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.
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