Evidence of complex funeral rituals has been uncovered at the earliest known human burial and grave assemblage site in Ireland. Located along the River Shannon at Hermitage, County Limerick, the burial was performed more than 9,000 years ago by early Mesolithic hunter-gatherers. Led by Dr. Aimée Little with the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, the team of archaeologists analyzed the cremated remains which dated back to between 7530 BCE and 7320 BCE.
Interred with the remains researchers found a highly polished stone adze, a cutting tool shaped similar to an axe that dates back to the stone age, which is believed to represent the earliest recorded polished adze in Europe. Microscopic analysis indicates the adze was only in use for a very short period of time, suggesting it was only used as part of the funerary rites. It was also intentionally blunted, which may have also been a ritual act symbolizing the individual’s death.
The body had been cremated and buried, unusual, considering a simpler form of inhumation (a shallow grave with the body covered with dirt or rocks) would have been typical. The site also offered evidence of a grave-marker. These findings make Hermitage an extremely important site for the early history of northwest Europe.
The location of the burial, on the banks of the River Shannon (Ireland’s longest waterway) isn’t unusual, most of the Mesolithic sites in Ireland were close to water. Proximity to water likely gave the hunter-gatherers access to a wide supply of food, and the quickest and easiest method of transportation.
In a statement posted on the University of York’s website, Dr. Little is quoted as saying: “Through technological and microscopic analysis of the polished adze it has been possible to reconstruct the biography of this remarkable grave offering. The special treatment of this adze gives us a rare and intimate glimpse of the complex funerary rituals that were taking place graveside on the banks of the River Shannon over 9,000 years ago.”
Dr. Ben Elliott added: “The adze is exceptional as we traditionally associate polished axes and adzes like this with the arrival of agriculture in Europe, around 3000 years later. Although polished axes and adzes are known from pre-agricultural sites in Ireland and other parts of Europe, to find such a well-made, highly polished and securely dated example is unprecedented for this period of prehistory.”
Mesolithic man in Ireland has been described by some archaeologists as having an easy life due to an abundance of food. This gives the impression that all he had to do was stretch out and gorge himself. It can be seen by their diet that Mesolithic man did not have it so easy, however. They needed to migrate frequently due to seasonal food supply and could not afford the security of large settlements. Metaphorically they were on the hard road.
Mesolithic man in Ireland was a hunter-gatherer. During the summer they trapped salmon and eel, in the winter they hunted boar and hare. They possessed simple technology, with tools made of bone, wood, and stone. As basic as their tools were, their blades and axes indicate an outstanding level of craftsmanship.