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Stone Dead: Uncovering Early Mesolithic Mortuary Rites, Hermitage, Ireland

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 October 2016

Aimée Little
Affiliation:
BioArChDepartment of ArchaeologyUniversity of YorkEnvironment BuildingWentworth WayYork YO10 5DDUK Email: aimee.little@york.ac.uk
Annelou van Gijn
Affiliation:
Department of Archaeological ScienceFaculty of ArchaeologyLeiden UniversityPB 95142300 RA LeidenNetherlands Email: a.l.van.gijn@arch.leidenuniv.nl
Tracy Collins
Affiliation:
Aegis Archaeology Ltd32 Nicholas StreetKing's IslandLimerick V94 V6F7Ireland Email: tracy@aegisarc.com
Gabriel Cooney
Affiliation:
School of ArchaeologyUniversity College DublinBelfieldDublin 4Ireland Email: gabriel.cooney@ucd.ie
Ben Elliott
Affiliation:
Department of ArchaeologyUniversity of YorkKings ManorExhibition SquareYork YO1 7EPUK Email: ben.elliott@york.ac.uk
Bernard Gilhooly
Affiliation:
School of ArchaeologyUniversity College DublinBelfieldDublin 4Ireland Email: bernard.gilhooly@ucdconnect.ie
Sophy Charlton
Affiliation:
Department of Earth SciencesNatural History MuseumCromwell RoadLondon SW7 5BDUK Email: sophy@palaeo.eu
Graeme Warren
Affiliation:
School of ArchaeologyUniversity College DublinBelfieldDublin 4Ireland Email: graeme.warren@ucd.ie

Abstract

In Europe, cremation as a burial practice is often associated with the Bronze Age, but examples of cremated human remains are in fact known from the Palaeolithic onwards. Unlike conventional inhumation, cremation destroys most of the evidence we can use to reconstruct the biography of the buried individual. Remarkably, in Ireland, cremation is used for the earliest recorded human burial and grave assemblage (7530–7320 bc) located on the banks of the River Shannon, at Hermitage, County Limerick. While we are unable to reconstruct in any great detail the biography of this individual, we have examined the biography of a polished stone adzehead interred with their remains. To our knowledge, this adze represents the earliest securely dated polished axe or adze in Europe. Microscopic analysis reveals that the adze was commissioned for burial, with a short duration of use indicating its employment in funerary rites. Before its deposition into the grave it was intentionally blunted, effectively ending its use-life: analogous to the death of the individual it accompanied. The microwear traces on this adze thus provide a rare insight into early Mesolithic hunter-gatherer belief systems surrounding death, whereby tools played an integral part in mortuary rites and were seen as fundamental pieces of equipment for a successful afterlife.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research 2016 

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