Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Irish Burial Narratives

This thesis by Keeline Baine covers burial practices in Éire during the transition from the Neolithic.

Archaeology is dominated by burial practices that define cultures and belief systems.  However, a number of recent papers have been punching holes in older stereotypes and narratives.

Loughash Wedge Tomb (photo: LizH via
You'll read that food vessels substitute beakers in Irish burials and that the very abundant Beaker artifacts (ie. bracers, lunulae, solar badges, buttons, thin-walled bell beakers) are rarely found in burial contexts.  It seems rather suspicious; regardless the current state of data shows:
"Unlike Beaker burials found with crouched inhumations in Britain, Irish Beaker
burials are most often associated with cremated remains located in wedge tombs. Rare
instances of Beaker burials at other monument types have been identified (i.e. Knowth, Co. Meath). Based on the highly localized and regional variances in the Irish Beaker contexts, Waddell (2010) argues that the presence of Beaker pottery and its associated artifacts is most likely the result of the passing of knowledge over space and time rather than the migration of a certain group of people throughout Europe."
Essentially, there is a disassociation between the abundant Beaker materials and any burials, which is kind of what defines Bell Beaker Culture.  This problem lead to Waddell's conclusion, in my mind easy to torpedo.  The burial issues are more likely problems with local practicality, chronology or archaeological survival.

Baine's analysis looked at two regions in Ireland, one that was relatively fertile farm land and another that was a little more marginal.  Her results showed that regardless of the cultural horizon, there were always differences between the two.  She suggests this was possibly the result of different economic realities due to agricultural surplus, local substrate and other variables.
"The results of this study show that when multiple lines of evidence from burials are analyzed, general stereotypes of the manner in which socio-economic identity was manifested in the archaeological record during the Neolithic and Bronze Age cannot be applied to Ireland as a whole. Instead, the manner in which individuals are deposited and preserved in burial ritual is governed by isolated local traditions, rather than large, regional traditions"
Cremation preference, when it is prevalent, is another question.  Our knowledge of burial might be skewed toward those burials that survived instead of those that didn't (the low number of woman or child burials in Europe) and we shouldn't assume the resurgence of cremation as being equivalent to the resurgence of a neolithic tradition when there may be practical concerns.

I've wondered if preference for cremation in the European Bronze Age was a response to frequent disturbances and desecrations.  It would appear that looting was a huge problem as there really is no other way to explain Beaker material in graves of later ages. [here]

Ireland is a small, fertile Island inhabited by relatively big, fertile people.  It's likely that the human population has been continuously white-capping sustainable capacity since the Neolithic.  Intense agriculture may have left little sacred ground, especially for those buried near farming communities.
I think this paper shows shifting narratives in Ireland which will hopefully be further illuminated with ancient DNA.

Mortuary ritual and social change in neolithic and Bronze Age Ireland.  Kéelin Eílise Baine, University of Iowa 2014 [Link]

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