Wedge Tombs: Last of the Megaliths

Altar Wedge Tomb on The Mizen Peninsula

Altar Wedge Tomb on The Mizen Peninsula

In Ireland, the tradition of building megalithic (mega=large, lithos=stone) structures that included chambers to house the dead (such as the Boyne Valley Passage Grave complex, or the Court Tomb of Creevykeel) belongs to the Neolithic period, which ended around 2500 BC. About this time, a new style emerged of stone ‘galleries’, oriented towards the setting sun. Their distinctive shape – narrower and shorter at the eastern end – gives them their common name, wedge tombs. This tradition appears to have flourished for about 500 years.

Altar, side view

Altar, side view

In other areas of Ireland wedge tombs were often covered by a mound, but there is little evidence for this in West Cork. The closest parallel to wedge tombs outside of Ireland are in Brittany where allées couvertes date from this period. They are associated in some parts of Ireland (although once again not in West Cork) with Beaker pottery, a distinctive kind of vessel widely distributed across Western Europe. This was a time in which the population was expanding, farming practices were intensifying and a brand new technology was being introduced – it was the dawn of the Copper Age. Thus, we can speculate that wedge tombs mark the confluence of two forces: the new continental technologies of pottery and metalworking and the indigenous tradition of erecting megalithic chambered tombs.

Wedge tombs occur mostly in the western half of Ireland, including many in County Clare such as the Parknabinnia tomb pictured below.

 The largest wedge tomb in Ireland is near Fermoy, north of Cork City. It is typical of many Irish wedge tombs in featuring double walling, evidence of a surrounding cairn, and a sealed end chamber. Interestingly its name, Labbacallee, means the Hag’s Bed – the hag, or wise woman crops up frequently in Irish mythology.

In contrast to Labbacallee, wedge tombs in West Cork are generally smaller and simpler, comprising only one chamber and lacking a covering cairn. However, the distinctive wedge shape is preserved along with one other defining feature: wedge tombs are invariably oriented towards the setting sun. The funerary rite was that of cremation. Votive offerings of white quartz pebbles and small deposits of metal have been found in excavations.

Toormore wedge tomb,  now in someone's garden

Toormore wedge tomb, now in someone’s garden

Prof William O’Brien has excavated wedge tombs in West Cork and studied them, and the culture in which they were built, extensively. Here’s what he has to say, in his book, Iverni, about the society that produced them:

Whereas monuments like Newgrange could only have been built with a large organised input of labour over a long period, the building of wedge tombs was undertaken by small kin groups…This was a small scale society, comprised of local, clan-like groupings…The tomb was a type of shrine, sanctified by an association with ancestors and used for periodic offering and sacrifice to supernatural powers.

A striking aspect of Neolithic, Chalcolithic (Copper Age) and Bronze Age monuments in West Cork is their consistent orientation towards solar events such as sunrise and sunsets on the equinoxes, solstices and cross-quarter days (see our post on Bohonagh stone circle, for example). In this regard, wedge tombs are remarkably consistent in being oriented towards the West. Here’s O’Brien again:

Wedge tombs served as funnel-shaped openings to the Otherworld, facing the descending or setting sun to emphasise the symbolic dualism of light/life and darkness/death.

Toormore, side view

Toormore, side view

Looking for a wedge tomb closer to home, we set out yesterday to find the nearby Kilbronogue site, using the information from the National Monuments Service as a guide. We have found in the past that the mapping of sites is not always accurate and after an hour or two of tramping through a large and very muddy area with a helpful neighbour and his son we had to admit defeat – either the map was wrong, or the monument had disappeared in the recent fieldwork by a digger. Desperately hoping it was the former and not the latter, we found out who owned the land and went to call on him today. Stephen Lynch turned out to be a friendly, cheerful and very knowledgeable organic farmer – he assured us that the tomb would never be damaged in any way and not to worry, he would take us to it. Whew! Half an hour later we were trudging up a path that Stephen had had cut through his ash plantation – on we went and suddenly there it was in front of us – a classic wedge tomb, oriented to the west, built with large slabs that may have been cut from the rock face behind it.

