Ritual aspects of Irish portal tombs

Mercer, Phyllis
Portal tombs, of which there are approximately 180 in Ireland, are the least studied of the great megaliths of Neolithic Ireland. Although they have all been recorded and described, this study is the first to be entirely concerned with ritual aspects of these enigmatic monuments. Portal tombs may have been constructed early in the Neolithic, and are possibly earlier than any other monumental type, in a period when lifestyle and beliefs were undergoing major changes, probably due to the arrival of settlers from overseas. Varying theoretical approaches, as well as previous and current understandings of the period, are examined, with particular emphasis on the nature of the Neolithic evidence, Neolithic monuments and Neolithic society, ritual practices, beliefs and use and understanding of the landscape. Three aspects are specifically focussed on in the present study: landscape siting of the portal tombs, portal tomb morphology, and evidence for ritual of construction and use of portal tombs. It is argued that portal tombs displayed a repetitive selection of preferred sites in the landscape. Location beside certain water features, and an avoidance of others, a preference for inconspicuous locations and avoidance of high ground are noted, and interpretations of these field observations are suggested. It is also argued that portal tombs were firmly connected with farming, and were constructed on the boundary between potentially suitable agricultural land and areas more difficult to work, perhaps at the limit of initial forest clearance. Portal tombs might have been raised as an expression of celebration, or triumph, as the laborious tree felling was completed, and thus the ritual of construction is suggested as the primary intention, with later, unintended, reuse resulting from changes in ritual practice and beliefs. Examination of the morphology of the tombs reveals a universal similarity in the main parts of the structure, with differences emerging in less important aspects. This may have resulted from the presentation of an overarching belief system, perhaps of a three-fold cosmology, with freedom to display localised concerns. Additionally, it is suggested that the morphology of portal tombs may also be a reference to the shape of a bull ¿ a powerful symbol of the agrarian lifestyle and a celebration of an animal previously unknown in Ireland. The architecture of the portal tombs does not encourage later ritual performances, and this, together with preferred aspects of siting, strengthens the impression that the ritual of construction was the initial intended rite. In terms of evidence for rituals of construction and of use, excavation evidence suggests that the construction of portal tombs may have proceeded in a sequence of stages, and some portal tombs may have been built on sites already ritualised by deposits. The small amount of surviving burial evidence suggests that the interment of unburnt bodies, in a communal, unsorted manner, was the norm. Later depositions of human remains and a small number of domestic-type items occurred in at least some portal tombs, demonstrating that ritual practices had changed; it is suggested that these changes may have involved a developing attitude towards ancestral veneration.
Publisher DOI
Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Ireland