“It is curious that men in general, and not unfrequently men of sound sense and learning look upon antiquarians as a race of maniacs…This will be the case as long as the world exists, and still there will be antiquarians as long as the hand of cultivation has left a single trace of the barbarity or civilization of the ‘olden time’ on the surface of the earth; and when every trace is removed from the earth – which will be the case some time or other, they will then seek for historical monuments in the clouds!”
John O’Donovan, Ordnance Survey Letters, 18381
Drag to view this timeline of Irish archaeology.
A Contemporary Archaeologist: Carleton Jones
As one of the many modern-day inheritors of the zeal exhibited by John O’Donovan’s antiquarians, NUI Galway archaeologist Carleton Jones is shown in photographs and video clips on this page investigating a Neolithic tomb on the Burren in Co. Clare. The sites he studied are located near the Parknabinnia Wedge Tomb. Professor Jones’ 2007 guidebook Temples of Stone: Exploring the Megalithic Tombs of Ireland is an engaging and approachable introduction to the monuments, as well as a useful field guide for the visitor to Ireland. It is cited in several places in the essay that follows. We were fortunate to spend some time with Dr. Jones in 1998 and 1999 documenting some of his work on the Burren.
The ancient stones of Ireland are exquisite objects in their own right, even disassociated from their ritual and prehistoric context or any accumulated folklore. Coated with moss and lichen of many earth-warm colors, weather-etched as witnesses to the passing ages, and carved by geologic forces into shapes eloquently sculpted, they have a surface richness that is a fitting setting for the magical meanings that have been ascribed to them.
According to Carleton Jones, the megalithic tombs of Ireland can be understood as “machines for indoctrinating,” designed to influence the concepts of space and time. While there were surely many others destroyed through the millennia, there are some 1,600 megalithic tombs remaining in Ireland. They were all constructed between about 4000 BC and 2000 BC.
Each megalithic monument transformed what was once a formless space into a structured place. Once a megalith was built, it constrained the ways in which a place could be experienced. Not only do megaliths provide stages for rituals, they shape the experiences of people moving around and through them.2
While it is impossible to place ourselves into the minds of the ancestors who created these monuments, evolutionary biologists tell us that our minds have changed hardly at all in the past five thousand years. By seeking to understand the structures built by the people of Ireland’s late Stone Age we have an opportunity to understand these long-deceased builders themselves.3 Since the Irish (and the British) were pre-literate societies until the tide of Roman (and Christian) culture swept through in the first century CE, they have left us no written records. Thus their stone monuments, as interpreted by the science of archaeology, are an important means of understanding these individuals and their societies.