure, a section of pre-bog wall, a massive 'megalithic' wall structure and a wedge tomb have now been identified suggesting a ritual complex, spanning a period from the Neolithic into the Bronze Age.
Aerial View of Keshcorran Cairn
Keshcorran cairn is the most westerly and highest tomb of the Keshcorran/Carrowkeel megalithic complex and is believed to hold an unexcavated passage tomb. Archaeologists believe that the cairn probably dates from the early middle Neolithic Period, around 3500 BC.
The Keash Caves feature prominently in the Early Medieval and Medieval myths. Marion Dowd (2013) points out that the caves are presented as:
‘potent places in the landscape, places associated with the Otherworld and supernatural beings, places that were feared and respected’.
In one tale, a hunting party, accompanied by the harper Corann, set out from the palace of the Brú na Boínne (Newgrange) chasing after a giant evil sow that was causing destruction and death. The enchanting music of Corann’s harp was said to have mesmerized the beast which allowed the warriors to slay it. Its enormous body became the mountain of Keshcorran.
The three Hags of Winter
Another dramatic story about the cave involves Fionn Mac Cumhaill who one day came across the three daughters of Conoran, known as the ‘Hags of Winter’. The hags set a trap for Fionn and bound him, sapping his strength using a cursed cord. Fionn was rescued when one of his men took the three witches by surprise and beheaded them.
In conclusion, the Caves of Keash are located along the western slopes of Keshcorran within the rich prehistoric landscape of the Bricklieve Mountains. The discovery of human remains, and those of animals such as the cave bear, the arctic lemming, reindeer, and Irish elk were found in the caves. These finds may reflect some form of ritual tradition that continued over several hundred years. A prehistoric stone axe discovered in Plunkett Cave may have been deposited there sometime between the Late Mesolithic and Middle Bronze Age although a later date is possible.
Several archaeological monuments including a cairn, large enclosure, and wedge tomb, have been identified on the hill-top. The Keash Caves feature prominently in the Early Medieval and Medieval myths associated with the Otherworld and supernatural beings. Over thousands of years the monuments in the Keshcorran complex have provided testimony to the importance of this area in ancient times. In the words of Sam Moore:

Kesh Corran creates a sense of place, a sense of identity and a memory of both.

For more information about Keshcorran see:
Sam Moore in The Corran Herald 2014/2015: Prehistory in the Bricklieve Mountains.
Tatjana Kytmannow (2005) Archaeology Ireland, Vol. 19, No. 4 (Winter, 2005), New Prehistoric Discoveries in the Kesh Corann/Carrowkeel Complex, Co. Sligo.
Marion Dowd (2013), The Archaeology and Mythology of the Keash Caves, Co. Sligo in Dedicated to Sligo: Thirty-four Essays on Sligo’s Past, Edited by Martin A. Timoney.



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