Stone adze points to ancient burial rituals in Ireland

Ceremonial tool found with cremated remains in island’s earliest known gravesite

stone adze

RITUAL EDGE  Microscopic study of this stone adze, found in a more than 9,000-year-old pit near Ireland’s River Shannon, suggests that it played a key role in ceremonies surrounding an ancient hunter-gatherer’s cremation and burial.

A. Little et al/Cambridge Archaeological Journal 2016

A stone chopping tool found in Ireland’s earliest known human burial offers a rare peek at hunter-gatherers’ beliefs about death more than 9,000 years ago, researchers say.

The curved-edge implement, known as an adze, was made to be used at a ceremony in which an adult’s largely cremated remains were interred in a pit, says a team led by archaeologist Aimée Little of the University of York in England. Previous radiocarbon dating of burned wood and a bone fragment from the pit, at a site called Hermitage near the River Shannon, places the material at between 9,546 and 9,336 years old.

A new microscopic analysis revealed a small number of wear marks on the sharpened edge of the still highly polished adze, which was probably attached to a wooden handle, the researchers report online October 20 in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal. Little’s group suspects someone wielded the 19.4-centimeter-long adze to chop wood for a funeral pyre or to fell a tree for a grave marker. A hole dug into the bottom of the riverside pit once held a tall wooden post indicating that a person lay buried there, the scientists suspect.

Once the adze fulfilled its ritual duties, a hard stone was ground across the tool’s sharp edge to render it dull and useless, further microscopic study suggests. The researchers regard this act as a symbolic killing of the adze. The dulled tool blade was then placed in the pit, next to the post grave marker, perhaps to accompany the cremated individual to the afterlife.

illustration of a stick in a hole
POST UP A reconstruction of Ireland’s more than 9,000-year-old Hermitage burial shows an adze (in green) placed blade-down in a pit next to a deep-set post, presumably a wooden grave marker. A person’s cremated remains cover the adze and the bottom of the post. A. Little et al/Cambridge Archaeological Journal 2016
“By 9,000 years ago, people in Ireland were making very high quality artifacts specifically to be placed in graves, giving us a tantalizing glimpse of ancient belief systems concerning death and the afterlife,” Little says. Her conclusion challenges a popular assumption among researchers that stone tools found in ancient hunter-gatherers’ graves belonged to the deceased while they were still alive. In that scenario, tools and other grave items played no role in burial activities and rituals.

Archaeologist Erik Brinch Petersen of the University of Copenhagen is skeptical. No other European stone adzes or axes from around 10,000 to 6,000 years ago display blunted edges, Petersen says. That makes it difficult to say how such an unusual artifact was used or whether it was intended to accompany a cremated person to the afterlife. In addition, researchers have found only a few European cremations from the same time period.

Since there was no practical reason to turn an effective tool into a chunk of stone that couldn’t cut, Little responds, intentionally dulling the adze’s edge was likely a ritual act. Whatever the meaning, people in Ireland made polished stone tools several thousand years before such implements achieved widespread use in Europe with the arrival of agriculture, Little says. 

Excavations in 2001 revealed the Hermitage burial pit. Two small stone tools lay near the polished adze. A couple more burial pits turned up nearby. One contained cremated remains of an adult human from around 9,000 years ago; the other held roughly 8,600-year-old cremated remnants too fragmentary to enable a species identification.

“Hermitage was a special place known about and returned to over hundreds of years,” Little says.

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