Megalithic Symbolism in Ireland and Scandinavia in

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Megalithic Symbolism in Ireland and Scandinavia in light of new evidence from Carrowmore Göran Burenhult, Ph.D. Professor of Archaeology Gotland University College, Sweden PRE-PRINT VERSION As indicated by the title of this paper, I would like to address megalithic symbols in a long-term,

continuous social and economic perspective – rather than art as such – although I will get back to some specific comparisons between Ireland and Scandinavia later on. I have the following aims:

1. To show that new evidence from the Carrowmore megalithic cemetery supports the idea that the

Irish passage tombs, court tombs and portal tombs, with their distribution and attributes, which

have been shown to be largely contemporary, may reflect a strict social hierarchy – with a passage tomb élite on top, with all that this entails in terms of symbolism.

2. To support the idea that the striking similarities in the megalithic world of symbols all over western Europe result from direct contacts, much more extensive than previously acknowledged, between the stone age communities.

3. To show that these inter-regional contacts are technologically not a problem, if one compares them with well-documented long-distance contacts in stone age contexts in other parts of the world.

4. To suggest that ethnographic observations of recent megalithic societies support archaeological

data in this pan-European perspective with regard to symbolic world, ancestor cult, excarnation,

reburial, complex manipulation of bone materials, the role of social status, offerings, destruction of wealth etc.

In fact, as has been stated by many, megaliths are themselves nothing but symbols. One does not need to erect stone-built tombs just in order to dispose of the bodies of your dead relatives – there are much

easier ways of doing that. The megalithic symbolism is apparent not only in the monumentality of the tomb itself, but also in the choice of location in the landscape, in the physical relation to other

monuments, in the choice of stone materials for the construction, in internal structural features, in the

morphology of the tomb, in deposits and offerings, in grave-goods, and so on. That this reflects specific aspects of the contemporary social systems and their ritual world is widely accepted. But

when did it start – and why? And in what way can this be related to the world of contacts in the mesolithic-neolithic interface? Let us start by looking at the environmental, economic, demographic

and social changes that took place within the late mesolithic hunter-gatherer societies in western and northern Europe towards the late sixth and early fifth millennia BC.


From mobile hunter-gatherer to complex forager: the marine surplus revolution

The fundamental environmental and ecological changes in western and northern Europe after the last

glaciation greatly affected the ways of life of the people living in the region. Also, there is reason to

believe that these changes in the economy of the human populations to a great extent triggered changes in the social organisation, as well as ritual beliefs and the symbolic world used to express these beliefs. An obvious example of this is the disappearance of the palaeolithic cave art at the end of the glacial period.

The upper palaeolithic saw the emergence of the first indisputable burials in Europe, that is

inhumations accompanied by various grave-goods as adornments or weapons. These burial grounds seem to appear in a few, ecologically very favourable areas with a rich variety of food resources, e.g at

Grimaldi and Arene Candide close to the Mediterranean coastline (Rowley-Conwy, personal communication 1998), along major rivers in central and eastern Europe, or in the Dordogne area,

where salmon fishing created a major surplus in the palaeolithic economy (Jochim 1983). The contents

of some of these finds, put in relation to the age and sex of the buried individuals, has been considered a reflection of the existence of a less egalitarian palaeolithic society than previously believed. For

instance, buried children from Sungir in Russia and Grotte des Enfants on the Côte d’Azur, were

accompanied by elaborate hunting gear and dress applications, symbols possibly reflecting status they could barely have attained themselves at the age of seven to thirteen (Pfeiffer 1982:68). These and

other graves may indicate a much more complex social organisation during the upper palaeolithic, reflecting an hierarchic society where lineage and hereditary status may have existed among the

reindeer hunters of the tundra. Also, complex camps and meeting places, showing clear signs of

having had also a ceremonial function, as for instance Mezhirich in the Ukraine or La Madéleine in the Dordogne, indicate the existence of a strong leadership and formal organisation.

Formal disposal of the dead from the late Pleistocene and early Holocene periods are most likely to be

found along the now submerged coastlines of Atlantic Europe. When burial traditions re-appear in the archaeological record, from about 6000 BC, they were to demonstrate partly similar characteristics as the palaeolithic ones. The symbolic world, however, had undergone fundamental changes.

Since the late 1970’s we have seen an increasing understanding of the economic, demographic and

social implications of the fact that the new coastlines created in western Europe between 6000 and 4500 BC formed very rich and seasonally varied ecological settings, with a preponderance of marine resources, and that the populations of the late mesolithic as a result of this developed a high degree of sedentism in many areas. Food, not people, circulated in the natural habitat. (Clarke 1976, 1977;

Burenhult 1980a:111-115, 1980b:5-8, 1984:134, 1998; Perlman 1980; Rowley-Conwy 1983; Thomas 1988:60-61; Vermeersch & van Peer 1990 (eds); Hodder 1992:73; Boujot & Cassen 1993:485; Fisher


(ed.) 1995). Clearly, this process also affected labour arrangements, social complexity and ritual life.

The late mesolithic in these favourable areas is characterised by the appearance of archaeologically visible ritualised mortuary practices (Chapman 1981; Rowley-Conwy 1993, 1997). Within the Ertebølle culture in southern Scandinavia, these burial grounds appear in the late sixth millennium BC

at sites like Vedbæk and Korsør Nor in Denmark (Albrethsen & Brinch Petersen 1977) and Bäckaskog, Skateholm (Larsson 1984, 1988, 1995), and, most recently, Tågerup in Sweden (Karsten,

personal communication 1998). Even earlier formal burial practices developed along the coasts of

Gotland in the Baltic, where the graves from Stora Bjers and Kambs have been dated to about 6000 BC (Larsson 1982). Also other areas in Western Europe saw the emergence of late mesolithic burials

(Constandse-Westermann and Newell 1990:96-97). Occasionally the development of megalithic burial

traditions has been ascribed to the same ecological adaptations and social changes (Burenhult 1980a, 1980b, 1984).

There is no reason to believe that the two different expressions of contemporary burial traditions, the

inhumations in the ground and the stone-built tombs, necessarily reflect different attitudes in the perception of the aftermath or in the ritual beliefs. The understanding of the megalithic phenomenon

may be sought in social complexity, demography and population size, as well as in a higher degree of

territorial consciousness, rather than in diverging approaches to the supernatural and the ancestral cult. In fact, the non-megalithic burials in the late mesolithic often reveal evidence of much more elaborate burial traditions than the megaliths themselves, especially with respect to grave-goods and personal

adornments. A similar situation was suggested for the Danish neolithic already in 1975, when Klavs Randsborg highlighted the fact that the Danish ground burials often contain considerably richer sets of

grave-goods than the contemporary megaliths, and that this can be related to population density (Randsborg 1975). The megalithic burials themselves fulfil the quest for individual rank and family

status. On the other hand, megalithic burials often display evidence of very complex mortuary ceremonies with regard to the handling of the dead bodies, including e.g. defleshing and reburials (e.g. Masset 1993). The burials and the first stone built tombs may have been the new mesolithic symbols.

