On the high limestone plateau of The Burren in Ireland, roughly 360 km from Belfast, stands one of the most iconic archaeological monuments on the island: Poulnabrone Dolmen. This is the oldest known megalithic monument in Ireland.
The hunebed stands on the remains of a hill and consists, among other things, of a flat capstone resembling a table-top about 4 metres long, 2 to 3 metres wide and 30 cm thick. The hunebed was built by neolithic farmers and the site was selected either for rituals, or as a territorial marker, or as a communal grave. What remains today is only the “stone skeleton” of the original monument.
It may originally have been covered over with earth and a cairn may been erected above it. It is the best known and most photographed of all 172 hunebeds in Ireland. Poulnabrone is classed as a portal tomb and is the second largest of its kind in Ireland (after Brownshill Dolmen in County Carlow).
Portal tombs have two large stones like pillars flanking the entrance. The chamber consists of upright supporting stones with the ends closed by keystones. The entire chamber is covered by one or more massive capstones. A stone lying on the ground behind the monument may have been a second capstone, probably covering the rear of the structure. This part has now collapsed.
In 1985 a crack was found in the stone on the eastern side, causing part of the dolmen to cave in. Making a virtue of necessity, the dolmen was dismantled and archaeological research carried out before the broken stones were replaced and the dolmen rebuilt. The excavation uncovered animal bones and the remains of 22 people, 16 adults and 6 children. All adults, apart from one, were aged less than 30. Personal possessions were also found, such as a polished hand axe, a bone pendant, quartz crystals, weapons and pottery. Just outside the entrance the body of a young baby was found, which seems probably to have been buried there in the Bronze Age around the 17th century BC.
In view of its dominant position in the karst landscape of the Burren, the dolmen must for a long time have been a very important site for rituals and ceremonies, perhaps even as late as the time of the Celts in the early Middle Ages.
Text Aaldert Slot
Translation Alun Harvey