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Tombs and Burials
Court, Portal, Passage and Wedge                                           

These are the four main megalithic grave types in Irish archaeology: These are - Court tomb, Portal tomb (formerly dolmen), Passage tomb, and Wedge tomb. These occur during the Neolithic period with the Wedge Tombs being placed also in the Bronze Age . Along with some Bronze Age cairns on the Irish hillsides, these are the main types of tomb one can expect to see in the Irish landscape  in Ireland.  Each type has its own distinctive features.

The word 'megalithic' comes from the words 'mega' meaning massive or huge and 'lithic' meaning stone.  Therefore, the discussion on this page is about tombs constructed from 'huge stones'.  When one considers that the capstone of  Brownshill portal tomb in Carlow weighs over 100 tons, it gives an idea of how huge some of the megaliths were.  For the most part however, the stones weighed considerably less than this but still weighed from several hundred pounds to several tons. 

This picture of  the portal tomb at Brownshill, Co. Carlow shows the enormity of the 100 ton capstone. This is the largest capstone recorded in Ireland.  Other portal tombs have smaller capstones ranging from several hundred pounds to several tons.

Photo © David Wood with whose kind permission it appears here.

Brownshill Portal Tomb, Co. Carlow.  This picture was taken by David Wood


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Dating Tombs
The Court, Portal and Passage tombs date from the Neolithic period or New Stone Age which can be loosly taken as being from 4000BC to 2500BC. The Neolithic societies who created the tombs were the country's first farmers.  Prior to that - during the Mesolithic period or middle stone age - people still existed as hunter-gatherers. It is suggested that the megalithic tombs were more than mere burial places. They may have been monuments to ancestors and possibly created as declarations of territorial rights.  It is worth considering the effort that went into constructing these megalithic tombs.  This is an indication of Neolithic society's ability to produce and store enough food to allow for diversions such as tomb building.  

Court Tombs                                                                                      

There are over 300 Court tombs, or Court tomb sites, in Ireland. They are found mainly in the upper half of the country with particular concentrations in counties Mayo, Donegal, Sligo, mid-Ulster, and across to counties Louth and Down. Shanballyedmond is the only example in County Tipperary. These tombs are regarded as the earliest burial tomb types known from Irish pre-history.  They are so-called because of their most distinctive feature which is an uncovered area called a court through which one had to pass to gain access to the tomb proper.  In some cases the courts appear to have been designed to accomodate the mourners at the burials. A long gallery is set into a large mound of stones called a cairn attached to the 'court', and this gallery consists of two or three chambers.  The cairns can be up to thirty metres in length, fourteen metres wide at front and seven wide at rear. Burials in these tombs were cremations which took place outside the tomb. The remains were then placed in one of the chambers. Radiocarbon dating of charcoal found at some sites suggests a continuation of use for several hundred years.  Court tombs were in use around 5,000 years ago.
This is a basic two chamber court tomb floor plan.  The outer line defines the extent of the covering cairn of stones. Some tombs can have three chambers, while others occasionally have extra chambers added to them.  Orientation of Court tombs is usually with the widest end towards the east. 

Measurements can be up to 30 metres long, 14 wide at front and 7 metres wide at rear.

The galleries consist of two or three chambers constructed of large flatish stones called orthostats, standing on end.  Similar stones are used to cover the chambers in an overlapping fashion referred to as corbelling.

FindsSome of the excavated court-tomb sites  have produced finds of sherds of round bottomed pottery bowls, some leaf or lozenge shaped arrowheads of flint, and hollow scrapers made from flint. A few javelin heads and polished stone axe heads have been recorded.     



Portal Tombs
Portal Tombs appear to have connections with the court tomb culture given that the finds are similar and considering that both types are typically found in a lowland setting.  They were formerly called dolmens and portal/dolmens.  Perhaps these are the best known of the Irish burial tombs, and this is probably due to some impressive and accessible sites still remaining. The distribution for portal tombs is mainly in the northern half of the island, but there are, also, some concentrations in Galway and in the east of Ireland from Dublin down to Waterford.  Among the best known portal tombs are Brownshill in County Carlow, and Poulnabrone in the Burren, Co. Clare. Because of the great size of the capstones, it is suggested that the portal tombs did not have as large a cairn as other tombs. Instead, a smaller cairn may have been used to contain and support the orthostats (sidestones). Again, as with court tombs, the burials seem to have been entirely cremation.  These portal tomb dolmens usually had a pair of portal stones (entrance stones) in front and a single back stone.  On top of these rested the massive capstone.  Occasionally, the entrance between the portal stones was blocked off, but this was not always the case. Again, in some cases, the sides of the chamber were covered off with orthostats or heaped up cairn stones.  The orientation for the portal tombs is usually, but not always, towards the east.


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Passage Tombs
This link will take you to the Newgrange page where you will find information on passage tombs



Wedge Tombs
Wedge tombs are the most common megalithic tombs in the Irish countryside with more than four hundred such tombs listed by archaeologists to date.  They are called 'wedge' tombs because of their distinctive shape, being taller and wider at the front, and lower and narrower at the rear. The orientation is usually with the front to the south-west. These were previously called gallery graves.  They date from the later end of the Neolithic period in Ireland right through to the Bronze Age with some dates showing them to be between 3000 and 4000 years old. 

They are mostly located to the west of a line from Belfast to Cork with a concentration in the west and south. Clare Tipperary, Cork, Limerick and Kerry have almost half the entire number. In the northern half of the country there are some differences from tombs in the south that may reflect a different period of building for north and south.

Some of the wedge tombs have a front chamber called an ante-chamber and this is divided by a septal stone from the main chamber in the rear.  Other tombs do not have this division.  The side walls are usually double construction, i.e., they have a double wall on either side.  These walls are of large upright stones called orthostats.  On top of these orthostats large flat stones are laid to form the roof.  The entire tomb was usually covered with a cairn or mound of stones and this was usually  edged with large stones in the ground. The cairns have almost in all cases disappeared.

Beaker-ware has been found in some of the few tombs excavated in the northern part of the country and this connection with the so-called 'Beaker folk is well documented.  It is thought the tombs in the southern part of the country are later in date and may be connected with the copper mining of the Bronze Age. No wedge tombs are found in Britain but in France a similar type is called Allees Couvertes.


Ireland's largest wedge tomb is easly accessible and can be found beside the road outside of Glanworth village in County Cork.  

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