period of occupation: Neolithic—3800
to 3200 B.C.
Previous Archaeological Research Conducted: In 1985, it was discovered that the eastern portal stone was cracked. In an attempt to fix this, excavation and restoration works were undertaken in 1986. The first excavation of Poulnabrone Dolmen was in 1986 and then again in 1988 by Ann Lynch. During this excavation, one portal stone was replaced, and the team excavated the chamber, portico, and cairn. In addition to the cracked eastern portal stone, it was found that an extra orthostat was needed to spread out the weight of the capstone. When excavating around the western part of the cairn, they inserted a new orthostat to allow the southwestern chamber orthostat to be straightened. They then left this new orthostat in its place on the western side of the tomb because the original orthostats’ bases were significantly decayed.
of Archaeological Remains: The
burial chamber was 25 cm deep. The dolmen, which is also called a
portal tomb, is made up of a large single capstone that rests on two portal
stones, two more orthostats, and an end stone. The portal stones
are each 1.8 m tall. The entrance of the dolmen faces to the North.
A sill stone crosses the front of the entrance, and might have extended
all the way up to the cap stone, thus sealing the tomb. The capstone
is 12 ft by 7 ft and angles from the portals down to the rear. The
chamber was 8 ft by 4 ft in size. The dolmen was always a prominent
feature above the limestone bedrock. A portico was formed in front
of the tomb by three upright limestone stones. The portico was then
backfilled with loose dirt and gravel. The tomb lies in the center
of the cairn. The cairn is in the shape of an oval. The cairn
is made up of large limestone slabs extending about 3m from the tomb and
laid against the side of the chamber. The cairn has been stripped
down from its original depth, but it has been theorized that it was only
55 cm deep at the time Poulnabrone was built. The cairn, even though
it was not very tall, helped prop up the side stones. The remains
of up to 22 individuals from the Neolithic were found. Sixteen adults,
six children, and one newborn (from the Bronze Age) were among the remains.
Their bodies were not cremated. Only one adult was over the age of
40 while most died before they reached 30. Most of the children were
between the ages of five and fifteen. The skeletal remains show evidence
of arthritis. The tip of a flint or chert projectile point was found
embedded in the hip of one individual. Two other healed fractures,
one skull and one rib, were also found. Dental wear analysis shows
evidence for the consumption of stone-grounded cereals. These material
culture objects were also found in the burial chamber: 1 polished stone
axe, 2 stone beads, a decorated bone pendant, a fragment of a mushroom-headed
bone pin, 2 quartz crystals, several sherds of undiagnostic coarse pottery,
1 hollow-based chert arrowhead, 2 leaf-shaped chert points, 1 chert side-scraper,
1 chert end-scraper, and 1 flint end-scraper. There was no evidence
of material culture outside of the burial chamber. Grykes were also
utilized by the people who built Poulnabrone. Grykes are crevices
in the limestone that were then filled with remains. Chamber and
grykes also were filled with bones of cattle, pig, sheep or goat, dog,
hare, stoat, pinemarten, woodmouse and bird. Individuals were buried
disarticulated. The human skeletons were defleshed before they were
buried in the chamber.
of Poulnabrone: The first
excavation of Poulnabrone Dolmen was in 1986 and then again in 1988 by
Ann Lynch. During this excavation, one portal stone was replaced,
and the team excavated the chamber, portico, and cairn. Most of the interpretations
that have been made about Poulnabrone and the people who built and utilized
it come from analysis of the human remains. The people that were
buried in Poulnabrone dolmen were Neolithic farmers. The radiocarbon
dates from the bones produced an age of 3800 to 3200 B.C. There was
such dental wear that it can be reasonably concluded that the people who
were buried here had a diet that consisted of stone-ground cereals.
This, paired with the types of faunal remains, has lead researchers to
concluded that they were farmers and pastoralists. The skeletons
also give us insight as to their lifestyles. Many of the adults had
developed arthritic conditions. Since most adults died before the
age of thirty, this means that their bodies were under a considerable amount
of stress. Arthritis is usually an indication of leading physically
active and stressful lives carrying heavy loads. One adult male had
a flint or chert projectile point embedded in his hip bone. Because
there was no sign of infection or of healing over this wound, it has been
concluded that this wound occurred at the time of death. A healed
skull fracture and a healed rib were also found among the remains.
These types of wounds are usually produced by aggressive blows rather than
accidents. The fact that out of twenty-two individuals, three major
injuries are found, has lead researchers to believe that this group had
a large degree of warfare and conflict. Analysis of the bones also
showed that the remains were equally divided between male and female.
Obviously the people who were buried in this dolmen were of some significance
in their society. The presence of children and adults together in
the tomb leads some to think of this as a community that had inherited
rank, varying degrees of rank based on kin relationships. They were
chosen specifically out of the community to be buried at this highly visible
Interpretations have been made about mortuary practices from the internment. Because the chamber’s floor was only 25 cm deep before they hit bedrock, the burials required special attention. The bones were found in the ground above the bedrock and also stuffed into the grykes. The way that the bones are aligned and how they are packed into the grykes show that the bodies were buried disarticulated and defleshed. There is some contention as to how the bones were defleshed. One possible way was by deliberate defleshing. This is unlikely, however, due to the lack of cut marks on the bones. Another way the bones were defleshed was through exposure. By exposing the body, scavenging animals and birds would have picked at it. There is evidence against this because even the smaller bones are found in the chamber, and the smaller bones would probably have been scattered by the fauna defleshing the body. The most likely way the bodies were defleshed was burying the remains at another location, then digging them up and transferring the bones into the dolmen. This must have been done with much care, because of the large amounts of small bones found in the chamber that would have taken time to remove from the primary inhumation before being placed in the grykes in the dolmen. Poulnabrone dolmen is not a unique megalithic structure. It is a portal tomb, and there are many similar tombs found in Ireland at this time. There are around 174 known sites of portal tombs. Most of the concentration of these sites is in the northern half of the country, though they are found elsewhere. Poulnabrone, for example, is found in the west while other portal tombs are found on the east coast.
Bennett, I. (1989)
Excavations 1988: Summary Accounts of Archaeological Excavations
in Ireland. Ann Lynch.
Cotter, C. (1987) Excavations 1986: Summary Accounts of Archaeological Excavations in Ireland. Ann Lynch.
Evan, E. (1966) Prehistoric and Early Christian Ireland: A Guide. B T Batsford Ltd., London.
Waddell, J. (1998) The Prehistoric Archaeology of Ireland. Galway University Press, Galway.