Poulnabrone: “The Hole of the Sorrows” Glen Banna
“Enjoy yourself . . . and don’t be writing all that miserable stuff.”
“That’s not fair,” I protest. “Writing about my interest in the First World War is bound to seem a bit gloomy.”
“Well at least he won’t find much about that at the Burren,” chips in one of my offspring, still mentally scarred from childhood holidays interrupted by detours to “interesting” historic sites.
Armed with the task of writing something upbeat and cheerful, I studied the itinerary of the writing course being held at Ballyvaughan in the Burren and quickly settled on . . . the visit to a burial chamber at nearby Poulnabrone.
This portal tomb is the most visited site on the Burren and originally contained human bones carbon dated between 3800 to 3200 B.C. though it is thought the site continued to be used for rituals well into the Iron Age.
The megalith consists of a single chamber, the entrance flanked by two portal stones three inches taller than the average five foot seven Neolithic man. There are two orthostats, an end stone and a sill stone, the latter partially closing the entrance and facing North, whilst the heavy capstone slopes away. The low oval cairn provides more support for the side stones. In 1986 Dr Ann Lynch carried out an excavation of the site and in 1988 one of the portal stones was replaced when its deterioration threatened to cause the collapse of the monument. An additional orthostat was added for extra support. Inside the single portal chamber inhumations were found together with grave goods.
Having consulted a number of texts on Neolithic archaeology, I realised that I would have to use some of the archaeologist’s technical terms such as: “perhaps”, “one theory”, “a number of theories” or when desperate we could employ “it is not known” or the more daring “unguessable”.
Empirical measurements, descriptive details and meticulous drawings are not enough to satiate our thirst for an understanding of the use of megaliths, thus allowing everyone, including myself, to take the experts at their word when they say “we may speculate”. As Stuart Piggott wrote in 1937 in his Prehistory and the Romantic Movement:
“What more could one need to satisfy one’s romantic desires? A Druid’s cell, ivy-clad and dank, was really almost as good as that other romantic but rheumatic retreat, a hermit’s grot, so beloved of the period … It has been the fate of the megaliths, particularly the great stone circles, to be the victims of Romanticism up to the present day.”
Today, coaches expel their tourists. Information boards – beside the lone enterprising Neolithic man, grey-hooded and doing a nice line in Celtic jewellery – do their best to inform, but it is the iconic photograph they want
The portal tomb’s prominent position opens up the possibility that it may also have been a territorial marker, warding off potential occupiers: any community that could lift a five tonne capstone represented a force with which to be reckoned.
Why were so few members of the community interred here? It is likely that those found in the tomb were of a high status indicating that theirs was a hierarchical society. The excavation uncovered a puzzle of objects including the bones from at least sixteen adults together with those of six children. These were deposited in the fissures known as grikes in the limestone floor. From a later era a lone new-born infant from the Bronze Age was inhumed just outside the tomb.
The bodies had not been cremated and studies of the bones – now held in Clare Museum – show that great care was taken to deflesh the corpses. However, the absence of cut marks rules out the use of scrapers and excarnation by scavenging animals can be discounted since small bones were present. The likely method in this locality was that the bodies were buried elsewhere then carefully exhumed and disarticulated before being transferred to the portal tomb.
If these bones were from high status individuals it does not reflect well on the health of the rest of the community. Only one adult was over the age of 40; most of the others died before they reached 30.
Their dentition confirms a diet of stone-ground cereals. The transition from hunter gathering to pastoral settlement supported a larger population, but may have come at a cost; there is evidence that the change resulted in the average human height decreasing, supporting those who believe that the cereal based diet was inferior to that of the hunter gatherers. Most of the adults suffered from arthritis. Why such levels of arthritis in such young adults? Was it due to continual crouching at stone “saddle” querns grinding einkorn or was it caused by carrying the weight of stones and timber? The children – between the ages of five and fifteen – displayed signs of malnutrition.
Yet the grikes also revealed cattle, pig, dog, sheep, hare and bird bones. Harder to explain are the stoat, pine marten and mouse bones. Perhaps some of these were sacrificed, perhaps the tomb was a wildlife microhabitat. Despite the small sample, there is evidence of violence. A tip of an arrowhead was found embedded in the hip bone of one individual, but there was no sign of either healing or infection – suggesting the wound was made at the time of his death, though curiously it was not considered serious enough to have killed him. Fractures that had healed were found in one of the skulls and a rib, another sign that these farmers were not living in idyllic pastoral peace.
