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Stone Age bones found in Irish cave may reveal prehistoric practice of excarnation

An archaeologist made a chance finding while investigating the Knocknarea cave in Ireland and caught a glimpse of a sliver of bone, leading to the discovery of numerous bones belonging to a Stone Age child and adult .  It is believed the finding is evidence of the prehistoric practice of excarnation in which the deceased are laid in a cave and, after decomposition, the bones are transferred elsewhere.

In total, archaeologists at the Institute of Technology in Sligo (IT Sligo) found 13 small bones and bone fragments in an almost inaccessible cave high on Knocknarea Mountain. Radiocarbon dating has shown that the skeletal remains of the adult are around 5,500 years old and the child around 5,200 years old, which makes them among the oldest human bones found in county Sligo.

“It’s an enormously exciting discovery,” said Dr Marion Dowd of IT Sligo, who is Ireland’s only specialist in the archaeology of Irish caves. “This might see like a small quantity but it has yielded fantastic results."

IT Sligo archaeology graduate Thorsten Kahlert was investigating the little known series of caves on the slopes of Knocknarea when he found a tiny fragment of a human foot bone. The National Monuments Service immediately funded a rescue excavation to uncover the remaining bones.

Dr Dowd says that the small number of bones and their small size suggest that the cave was an excarnation site. That involved a corpse being laid in a cave and, after the flesh had decomposed, perhaps 1 or 2 years later, the dry bones were transferred elsewhere.  Fragments were sometimes accidentally left behind.

“We can imagine, therefore, that Stone Age people in Sligo between 5,000 and 5,500 years ago carried the corpses of their dead up the mountain. After an arduous climb, they then squeezed through the narrow cave entrance, and laid the dead person on the cave floor,” said Dr Dowd.

It is unknown where the rest of the remains were moved to, but one possibility is the monuments on the summit of Knocknarea, which includes Queen Maeve’s cairne, one of the best known Neolithic monuments in Ireland, or one of the five other archaeological on the summit, including three small ruined cairns, and two chambers.

Queen Maeve’s cairne

Queen Maeve’s cairne. Photo source .

Knocknarea is the most prominent mountain in County Sligo. The Hill of Knocknarea is a limestone hum rising to 320 meters above sea level and surrounded by water on three sides. Knocknarea dominates the landscape of Sligo and is visible from most of the Neolithic sites in the territory. It is believed that Mesolithic hunter gatherers were attracted to the area by the abundant wildlife and shellfish. The fourteen caves on the north side of the summit would have been a major attraction, as would the Glen of Knocknarea on the south side of the hill.

Sligo-Leitrim is one of Ireland’s most important cave regions but only a few have been investigated archaeologically. Who knows what else may be there waiting to be discovered?

Featured image: One of the caves found in county Siglo . Photo source.

By April Holloway

Comments

Thank you for featuring this important discovery on your website. Please allow me to point out that the image of the cave in your article is one of the Caves of Keshcorran or Caves of Kesh and not the cave where the bones were found. The Caves of Kesh, which have a fascinating and long reaching history are located some 25km south of Knocknarea. Unfortunately, the entrance to the Knocknarea cave is much less spectacular with an opening barely large enough to admit an adult.

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