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Neolithic Tombs

The spectacular tombs of the Neolithic Period can still be found across our landscape and are known as megaliths, meaning large stone. We don’t know why people built such large stone structures to bury their dead, but many people think they are linked somehow to marking out social territories. In the new agricultural society tombs housing the remains of ancestors could signal the right to possess the surrounding land.

There are four major types of megalithic tombs which seem to date from different periods and may represent different communities or belief systems. Inside pottery, stone tools, beads and animal remains may be found, which are normally regarded as ritual offerings. The dead were usually cremated nearby and then the bones collected and placed in the burial chamber. Evidence of burials (inhumations) seems to date from later in the period.

Court tombs vary considerably, but generally contain three basic elements. First, a stone gallery for the burials divided into various chambers, at the entrance to which is a forecourt formed by erecting a series of upright stones in an arc. The entire area behind the court is enclosed in either an earthen mound or more commonly with stones (cairn), which is normally wider at the court and narrower beyond the end of the gallery.

Portal tombs are the simplest in structure and are often known as dolmens. A single chamber was constructed using large upright stones, the two largest of which stood on either side of the entrance. The truly spectacular aspect of these tombs however is normally the capstone set on top, which may weigh many tonnes. Sometimes these have been covered by a cairn. Court tombs and portal tombs are largely confined to the northern half of Ireland.

The most spectacular tombs are undoubtedly passage tombs, the best known of which is New Grange, Co. Meath. There is a burial chamber, which may be divided into several small chambers off a central area, and a passage that leads from the chamber to the outside of the monument. A mound or stone cairn covers the entire tomb, which unlike other tomb types tends to be circular. The edges of the mound are held in place by a surrounding ring of stones known as kerb stones. At Newgrange the mound measures over 80 metres across and 11 metres high and the passage is decorated with spirals circles and other motifs carved into the stones. At the end of the passage is a central chamber with three smaller chambers containing large stone basins on which the cremated remains of the dead were presumably deposited. A roof box above the entrance permits sunlight to pass down the entire length of the passage to the main chamber at sunrise on the winter solstice.

Wedge tombs are the most common in Ireland and take their name from their shape, i.e. they tend to be narrow at the far end. There is a central chamber for the burials which is entered via a short antechamber that may be blocked by a stone slab. The chamber is usually roofed over with stone slabs. Around the whole gallery is another wall of stones that retains the cairn.

The labour required to clear forests, construct substantial permanent settlements and build megalithic tombs, as well as the ritual practices that may have been associated with these tombs, indicate a higher level of social organisation than in the Mesolithic. Decorative pottery and high quality tools reserved as burial offerings for certain members of the community suggest the introduction of the concept of wealth and status, which may have later developed into the social structures and hierarchies of the Bronze Age.