Prehistoric Burial and Ritual, in Southwest Ireland

Article excerpt

Archaeological monitoring of the construction of the N21 road improvements, Co. Kerry, Ireland, in 1999 uncovered four sub-circular features in the townland of Rockfield (FIGURE 1).


The central feature revealed itself to be small pit containing a cremation burial. The bones in this shallow pit had been subjected to intense heat, though the boulder clay beneath was unburnt. Radiocarbon (calibrated [Sigma]2) dating showed that this cremation dated from 1440-1140 BC, the date being firmly placed in the Irish Bronze Age. The total weight of the cremation was 29 g. The general size of the bone fragments recovered was very small with 72.4% being less than 5 mm in size. This severely limited the osteological analysis. At least some of the fragments, particularly some of the long bone pieces appeared to be human. On the basis of size, the cremation represents at least one adult. The uniform chalky white appearance of the bones recovered indicated that the individual was very well cremated and was probably processed by crushing or pounding of the bones after cremation.

It seems likely that the cremation deposit represents a `token' burial. When a complete human adult individual is incinerated, the amount of calcined bone generated is on average 3000 g (McKinley 1989). Clearly then, the 29 g of bone recovered from Rockfield does not represent a complete body. Taphonomic factors, such as poor preservation in the soil does not account for the small amount of bone, as cremated bone, due to the chemical changes during the burning process, tends to survive very well in most soils, including acidic environments (Mays 1998: 209). Two other possibilities seem more realistic. Firstly, after the cremation of the individual, a small quantity of the remains may have been selected for deposition in the pit. Alternatively, perhaps only certain portions of the corpse were cremated and these are represented by the proportionally small quantity of cremated bone.

Six metres to the south of the pit was a large circular pit 1 [multiplied by] 40 m in diameter. The interior of this pit had been intensively burned, the heat penetrating the boulder clay to a depth of 10 cm. Two channels, also intensively baked were cut into the base of the pit, while a linear U-shaped flue extended for 2.00 m beyond the western edge of the pit (FIGURE 2). No cremated bone was retrieved from the pit and it appeared that it had been emptied in antiquity. …