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Dingle Peninsula Megalithic Tombs

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Megalithic Tombs

The introduction of agriculture into Ireland appears on present evidence to have taken place in the early 4th millenium B.C.. One of the cultural innovations characteristic of the ensuing Neolithic Period was the custom of collective burial in great tombs of rough, unhewn stone known as Megalithic tombs (Greek: megas, great; lithos, stone). A fourfold classification of these tombs is generally accepted, each group (court-tombs, portal-tombs, passage-tombs and wedge-tombs) being named after its principal diagnostic feature (De Valera and 6 Nualláin 1972, xiii). Apart from the tomb at Glanlick, of which too little survives to allow classification, the megalithic tombs on the Dingle Peninsula all fall into the wedge-tomb class, the most numerous and widespread of the megalithic tomb types.

Wedge-tombs consist of a main burial chamber, frequently with a portico or antechamber at the front, and occasionally with a small end-chamber at the rear. The main chamber usually decreases in width and height towards the rear, and the entrance usually faces in a general south-westerly direction. The division between portico and main chamber is generally by a septal slab which may reach the full height of the tomb, but sometimes jambs form the division. The roof is formed by large slabs which rest directly on the orthostatic walls. An outer-wall is frequently present, set about .5 to 2m out from the gallery, and this often joins a straight facade flanking either side of the entrance. The cairns which covered the tombs are usually much denuded now, but round, oval and D-shaped cairns are known, and some are delimited by kerbstones.

Two of the tombs on the Dingle Peninsula bear rock art motifs on their roof-or side-stones. Some 445 wedge-tombs have been recorded in Ireland, their distribution showing a marked western bias, with particularly dense concentrations in Co. Clare and the West Cork and Kerry region. The tombs appear to have no special rule of siting and their dispersed distribution probably reflects the settlement pattern of their builders. Three aspects of the distribution pattern are of particular interest. The first is the general adherence, throughout the series, to light upland soils. On the basis of this, it has been suggested that the subsistence pattern of the tomb builders was based primarily on stock raising rather than on tillage. An examination of the ancient field systems which surround some of the tombs in Co. Kerry, and which may be contemporary with them, could provide useful information in relation to the economy and settlements of the period. Another aspect of the distribution pattern which has been remarked upon is the coincidence of copper deposits in West Cork and Kerry with the distribution of the tombs, and it has been suggested that the tomb builders were attracted to these areas, during the Early Bronze Age, by their potential for copper exploitation. However, the association of wedge-tombs with copper deposits is not consistent throughout the Irish series, and there is no definite direct evidence that the tomb builders were either metal users or producers. The third factor is the apparently complementary distributions of wedge-tombs in the west of Ireland and Early Bronze Age food-vessel burials in the east. This may indicate the contemporaneity of the two cultures, and is often cited as supportive evidence for an Early Bronze Age date for the wedge-tombs. Only 20 wedge-tombs have been excavated, and there is little direct evidence to date their construction and use. However, a late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age date seems likely on the basis of the finds recovered (Beaker pottery, barbed-and-fanged arrowheads and some Neolithic ware). A radio-carbon date of 1150 + 140 b.c., from Island, Co. Cork, may indicate a continuation of this burial traditional into the Later Bronze Age.


This above information was sourced from the Archaeological Survey of the Dingle Peninsula (1986) and provided to dodingle.com courtesy of Oidhreacht Chorca Dhuibhne. Republication of the extract or any part therin, in any form or capacity, is strictly prohibited without the express permission of the publishers. © Oidhreacht Chorca Dhuibhne 1986-2010.

Archaeological survey of the Dingle PeninsulaCopies of the Survey are available in the bookshop of Músaem Chorca Dhuibhne,
Ballyferriter, tel. 066-9156333 (www.westkerrymuseum.com)

or
from Oidhreacht Chorca Dhuibhne, tel. 066-9156100
(www.cfcd.ie/oidhreacht/foilseachain.asp).

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