The wedge tomb is an exclusively Irish phenomenon, although there is some resemblance to the galley graves found in Brittany, implying its cultural transmission northwards along the age-old Atlantic sea route from Armorica to Ireland. Within Ireland there is a specific distribution of wedge tombs; they are predominantly found along the Atlantic coast, with foci in counties Cork, Kerry, Clare, Sligo and Donegal. Co. Clare is liberally peppered with wedge tombs and the county’s north-western Burren region is a virtual wedge tomb wonderland. As a Clare man, I am proud to have such prolific wedge tomb builders in my ancestry. Indeed, epigenetic memory may explain my love for all things wedge-shaped — cheese and pizza, to name but two!
Wedge tombs are a type of megalithic chamber tomb, characterised by their tapering shape. They usually decrease in height and width going from west to east. The entrance to the tomb faces west and there can be an antechamber between this and the main burial chamber. The large rocks we see forming the structure of wedge tombs would not have been visible when they were newly built as the whole thing would have been covered by a cairn (a fancy name for a heap of stones).
It was during the third millennium B.C., when the Late Palaeolithic was morphing into the Copper Age, that wedge tombs began to appear and their construction continued for a millennium. They are a curiosity in terms of what was in fashion even in neighbouring regions. In the north of Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales and on continental Europe burial rites had moved away from collective interments and people were now being laid to rest in single graves (sometimes called cists or pits in the literature, depending on their form). The wedge tomb, however, was a continuation of the tradition of collective burial exemplified all over the Atlantean Palaeolithic in grand monuments such as passage graves, dolmens and court tombs.
Why did the west of Ireland stick with collective burials while other regions on the island went with the current trend of single graves? It certainly wasn’t because the west of Ireland was an out-of-the-way backwater lacking links to the outside world. At the time in question, copper from Ross Island, Co. Kerry and Mount Gabriel, Co. Cork were flooding the Atlantean marketplace, with links to places as far flung as southern Spain, Portugal and Brittany well established. “Trendy” continental Bell Beaker pottery, possibly from Brittany, has been found in a number of wedge tombs. Ruling out cultural isolation then, what might explain the wedge tomb’s bucking of international trends. One theory is that society in the west of Ireland was less hierarchical than was typical for the third millennium B.C.
Around that time, in the wider European sphere, something changed whereby those in charge no longer desired to be buried in the local passage grave or court cairn along with their neighbours and relations. Instead they wanted their own individual cist which, along with their body, had to be stuffed with articles of high worth and prestige. So you find what we presume to be a chieftain or mighty warrior buried on his own with objects of high symbolic significance and which would have cost an arm and a leg back in ye olden times: bronze daggers, arrowheads and axes, silver cups, gold ornaments, beads and the Bronze Age equivalent of an iPhone 6 — the Bell Beaker. These individual graves were all about status, showing the rest of the tribe that the dead chief really was somebody, that he was so special he deserved to be buried on his own and with a bunch of high-end goodies the hoi polloi couldn’t even dream of getting their hands upon. These burials may have been used to reinforce notions of class and pecking order and help establish the dead ruler’s descendant’s right to rule for another generation.
The thinking goes, therefore, that wedge tombs reflect a society which, while there certainly had to have been some sort of hierarchical system, wasn’t as strictly delineated as neighbouring structures. Wedge tomb societies may have been more egalitarian, collectivist and, heaven save us, fair. It is intriguing to speculate on why the west of Ireland was different to the rest of Europe’s Atlantic seaboard. Did ancient Cork, Clare and Kerry men and women hold on to the old religion of passage graves such as Newgrange and Loughcrew while the rest of the pagan world moved on? Was there a religious schism on the island, with the northern and eastern parts accepting a new continental set of beliefs? Were these people of separate cultural or ethnic identity to the rest of the island?
We will probably never know, but one thing is for sure: the difference between wedge tomb Ireland and the rest of the island and Atlantic Europe at the time was not superficial. How a society deals with its dead goes to the heart of its structure, organisation, belief systems and manner of seeing itself. Differences in burial methods between two societies speaks of profoundly different ways of seeing both this world and the next.