The problem of understanding the first appearance of these formal burials, whether they took the form of megalithic monuments or ground burials, is the possibility and degree of interaction with the

farming communities in central Europe during the mesolitic-neolithic interface, an issue of both chronology and contact.

The concept of a border between the ”mesolithic” and the ”neolithic” is since long not relevant.

Already in the 1980’s it was widely accepted that the introduction of farming into pre-existing

mesolithic communities in most areas of western Europe was a very slow process, that went on for a long period of time, involving an availability phase of often more than a thousand years (Burenhult 1980:113, 1984:138-139; Rowley-Conwy 1983; Kinnes 1984:367-370; Renfrew 1984:391-394;


Zvelebil & Rowley-Conwy 1984; Zvelebil & Rowley-Conwy 1986; Thomas 1988; Armit & Finlayson 1992; Zvelebil 1994). It is a well-established fact that very early contact between late mesolithic hunter-gatherers and farmers was established in most places. The important thing in the development

of new mortuary practices and formal disposals of the dead in these societies is the understanding of

the fundamental economic base for the social, demographic and ritual changes that took place during

the early Atlantic period: What’s for dinner tonight – and the rest of the week? This process was surely no uniform event. Instead, great variability and local adaptations are key-words in this context (Burenhult 1984:138).

The scarcity of evidence for early farming and cattle-breeding in Britain and Ireland has become

gradually acknowledged in this context. For instance, the nature of the subsistence in the Irish neolithic seems to be based on very limited evidence, due to the paucity in quantity and quality of the faunal assemblages (Wijngaarden-Bakker 1974:320-323; McGormick 1985/6; Cooney & Grogan 1994:36). Also the status of early finds of cereal pollen, e.g. at Ballynagilly in Ireland, has been

questioned. Also, as shown by Fritz (1994) and Peter Rowley-Conwy (1995:351-352), doubt can be

cast on the palynological methodology as such (see also e.g. Edwards 1989; Woodman 1992:302). Current work in some regions, including Britain and Ireland, is failing to find farming as early as the

pollen claims. Surely, in most coastal areas, the populations have been shown to depend on marine resources to a very high degree, as well as terrestrial hunting and gathering, long after the first cereal

pollen or cow bone can be identified in the archaeological record. For a long time, social changes in most areas preceded a later rapid economic change, once the availability phase turned into a transition phase. Furthermore, in Ireland, an extensive ”mesolithic” survival can be shown to have existed all

through the neolithic and even the bronze age and early iron age (Burenhult 1981a, 1984:38-42, 68,

72-74; Woodman 1981, 1985; Österholm 1984:326-345). Surely, the subsistence system of a society, or the culture itself for that matter, cannot be claimed to be ”neolithic” just because polished axes and

pottery occurs in the find material as a result of contacts with farming communities, as has been shown

e.g. in the late mesolithic Ertebølle culture of southern Scandinavia, where farming or cattle-breeding

seem to have played either a very little or no part in the economy, although ground axes and pottery are predominant artefacts (Zvelebil & Rowley-Conwy 1986:78-80). The same might well apply to many sites in western Europe. Mesolithic megaliths?

This is not the place to go into the overall problem of the mesolithic-neolithic transition in detail, but rather to discuss the possibility that new mortuary practices and formal disposal of the dead may have

occurred within the western European mesolithic communities both before and after first contact with farming populations further east, and certainly did so already during the palaeolithic (Burenhult

1980b:5-8, 1984:138-140; Göransson 1984:154-193; Zvelebil & Rowley-Conwy 1986; Bradley 1992,


1997; Rowley-Conwy 1995). If this is the case, the reasons for the earliest transformations must be

sought within the different coastal societies (Burenhult 1984:146). While it has been argued that the early development of megaliths in Spain and Portugal seems to have been linked to a change in human

nutrition, this cannot have been the case in Brittany or in the British Isles, where the first convincing evidence of farming of any scale came after the early development of stone-built tombs (Marguerie 1992; Bradley 1993, 1997:22; Lubell, Jackes, Schwarcz, Knyf and Meikeljohn 1994; Rowley-Conwy

1995). “Their construction could not have been financed by an agricultural surplus” (Bradley 1997:22). In spite of this lack of evidence, the traditional idea of farming as a prerequisite for megaliths is still occasionally upheld (Waddell 1998:78, 87).

In continental western Europe, several megalithic constructions have produced data which suggest an

essentially mesolithic economy of the people who built these tombs (Giot 1960, 1971; L’Helgouach 1976; Scarre 1983; Hibbs 1985; Scarre, Switsur & Mohen 1993; Giot, Marguerie & Morzadec 1994;

Bradley 1997). For instance, radiocarbon dates from the late 6th and early 5th millennia BC have been

obtained at Barnenez and Île Guennoc in Brittany (Radiocarbon 8 (1966):76; Radiocarbon 13 (1971):214-15), Bougon near Poitiers (Scarre, Switsur & Mohen 1993:857), Châ de Parada in Galicia (Criado Boado & Fabregas Valcarce 1989:685) and others. Also, at Hoëdic and Téviec in Brittany

stone constructions containing inhumations have been dated to about 5200 cal. BC (4625 ± 300 bc

from Hoëdic) (Pequart & Pequart 1954; Pequart, Pequart, Boule & Vallois 1937; Hibbs 1983, Schulting 1996), and at Dissignac, Loire-Atlantique, a microlithic industry has been shown to be associated with the construction of a passage-grave (L’Helgouach 1976).

Also in Britain and Ireland, similar late mesolithic contexts for the earliest megalithic constructions

have been suggested (Ashbee 1974, 1982; Clark 1980; Burenhult 1984:142, 1992, 1995). Ashbee has emphasized a mesolithic subsistence origin for the earliest tombs on the Isles of Scilly, where the

contemporary economy was based mainly on marine components: sea-shore gathering, fishing,

fowling, marine hunting and deer exploitation (Ashbee 1974:264, 1982:10). In western Sweden, Clark (1977) has argued for the same economic background for the coastal megaliths of Bohuslän.

At the megalithic cemetery of Carrowmore, Co. Sligo in Ireland, the Swedish Archaeological

Excavations produced in the late 1970s a series of radiocarbon dates that placed the initial phase of the

cemetery in a late mesolithic subsistence context. Also, the youngest dates from Carrowmore clearly predated those of the Boyne Valley monuments. Inevitably, the excavation results and the following interpretations gave rise to an intense debate and were subjected to severe criticism. The results were

supported by the investigations of kitchen midden settlements, shore-lines, and temporary camps in

the area, indicating mainly a complex hunter-gatherer strategy for the population (Burenhult 1981a;

1984:133-140). To some extent, controversy still surrounds the results from the first excavation


campaign at Carrowmore 1977-1991 (Burenhult 1980 a, b, 1984, 1995; Caulfield 1983:206-213;

ApSimon 1986). Many scholars have acknowledged the need to reevaluate the traditional explanations

of the Irish megalithic, although the earliest dates from Carrowmore are by several still seen as the

result of pre-site activity (O’Kelly 1981; Sheridan 1985/6; Harbison 1988; Woodman 1992; Cooney & Grogan 1994; Bergh 1995; Waddell 1998). Harbison (1988:44,46) states that our understanding of the Irish megalithic monuments involves a radical reassessment of traditional views. Also Bergh

(1995:107,110) acknowledges that the Carrowmore cemetery and other tombs in the area clearly have an early phase, pre-dating other areas of the Irish passage tomb tradition, including that of the Boyne Valley.

