Irish Megaliths
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IRISH PREHISTORIC ARCHITECTURE
part three

Wedge-tombs:


Knockcurraghbola Commons, county Tipperary


cavity-walls
to insulate the dead ?

 


text and photographs
by Anthony Weir

 



View from rear.

Keamcorravooly, county Cork

View from the South.

 

Wedge-tombs come, æsthetically speaking, between Court-tombs and Portal-tombs: a little less compact and rather less striking than the latter; much more compact than the former. Their roofstones have not been chosen for their distinction, they do not have impressive portal- or jamb-stones, and they generally are not more than 1.5 metres high. They are called Wedge-tombs because they are taller and wider at the straight-façaded front (which always faces south-west) than at the back.

Tireighter, county Derrt

Many of these tombs resemble to some extent the squat dolmens-simples of France, though they rarely are quite so simple. Wedge-tombs in the west of Ireland, especially in the little limestone karst or causse of The Burren, are box-shaped,


Srahwee, county Mayo
Srahwee, county Mayo


Ballyganner South, county Clare

and like all Irish wedge-tombs have distinctive close double-walling of the gallery: a feature found in a few French tombs.

Baur South, county Clare

As with French tombs, and even more than Irish portal-tombs, chocking-stones were often used to make the roof-stone(s) steady.

The burial chamber is often entered through a small antechamber or portico, from which it is divided by a septal slab or large sill-stone. Those wedge-tombs which are not box-like (the majority) tend to be D-shaped, with straight façade of matched orthostats and a tapering or heel-shaped chamber behind it. The cairn also tends to be D-shaped.

Island, county Cork

Wedge-tombs, built a little later than Portal-tombs, are associated with people who had the techniques for smelting copper and tin and making bronze. Thus, as the climate deteriorated to more or less its present chilliness, they needed to and were able to cut down more trees and work previously-intractable (heavier) and inaccessible land - a process which has gathered pace across the millennia, so that Ireland is now the least-forested country in Europe. (More recently, trees have been felled merely to winter-feed cattle with the ivy growing upon them!)

Their distribution stretches across the uplands of the whole island including the south and west, where very few earlier tombs were built. Those in the north-east of Ireland tend to be fairly elaborate, and feature a double or divided entrance created by the insertion of an orthostat in the entrance to the portico.

Dunnamore, county Tyrone

A handful are highly reminiscent of the long gallery-tombs or alleés-couvertes of France.

Knockcurraghbola Commons, county Tipperary

Burren, county Cavan

But most are modest, almost homely, structures.

Carrowcrom, county Mayo

Some feature apertures through which a soul might escape or ritual food be offered.

Coom, county Kerry

Labbacallee, county Cork

The period of their construction coincided both with deterioration of the climate and the overgrazing that we see today - which turned the fertile and well-drained lower uplands to blanket-bog: yet another human Land of Lost Content.

Many wedge-tombs, like most of the stone circles and rows that were built around the same time or later - and unlike the tombs which preceded them - tend to face the winter or summer sunset: the souls of the departed, perhaps, could fly out through the door and follow it, persuade it to return (or, on the other hand, continue) in its former warm and life-enhancing splendour.

On the other hand, he entrances of many of the Munster (Cork & Kerry) tombs face towards the settings of the major and minor southern moons.

A terrible fear of Bronze-age people in Northern Europe must have been that the climate would keep on deteriorating, and that one day the sun simply would not rise. And, perhaps, that the sun was rising only by human inducement through prayer, ritual and the orientation of architecture.

When there are examples of so many tombs, we should remember that each one (like each modern school) was different, and built by separate groups or communities of people. There is unlikely to have been one single cult or belief-system or even cosmology. Moreover, we must distinguish between the builders' intentions and the uses to which the tombs were put by later generations or incoming people- like, for example, 19th century National Schools today, some of which are private homes, while others are craft-boutiques.

As for the enigma of the double-walling, so similar to modern cavity-construction - the mystery remains.

Srahwee, county Mayo




"The past is not over - it has not even passed."
William Faulkner




In his account of the Folklore of county Clare at the end of the 19th century, T.J. Westropp told of people making hollows in front of portal-tombs and wedge-tombs, and leaving milk an offering for the Sídhe or earth-spirits - usually misleadingly translated as 'fairies'. He goes on to say that stones such as that in front of the wedge-tomb at Newgrove couldhave been for this purpose. He names a few examples of tombs with bullauns nearby, thus suggesting that at least some bullauns were used for offerings of milk. (All somewhat speculative, of course!)

 

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recommended reading:

O'Brien, Billy: Sacred Ground: Bronze Age Studies 4
Department of Archæology, National University of Ireland, Galway, 1999

ISBN 0 9535620 0 X - paperback, 25

which may be ordered
at a discount through:



and outside the UK through amazon.com

 


For maps of tombs and stone circles in Ulster (six counties) peatlands see:
www.peatlandsni.gov.uk/archaeology/tombs.htm#stonecirclesmap




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"The best of Man is his Ruins..."