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An ancient skull (public domain). Note: This image is representational only, and is not a photo of one of the skulls recently-discovered in Mayo, Ireland. Photos have not yet been released of the Neolithic Mayo bones.

5,000-Year-Old Human Remains with Smashed Skulls Discovered in Ireland

The remains of at least ten adults, adolescents and children that were positioned in a 5,500-year-old cave-like structure over the course of 1,200 years during the Neolithic Period, have been found in Ireland. All of them show signs of having their heads smashed in after death, as part of a mysterious funerary ritual.

Bodies with Smashed Skulls Date back to the Neolithic Period

A boulder chamber found by a hill walker on Ben Gorm Mountain in County Mayo back in August of 2016, was a peculiar ritual site where people had their skulls smashed after death. The unnamed man, found the human bones scattered over the rock floor of the chamber and contacted Gardaí in order to have them tested according to the Journal ie .

Ben Gorm Mountain (Binn Ghorm) is on the left, at the summit of the long ridge, with the twin tops of Ben Creggan (Binn an Charragain) in the centre

Ben Gorm Mountain (Binn Ghorm) is on the left, at the summit of the long ridge, with the twin tops of Ben Creggan (Binn an Charragain) in the centre. ( CC by SA 3.0 / David Purchase )

Once the authorities of the Republic of Ireland realized that the remains were ancient, the National Monuments Service of the department, in consultation with the National Museum of Ireland, commissioned a rescue excavation, carried out by Dr. Marion Dowd of IT Sligo. Researchers noticed that the natural boulder chamber in which the remains were discovered was used for human burial practice through the Neolithic period. The scientific analysis that followed, showed that the ancient adult bones date back to 3,600 BC, while a bone of a child skeleton dated to 2,400 BC as the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has revealed.

Pit in the cave which contained human remains after the excavation. Source: T Kahlert via Department of Culture

Pit in the cave which contained human remains after the excavation. Source: T Kahlert via Department of Culture

Burial Archaeology in Neolithic Britain

As Shoilheap reports , the majority of excavated remains from the Neolithic period are ceremonial or funerary in nature. The Neolithic period was a time of change from the old ways of hunting and gathering to a more settled way of life associated with the beginnings of agriculture.

Technological changes were also made and are reflected in the material culture. For example, pottery was not made before this period, and flint tools now reflected the need for cereal gathering implements such as sickles. For the first time, permanent structures were built both for the living and the dead. An example of a Neolithic village is preserved at Skara Brae in Orkney.

Burial practices in this period are characterized by collective burial in large, highly visible monuments, and by ritual practices resulting in the scattering of human bones in non-funerary contexts. The areas in which these large monuments were constructed correspond with the densely populated regions of the Mesolithic and may have been built as markers of territory between the new and old populations. They represented a permanent link between the community, the ancestral dead, and the land which they occupied, generally being placed close to settled areas in dominant positions.

There is some suggestion that the shape of tombs is related to the type of housing favored in an area (round, rectangular, trapezoid or irregular). Houses of the dead were usually more permanent than those of the living, because the ancestors represent the community and the tombs were shrines to these supernatural beings.

Example of a Neolithic Tomb in Ireland. This cairn is on the summit of Seefin Mountain, County Wicklow, Ireland

Example of a Neolithic Tomb in Ireland. This cairn is on the summit of Seefin Mountain, County Wicklow, Ireland ( CC by SA 3.0 )

Discovery Reveals Intricate Processing of the Dead

Back to the recent discovery, the analysis has shown that the bodies were brought into the cave chamber and positioned in a pit. At some later point, the skulls were most likely purposely smashed as part of a peculiar and intricate burial ritual and the larger bones removed. “Large pieces of quartz had been placed in and around the bones. When the radiocarbon dates came through it was very exciting. Not only were the bones Neolithic, but the dates showed the site had been used for over 1,000 years,” Dr. Dowd stated as the Journal ie reports .

Dowd suggests that the burial site was a religious spot where bodies were placed in order to decay, “Only a very small proportion of each skeleton was found, with the majority of bones apparently deliberately removed. This discovery indicates highly complex processing of the dead,” she said added.

Ultimately, Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Josepha Madigan praised the local hillwalker for reporting his find and pinpointed that all citizens of Ireland should do the same in similar occasions, so the archaeological heritage of the country will be protected and maintained, “This is a fascinating archaeological discovery and I want to thank the community of hillwalkers for reporting it to us. Such vigilance is extremely important to us in helping to protect and understand our archaeological heritage,” Madigan said via the Journal ie .

Top image: An ancient skull ( public domain ). Note: This image is representational only, and is not a photo of one of the skulls recently-discovered in Mayo, Ireland. Photos have not yet been released of the Neolithic Mayo bones.

By Theodoros Karasavvas

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