Radiocarbon evidence from the new, ongoing excavation campaign 1994-2000 strongly supports the results from the early 1980’s. The oldest dates so far available from the Carrowmore megalithic

cemetery comes from Tomb No. 4, about 5400 BC (4550±75 bc) (Burenhult in preparation a), which has also produced dates from megalithic activity from about 4800 cal. BC (3800 ± 85 bc), and 4000 cal. BC (2995 ± 100 bc). Tomb No. 7 has produced a date from about 4200 cal. BC (3290 ± 80 bc) (Burenhult 1980b:11, 1980b:10-16, 1995:12-14) (fig. 1).

The excavation of another megalithic tomb on the top of Croaghaun in the Ox Mountains, in Glen, Co. Sligo, in the vicinity of the Carrowmore megalithic cemetery, has recently produced an even earlier

date for the megalithic tradition in western Ireland. One radiocarbon date, centering around 5650 cal.

BC, pre-dates the so far oldest sample at Carrowmore by 250 years. A second date from Croaghaun also corresponds well with the early phase of Carrowmore, c. 4600 cal. BC The earliest date has been disregarded by Bergh (1995:104-105) as unvalid because of the extreme deviation from expected age.

Pre-site activity can be ruled out because of the underlying rock surface, so the excavator explains the

appearance of the charcoal in the chamber as intrusive material brought in from elsewhere (Bergh 1995:105). If a late mesolithic megalithic context for this reason should be ruled out in the Carrowmore area, mesolithic and early neolithic material then must have been brought into most

tombs so far excavated from sites that have not yet been located – in the author’s view a highly unlikely scenario.

The building of archaeological chronologies demands hard data. The data needed are, for obvious reasons, datable remains from the first deposition and the subsequent stages of accumulation and use

of the actual site – that is, radiocarbon dates. Megalithic constructions do not differ from other cultural

layers or prehistoric deposits in this respect. Megaliths are, as a rule, multi-period sites. Megaliths

have been built, used, reused, rebuilt, used again and again reused (Shee 1974; Burenhult 1980a:111116, 1995:12-14; Kinnes 1984:368-370; Sherratt 1990:149; Woodman 1992:303; Rowley-Conwy 1995:352). The common tradition of secondary burials in traditional societies, well documented in


prehistoric megalithic contexts, does not make the picture easier to understand. For instance, many

South Scandinavian dolmens and passage tombs from the middle neolithic contain burials and other

deposits from the late neolithic, the bronze age and even the Viking period, but, of course, this does not automatically mean that the monuments were constructed during these periods. Thus, the dating of

the primary construction of megalithic monuments is a very complicated undertaking, and the context

of every available sample has to be thoroughly examined. The dates that are most often useless for this

purpose are the ones provided from samples originating from activities inside the tombs proper. They will certainly give accurate dates for the actual period of use – but rarely for the construction, or even

reconstruction, of the monument. The same complex of problems will obviously apply to datable artefacts, found in connection with the burials, as they are likely to belong to the latest phase of use.

Today, 30 radiocarbon dates from the Carrowmore tombs are available. The proposed construction dates all fall within the late mesolithic – early neolithic subsistence context, while the dates indicating secondary use of the tombs can be divided into the later neolithic, the bronze age and the iron age. The late mesolithic and the neolithic dates are listed in figs 1:a and b. Thus, comprehensive data instead

suggests the possibility of early, local developments of megalithic traditions in western Europe in more or less sedentary complex hunter-gatherer contexts (Ashbee 1982; Bradley and Chapman

1984:354-355; Burenhult 1984:142-146; Kinnes 1984; Hodder 1990:219). The dates from

Carrowmore and Croaghaun only confirm what has been shown in the late mesolithic development of

a variety of new mortuary practices and formal disposal areas in e.g. Aveline’s Hole in England, on the Scilly islands, Hoëdic and Téviec in Brittany, Cabeço do Pez, Moita do Sebastiâo, Cabeço da Amoreira and Cabeço da Arruda in Portugal, at Lepenski Vir and within the Ertebølle tradition in

southern Scandinavia (Roche 1972a, 1972b; Zvelebil & Rowley-Conwy 1986). No doubt, future excavations in other areas along the Atlantic fringe will produce similar data, associated with late

mesolithic and early neolithic societies, forming complex social systems, largely based on a rich maritime economy.

During the last decade it has been widely accepted that the earliest megalithic structures in western Europe were created beyond the limits of initial agricultural colonisation in societies with a

subsistence largely based on marine resources (Sherratt 1990:149-50; Bradley 1992:13-14, 1997:22). Whether or not contact with farming communities was established already at the very earliest stages, from an economic point of view the megalith builders were living a mesolithic way of life. In this mesolithic-neolithic interface, the discussion of the tombs possibly being surrogates for the living village and huts or houses has been emphasized, and the round structures, as the passage tombs, have

been explained as local, indigenous continuities between mesoliths and megaliths, as opposed to the

long mounds in continental Europe (Hodder 1984:54; Sherratt 1984:129; Sherratt 1990:151; Bradley 1992:16; Kinnes 1992:133-135). Thus, the monuments may be explained as the focal, permanent ritual


centre in a non-village society (Burenhult 1980b:5, 1984:133-137). “… a permanent house and household of the dead amongst the insubstantial huts scattered within its territory” (Sherratt 1990:149).

Carrowmore and the Irish megalithic(s)

The more than 1,500 registered megalithic tombs in Ireland have traditionally been classified into four

main groups of monuments: court tombs, passage tombs, portal tombs and wedge tombs. Two other

stone-built tomb types have also been recognised: Linkardstown cists and boulder burials (Ó Nualláin 1978; O’Kelly 1981, 1989; Harbison 1988). Contrary to earlier theories, where the different tomb

types were thought to represent different subsequent chronological stages and even invasions of different groups of farmers, modern data have produced strong evidence for a more or less

contemporary construction and use of at least three of the tomb types in the same regions: court tombs, passage tombs and portal dolmens (Thomas 1990:170-171; Woodman 1992:304; Cooney & Grogan 1994; 57-58; Michell & Ryan 1997; Sterner 1997; Waddell 1998:78; Burenhult in preparation a). This contemporaneity of different tomb types has been highlighted by recent evidence from the Carrowmore excavations.

The Carrowmore megalithic cemetery covers an area of about half a square kilometre, and the central part of the cemetery extends in a north-south direction. It is about one kilometre long and 600 meters

wide. Outside the central part of the cemetery, various other stone built monuments occur, mainly to

the north, and altogether 45 sites still exist in the area. The cemetery has traditionally been classified

as a passage tomb cemetery, although almost no features in tomb morphology correspond to other passage tomb cemeteries in Ireland. The low altitude of the cemetery (about 50 meters above sea level)

and its position near the sea are also unusual features in the Irish passage tomb tradition. Since none of the tombs at Carrowmore displays the kind of passage that normally features in Irish passage tombs,

and only one site (Tomb No. 51) originally was covered with a cairn, the only connection between Carrowmore and the Irish passage tomb tradition, apart from the concentration of monuments, lies in

the finds of passage tomb artifacts that were found in several of the tombs during nineteenth-century digs (Burenhult 1980a, 1984).

