Reuse of Cemeteries in Prehistoric Ireland

Written by: Katy Meyers Emery

Primary Source: Bones Don’t Lie

This coffin changes into a bookshelf! via Last Things. Click the picture to view the website and buy one!

This coffin changes into a bookshelf! via Last Things. Click the picture to view the website and buy one!

With the cold weather and ice descending upon the Midwest, I’ve found myself spending more time watching HGTV than I normally do. My favorite shows are the fixer upper ones, like Property Brothers and Flea Market Flip. I really like the concept of upcycling and reusing older materials to create new uses, rather than buying something brand new. I like the idea that historic objects are given a new life and are saved from being recycled or destroyed. In a way, they have life histories much like we humans do- they were designed to serve a specific purpose and are being reused in a creative way that maintains that historic integrity.

But what does this have to do with a mortuary archaeology blog? We already know that there are awesome bookshelves that can be reused as coffins– even one that doubles as a wine rack and coffin. But what about cemeteries? Can we reuse them to give them new life?

A new article by Quinn (2015) examines reuse of cemeteries in prehistoric Ireland. He examines the burial site known as the Mound of Hostages, located on the Hill of Tara. Tara is found just north of Dublin in North Leinster, and is within an area of intensive prehistoric occupation and activity. It is a productive agricultural area near the Boyne River, and provided an important space for prehistoric peoples, both as a domestic site and ritual space. Due to this, it has been an area that has been investigated by many archaeologists. Quinn (2015) focuses on the Middle Neolithic and Early Bronze Age mortuary activity occurring in the Mound of Hostages, which was excavated previously in the 1950s. The Mound of Hostages was a passage tomb built during the Middle Neolithic period between 3350 to 2800 BCE. It was reused during the Early Bronze Age from about 2300 to 1700 BCE.

Mound of Hostages, photo by Flickr user jemartin03

Mound of Hostages, photo by Flickr user jemartin03

Quick Note: Mound of Hostages was named so in the medieval period because it was a neutral and well-known space where the symbolic exchange of hostages could take place. The name doesn’t have anything to do with the prehistoric burials.

Quinn (2015) is able to identify four periods of use of the Mound of Hostages passage tomb as a mortuary site. First,  between 3210 and 3100 BCE, the passage tomb was constructed. A passage tomb is a narrow passage made of large stones with one or more burial chambers that is covered by stone and earth to create a mound. The Mound of Hostages was constructed to have three distinct chambers with area for burials along the sides. The tomb was used for burial during this first period, and most individuals were deposited here between 3150 and 3050 BCE. After a hiatus of around 1000 years, the mound began to be used again in the Early Bronze Age. Burials were deposited within the passage tomb around 2100 to 2035 BCE. However, around 2010–1965 BCE, there was a shift in burial from within the tomb to within the mound itself surrounding the tomb. This use of the mound ended around 1855–1790 BCE. 200 years later, a single burial was deposited at the site.

Not only did this site vary with when people were buried there- it also varied in the frequency of use. During the Middle Neolithic there were 293 individuals buried there, including infants, children, male and female adults. Some of these individuals were cremated and others were unburned. During the Early Bronze Age, there were 16 individuals buried within the passage tomb, 16 buried outside of the tomb in the mound, and then the single lone burial at the end of this period. Most burials in the Early Bronze Age were adults.

By assessing the demography (ages and sexes) of the burials at the Mound of Hostages, and comparing these again known information about general population size during these periods within the broader region, Quinn (2015) is able to interpret how the Mound of Hostages was used. During the Middle Neolithic period, this mound served as a ritual site for a single local community to bury and remember the deceased. For around 100 years, they returned to the site to bury select members of the community and engage in other ritual interactions at the site. By burying these individuals all together, they affirmed their communal identity and strengthened relationships, and by allowing different forms of body treatment (cremation vs. inhumation), they also allowed for some individual or familial identity to be expressed.

However, during the Early Bronze Age, less people were allowed to be buried in the mound, suggesting that it afforded or reflected some types of special or elite status to those who were. By only burying select individuals, like perhaps the heads of the households, they reaffirmed the inequality present within the community. As burial changed from within the tomb to outside in the mound, Quinn (2015) suggests that there was another shift from this being an elite burial site for one community, to being an elite site for multiple communities. This allowed for affirmation of not just community, but regional ties between a network of communities.

Quinn (2015) concludes that argues that mortuary spaces are more than a place where the deceased are disposed of- they are active places of remembrance and celebration of the dead. By reusing these sites, the new communities are creating connections to real or imagined ancestors. But this site is more than just that- it was a space where community identity was reaffirmed, manipulated, and changed. Further, the use of the space to maintain these communities shifted over time and is evidence in the variation in burial. This is a fascinating study, and I highly suggest checking it out!

Works Cited

Quinn, C. (2015). Returning and reuse: Diachronic perspectives on multi-component cemeteries and mortuary politics at Middle Neolithic and Early Bronze Age Tara, Ireland Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 37, 1-18 DOI: 10.1016/j.jaa.2014.10.003

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Katy Meyers Emery
Katy is currently a graduate student studying mortuary archaeology at Michigan State University. Her academic interests are in mortuary and bioarchaeology, with a specific interest in connecting the physical remains to the mortuary context. Along with this, she is also interested in Digital Humanities, and the integration of technology into academia, as well as public archaeology and outreach.
Katy Meyers Emery

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