I recently visited the famous Poulnabrone Dolmen with my friend, Jenni. It was a surreal experience, with its juxtaposition of ancient spiritual reverence, and the worship of contemporary tourists, the barren rocky landscape which has barely changed in millennia, and the modern tarmacked road beside it, with its car park full of tourist buses, the emptiness of the surrounding landscape, and the buzz of human activity twisting around the monument itself.
It was early on a Monday morning. I had to head back home to Cavan at lunch-time, but there was just enough time to squeeze in a visit. I thought we'd have the place to ourselves, but it was busy. I suspect it is one of those places which will always be busy, except perhaps in the dead of night. As if there aren't any other dolmens in Ireland worth seeing. And this one being one of the most fragile surviving specimens, so much so, that it has been roped off to ensure visitors maintain a respectful distance. This is unusual in Ireland, where most ancient monuments, unless they are on private land, are regarded as part of our inherited right, to be freely accessed and experienced up close and personal.
Poulnabrone is a portal tomb, and stands on the karst limestone pavement of the Burren in Co. Claire. According to archaeologist Dr. Ann Lynch, 'the orthostats of the chamber were sitting directly on the limestone bedrock, held in place by the weight of the capstone like a house of cards'; this is why the structure is so delicate, as the stones are not socketed and anchored in the ground. I guess the bedrock of the Burren doesn't allow for that.
Excavation shows that originally the whole structure was covered in an oval-shaped cairn. This was constructed by piling large slabs of limestone against the orthostats and then covering the whole thing in smaller stones. Lynch believes though that the capstone was uncovered, and was designed to be seen. At the entrance to the cairn was a small ante-chamber or portico which was filled with earth and stones shortly after construction. The purpose of this chamber is not known.
The remains of 22 people were found inside: 16 adults, 6 children, including one newborn baby. Their bodies had been left to decay, then the bones were dis-articulated, and laid in the earth. There are no signs of burning. Only one of the adults lived longer than 30 years. Only 8 of the adults could be sexed, showing an equal number of men and women. The wear on their teeth suggests they ate a course diet of stone-ground grains. One of the adults was found with the tip of a flint arrowhead buried in a hip bone. This occurred close to the time of death, as there was no evidence of healing. It would appear the others died of natural causes.
As so few individuals were buried at the site, it is thought they must have comprised the elite in their society. Grave goods found at the site include a bone pendant, part of a mushroom-headed bone pin, a polished stone axe, two stone disc-beads, two large quartz crystals, flint and chert scrapers, and projectile points. Over sixty sherds of undecorated coarse pottery were also recovered from the burial deposit. Artefacts recovered from the cairn include a polished bone point, five sherds of pottery and a possible hammerstone.
TJ Westropp in 1899 described Poulnabrone as a 'beautiful cromlech, noteworthy for the airy poise of its great top slab, which, contrary to the usual practice, slopes towards the west'.
In Irish, the site is known as Poll na Brón, which means 'Hole of the Quernstone'. It is sometimes translated as 'Hole of the Sorrows', which certainly sounds more romantic, and appeals to our sentimentality regarding the dearly departed. In that case, though, the Irish would be Poll na mBrón. As I don't speak Irish, I must defer to those who do.
Ann Lynch, 'Poulnabrone: A Stone in Time', Archaeology Ireland, Vol. 2, No. 3 (Autumn, 1988), pp. 105-107 Published by: Wordwell Ltd.
TJ Westropp. 'Prehistoric Remains in the Burren, County Clare', The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Fifth Series, Vol. 9, No. 4 (Dec. 31, 1899), pp. 367-384 Published by: Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland .
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