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Stone Dead: Uncovering Early Mesolithic Mortuary Rites, Hermitage, Ireland

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JournalCambridge Archaeological Journal
DateAccepted/In press - 27 Sep 2016
DateE-pub ahead of print - 20 Oct 2016
DatePublished (current) - 1 May 2017
Issue number2
Number of pages21
Pages (from-to)223-243
Early online date20/10/16
Original languageEnglish


In Europe, cremation as a burial practice is often associated with the Bronze Age, but examples of cremated human remains are in fact known from the Palaeolithic onwards. Unlike conventional inhumation, cremation destroys most of the evidence we can use to reconstruct the biography of the buried individual. Remarkably, in Ireland, cremation is used for the earliest recorded human burial and grave assemblage (7530–7320 bc ) located on the banks of the River Shannon, at Hermitage, County Limerick. While we are unable to reconstruct in any great detail the biography of this individual, we have examined the biography of a polished stone adzehead interred with their remains. To our knowledge, this adze represents the earliest securely dated polished axe or adze in Europe. Microscopic analysis reveals that the adze was commissioned for burial, with a short duration of use indicating its employment in funerary rites. Before its deposition into the grave it was intentionally blunted, effectively ending its use-life: analogous to the death of the individual it accompanied. The microwear traces on this adze thus provide a rare insight into early Mesolithic hunter-gatherer belief systems surrounding death, whereby tools played an integral part in mortuary rites and were seen as fundamental pieces of equipment for a successful afterlife.

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© 2016, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.
This is an author-produced version of the published paper. Uploaded in accordance with the publisher’s self-archiving policy. Further copying may not be permitted; contact the publisher for details.

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