Wedge Tombs

Páirc na Binne wedge tomb, the Burren, Co. Clare, Ireland.

Páirc na Binne wedge tomb, the Burren, Co. Clare, Ireland.

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!

The entrance to Páirc na Binne wedge tomb.

The entrance to Páirc na Binne wedge tomb.

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.

Scheme of a typical wedge tomb, (from Facing the Ocean, Cunliffe, 2001).

Scheme of a typical wedge tomb, (from Facing the Ocean, Cunliffe, 2001).

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.

The occurrences of wedge tombs in Ireland (From Facing the Ocean, Cunliffe, 2001).

The occurrences of wedge tombs in Ireland (From Facing the Ocean, Cunliffe, 2001).

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?

Bell beakers (from Facing the Ocean, Cunliffe, 2001).

Bell beakers (from Facing the Ocean, Cunliffe, 2001).

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.

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About ucronin

Born in the country town of Ennis, Co. Clare, Ireland in 1975, I now live in Madrid with my partner and two young daughters and work in a research institute. While I was always a hungry reader and harboured vague notions of being a writer, as a young man writing was the furthest thing from my mind; after leaving school, I did a B.Sc. in Biotechnology in Galway's NUI, an M.Sc. in Plant Science in University College Cork and a Ph.D. in Microbiology in the University of Limerick, the plan being to dedicate my professional career to scientific research. While having written extensively within my technical scientific field, I had never contemplated becoming a writer of fiction until a road-to-Damascus moment on the N69 between Listowel and Tarbert, Co. Kerry in the summer of 2011. Since then, most of my spare time has been occupied with writing. In whatever other free moments I have, I like to listen to music, play the guitar and garden (which here in Madrid means a lot of watering of plants and spraying for red spider mite). My ambition is to become as good a writer as I possibly can, eventually freeing myself from the cold clutches of science and earning a living through my scribblings. The type of writing that excites me is honest, intelligent, well-constructed and richly descriptive.
This entry was posted in Celtic Mythology, Death, History, Ireland, Mysticism and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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