Icons of Antiquity
Icons of Antiquity
Remaking Megalithic Monuments in Ireland
Megalithic tombs dating to the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age (4000–2000 cal. BC) are a very distinctive aspect of the Irish landscape (Jones 2007; Scarre 2007). They are an important monumental aspect of this period and since the 1990s our understanding of this period has been complemented by an extensive record of settlement and related activity that has been revealed through development-led archaeology (e.g. Smyth 2011). A focus of antiquarian and archaeological interest since at least the nineteenth century, the basis of modern approaches to megalithic tombs includes the systematic Megalithic Survey of Ireland that was initiated by Ruaidhrí de Valera in the 1950s, under the auspices of the Ordnance Survey of Ireland (Ó Nualláin 1989; Cody 2002 are the latest volumes published) and the excavation of key sites, for example the passage tombs of Newgrange (O’Kelly 1982; O’Kelly et al. 1983) and Knowth (Eogan 1984; 1986; Eogan and Roche 1997; Eogan and Cleary forthcoming) in the Boyne Valley and Carrowmore in Co. Sligo (Burenhult 1980; 1984; 2001). Current work includes the excavation of individual sites, work on the sources used in tomb construction, reviews of particular megalithic tomb types, landscape and regional studies, archaeoastronomy and overviews for a wide readership. The known number of megalithic tombs on the island now approaches 1,600 and the majority of these can be categorized as falling into one of four tomb types whose names encapsulate key architectural features of each tradition, hence the terms portal tombs, court tombs, passage tombs and wedge tombs (Evans 1966, 7–15; Valera and Ó Nualláin 1972, xiii). Unsurprisingly, much of the focus of archaeological research has been on the role of these monuments for the people and societies who constructed them. Issues such as the date of construction of different tomb types (Cooney et al. 2011) and the relationship between them have been central to key debates about the Neolithic, informing such major topics as the date and character of the Mesolithic to Neolithic transition, the changing character of society over the course of the Neolithic, mortuary rites and traditions, and the links between Ireland, Britain, and north-west Europe at this time (Cooney 2000; Bradley 2007; Waddell 2010).
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