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.