One day I may sit down to write with reference material and notes around me. Maybe. More often than not, when the mood strikes me I am outside rambling or, as I am today, sitting on the grass watching the dance of sunlight through leaves on an early autumn day. |t is something I lack: discipline. I will need to cultivate much more of it to get through the Acadame unscathed. Never the less….. I want to toss out my thoughts on the mounds.
I have noted already in this blog the various Irish words associated with the mound; sídhe (which literally means ‘hill’)
So, let us go back to the beginning. There is speculation within the literature of paleolithic communities here in Ireland, placing human habitation pre-12,000 BCE, though current dated evidence is ~8,000 BCE. The earliest known “grave” (and earliest European cremation) was a pit burial dated ~7530-7320 BCE. The cremation was not of a complete body, and the parts that were buried in the pit were placed in a circular fashion around a post and stone ax head; the ritual symbolism being apparent. (“the analysis suggests that the cremation undertaken was of a developed, sophisticated nature: a cremation practice that presumably was of some antiquity at a time of its undertaking.”) There have also been recent discoveries of cremated human remains in several caves, both along the coasts and in the midlands. (“While at the two coastal sites the interpretation can be made for the bones of ancestors remaining close to daily activity, the cave depositions may represent a liminal area, removed from daily routines. While the other sites were out in the open, in plain sight for all to see, the cave is more secluded, indeed hidden. So, rather than one tradition, there was a variety at play contemporaneously.”)
At some point funerary practices for some people (important people) shifted to megalithic structures. The oldest in Ireland are found in the Carrowmore complex outside of Sligo, which date ~4200 BCE. Many of the early structures (court and passage) were built on top of what appear to have been dwellings. This is intriguing. (“Cooney has commented on the placement of monuments, suggesting that a common theme is the use of places already renowned.”) Within these imposing earthen structures were interred the cremated remains of the elite, the powerful, the leaders. Clearly, these are the guys and gals you want on your side in the Underworld.
There is some evidence that remains were moved about, and new remains added yearly. Regardless, the mounds which captured the rays of the sun with their roof boxes, allowed starlight and moonlight to mingle with the dead, and provided places of vigil for the stout of heart, were in use until the bronze age when their function changed ~2000 BCE. Think about that for a moment… The sídhe were used for roughly 2000 years, when suddenly society changed. I have often wondered whether a climactic or volcanic event, ushering in a cold period with reduced sunlight, shifted the society into different forms of connection – as well as societal structure.
So….. the mounds and hollow hills fell into disuse and disrepair from ~2000 BCE onwards. The people would have remembered that Great kings and queens of old were “living” there, watching, even with the shift to stone circles, alignments and pit and cist burials.
Here we take another leap. Christianity came to Ireland around the 6th century CE (~500), and we find the oldest example of written Old Irish during this time: An Cathach, which was a book of psalms. It is not until the manuscript traditions of the 12th century CE (~1100) that we find the oldest written accounts of Irish tales in Lebor na hUidhre (the book of the dun cow) – think Invasion stories, mythology and hero deeds.
~3000 years from the last ritual use of the Great Mounds of the Living Ancestors until we get written accounts of their stories.
“Now, what is interesting to note is that these mounds or hollow hills are often thought to also be burial mounds–barrows. This belief in the gods who live in the Hollow Hills may be the remnants of ancestor worship of an early race.” Mary Jones
The early prehistory in the west of Ireland: Investigations into the social archaeology of the Mesolithic, west of the Shannon, Ireland. Killian Driscoll