Passage Tomb People aims to identify the social drivers of passage tomb construction along the Atlantic Façade, focusing on the archaeology of three key zones: Ireland, North Wales and Orkney. The connectedness of Atlantic passage tombs, in terms of iconography, building methods and material culture, has long been recognised but to date there has been no targeted research on the societies that built them.
What are passage tombs?
Passage tombs are a class of megalithic (mégas = great; líthos = stone) monument constructed during the Neolithic period across Atlantic and northwest Europe, broadly speaking from the mid-5th to early 3rd millennium BC. As their name suggests, passage tombs can contain large assemblages of human remains, but funerary or mortuary use seems to be only one of their functions. While the precise shape and design of passage tombs varies from region to region, they generally feature a passage connected to an internal chamber or chambers. Hundreds of these monuments dot the western fringes of Europe, with some of the very largest passage tombs clustered in ceremonial complexes such as the Bend of the Boyne in eastern Ireland. As a monument class, passage tombs represent some of the greatest achievements of human engineering and creative expression, involving the transport and erection of stone blocks weighing up to 180 tonnes, elaborate sequences of stone carving, and precise astronomical alignments. They include three World Heritage Sites (Archaeological Ensemble of the Bend of the Boyne, Ireland; Heart of Neolithic Orkney, Scotland; Antequera Dolmens, Spain) and are recognised by UNESCO as a feature of outstanding importance in European prehistory.
Who built passage tombs and why?
Passage tomb people were certainly farmers, with monuments erected after the arrival of agriculture. However, we know relatively little about the nature and structure of these prehistoric communities. While some passage tombs contain large deposits of intact human remains, acidic soils and mortuary practices such as cremation can dramatically affect preservation and limit our ability to tell their stories. From the evidence gathered so far, we know that men, women and children were all deposited in passage tombs, while analysis from sites like Knowth indicate these people consumed mostly terrestrial resources rather than routinely harvesting the rivers and seas. Residues from contemporary pottery vessels also show that dairying was well established.
As to the ‘why’ of passage tomb construction, their prominent location and a growing concern with intervisibility – in Ireland at least – has been taken to indicate expanding territories in the later Neolithic, with monuments drawing in an increasing number of ritual participants from wider networks. A related view sees long distance connections tied to the competitive behaviour of well-travelled élites, who introduce exotic traditions to enhance their local power and drive increasingly ambitious programmes of monument construction. At the same time, signs of nutritional deficiency in some individuals from passage tomb contexts raise the question of whether these monuments were constructed in times of surplus or in times of stress.