The layout and structure of the Carrowmore cemetery is clearly that of an arranged ritual landscape, where the tombs have been placed in an oval shape around an area where no tombs were erected (Cooney 1990:750; Bergh 1995). There is a clear tendency that the tomb entrances, in eight out of the ten cases where this can be established, are facing towards the central part of the cemetery, that is the

tombs on the western side of the cemetery are facing eastwards, while the tombs on the eastern side are facing westwards (Bergh 1995:126). The direction of the entrances of two of the northernmost


tombs in the cemetery oval falls completely out of this picture, but this still suggests, however, that the layout must was deliberately planned already when the very first tombs were erected at Carrowmore.

The second campaign of the Swedish Archaeological Excavations at Carrowmore so far involves the

investigation of three previously unexcavated tombs within the cemetery, Tombs nos 1, 51 (Listoghil)

and 56. Also, an additional excavation of a third quadrant of Tomb No. 4, two quadrants of which

were excavated in 1979, was undertaken in 1994. Other monuments at Carrowmore are currently under investigation, and comprehensive surveys, including aerial photography with infrared film

materials as well as geophysical prospecting, are performed with the aim to locate the exact position of

megalithic tombs that were registered in the 19th century, but have subsequently been destroyed. Furthermore, a series of sites in the nearby Primrose Grange area, including two large megalithic stone cists, are being excavated by the Swedish team.

Tomb No. 51, Listoghil, falls outside all the morphological parameters that characterize the other

tombs within the Carrowmore megalithic cemetery. Firstly, with a diameter of c. 32 meters, Tomb No.

51 is considerably larger than the second largest tomb, Tomb No. 19, which has a diameter of c. 21 meters. Secondly, Tomb No. 51 is reported to have been covered by a large cairn with a height of

about 50 feet (over 16 meters) as late as in the 1690’s. (Wood-Martin 1888). Substantial remains of the lower parts of the cairn, including the boulder circle, are still intact. The investigations of the other

seven tombs so far excavated at Carrowmore have shown that those chambers were never covered by

cairns – the intact continuous deposition of secondary megalithic cists, Beaker material and also early and late iron age material, inside the boulder circles but outside the central chambers, shows that no cairns could possibly have covered the original constructions (Burenhult 1980, 1984). Thirdly, the rectangular central chamber in Tomb No. 51, with no adjoining passage or entrance, covered with a limestone roof slab, possibly brought in from the nearby Glen, about three kilometers to the southwest

of Carrowmore, bears no resemblance to the other tombs within the cemetery, or to any Irish passage

tomb for that matter. The morphology of the central chamber in Tomb No. 51, with its rectangular chamber and angled limestone roof slab, is that of a portal tomb (fig. 2).

In 1993, remains of art in the form of curved symbols were discovered on the front edge of the roofslab (Curran-Mulligan 1994), and during the 1996 excavations more artwork was discovered inside the chamber (fig. 3 a and b). The appearance of megalithic art might suggest a fairly late date for the tomb, as does the limestone construction itself. However, the focal position of Tomb No. 51 in the

centre of the Carrowmore cemetery, located on a height which is the only spot from which the sea can

been seen on both sides of the Knocknarea Peninsula: Sligo Bay in the north and Ballysadare Bay in the south, suggests that the site must have been of major interest in the original layout of the cemetery. There is a clear tendency for the tombs at Carrowmore to face the centre, if not exactly Tomb No. 51.


This does not, of course, necessarily mean that the dominant chamber with its cairn is the first structure to have been built on this focal spot, as the ongoing excavations have also shown. On the east

side of the central chamber, below the intact cairn, three large gneiss boulders were found (Fig. 4). The

boulders form no part of the chamber. They seem to have been pushed aside during the chamber construction and may possibly be the remains of an earlier megalithic structure that pre-dates the present one. So far, five radiocarbon dates (AMS) from charcoal samples, found under the cairn and

beside the external foundations of the chamber orthostats, have produced an accurate and narrow timespan for the erection of the limestone chamber and covering cairn of Tomb No. 51: c. 3600-3400 cal. BC (2880±60 bc, 2850±70 bc, 2825±60 bc, 2840±65 bc and 2705±65 bc). Concentrations of unburnt human bones were found just outside the eastern side of the central chamber, above the uppermost

stone layer of the cairn, which were probably thrown out from the chamber during 19th century diggings, as has been the case around most of the excavated tombs at Carrowmore. A piece of a skull

(os frontale), showing clear cut-marks resulting from defleshing or possibly scalping has been dated by AMS to the megalithic period, and has produced a date of use of the chamber of c. 3318 cal. BC (2675±60 bc). This date fits well within the proposed timespan for the construction of the limestone

chamber and the cairn, being slightly younger than the samples underneath the intact cairn. However, it also highlights the fact that strictly selected cremation and inhumation within the Carrowmore tombs

were practiced at the same time, an important contextual fact. Unburnt human bones are occasionally found in Irish passage tombs, although cremation is more common. It is worth mentioning, that the

famous Poulnabrone portal tomb in the Burren region has recently produced a series of radiocarbon dates from inhumations, ranging from about c. 3895 cal. BC to c. 3120 cal. BC. (Lynch & Ó

Donnabháin 1994). The erection and use of Tomb No. 51 thus falls within the period of use of the Poulnabrone portal tomb, and the burial practice in both cases was inhumation.

In the nearby Primrose Grange area, about two kilometers southwest of Carrowmore, a large (c. 12 x 4

meters) megalithic stone-cist is currently being excavated by the Swedish team. The cist has been registered as a court tomb in the Survey of the megalithic tombs in Ireland, and also in the Archaeological Survey of Ireland, Sites and Monuments Record. The tomb has no remains of a court

or a cairn (fig. 6) (Ó Nualláin 1979, Archaeological Survey of Ireland, SL014-166:62). Morphologically, the Primrose Grange tomb also lacks features that characterize the Carrowmore tombs (e.g. boulder circles, dolmens or small cists). Yet the ongoing excavation has shown that the

tomb was in use at the same time as the Carrowmore cemetery. A radiocarbon (AMS) sample from the

intact deposition layer inside the chamber has produced a date of c. 3915 cal. BC (3190±65 bc), and,

thus, the date of tomb construction can be expected to pre-date that sample. Two more samples from burials in the chamber have given c. 3000 and 3500 cal. BC respectively (2410±80 bc and 2695±70 bc). The burials found in Primrose Grange Tomb 1 are almost all inhumations, and very few cremated human bones have been found.


Also, the artefacts associated with the burials from the Carrowmore tombs are considerably different

from those of the Primrose Grange tomb. The typical Carrowmore grave assemblage consists of

mushroom-headed antler pins and stone/clay-balls, artefacts that have not yet been found at Primrose

Grange. Instead, extraordinary pieces of chert artefacts are found in Primrose Grange Tomb 1, mainly

leaf-shaped or pointed arrow-heads. On the other hand, hollow-scrapers and arrow-heads, made from imported Antrim flint, have been found in the construction layers in Tomb No. 56 at Carrowmore as

well as iat Primrose, artefact types that are traditionally associated with the Irish court tomb tradition (Burenhult 1995:26-27).

