The tomb builders – Ireland’s ancient burial sites

The people of the New Stone Age (Neolithic period) lived in Ireland from about 4,000BC onwards.

Copyright Sophie Robson

Portal tombs in Proleek, Co Louth

They were notable for bring agriculture to the country, creating the first settlements and for making pottery and effective stone tools.

Their major achievement, however, was the elaborate burial sites that they created using huge stones and sophisticated building techniques.

More than 1,000 megalithic (large stone) tombs have been found in Ireland, mostly in the north of the country which was where the settlers first arrived and which probably remained the most densely populated area for thousands of years.

These ancient Irish built four basic types of tomb, some of which involved moving stones weighing more than 100 tons. The four types of tomb were court tombs, passage tombs, portal tombs and wedge tombs.

The court tombs are generally considered to be the oldest, but the passage tombs are without doubt the most elaborate and impressive.

Four major types of burial sites of ancient Ireland

Court tombs comprised of a courtyard enclosed by stone walls and leading on to one or more burial chambers. In some examples they are covered over with earth. The forecourt was usually aligned with some astronomical event such as the rising of the sun.

Creevykeel court tomb in Co Sligo

Creevykeel court tomb in Co Sligo

Court tombs were mostly built by people living in the north of Ireland. Examples can be found dating from about 4,000BC up to 2,000BC at the start of the Bronze Age. The best known example is at Creevykeel in Co Sligo.

Portal tombs are also known as dolmens. They are similar to court tombs and provided room for several burials. The feature that marks them out is that they have one huge stone (capstone) placed on top to two supporting stones to form a kind of doorway, or portal…hence the name. It’s still not known for certain how the ancient Irish were able move and lift these massive stones weighing up to 150 tons in some cases. The best known examples of portal tombs are at Proleek in Co Louth and Poulnabrone in Co Clare.

Carrowmore, County Sligo – a major passage tomb cemetery

Passage tombs are the most spectacular examples of ancient Irish burial sites. The burial chamber was approached by long underground passages. Astronomical features were often a prominent feature of the tomb. These would usually be a strategically placed opening that aligned with the sun in such a precise way that it allowed light into the tomb on important dates such as the winter solstice.

Some passage tombs contain early examples of Irish art, such as geometric patterns made from circles and triangles, carved into rock.

The most impressive passage tomb is the famous site at Newgrange which has now become a major tourist attraction. It is part of the Bru na Boinne site which also includes the passage tombs of Knowth and Dowth. The Newgrange burial chamber is bathed in light once a year at the winter solstice. More on Newgrange and Bru na Boinne.

Wedge Tombs first appeared around 2,200BC and lasted well into the Bronze Age. They get their name from the triangular shape of the tombs. More than 500 wedge tombs have been uncovered, mainly in the north of Ireland.

All of these tombs are immensely impressive structures, showing that Stone Age people of Ireland had sophisticated buildings skills as well as a good understanding of astronomy.

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