Among the grave goods was a polished stone axe. By now, I was warming to this type of burial and metaphorically sizing myself up for disarticulation – I wonder what would I have taken with me. My hammer? No, it will have to be more impressive than that. My lawn mower? – too big. I narrow the choice down to my electric drill or the chain saw. Since stone axes were vital for clearing trees for agricultural land, I plump for the electric chain saw. Just as I start to ponder on the availability of 240 volt sockets in the hereafter and whether a travel adaptor would be worth considering, I remember reading that Neolithic polished axes may not be all that they seem. The Ulster Museum holds the famous Malone hoard of 19 polished porcellanite axe heads. Their aesthetic beauty is obvious, but they are too large and heavy to be of practical use. Just how many un-used axes does a man need? Ruling out the possibility that the finders stumbled on a Neolithic tool shop – don’t laugh, they did exist – they are almost certainly symbolic objects, reflecting religious power, wealth and status.
Two stone beads, a triangular bone pendant decorated with drilled holes, mushroom-headed bone pins and two quartz crystals might suggest that bodies were adorned. The rest of the grave goods consisted of shards of coarse pottery, a hollow-based chert arrowhead, two leaf-shaped chert points, and three different types of scraper. Useful perhaps… but could they really be regarded as symbols of status or did these items represent a Neolithic survival kit for the hereafter? Scrape hides to make clothes and then pin them. Hunt with arrows and cook with pottery. Should I think about being buried with my potato peeler?
The fact that the bones of individuals were not discrete suggests that these people wished to emphasise the importance of community structure. The contents of the grikes within the tomb themselves represent not only a biography of the land and community, but also an archive of ancestry where individuals, their possessions, other animals, could be visited, examined and revisited.
The archaeological findings show that “there was no evidence of material culture outside of the burial chamber”. Perhaps not, but there are sculptures in the limestone karst.
The sculptors arrive from the skies. Cohesive forces bind the molecules together into silvery spheres and, descending in their millions, they lose their neutrality. The sculpting may now begin. Invited by the merest concavity they will gather and dissolve the limestone, producing holes or kamenitza. The acidic rain spills over and soundlessly chisels channels known as rillenkarren across the stone. The natural sculptures delineated by green foliage speckled with dog violets, spring gentians and purple orchids huddle in the grikes. Deeper still, wood violets hide between the clints.
The limestone is predominantly grey calcium carbonate from a variety of sources including ancient zooplankton, corals, crinoids and brachiopods. However, the limestone sculptures adopt a myriad of subtle tones and textures. Nature has produced pigments worthy of an alchemist: shells of microscopic algae; thin layers of mudstone; layers of silica based chert; the phosphate rich bones and teeth of fish and clusters of yellow white calcite veins. The colour schemes are not static, continually changing hue with the day’s varying light conditions.
The sculptures can now be viewed. As in a Rorschach’s inkblot test, where the psychologist’s subject is given free rein to see what they want to see, Today I catch sight of a massive beached whale, its broad arched back and horny, fringed baleen; a flatfish floundering on the karst; a reptile with limestone scales and a giant snail lying on its side – carved from an erratic that a glacier has casually dropped on its relentless journey from Connemara.
A “Hole of the Sorrows”? I don’t believe it. That solitary Bronze Age infant is laughing and giggling at those animal antics.
The French tourists have been told, “You must return to the coach in 20 minutes.” These hunter-gatherers’ sights are fixed on the megalith. As I pause, trying to imagine what ceremony the ancients carried out, I watch the coach party. Most begin stalking the megalith by walking anticlockwise round the stones, but some walk in an inner concentric arc; then, armed with their cameras, they edge inwards to compose and freeze the stones in time. This innermost circle starts to rotate: the hunters are determined to catch every angle.
What is causing this vortical flow? There is little difference between the Modern and Neolithic man’s brain and sensory organs: they consist of the same retinas, optic nerves and cerebra. Perhaps we can’t see the wood for the stones. We could speculate. Perhaps I am watching the megalith exerting its control of the day’s rituals. Theurgic or just innate human behaviour?
The coach party departs with hundreds of pictures of the cause, but possibly are unaware of the effect.