Burials uncovered in Ireland reflect fusion of Paganism and Christianity
Excavations at Caherconnell in County Clare, Ireland, have uncovered ancient burials that reflect a fusion of Pagan practices with Christianity. Although it was initially believed that Christianity was well established in Ireland by the 5th Century, the latest finding reveals that Celtic Paganism was not quick to die out.
The discovery was made by the Caherconnell Archaeology Field School who found a casher, otherwise known as a caher, which is a circular dry-stone enclosure containing dwelling houses and other domestic structures. It had been deliberately constructed over the top of an earlier burial mound containing two limestone boxes, known as cists, holding the remains of a woman and two babies. The results of radiocarbon dating have revealed that the human remains date from the second half of the 6th century AD to the first half of the 7th century AD. This places them well within the chronological bounds of what was once termed ‘Early Christian Ireland’.
The circumstances of the burial reflect both Pagan and Christian influences. Following the Christian tradition, the bodies were unaccompanied by grave goods such as clothes, jewellery, and weapons, which were typical of pagan burials, and they were laid out almost east-west, in keeping with Christian practices. They were not, however, interred in a Christian cemetery. Instead, they were placed in slab-built cists beneath a low stony mound. Such cists and mounds are commonly found in the pre-Christian prehistoric past. According to Michelle Comber, Director of the Caherconnell Archaeology Field School, these people appear to have combined their traditional belief system with elements of the ‘new’ religion.
Three to four centuries later, the high status cashel settlement called Caherconnell was built at this location. The builders of this new home did not clear this mound and its contents out of their way or try to avoid the mound. Instead, they built the drystone wall of their enclosure directly over the top of the mound. Michelle Comber believes it is likely that knowledge of the mound and what it contained survived into the 10th/11th century AD, and that the new occupants of the ste deliberately incorporated these ancestors into their settlement. Like the earlier burials themselves, this practice also has pre-Christian associations.
As Christianity became the official religion in Ireland, religious practices generally began to reflect this change. The establishment of Christianity as the official religion brought the need to organize and regulate its doctrine into a coherent monotheistic philosophy that contrasted quite drastically with the pagan practices of the time. The multiple gods, rites, and celebrations came to be considered unfounded from an intellectual point of view, criticized as superstitious, and open to constant re-interpretation. But Christian leaders were clever enough to realise that people would not abandon their beliefs easily, so the practice of assimilation was implemented in which most pagan religious practices were transformed in order to teach the Christian message in a way that was culturally relevant and easy to understand.
Nevertheless, it seems that in the case of Caherconnell, pre-Christian traditions were not easily abolished and persisted well into the 10th century. It is highly unusual to find a settlement of a noble family from medieval times choosing to live as their ancestors had before them. “This may have been a deliberate choice, proclaiming their ancestry in a changing world where intrusive groups from outside (initially the Anglo-Normans, later their English descendants) were threatening the native way of life,” wrote Ms Comber.