Kilbronogue wedge tomb with its guardian, Stephen Lynch

Kilbronogue wedge tomb with its guardian, Stephen Lynch

Stephen told us the tomb had been used as a mass rock in penal times and that the Protestant farmers who owned all the farms that bordered on the rock had cooperated in allowing the masses to take place – an indication, Stephen said, of the long tradition of friendship between Catholic and Protestant farming families in this area. As with the Altar wedge tomb, also used as a mass rock, we marvelled at how a sacred site, built at least four thousand years ago, would retain its aura of veneration over the millennia, to be used again for religious purposes in the historic period.

Kilbronogue, side view

Kilbronogue, side view

Perhaps the most spectacularly situated wedge tomb we have been to is high on a hill overlooking Bantry. This one is known as Queen Medb’s Tomb and from it there are expansive views of the Beara, Sheep’s Head and Mizen Peninsulas. Climb up to it on a clear day, as the sun is sinking into the sea: in the presence of such awe-inspiring scenery you will find yourself contemplating how the mysteries and the wonders of Irish history and prehistory are written on its landscape.

Queen Medb's Tomb

Queen Medb’s Tomb

A Little Adventure

Arderrawiddy a Portal Tomb

Aderrawinny – a Portal Tomb

The landscape of West Cork is so densely populated with archaeology and historical sites that it will be a lifetime’s work to visit every one. Whenever the sun shines – and often when it doesn’t – we are out exploring. A great resource for us is the Archaeological Survey Database, set up by the National Monuments Service of Ireland. This lists and describes every site in the Republic which has been recorded to date – and it is expanding all the time. I have to say that the way it works in practice is slightly clumsy: you have to know which County and which Townland you are searching in, but once you have got your head around it it is fairly straightforward to locate a record. One of the really good things about it is that you can see the position of each record laid over the modern Ordnance Survey mapping of Ireland, or historic 6″ and 25″ maps – and even over satellite views of the terrain: all this makes locating the sites relatively easy, although it doesn’t help overcome bogs, barbed wire fences and seemingly impenetrable undergrowth.

Prehistoric Landscape West of Schull

Prehistoric Landscape West of Schull

We have been researching Megalithic tombs, and there are many of these on the Mizen Peninsula. On Sunday last we compiled a list from the Survey Database, donned our boots, filled up our flasks and went out to tackle the wild unknown…

View from Arderrawiddy

View from Aderrawinny

Our first stop was in the townland of Aderrawinny – a Portal Tomb. The site is shown north of the Schull to Goleen road, up in a rocky hillside. In spite of having looked carefully at the maps it wasn’t easy to locate precisely, but I find you begin to get an instinct about these things and we headed off expectantly across boggy land and through painful patches of gorse and bramble, pausing frequently to examine every outcrop for undiscovered Rock Art. Eventually our travails were rewarded when we crested a low ridge and found ourselves looking down on a lonely construction created perhaps 5,000 years ago. It’s a humbling experience to think of the history which has befallen our ancestors during those millennia: through it all this little monument to humanity has survived with little change, eternally pointing its entrance to the movements of the sun and having always in its sight the distant blue waters of Toormore Bay. The landscape, also, has changed so little, apart from the minor interventions of agriculture. This is what makes the west of Ireland such a special place – for me, at least.

5,000 year old Monument

5,000 year old Monument

We travelled on, passing by the well known and well signposted Altar Tomb, a Wedge Tomb which is constructed so that the setting sun around Samhain (November) is aligned with a holy peak at the far end of the Mizen.

Altar Wedge Tomb: Sacred Orientation

Altar Wedge Tomb: Sacred Orientation

We found another Wedge Tomb near Goleen: this has been ‘domesticated’ because somebody’s garden is built around it: it has to share its presence with chicken runs and a wheelbarrow.

Back Yard Wedge Tomb

Back Yard Wedge Tomb

Lastly, we searched out another type of tomb: a Boulder Burial. This lies almost drowned in a salt marsh near Dunmanus. Since the time of its construction water levels are reckoned to have risen by up to two metres. It reposes like some great amphibian reptile on a watery bed, as dramatic in its own way as any of the other Megaliths.

Drowning Monument: Boulder Burial at Dunmanus

Drowning Monument: Boulder Burial at Dunmanus

These hillsides, mountains and monuments will outlive humankind. Interesting to ponder whether something we have created in our own lifetime could still be around and – for all we know – still performing its original function in 5,000 years’ time…