Archaeologists Have Found A 5,500-Year-Old Irish Tomb – And Declared It The Discovery Of A Lifetime

Image: University College Dublin

It’s July 2018, and archaeologists are excavating a site in Ireland when they make a “once in a lifetime” discovery. You see, hidden beneath the vast cairn – a manmade hill of stones – is a mysterious megalithic tomb.

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Megalithic monuments are, in fact, one of the defining features of Neolithic culture in Ireland. The large stone structures regularly served as tombs for human remains – which were often cremated and interred along with items such as axes and arrowheads. To date, approximately 1,200 megalithic monuments have been identified on the Emerald Isle. And experts say that the largest of these structures have special ceremonial or spiritual significance.

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Now, the tomb that the team were working on is located within the grounds of Dowth Hall, an Irish estate dating back to the 18th century. And the structure forms part of the famous Brú na Bóinne complex, which lies 25 miles north of Dublin. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1993, Brú na Bóinne is the Irish equivalent of Egypt’s Valley of the Kings.

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Yes, the vast, prehistoric funerary complex is a rather significant site. “The Brú na Bóinne monuments represent the largest and most important expression of prehistoric megalithic plastic art in Europe,” states the official UNESCO description of the site. “The concentration of social, economic and funerary monuments at this important ritual centre and the long continuity from prehistory to the late medieval period make this one of the most significant archaeological sites in Europe.”

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What’s more, the wider Boyne region around the site has been a hub of human activity for at least six millennia. And the Neolithic henges, standing stones and burial mounds of Brú na Bóinne date to at least 5,000 years ago. In fact, the site’s most ancient structures are older than the Pyramids of Giza. Perhaps even more incredibly, though, the structures suggests that their builders possessed significant scientific and astronomical knowledge.

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Having studied the site for more than a century, archaeologists and historians have identified more than 90 monuments within the Brú na Bóinne complex. And the site – which presently covers 1,927 acres – and surrounding area may contain many more undiscovered monuments. For the time being, though, the site’s most famous structures are the large passage tombs of Knowth, Newgrange and Dowth.

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Now, in case you were wondering, a passage tomb is a kind of Neolithic gravesite consisting of a narrow, stone-built passage and one or more covered burial chambers. These types of burial sites are evident all over Europe, too – especially in Ireland, Germany, Scandinavia, Netherlands and Britain. In fact, they’re even as far afield as Northern Africa.

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In Brú na Bóinne, the tombs of Newsgrange, Knowth and Dowth were built on ridges, possibly as visual landmarks. All three tombs are visible from the nearby banks of the River Boyne, and together they appear to provide aesthetic cohesion to the site. The tombs have certain archaeoastronomical features, too. Indeed, Knowth aligns with the equinoxes, while Newgrange and Dowth point to the Winter solstice.

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Moreover, at Dowth the evening sun can be observed inside the passage between the months of November and February. But on December 21 – the winter solstice and shortest day of the year – the sunlight tracks along the passage wall, enters a circular burial chamber and illuminates three stones.

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The site clearly holds much archaeological interest, then. So much so in fact, that the period from 2012 to 2015 saw the entire Dowth area extensively surveyed. Subsequently, the passage tomb at Dowth Hall was excavated by experts from University College Dublin’s School of Archaeology and the agriculture company Devenish, which obtained the property in 2013. And the latest discovery represents the culmination of more than a year of work at the site.

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And the discovery is an significant one at that. Indeed, beneath a vast cairn spanning 130 feet, the teams located a couple of previously hidden burial chambers. The archaeologists also uncovered half a dozen kerbstones, which are thought to have been part of a circle of stones placed around the cairn’s perimeter. What’s more, one of the kerbstones has ornate carvings on its surface. In fact, the stone appears to be one of Ireland’s finest ever examples of megalithic art.

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Megalithic art – that is, art created in the medium of enormous stones – generally dates to the Neolithic and Bronze Age. The art itself typically features abstract symbols. But while there are many theories, there’s little agreement about the carvings actually mean. In Europe, surviving examples exist in the Iberian Peninsula, Brittany, Malta and, of course, Ireland.

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Ireland, in fact, is the megalithic art capital of Europe, with the Boyne Valley as its hub. Indeed, the valley contains some 70 percent of the country’s megalithic art. And the style of the artwork – which includes a spiral motif – is consistent with other examples from the British Isles. Furthermore, at least one researcher has suggested that such motifs reflect altered states of consciousness – including, perhaps, those associated with shamanic practices.

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But while the passage tomb at Dowth Hall will probably yield more secrets in time, researchers say that this recent discovery is a momentous one. “For the archaeologists involved in this discovery, it is truly the find of a lifetime,” Dr Clíodhna Ní Lionáin, Devenish’s chief archaeologist, told the BBC in July 2018. “It’s an exciting opportunity to get to know more about some of the earliest farmers here at the Boyne Valley who are responsible for creating these amazing monuments.”

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And the Irish Culture Minister Josepha Madigan stressed the significance of the find, too. “The discovery of this new and very significant passage tomb cemetery, dating back to the Neolithic period, some 5,500 years ago, is hugely significant,” he told the BBC. “It will help improve our understanding of the people, culture and heritage in that era.”

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In fact, the Stone Age inhabitants of the Boyne Valley were the product of a seismic cultural transformation known as the Neolithic Revolution. Having originated in Mesopotamia (present-day Syria and Iraq), the revolution arrived in the British Isles around seven millennia ago. The main thrust of this cultural shift was a move from hunter-gatherer lifestyles to more sedentary practices such as crop cultivation.

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Importantly, the Neolithic Revolution saw the establishment of permanent and semi-permanent settled communities. And once humans had the capacity to settle and store food, a whole new world of opportunities was available. Now, humans could divide their labor. And this, in turn, enabled new activities such as developing technology, trading with other communities or, indeed, creating megalithic art.

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Back at Dowth Hall, meanwhile, the new finds represent the latest in an impressive series of recent discoveries. Indeed, the five-year search of the Devenish lands has seen the number of identified monuments increase from eight to 13.

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Image: Anthony Murphy via Smithsonian.com

And if the summer of 2018 is anything to go by, Ireland’s archaeologists will have their hands full for some time yet. You see, the unusually hot weather has revealed the outlines of some previously undiscovered archaeological sites. One of these locations, in fact, appears to be a huge henge, possibly dating from the late Neolithic Age.

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As for the passage tomb at Dowth Hall, Ireland’s National Monuments Service is working to ensure the public have access to it. “While the provision of access to the public is, of course, at the discretion of the owners, the owners fully appreciate the great public interest in the discovery,” the department told the Irish Times in July 2018. Happily, the organisation added, “The site will open to the public on occasions throughout the year.”

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