The aim of a historical overview is to present a picture of the research which precedes ones research topic. In this context however, there has not been a lot written or published in regard to caves as burial sites. There also seems to be limited access to many older publications, making future research harder.
An important distinction stressed by Barrett (1988) is that mortuary rituals comprise not only those of a funerary nature, to do with the disposal of the corpse, but also those involving the ancestors, which may include the use of the dead. We must distinguish between ancestor rituals and funerary rituals because human remains may be used on both. Ancestor rituals establish the presence of ancestors in rites concerned with the living, amongst the places and symbols used may be funerary architecture and the remains of the dead (Arch of context Ch. 3). Ancestor rituals may also play a part in the rites of burial. Funerary rituals are specifically concerned with human burial. Within this context, we can distinguish between inhumation, secondary burial, and cremation (arch of context Ch.3). secondary burial involves a lengthy liminal period with the corpse being buried or stored before being recovered and reinterred at the close of the burial process. A similar separation may be achieved by cremation. Here the rites may commence with the lighting of the funeral pyre, only to be completed by the collection and sorting of the ashes and their final dispersal or burial (Arch. Of context).
Major themes of recent British and European work on Neolithic mortuary practice have included the recognition of the significance of patterning in the human deposits, the relationship between the burial deposits and defined architectural spaces and the importance of individual sequences of events at different sites (Vessel Ch. 10). In Ireland, by contrast, most concern in the study of human remains recovered in Neolithic contexts has been at a functional level, identifying the rite of burial involved, the number and sex of individuals (where possible) and the presence or absence of greavegoods (vessels Ch. 10). There has been a concern with treating the evidence from particular contexts such as individual tomb types together, and noting differences between the. Little consideration has been given to the possibility of comparisons across archaeologically constructed typological boundaries. When the presence of various practices within the same monument type are discovered, they have been interpreted as representing chronological change rather than potentially offering insights into the differential treatment of the dead (vessels). While in some cases significant patterning has been noted in the burial evidence, as in the occurrence of unburnt skulls and long bones in the cremation deposits in passage tombs, this has not been explored further (Vessels Ch. 10).
Two distinct trends are recognizable in the archaeological literature: first, regional studies which are laden by preformulated theoretical models imposed onto the available evidence and second, particularistic studies in which chambered tombs are treated as independent physical entities (Altered images).
Since the 19th century, the tendency to overplay monuments and underplay natural features in archaeological research has resulted in an imbalanced understanding of the different places and stages involved in Neolithic mortuary practices (arch of caves). Natural places are likely to have resonated with meanings that were different to those associated with megalithic tombs, but both were recognized as ritually significant.
The formal burial of individuals was rarely practiced in the earlier Neolithic and the phenomenon of collective burial predominates. This is where the remains from several corpses (often following excarnation and dismemberment elsewhere) were buried together, and were frequently represented by selected parts of their skeletons.
Some of the most important and impressive structures that survive from the Neolithic are the megalithic tombs. Archaeological investigations of mortuary practices in the earlier Neolithic of Ireland and the Britain have long been dominated by monuments, whether earthen long barrows, megalithic chambered tombs, or causewayed enclosures (non-monumental- a cavernous view). This is not surprising since these sites are prominent on the landscape. There is increasing evidence for non-monumental forms of burial during the Neolithic in these countries, raising a series of questions regarding the interpretation of these different mortuary practices. Caves in particular are now being identified as important burial places.
Cremation appears to have been the dominant burial rite for early Neolithic, with over 65% of the burials being classified as cremations (Murphy 2010). Bradley (2007) has argued that cremation was the dominant rite in burial monuments in Ireland and Scotland, in contrast to southern Britain, where inhumed remains represent the primary mortuary rite.
Two distinct burial traditions can be identified for the early Neolithic, one megalithic and the other non-megalithic (Brindley and Lanting 1989). Caves are included in the non-megalithic burial tradition and it is described as “unprotected, crouched burials accompanied by Western Neolithic pottery and/or stone axe grave gifts (Dowd MA). More recently though, contributions have emphasized the role of inhumation at Neolithic burial sites. The most striking addition is that of the remains from Poulnabrone, where the unburnt remains of at least 35 individuals were recovered (lynch 2014).
The Linkardstown cist burial tradition took place concurrently (in use from 3600-3300 BC) with the practice of cave burial during the Neolithic. Linkardstown cists generally contain the burials of two or more unburnt, articulated flexed or extended males (Dowd MA). Linkardstown burials have been focused in central Ireland and have been interpreted as communal memorials to leading individuals in a community (Cooney 2000). Several analogies can be drawn between the two burial rites indicating that the two customs were not isolated from each other and shared common characteristics and possibly influences. The Annagh cave burials in particular share resemblances with the Linkardstown burials.
Recent discussion has suggested that sites belonging to the passage tomb tradition are the most important aspect of the archaeological evidence from this time period due to the establishment of farming in Ireland (Pathways). In reality, the remains of the dead were treated in diverse ways during this time period at different sites and even various ways at the same types of sites.
The most substantial trace of Neolithic activity which remains in the modern landscape of Britain and Ireland consists of a large number of stone monuments, more specifically megalithic tombs. These monuments have long attracted the interest of archaeologists. There is a notion of the distinguished dead being buried in megalithic tombs, meaning that only certain individuals were placed inside these monuments. The question is who are these distinguished dead. Interpretations of chambered tombs include; violent or traumatic deaths, bones of the deceased remaining accessible to the living and being regularly reordered, and important ancestors being commemorated at these sites (neo Britain and Ireland).
Tombs are usually compared to other tombs of the same type or even just between different types of tombs. Mostly regional studies and comparisons and not in burial rituals (vessels Ch. 9).
