The Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has received details of scientific analysis of ancient human remains which were discovered in 2016 by a local hillwalker on a Mayo mountainside. The discovery generated significant media interest, and research has now revealed that the natural boulder chamber in which the remains were found was used for human burial practice through the Neolithic period, from as early as 3600BC.
Minister for Culture, Heritage, and the Gaeltacht, Josepha Madigan, praised the local hillwalkers for reporting the find: “This is a fascinating archaeological discovery and I want to thank the community of hill walkers for reporting it to us. Such vigilance is extremely important to us in helping to protect and understand our archaeological heritage.”
In August 2016, local hillwalker Michael Chambers came across a cave-like chamber among some massive boulders on Bengorm Mountain in north west Mayo. Human bones were scattered over the rock floor. Once it had been determined that the remains were ancient, the National Monuments Service of the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, in consultation with the National Museum of Ireland, commissioned a rescue excavation which was carried out by Dr Marion Dowd of IT Sligo.
The scientific analysis of the human remains has indicated that at least 10 individuals — adults, adolescents, and children — were placed in the chamber over a period of up to 1,200 years. One of the adult bones dated to 3600BC while a bone of a child skeleton dated to 2400BC. The research has suggested that bodies were brought into the cave chamber and laid out in a pit. At some later point, the skulls might have been deliberately broken as part of a complex burial ritual and the larger bones removed.
“Large pieces of quartz had been placed in and around the bones. When the radiocarbon dates came through it was very exciting. Not only were the bones Neolithic, but the dates showed the site had been used for over 1,000 years,” said Dr Dowd.
“This was not a burial site as such, but a ritual place where bodies were placed to decompose. Only a very small proportion of each skeleton was found, with the majority of bones apparently deliberately removed. The discovery indicates highly complex processing of the dead,” said Dr Linda Lynch, the osteoarchaeologist who examined the human bones.
Minister Madigan added: “The excavation has provided a glimpse into prehistoric Ireland over 5,000 years ago. Such discoveries show the enduring capacity of archaeology to enthral and demonstrate how advances in scientific research are affording us a better understanding of Ireland’s ancient past and its people.”