BEYOND THE ORTHOSTATS AND SKELETONS:
A new book looks at the evidence and the theories to see
how the megalithic tombs were really used
Temples of Stone: exploring the megalithic tombs of Ireland by Carleton Jones. Published in 2007 by
The Collins Press, Cork.
ISBN 9781905172054 Hardback, 334 pages €27.95, £20.00.
Reviewed by Thaddeus C Breen
Every year, on the morning of the winter solstice, a small group of people gathers in the great passage tomb at Newgrange to see, weather permitting, the rising sun slowly creep up the passage to illuminate the chamber at the centre of the mound. Then they go home.
They go to Newgrange to wonder at the ingenuity of the ancient farming community who built such a precisely-oriented structure 5,000 years ago. But for the original inhabitants it meant much more. It was probably part of a whole day of religious festivities ending with a visit to Dowth, which is aligned on the setting sun that day. For those Stone Age farmers, these rituals were probably seen as vital to ensure that the days would start getting longer again, and that the warm weather would return.
This book is about the great stone tombs which were built between 4000 and 2000 BC. But it is not just another description of the morphology of the different tomb-types. As the title reminds us, the people who used these tombs may have seen them as more than mere burial places.
Carleton Jones, who has excavated a number of prehistoric sites in the Burren area, including megalithic tombs, goes beyond the usual classifications of tomb types and draws together all the evidence in an attempt to provide a comprehensive description of the beliefs represented by the tombs, and the social system which produced them.
The most useful evidence is the morphology of the tombs themselves – the ground plan, the relative position of chambers and passages, and the arrangement of various sizes of stone and of the decoration. The location and the orientation are also significant. More difficult is the distribution of bones and artifacts. What is found in modern excavations depends on what has survived neglect, ruin and earlier unscientific artifact-hunting, and they may represent only the final phase of use.
Jones shows that there enough material to build up a coherent story, especially with the help of anthropological parallels. However, there are risks. Unlike a survey of the stones or a table of skeletal material, where the dry facts are incontrovertible, this is a series of guesses built one on another. Any of them could equally be right or wrong, and another writer might have come up with a completely different account. This does not of course mean that it is not a worthwhile exercise, as long as the reader is aware how speculative it all is. Jones has, very properly, peppered it with caveats such as ‘may have been’, ‘they suggest, ‘seems to be’ and so on.
Having begun with a brief outline of the development of megalithic studies, he looks briefly at the Mesolithic period, and the transition to the Neolithic society which started building megaliths.
The next three chapters focus especially on court tombs, a type particularly suggestive of group ritual, with their open courts. As they are situated among the fields and habitations he describes them as monuments for the community. Looking at the area with which he is most familiar, he sketches out the clan and lineage structure of a notional ‘Burren Tribe’. Portal tombs, on the other hand, are situated on routeways and natural divides in the landscape, so he sees them as tribal boundary markers.
With the passage tombs, of course, it is the extensive art which is the most striking feature. Jones cites the work of two South African researchers, Lewis-Williams and Pearce, who see the non-figurative patterns found in many cultures as stimulated by hallucinations. He links this with colour (the use of different types of stone) and sound: some fascinating experiments have been carried out on the acoustics of tombs. The description of possible rituals and beliefs here is plausible. Of course any or all of them could be completely wrong. The use of the word ‘shaman’ is off-putting, however. It is often used today outside its original Siberian context, but often gives the false impression that there was a unified world-wide religion. It would be better to call them priests, as we are all familiar with this word in both its Christian and non-Christian contexts. At this stage it starts to get a bit too speculative:
…Perhaps the stone’s surface was regarded as a membrane that separated this world from the Otherworld… Neolithic shamans may have believed they were breaking through the stony membrane to the ‘other side’
Maybe – but as Sigmund Freud is supposed to have said, ‘Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar’. That’s as wild as it gets, though, and Jones reminds us later in his Epilogue that this was not the golden age of now-lost spiritual knowledge which some people imagine.
Passage grave ritual is discussed further in the chapter on Megalithic Landscapes, where Jones looks at the rituals which could have taken place outside the tombs, with processions possibly moving round the decorated kerbstones and going on from one tomb to the next.
Later chapters examine the likely changes in social organisation which led to the end of all this, replaced first of all by the rather more modest wedge tombs, and then individual burial in cists.
Temples of Stone is very readable, and there are plenty of illustrations. The photography is excellent, and most of the pictures have people in them rather than ranging rods. Sections on how a megalithic tomb was built, and how it is excavated provide useful background excavation, based on the author’s own excavations.
After reading this book you will be curious to go and see the tombs for yourself. There is a gazetteer of over a hundred visitable megaliths, including nearly all sites mentioned in the text, with detailed driving directions. This is accompanied by a set of maps and a set of tables giving the Discovery/Discoverer map number, and the exact location in both National Grid and longitude/latitude for GPS users.