Recent examinations of older excavations have revealed that a considerable number of people buried in chambered tombs suffered traumatic injuries. Schulting and Wysocki 2005 note that 7.4% of crania have evidence of both blunt-force and sharp-force trauma. Arrowheads have been found embedded in some remains. Other, potentially fatal injuries would not necessarily show up in the bone record, which could mean the number of people who died from a violent death was even higher than this.
Remains from chambered tombs were sometimes accompanied by small amounts of material culture, usually pottery and stone tools but rarely in any quantity (Neo Brit Ire).
At a number of tombs in Britain and Ireland, remains were disturbed during the deposition of further bodies where old bones were swept aside as new bodies were introduced. Such successive burial practices eventually left a pattern of disposal and partial skeletal remains. Arrangements of bones in chambered tombs suggest that this was not always haphazard disruption but may have involved sorting or stacking bones, whilst in some cases the bones of the long dead were manipulated without the introduction of further corpses (oxford handbook).
Although there appears to have been central themes or ideologies with regard to the treatment of the dead, there also seems to have been local or regional variations in ritual practice and corpse management. Reilly stated that the tombs in Orkney often show deliberate disarticulation and manipulation, involving specific spatial patterning within the tombs, and disparate representation of elements most often concerning the skull (deviant burial Ch. 3). What has remained unclear are the reasons that might explain why individuals were selected for deposition in these various contexts and the basis on which a body was left whole or subjected to mortuary fragmentation and circulation.
Simple classification attempts to present logical regional sequences of development and style, but following excavation it has become clear that many Neolithic tombs spanned immense periods of time in use and were progressively changed, thus defying simple classification (Neolithic Britain and Ireland Ch. 5).
Up until a point, megalithic tombs were viewed as the classic, and often the only, type of Neolithic burial. It is increasingly obvious however, that several alternative burial practices were in operation during the Neolithic for disposing of the dead.
(transition into caves)
John Gilks was prescient in drawing attention to a widespread tradition of prehistoric cave burials in Britain, noting the frequent association of human skeletal remains and prehistoric artefacts in the caves (sacred darkness Ch. 5).
Many caves have not been fully excavated so the number of individuals that rest in caves could be much higher.
Gilks recognizes the fact that the practice of burying the dead in caves in prehistoric Britain is a considerably more widespread phenomenon than has been previously recognized. He disputes the idea that caves were only used occasionally for burial. He maintains that cave burials “Constitute an important, and yet unappreciated, aspect of the burial customs of the farming communities which inhabited the highland zone of northern England during the later Neolithic” (Dowd MA). The absence of cave burials until the early and middle Neolithic may reflect the cultural transition which took place with the adoption of agriculture.
Some archaeologists have suggested that megalithic monuments, particularly passage tombs, may reflect an intention to recreate the sensory experiences available in caves, essentially the darkness, silence, stillness, and constant temperature (archaeology of caves Ch. 5). It has also been argued that caves were inferior or substitutes for megalithic tombs and that monuments were constructed in areas where caves do not naturally occur.
It appears that there was considerable diversity in mortuary practice in the early Neolithic. Human remains have been found from a wide variety of contexts, not just monuments and caves but also in rivers and single graves in some areas. The focus on caves and megalithic tombs for this thesis is in no way a complete overview and it should be remembered that the focus is on very few locations as well.
The principal features which correlate cave burials and megalithic tombs are the utilization of space and the inherent symbolism. The deliberate selection of a suitable cave or site may have been influenced by the fact that the morphology of a cave allows space to be used in a structured manner, similar to that of megalithic tombs (Dowd MA). The distinctive layout of the cave would have helped to control access to particular knowledge and experience. The morphology of a cave naturally creates divisions between those who enter the cave and those who remains outside, between those who are buried in the cave and those who are not. The same can be said about megalithic tombs. In both tomb and cave burials, people would have to squeeze, crouch or crawl in order to even enter the space.
As Dowd (2008) has detailed, 14 caves have produced human bone from the Neolithic period, with marked concentration of dates in the 3600-3400 BC range. The bone mostly occurs as isolated bones, but complete inhumation burials, at Annagh and Kilgreany, are known (Role of cremation).
Dowd 2008 suggests that the repeated occurrence of small numbers of bone in caves is reflective of two practices: excarnation and token deposits. It should be noted that cremated bone has only been found in one Irish cave, in the form of two discrete deposits of undated cremated bone at Kilgreany (Role of cremation).
At both tombs and caves there is frequently a focus on the entrance, which cane declare a boundary or threshold. Skeates believes that “caves would also have stood out in relation to the prehistoric settlement landscape as ancient, permanent, and relatively unchanging physical structures… and they can perhaps be compared as such to megalithic monuments” (Dowd MA).
Caves are physically more permanent than artificially constructed tombs and may therefore have been adopted for burial purpose due to their permanence as memorials to the dead. Oosterbeek claims that “megaliths are no more than a particular type of artificial cave’ (Dowd MA).
There have been other types of mortuary practices mentioned in the literature including; inhumed burials in unmarked graves, and placement in pits of both unburnt and disarticulated bone and cremated bone is also a feature of this time period (role of cremation). This thesis will not discuss the different types of practices individually, but will be looking at the types practiced at specific sites and how they compare to each other.
The regional diversity of tombs, grave goods, and body disposal practices represents a large and important body of data about the people of the Neolithic.
There is increasing evidence that different activities took place inside caves and monuments, and that distinction between the two were recognized and maintained (arch of caves).
When reviewing the practices taking place at the sites discussed throughout the next few chapters, particular attention will be paid to the following; cremation and inhumation, articulated and disarticulated remains, adults and non-adults, males and females, individual and collective burial and presence or absence of gravegoods. Potential comparisons will be drawn between the types of practices used at caves and megalithic tombs.