- The Archaeology of Caves in Ireland by Marion Dowd
What a wonderful book! If your interests lie in prehistoric beliefs; sacred landscape; caves; or Gaelic, Catholic, and Christian impact on native belief systems, then put this book at the top of your reading list. Here is a whole book that documents that the primary use of Ireland’s caves from ten thousand years ago until the early medieval period was for ritual, often involving human skeletal elements and votive offerings. Even after the coming of Christianity, caves were used as theaters for ritual and other ways as well. The range of uses uncovered continues today, but is less often encountered.
Dowd begins her exceedingly original research and grand overview with several chapters related to the formation of caves and the archaeological history of engagement with caves. Readers of this journal will probably want to go directly to Chapter 4 that begins the survey of ritual remains. Dowd’s review of Irish caves begins in the Mesolithic period with five caves that contain human bones and cremains. None has evidence of associated habitation inside or outside the cave mouth, clearly establishing these places as [End Page 267] something other than habitations—ritual locations make the most sense. Neolithic remains typically overlay Mesolithic remains suggesting a continuation of the earlier cave rituals and a continuation in the selection of remote places. There is no evidence for habitation in these Irish caves, and the use of caves for rituals dramatically increases throughout Europe in the Neolithic. Bronze Age material is found in caves on topographic boundaries in “landscapes that were rich in monuments” (125). Late Bronze Age people traveled deeper than their predecessors into caves leaving newborn domesticated animal and human bones, as well as amber beads, lithics, and pottery. Unlike the Americas, where caves seem to be the domain of men, there is no apparent evidence of gender-specific activities within Irish caves. Iron Age evidence is sparse in Irish caves. Throughout the pre-Christian era human skeletal elements as well as complete skeletons were placed in caves during the time when caves were used primarily for ritual activity. The human skeletal material recovered in these sites has been studied for age, sex, and trauma and is well dated.
Cave use dramatically increases during the early medieval era, being the location for a “multitude of activities,” but their use fades away to the point of the avoidance of caves in the medieval and post-medieval eras (23). Is this because medieval Western European mythology depicted caves as malevolent places in spite of the stories circulating in Byzantine Christianity that Jesus was born in a cave, that the holy family lived in cave, and of course that Jesus’s body was placed in a cave from which he was resurrected (all referencing the millennial old belief of the Underworld as a source of new life)?
To have a single excavator and author discuss ninety-one sites spanning all time periods in Ireland, most of which she has tested herself, is a rare treat. It makes for consistency in presentation, questions, and in excavation methods. It is also unusual from this reviewer’s perspective to have so many radiocarbon dates on human bone, allowing for a very well informed picture of rites and their timing. She offers both her own hypotheses and those of others to explain some of her findings.
In spite of the author’s thoughtful consideration of alternative questions and interpretations, I wondered while reading the descriptions and data contained in these chapters if Dowd might be overlooking some potential sources of information. On several occasions the number of skeletons found inside was intriguing, as were the age distributions of the remains. When there are five bodies found, summarized as a fetus, child, and two adults, I think of the frequently encountered four-age burials in sites in the Eastern United States. Cardinal directions are each associated with a stage of life, elements in an annual renewal ceremony. The number five includes the four [End Page 268] directional elements and the center...