To sum up: all new available evidence supports the idea of a much more complex background for the

explanation of the Irish megalithic and the different so called tomb types than chronological stages and

geographical spread. Also the idea of evolutionary sequences from one type to another has since long been discarded. On the other hand, evolutionary sequences regarding morphological, cultural and to some extent also topographical features can clearly be defined within the different tomb types.

Attempts to consider the evolution of the megalithic monuments as a development from simple to more complex constructions, rather than the other way around, have occasionally been made

(Burenhult 1980:115), a view strongly supported by O’Kelly (1981:182). An analysis by Sheridan, based largely on morphological aspects of the passage tombs, later reached the same conclusion: a tomb development where size and complexity increased over time, reaching a peak with the mega-

monuments of e.g. the Boyne valley – that is that small and simple monuments are early and the large and complex monuments belong to a late phase (Sheridan 1985/6). Also Cooney & Grogan (1994:57)

and Waddell (1998:77) have discussed the chronological trend concerning Irish megaliths, and expressed a similar view, based also on site locations, geographical distribution and burial deposits.

At Carrowmore itself, and also at Croaghaun, this is very evident, where the earliest dated monuments,

consisting of simple stone cists (Tomb No. 4 and Croaghaun) and small dolmens with polygonal chambers (Tomb No. 7), built of glacial boulders, are first succeeded by a rudimentary cruciform

chamber (Tomb No. 27) and finally a very large monument containing a limestone chamber, covered

with a cairn (Tomb No. 51, Listoghil). Most probably the large cairn on top of Knocknarea Mountain, Queen Maeve’s Grave, possibly containing a passage tomb, marks the end and final peak of the megalithic tradition on the Knocknarea peninsula.

As discussed above, possibly with the exception of the wedge tombs, the other three Irish tomb types, court tombs, passage tombs and portal tombs, have all been built and certainly used during more or

less the same period, although there is a slight tendency that passage tombs present the earliest dates,


while court tombs appear somewhat later, followed by the portal tombs (Sterner 1997). The earliest

Irish megaliths may have been built already in the 6th millennium BC, as shown in the Croaghaun and Carrowmore examples, and supported by the new date from Tomb No. 4. However, only future

investigations can confirm this. So far, seven megalithic dates are from the 5th millenium BC, but the majority of dates from Irish tombs, 57 dated samples (including the 1997 Carrowmore and Primrose Grange dates), belong to the 4th millenium BC, more than half of which in the period between 4000 and 3500 BC (fig. 6). This curve corresponds well with other western European evidence. A Passage-tomb élite?

These data call for alternative interpretations of the Irish megalithic tradition. In a case where the various distinct tomb types can be interpreted as symbols of communal position, group affiliation or

hereditary rank in the local society, rather than being the result of successive stages of chronological development or outliers of traditions elsewhere, questions regarding social structure, clan affiliation or

even elitism must be posed to the material (e.g. Darvill 1979; Sheridan 1985/86; Cooney & Grogan

1994). “Rather than viewing the tomb types individually, then, we should consider them in relation to each other. There was not a simple chronological succession of different tomb types, nor do the tombs

indicate different cultural identities” (Cooney & Grogan 1994:60). Related symbols like art, artefacts,

and constructional peculiarities in the tombs, as well as mortuary practices, must be discussed in connection with studies of the chorological situation, that is the spatial distribution of the tombs and their internal relationships, and the monuments’ position in the landscape. Already a very brief view of these parameters reveal distinct patterns that may reflect fundamental characteristics in the social organisation of the Irish megalithic populations.

Most Irish court tombs, passage tombs and portal tombs appear in northern and eastern Ireland. However, while court tombs and portal tombs show a more or less equal distribution, these tomb

types, with the exception of those at Carrowmore, tend to avoid the major passage tomb cemeteries (Ó

Nualláin 1979). This is most appearent regarding the Boyne valley monuments and the Loughcrew cemetery. It is possibly no coincidence that no other tomb types but passage tombs are represented in

the Boyne valley area. However, a computerized spatial and topographical analyses of all tomb types

is a much needed study and a necessity if we are to detect the finer details of this pattern. The

occurrence of court tombs and portal dolmens in the vicinity of Carrowmore may be explained by the fact that Carrowmore is substantially older than the other passage tomb cemeteries, and it is therefore possible that the hierarchical polarisation was less developed at that stage.

The exceptional morphological attributes and topographical setting of the Irish passage tombs have been discussed in detail by Herity (1974); O’Kelly (1982); Eogan (1986); Cooney (1990); Cooney &

Grogan 1994; Bergh (1995); and Waddell (1998). In more recent years, also aspects of the


monuments’ role as symbols for various needs in the megalithic societies have been highlighted (e.g.

Cooney & Grogan 1991, 1994; O’Sullivan 1993, 1996; Bergh 1995, 1997). This is not the place to go deeper into these discussions, merely to draw attention to some important characteristics with regard to possible hierarchical structures.

The passage tombs differ distinctly in many ways from other tomb types in Ireland, although their

spatial arrangements, as opposed to other tomb types, may have been exaggerated (Cooney 1990). They are sometimes prominently located on high ground, often in a spectacular hilltop position. In

several cases the tombs are clustered together in cemeteries, the Boyne valley monuments, Loughcrew, Carrowkeel and Carrowmore being the major ones. They are, again with the exception of all but one tomb at Carrowmore, No. 51, (Listoghil), covered with cairns, where passages from the

boulder circles allow access to the chambers. The chambers themselves often have three apses or cells, together with the passage thereby forming a cruciform tomb plan. Corbelled or slabbed roofs form part of the advanced architectural creations. There is a clear tendency that the righthand side, both inside and outside the monuments, has had a special significance to the tomb builders. Very often carefully

selected building materials were chosen, which in several cases involved long transports. Quartz and quartzite clearly had ritual significance in the passage tomb tradition (Burenhult 1979, 1984; O’Kelly 1982, Eogan 1986; O’Sullivan 1993, 1996, 1998; Bergh 1995; Cooney & Grogan 1994; Waddell 1998).

As a rule, the burials within the Irish passage tomb tradition are cremations, although unburned skeletal materials have been recorded together with cremations in several cases (Hartnett 1957;

Grogan 1989; Cooney 1992; Cooney & Grogan 1994; Waddell 1998; Burenhult in preparation a).

There is evidence of complicated treatment and handling of the bones, as is the case in many

megalithic contexts in Europe (Shanks & Tilley 1982; Saville 1984; Thomas & Whittle 1986; Cooney 1992; Masset 1993). Recently, excarnation and reburial patterns have been recorded at Carrowmore and Primrose Grange (Burenhult in preparation a). Also, the set of grave goods in the Irish passage

tomb contexts follows distinct and strongly formalized patterns, unique to this tradition: antler pins, often with mushroom shaped heads, bone and stone pendants, stone and clay balls, and maceheads.

