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IMPACT BEYOND THE EMPIRE: PAGAN AND CHRISTIAN BURIAL IN IRELAND (1ST–8TH CENTURIES) Elizabeth O’Brien Whilst contacts between Ireland, Britain, and continental Europe have been active since the Neolithic period,1 the purpose of this paper is to draw attention to contacts with the Roman world, particularly with Roman and post-Roman Britain, during the Irish later Iron Age, that is, from the first to the eighth centuries AD, concentrating mainly on the fourth to eighth centuries, using archaeological evidence for burial practices in combination with primary documentary sources. 1 John Waddell, “The Irish Sea in Prehistory,” The Journal of Irish Archaeology VI 1991/92 (1992): 29–40. Figure 1. Map of Roman Empire c. AD 117. i6 p&c 00 book.indb 341 2017.09.20. 16:22 ELIZABETH O’BRIEN 342 Ireland (known to the Romans as Hibernia), was located at the extreme western fringe of, but was never absorbed into, the Roman Empire. (fig. 1) However, the Roman world was not unaware of Ireland’s existence, and while the island never became part of the Empire, absorbing it was contemplated. For instance, Tacitus records that Agricola, who was Governor of Britain AD 78–84, had given the matter some thought, but for whatever reason he did not act on it. Agricola was also very aware of maritime trading and traffic into Irish harbors: …he also manned with troops that part of the British coast which faces Ireland, in hope of future action rather than out of fear; for Ireland, I believe, which lies between Britain and Spain and also commands the Gallic Sea, would unite, to their mutual advantage, the most effective portions of our Empire…we are better informed, thanks to the trade of merchants, about the approaches to the island and its harbours…I have often heard my father-in-law say that with one legion and a fair contingent of irregulars Ireland could be overpowered and held….2 Further evidence that Ireland was familiar to mariners, and undoubtedly to traders, in the second century AD can be deduced from the map of Ireland produced by Claudius Ptolemaeus as part of his map of Europe c. AD 150, which, although based on copies made in the medieval period, still retains place-names based on the language of Old Irish.3 Iron Age Burial Rites During the Irish Iron Age, the indigenous burial rite in Ireland was that of cremation , with cremation deposits being inserted, probably in organic containers (never in ceramic containers),4 into small pits, or spread directly onto the ground surface. These 2  Tacitus: Bk.1 Agricola, trans. M. Hutton, rev. ed. R. M. Ogilvie (Massachusetts & London: Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 1970 edition), cap. 24, 70–71: …eamque partem Brittaniae quae Hiberniam aspicit copiis instruxit, in spem magis quam ob formidinem, si quidem Hibernia medio inter Britanniam atque Hispaniam sita et Gallico quoque mari opportuna valentissimam imperii partem magnis in vicem usibus miscuerit …melius aditus portusque per commercia et negotiatores cogniti… Saepe ex eo audivi legione una et modicis auxiliis debellari obtinerique Hiberniam posse… 3  For details and context of early Irish place-names see Gregory Toner, “Identifying Ptolemy’s Irish places and tribes,” in Ptolemy. Towards a linguistic atlas of the earliest Celtic place-names of Europe, eds. D. M. Parsons and Patrick Sims-Williams (Aberystwyth: CMCS Publications, 2000), 73–82. 4  At some point between 700 BC and 400 BC the Irish abandoned the use of pottery and adopted an aceramic culture, leading to a complete absence of ceramic containers for domestic or for funerary purposes. See Barry Raftery, “The Conundrum of Irish Iron Age Pottery,” in Sites and Sights of the Iron Age, Oxbow Monograph 56, eds. Barry Raftery, Vincent Megaw, and Valery Rigby (vcially.Oxford, 1995), 152. i6 p&c 00 book.indb 342 2017.09.20. 16:22 IMPACT BEYOND THE EMPIRE 343 deposits were placed usually in the encircling fosse of ring-barrows, but sometimes in the interior, or, they were inserted into already existing burial monuments. Many cremation deposits are unaccompanied by grave goods, however, when grave goods are present they consist of items of personal adornment, for instance, glass beads, some of which are highly decorated, amber beads, iron or copper-alloy safety-pin type fibulae, and in one instance a small decorated circular bronze box recovered in a cremation deposit dated from the fourth to first century BC5 at Ballydavis, Co. Laois (fig. 2).6 These goods, 5 GrA-13594: 2140±50BP. Calibrated at 2 sigma using...


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