Bengorm · Press Release · Publications · Research Projects

Publication: Neolithic Excarnation in an Irish Upland Boulder Chamber

I’m a co-author on a new publication, led by Dr Marion Dowd. ‘Neolithic engagements with the dead: mortuary processing on Bengorm Mountain in the NW of Ireland’, has just been published in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology.

The fascinating upland site at Bengorm Mountain, near Newport, Co. Mayo, was discovered in 2016 when a local man noticed a spread of skeletal material across the floor of a secluded boulder chamber. The discovery led to a rescue excavation by Dr Marion Dowd and Dr Thorsten Kahlert, funded by the National Monuments Service. The excavation recovered 4,899 human bone fragments that were concentrated in and over a pit in the chamber floor. A grant from IT Sligo allowed for further analysis and dating of the material recovered.

View from the Boulder Chamber. Photo: Dr Thorsten Kahlert.

My role in the project was a geoarchaeological analysis of the two pit fills. The analysis included moisture and organic carbon content, particle size, mass specific magnetic susceptibility, X‐ray fluorescence spectrometry and pH. The results indicated that very little sediment was transported into the subterranean chamber from outside, which not only protected the skeletal remains on the floor of the chamber from the elements but also prevented the ingress of vegetation and peat formation. Other specialists working on the project assessed the skeletal remains, determined ancient DNA of the human bone, provided radiocarbon dating, isotope analysis of human and animal bone, as well as analysis of ancient insect remains and wood recovered from the boulder chamber.

Key findings from the project:

– The boulder chamber, on the side of Bengorm Mountain in Mayo, was used for excarnation during the Neolithic (3650-2345 cal BC).

– Remains of eight individuals were recovered, including two older adults, a younger adult, an adolescent, two children aged 7-11 years, a 3-5 year old child, and a 3-12 month old baby.

– Following decomposition of the individuals, the major bones were removed from the chamber, leaving only small bones and fragments at the site.

– Skulls of several individuals were deliberately crushed a few months after death.

– Pieces of quartz were placed with the dead.

– Ancient DNA analysis indicates that at least two of the men at Bengorm were related (they were 5th degree relatives, meaning that they may, for instance, have been second cousins).

– Ancient DNA also indicates these two men had intermediate to dark skin, brown eyes, and dark brown or black hair.

– Both men were also lactose intolerant.

The authors of the research are: Marion Dowd, Linda Lynch, Lara Cassidy, James Bonsall, Thorsten Kahlert, Paula Reimer, Svetlana Svyatko, Ellen OCarroll, Eileen Reilly, Alice Noonan and Fiona Beglane and the paper can be viewed here.

Dowd, M., Lynch, L.G., Cassidy, L., Bonsall, J., Kahlert, T., Reimer, P., Svyatko, S., OCarroll, E., Reilly, E., Noonan, A. and Beglane, F. 2020. Neolithic engagements with the dead: mortuary processing on Bengorm Mountain in the North-west of Ireland. Oxford Journal of Archaeology. Wiley.

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