|Tombs and Burials
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
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.
|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.
|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
Finds: Some 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 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
|This link will take you to the Newgrange
page where you will find information on passage 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