The Boyne valley monuments Newgrange and Knowth are in themselves symbols of remarkable

technological skill and architectural standards (O’Kelly 1982; Eogan 1986). The construction and labour input surely reflect in itself a complex social organization. Surely few individuals in such a society had access to all knowledge, control of the circulation of prestige items or long-distance

contacts. This becomes even clearer when we look at the astronomical features that guided the whole construction of these tombs 5500 years ago: the Newgrange chamber being built to receive the first

sun-rays of the winter solstice through the roof-box on the 21st of December, and the two chambers at


Knowth similarly orientated towards the rising sun of the spring and autumn equinoxes on the 21st of

March and the 21st of September (O’Kelly 1982; Eogan 1986). Furthermore, it has been suggested that

the unexcavated chamber in the third major monument in the Boyne valley, Dowth, could have been built to receive the summer solstice, an event well documented to be of major importance in

megalithic Europe, e.g. at Stonehenge. The radiocarbon dates for the construction and use of

Newgrange and Knowth cover a time-span of nearly half a millennium, which means that advanced

knowledge and long-term planning over many generations lie behind the layout of this ritual center, most probably also long before the construction of the three major tombs during the peak of the Boyne

tradition. This knowledge most probably was restricted to a very limited number of individuals of high rank. The Mesoamerican ceremonial centers and the Maya priests may be good examples for comparison with regard to social complexity and astronomical knowledge.

Finally, the elaborate megalithic art in Ireland is only associated with passage tombs (Shee Twohig

1981; O’Kelly 1982; Eogan 1986; Sherratt 1990). As will be discussed below, the close similarities in the megalithic symbolic world in western Europe at an advanced stage of the tradition is likely to be the result of intense contacts between the leading groups in these societies between 3500 and 3000 BC.

There is reason to believe that the builders of court tombs and portal tombs in Ireland had a close and formally organized relation with those building the passage tombs, maybe as hereditary- or lineage-

linked chieftains or village chiefs, as in any chiefdom, possibly powerful leaders forming sub-groups in the megalithic society. The excavation of Primrose Grange Tomb 1 within the Carrowmore project

has revealed important data to suggest such an organization. This tomb, as we have seen, is contemporary with the Carrowmore cemetery, and has produced well preserved inhumations and

typical court tomb artefacts: leaf-shaped arrowheds, hollow-scrapers etc. Consequently, two very

distinct burial traditions, including cremation/non-cremation, were in operation simultaneously on the Knocknarea peninsula, 3 kilometers apart. Surely there was not two different populations living in the area, rather several different social groups, showing their position in the society through different types of monuments and different ritual and ceremonial activities.

To sum up: it is likely that the passage tomb builders were very special people, using special knowledge and skills in building very special monuments in very special places. The passage-tomb people, possibly representing the élite, had the rights to build and use these monuments and their

carved motifs, and a specific set of artefacts, while other groups, or segments, or classes, or casts, or whatever we choose to call it, in the society used other symbols, other grave-goods and other burial traditions.


The symbolic world of megalithic Europe

I have argued elsewhere that the striking similarities between the megalithic art in Scandinavia and

Ireland is likely to be the result of intense contacts between the two areas (Burenhult 1980c:104, 121,

133-134). In 1984, Richard Bradley and Robert Chapman suggested the existence of a series of inter-

regional links between Ireland and other areas of western Europe in the fourth millenium BC (Bradley & Chapman 1984:353-355). Richard Bradley recently further developed these suggestions for western

and southwestern Europe, convincingly showing possible interaction zones during the neolithic and the bronze age between the British Isles, France, Galicia and Portugal, where especially the long-

distance contacts in Atlantic Europe are highlighted in a comparison of Galician and Scottish rock-art (Bradley 1997:21-26, 44, 208-216) (fig. 7 a, b).

From the perspective of Scandinavian rock-art research, these results are welcomed, although the early explanations naturally had a one-directional approach. Already in 1905, Oscar Montelius made an

attempt to link the Scandinavian cup mark symbols to similar figures in the west European megalithic context (Montelius 1905). Also P.V. Glob strongly stressed the similarities within the middle neolithic

west European symbolic world, with its schematic signs and the overall connection to the mother

Goddess, both within the Funnel Neck Beaker culture and later within the Beaker/Battle Axe culture

complexes (Glob 1969:163-168). The well documented, somewhat later evidence of long-distance

contacts between northern Europe and Britain and Ireland regarding the exchange of luxury items of

gold, copper and bronze, is important in this context. An important parallel to the south Scandinavian case was presented in 1980 by Eva and Per Fett in western Norway, where evidence of another interaction zone between Scandinavia and Britain-Ireland, based on close similarities between the rock art, appears well founded (Fett & Fett 1979:65-92; Burenhult 1979:92-95) (fig. 8 a-d).

In southern Scandinavia, however, the only symbol in the west European complex of schematic art

that can be associated with megaliths is the cup mark, usually pecked in large numbers on top of the roof slabs of the dolmens and passage graves (Glob 1969:10, 112; Burenhult 1980d:104). The typical

megalithic symbols, zig-zags, rombic fields, spirals etc., are absent from Scandinavian megaliths. There may of course have been painted megalithic symbols inside the tombs, as well as on animal hides or even textiles, but no evidence of this can be presented. However, few of the natural glacial boulders used in the construction of Scandinavian megaliths are suitable for the painting of symbols.

During my studies of the rock art in southern Sweden in the early 70s, I identified a series of carvings

at the Järrestad No. 4 open-air site in Scania that, according to the analyses of superpositions and

pecking technique, seem to belong to the earliest rock art in southern Scandinavia (Burenhult 1973:2440, 1980a:104). The motifs consist of “double snake”-figures, U-patterns and double spirals (fig. 9). As can be seen, these motifs can clearly be associated with the traditional megalithic patterns in


western Europe, especially those found in Irish passage tombs. An excavation around the carving revealed evidence for middle neolithic activities at the site in the form of a deposition of a deliberately

burned thick-butted flint axe (Burenhult 1980c:108). Also in western Sweden, in Bohuslän and Västergötland, I have recorded rock art figures that bear great resemblance to Atlantic megalithic art, e.g. triple spirals. A compilation of these Swedish symbols and some Welsh, Scottish and Irish ones have been made in figures 10 a and b (Burenhult 1980c:106-107).

If the symbols described above do belong to the megalithic period in Sweden, why, apart from the cup

marks, have no symbols been carved inside or outside the megalithic monuments themselves? As suggested above, there may have been painted symbols inside the tombs, figures that are now lost to us, but I have put forth another explanation for the fact that carvings are absent in Scandinavian tombs.

I have argued elsewhere that while pottery is an insignificant element of the grave-goods in the Irish passage tomb tradition, for instance, it must be considered to be the most important part of the sacrifices of the TRB culture in the megalithic context (Burenhult 1980a:123, 134). Large amounts of richly decorated pottery were placed inside and, above all, outside the tombs as elaborate offerings.

