Poulnabrone Dolmen – The Stones of Ireland

October 29th, 2013 by Smithsonian Journeys

Miriam C. Davis has an M.A. in medieval archaeology and a Ph.D. in medieval history. She is a professor of history at Delta State University, where she teaches European history and the history of Christianity, and has participated in archaeological excavations in Mississippi, Alabama, England, and Scotland. In addition to her scholarly publications, Miriam has written for the popular press on archaeology, history, and travel. She has lectured throughout the U.S., Great Britain, and Israel.

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Silhouetted dramatically against the horizon, it’s a stark reminder of past millennia, millennia that we know too little about.

We pile out of the bus and begin the short walk up the trail to our destination. Our tour has taken us to Poulnabrone Dolmen in County Clare, one of the most famous portal tombs in Ireland, and a relic of the Neolithic Age. “Neolithic” means “New Stone Age,” when agriculture emerged in Ireland. It’s also the period of the megaliths, the great stone monuments that dot the landscape of Western Europe.

At Poulnabrone, as we circle the tomb, taking pictures from different angles, we must step carefully. Deep fissures fracture the ground; it’d be easy for the careless visitor to trip or twist an ankle.

That’s because we’re in the Burren, a stretch of land in northwest County Clare in the west of Ireland. Long ago, erosion carved deep grooves in the limestone pavement, leaving a jagged moonscape. But the Burren can also be surprisingly green, as grass readily grows between cracks in the rock due to the mineral-rich soil.

The dolmen itself is made of limestone slabs. A pair of portal stones – that is, large upright stones at the dolmen’s entrance – and two smaller standing stones support the capstone, which slants downward from the front to the rear to create an 8 x 4 foot chamber. (In the 1980s, one of the portal stones was replaced because it had cracked; the original stone still lies nearby.)  Originally, a low, oval-shaped cairn, or man-made pile of rocks, surrounded the dolmen to steady the whole structure.

“How did they get the big stone on top?” someone asks. It’s a good question; twelve feet long and seven feet wide, the capstone weighs over 3,000 pounds.  Probably a mound of dirt was constructed and the slab pulled up it using rollers made of tress. No doubt it involved a lot of sweat. And cursing.

And manpower. It’s no accident that the megaliths (“big stones”) appear in the Neolithic period, after the introduction of agriculture. Hunting and gathering during the Mesolithic Age had supported only a very small population, eight or nine thousand in all of Ireland, living in family groups of about twenty-five. But the coming of agriculture about 3500 BC brought food surpluses that supported larger populations, providing the manpower necessary to erect the dolmens.

We know the dolmen was a tomb, because archaeological excavations have uncovered the remains of at least thirty individuals. From the bone fragments we can tell that the dead bodies were already decomposed when they were interred in the chamber around 3000 BC. Why were these particular individuals chosen, and why was so much effort put into their interment? We don’t know.

While its ritual and symbolic functions remain unknown, Poulnabrone Dolmen continues to exert a powerful attraction in the modern world, drawing in thousands of visitors each year. As we walk back to the bus, past the sellers of Celtic crosses and other souvenirs who congregate at the entrance to the site, I think of these long-ago people, whose names we’ll never know. We, with our modern technology — our smart phones and our laptops – we can still be awed by what people did 5000 years ago.

That’s not such a bad thing.

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