Several distinct vessels, most often sharp-angled in shape and completely decorated, are of a type that

are never found in a non-sacred context, e.g. at settlements. This pottery was designed to be used in

the megalithic cult exclusively in a way that has no direct parallel in Atlantic western Europe (fig. 11). Apparently, large bowls on feet were placed together with decorated clay spoons outside the entrances to dolmens and passage graves, possibly containing food offerings (Strömberg 1968, 1971; Burenhult

1973, 1973-74). The decoration on these and other grave vessels is identical to the symbols in the western European megalithic art, again especially to those found within the Irish passage tomb

tradition (fig. 12). Apparently, offerings of clay vessels have had less significance in the ritual

activities in the Irish passage tombs. Instead, the sacred symbols were pecked directly onto the monuments’ stone walls in elaborate patterns, using the same combinations that are found on the grave vessels within the TRB tradition.

The symbols may, however, not represent the same things in the two areas. It is likely that the social

structure of the Scandinavian megalithic populations bear little resemblance to e.g. the Boyne valley societies, especially during the peak of the megalithic tradition in Ireland, but the overall pattern indicates a common world of megalithic symbolism, interlinked through a well established network of

long-distance contacts. Although, theoretically, the symbols may well independently have sprung out

of the human mind of individuals in the Atlantic societies, the probability of this seems small, taking into account the evidence of well-established long-distance contacts, and the fact that the megalithic symbolic world in Ireland and Scandinavia is fully contemporary.


It is reasonable to believe that the Scandinavian societies saw the Irish ceremonial world and chiefly organisation as a very exotic one, in much the same way as north European societies would later relate

to influences from e.g. the Celtic chiefdoms in central Europe or the Roman Empire in the Mediterranean area. This symbolic world may well have been integrated in local ritual traditions, and

was possibly also used by the élite as signs of control of the long-distance networks. The later development of the early bronze age trade routes for gold, copper and bronze into Scandinavia, and the local ways of handling and controlling these, are likely to have their roots in the neolithic and even

mesolithic interaction patterns towards the west and the south. Those periods were to witness the growth of yet another, completely different set of symbols all over Europe: the cult of metal weaponry. About contacts, boats, skill and modern humans

Contacts and long-distance interaction is about technology and human skill. Our understanding of

possibilities and solutions in prehistoric Atlantic Europe can, in my opinion, be improved by looking

at how archaeology in the Pacific has taught us how stone age societies operated sea transports for

migrations and long distance networks, long before the megalithic period in Europe – if nothing else, just to widen our somewhat narrow European perspective.

About 50,000-60,000 years ago, modern humans crossed the sea that separated southeast Asia from the Sahul shelf, that is the continent formed by Australia and New Guinea together during the last

glaciation. This journey was only about 20 kilometers long, as across the straits of Gibraltar, but yet it

had to be performed by paddling boats, most probably rafts or canoes with outriggers. This technique of mastering the seas had been learnt along the chain of islands in the Indonesian archipelago (White 1982:42-49, 1993:45).

More than 30,000 years ago, the large volcanic islands New Ireland (Matenkupkum 32,000 BC) in

Papua New Guinea and Buka (Kilu 27,000 BC) in the Solomon Islands were colonised from the west. These travels meant crossing more than 100 kilometers of open sea to land you could not see, the

width of the Irish Sea between Wales and Dublin, and, of course, demanded advanced technological

skill and, most probably, the use of sails (Gosden, 1993:77; White 1993:65-66). Between 19,000 and 10,000 years ago, wild animals were transplanted on these islands by these Melanesian populations, e.g. the couscous, Phalanger orientalis (Flannery 1993:69).

Finally, between 2500 and 1500 years ago, in a technologically purely stone age context, the

Polynesian sailors covered regularly distances of thousands of kilometers in the Pacific; the open water distance between, say, New Zealand and Tahiti is about 3,200 kilometers, a distance equivalent to that between Ireland and North America.


Similar long-distance contacts in inland conditions can be studied e.g. among the Australian Aborigines or the North American Indians (Thomson 1949; Wood 1973). Indeed, the European

archaeological record reveals similar contacts already during the palaeolithic, e.g. in the Venus

figurine tradition over most of northern Eurasia during the Gravettian period, more than 30,000 years ago.

With this perspective in mind, the traditional concept of the prehistoric European network of “longdistance” contacts is a bit narrow-minded. Clearly there has been a tendency among European archaeologists from the 1960s and onwards to underestimate the ease with which contacts between

individuals and groups and interactive exchange of goods and ideas could have been performed in

prehistoric Europe, not least along the Atlantic coasts. Surely people have travelled much more than the archaeological records reveal. Surely it is likely that the leaders of the megalithic societies, at least

at an advanced stage of the megalithic tradition, have had close relations with their counterparts in other areas, maybe in a separate sphere restricted to local élites, as suggested by Bradley & Chapman

(Bradley & Chapman 1984:355; se also e.g. Bradley & Edmonds 1993). The uniform symbolic

megalithic world in the final phase of the tradition also suggests this. Understanding the deeper meaning, needs and ideas that once resulted in the building of the earliest stone monuments in Atlantic

Europe is, however, quite another matter. Neither the world of beliefs, nor mythological and cosmological systems, can be excavated.

Stone Man of Malekula – the ethnoarchaeology of megaliths

Occasionally, ethnographical data have been used in explaining the meaning of megaliths (e.g. Saxe

1970; Binford 1971; Tainter 1978; Burenhult 1992; Bradley 1993). However, no comprehensive,

systematic ethnoarchaeological study, aiming at finding possible overall patterns in surviving megalithic societies has been performed. In such an attempt, I chose to make closer field studies of

three societies in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, that are still, or recently were, building and using stone monuments for burial and/or ceremonial purposes (Burenhult 1992, forthcoming b): the Toraja

in the interior of Sulawesi, Indonesia; the Sumbanese in the Lesser Sunda Islands, Indonesia; and the

various megalith-building societies of Malekula, Vanuatu, in Melanesia. The latter region saw two major ethnographic field-studies of megalithic traditions in the beginning of this century, that could be

used as reference and control data (Deacon 1934; Layard 1942). Other ethno-historically documented megalith-building societies have also been included in the study, above all the Melanesian and Polynesian ones in Tahiti, Hawai’i, Tonga, the Solomon Islands and Fiji. I do not intend here to present the detailed results of these field-studies, but merely draw attention to a few remarkably homogeneous traits within these societies.


The megalith-builders of Sulawesi, Sumba and Malekula present a striking variability with regard to

economy, social organisation, technological context and cultural expressions. Archaeologically, they would be regarded traditionally as very different ‘cultures’. In fact, at first glance, they do not appear

to have much in common – apart from the custom of using large stones for ritual purposes. For

instance, the Toraja and Sumba societies live in a cultural context that archaeologists would classify as ‘iron age’, whereas the Malekula societies were using megaliths in a ‘stone age’ context. While rice is

staple food among the Toraja and the Sumbanese, taro, yam and sweet potato are predominant on Malekula. The major sign and symbol of wealth among the Toraja and the Sumbanese is the water

buffalo; on Malekula pigs are hard cash. The ‘artefacts’ used by these three societies are totally different, and so on.

However, in learning more of the meaning of things, certain common patterns begin to emerge. First,

there is a clear tendency in all three societies of a striking awareness among their members of the significance of each tomb. Every individual is well aware of which person and family built and used a

certain monument. Furthermore, the position, shape and size of the monument always reflect the social status of the buried individuals. The strict hierarchical system that guides the rights and obligations of

the individuals that have the right to erect megalithic monuments is firmly rooted. In all cases, the individual rank, inherited or acquired, determines who has the right to build a monument and use it –

and most individuals do not have this right. In certain examples all, or most, individuals can work themselves up to a position where they achieve this right, often through costly so-called grade-taking

ceremonies, as the Namaki and Maki on Malekula, including mass-destruction of wealth, that is the sacrifice of pigs (Layard 1942; Burenhult 1992:312-316) (figs. 13 a,b, 14). In others, this possibility is non-existent: the lineage is unbreakable.

Second, within the megalithic cult, human sacrifices and exocannibalism are well documented (Deacon 1934; Layard 1942; Sahlins 1983; Reeves-Sanday 1986:151-168). The societies could be regarded as ‘highly aggressive’, with powerful male leaders. The monuments never have the purpose

of being territorial markers in a political sense. However, they clearly mark the ancestral land since the beginning of times, and thus form an intimate part of the cosmological beliefs. It is an important fact

that the megalithic cult is always related to the ancestors. A few exceptions can be found in the

extremely stratified Polynesian chiefdoms, where temples were also built for more important

divinities. The tombs, or the menhirs, are erected over some ancestor, whose spirit is always present

and participates in the ceremonies. The quest for status – in this life as well as in the aftermath – are

focal factors in the ceremonies, not necessarily in connection with burials. Destruction of wealth and

mass sacrifices of precious animals, buffaloes or pigs, not only provide access to higher status or even

rank but, more importantly, it is aimed at pleasing the ancestors and at the same time allow the living person performing the act access to the other side, where the final reunion with the ancestors will take


place. The symbols that would be found in an archaeological context are obvious: the huge buffalo horns among the Toraja, placed in rows on the gables of the houses, and the gigantic circular or spiral-

shaped pigs’ tusks on Malekula, worn as bracelets or necklaces (Layard 1942; Burenhult 1992:170203, 298-328; 1997:179-186). The meaning is the same but the expressions are different.

Third, the handling of the ancestral bones is a complicated and often never-ending process. In an archaeological context, this would be classified as re-burials or ‘secondary burials’, although often the

manipulation of the bones goes on in a systematic way for generations (Burenhult 1992:182-198). Certain bones are often treated in a special way, or removed for specific reasons. Rarely are the

remains of a dead body placed in its final resting place from the beginning. Defleshing, or excarnation, was common among the Melanesian and Polynesian megalithic societies in the Pacific. Food and ancestors – the Status Quest

The intimate link between megalithic structures and the practice of ancestor worship has also been

shown among the Merina of Madagascar, where the tombs represent another living ethnographic

tradition (Bloch 1971, 1986; Scarre 1994). Again, ancestral land-rights are put forth as important

explanations: ”The tombs stand for the permanent unity of people and land; they place the ancestors in the land” (Bloch 1986:35).

But all these important correlations and overall patterns that certainly may help us to put forth

new and better questions in the interpretation of the European megaliths do not in any way explain the

processes that led to the very beginning of formal burial practices and monumental architecture in western Europe – it merely explains the role of the monuments at more developed stages of the

megalithic traditions. Food may be the key word in this context (Wiessner & Schiefenhövel (eds) 1996).

As discussed above, large investments of labour and time, as well as storage, certainly have been

shown to play a central role in the development of complex hunter-gatherer economies, and thereby also in the formation of more sedentary ways of life in western Europe during the late mesolithic. A high degree of sedentism obviously developed in favourable areas, and at some stage formal burial

traditions evolved – reliable food resources are a necessity in this process. Naturally, a great variability

with regard to different natural and cultural resources can be expected, as pointed out by several scholars (e.g. Clark 1977; Burenhult 1984:142; Hodder 1992:73). Also, the development of chiefdoms

has been shown to fundamentally rely on these factors (Smith 1971). We do not have the answer to

why formal disposal of the dead frequently shows up during this period, but why, at the same time,

megalithic monuments are only found in very restricted areas. However, in the author’s opinion, there may be no difference in the contemporary meaning of a cemetery containing dug-down graves and the


building of the first stone-cists. The role of cemeteries may well be explained in exactly the same way: a society developing new needs for organisation within a milieu of growing social complexity,

reflected in burial customs (Rowley-Conwy 1986, 1997; Bradley 1993, 1997; Larsson 1995; Burenhult 1997).

Recently, Hayden (1996) has discussed the importance of competitive feasting as a critical mechanism in prehistoric societies, suggesting that food surpluses were used to create debts, hierarchical and centralized political control, and increased production. Competitive feasting systems may have played

an important role in the domestication of the first animals and plants in favourable environments, and were possibly operating in complex hunter-gatherer contexts in the rich coastal and riverine environments of mesolithic Europe, where fish, deer, sea mammals, and shellfish provided an

abundant, invulnerable resource base (Bender 1978, 1985; Hayden 1990; Hayden 1996:141). This idea has strong support in the ethnographic records, and competitive feasting is found e.g. among the

Northwest Coast cultures and the Calusa of Florida (Codere 1950; Widmer 1988). Also, the emergence of monumental structures, like megaliths and enclosures, indicates control over large

amounts of surplus labor that most probably relied upon work-party feasts for their mobilization

(Dietler 1989, 1996; Hayden 1996:144). Prestige items play an important role in this context, and it is surely no coincidence that elaborate ceremonial stone tools as symbols of power and wealth became a crucial part of the Western European exchange networks during this period.

The Carrowmore evidence highlights the possibility that the appearance of formal burials are a result

of favourable ecological conditions and fundamental changes in the life-styles within the late

mesolithic populations in Ireland. The development of complex social and ritual systems, together

with demographic changes and intensified networks of long-distance contact, as reflected in various tomb types, burial traditions and prestige items, was to form the base of those neolithic societies that

later on would become more and more ritually centralized, manifesting themselves in magnificent monuments like the Boyne Valley passage tombs.

To sum up: an important series of common features in the megalithic cult in the Torajan, Sumbanese

and Malekulan societies can clearly be identified, in spite of the fundamental differences in the

economic, technological and cultural characteristics of these societies. The same features can be identified also in other recent megalith-building societies, e.g. the Merina on Madagascar or on Fiji in Melanesia. The archaeological record in megalithic Europe seems to allow for similar interpretations,

both regarding the monuments’ symbolic status as such among the living, as well as their role in the relationship to the ancestral world. We should bear in mind that there is a possibility of significant

similarities regarding the role of stone built monuments between the megalithic societies of Stone Age


Europe and their modern-day counterparts in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, although there is a timegap of more than 5,000 years.

Or as the Toraja put it: Life is only a preparation for Death. Acknowledgements

I wish to thank Professor Göran Possnert, the Tandem Laboratory, Uppsala University, for valuable

help with radiocarbon datings and the compilation of the radiocarbon diagrams from Carrowmore, and Dr. Peter Rowley-Conwy, Department of Archaeology, University of Durham, for giving valuable comments on the draft.


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