A history of Ireland in 100 objects:Sometime in the early Bronze Age, Irish people began to bury their dead in single graves. This suggests something about their attitude to death and, perhaps more importantly, hints at their attitude to life. A notion is emerging that what is significant is not just the life of the community or of political or religious leaders. Ordinary lives matter. Not only are the dead given an individual burial, but the idea also takes hold that they will continue in some other form.
“There seems to be a change,” says Eamonn Kelly of the National Museum of Ireland, “from the more communal approach of the great megalithic tombs to a more individualistic approach. This suggests that there was some sort of a change in how society was organised – more specialisation, perhaps.”
These pots are among the many “food vessels” that survive from this period, some of which are vase-shaped, some bowl-shaped. The abstract geometric decoration on the bowls is very similar to that on Irish metalwork of the same period, especially on the gold lunulae. On the base of some pots is a starburst pattern that may relate to a sun cult.
The vessels were made to be buried with the dead in small flat graves that were usually built of stone. The graves are of a trapezoidal shape and are just large enough to hold the body, which is curled in a foetal position, and the accompanying pots.
Adding to this sense of a new awareness of the individual is an apparent choice of burial forms. As well as the foetal burial, it was possible to be cremated. Both forms occur at the same time and in the same cemeteries, suggesting that the choice was not a mark of social, generational or gender distinction. Strikingly, the Bronze Age vessels found at Tara, which presumably accompanied dead kings on their journey to the afterlife, are no different from the rest. Prestige objects like jet necklaces are rarely found in the graves: for the most part the dead were treated equally. “There’s nothing to suggest,” says Kelly, “that there was another form of burial for the lower orders.”
Why were the dead arranged as if they were curled up in the womb? The obvious suggestion is of a simple and beautiful metaphor: the tomb is a womb. The dead person is to be reborn into another life.
The drink or food in the vessel is meant to sustain them on the journey from one state to the other.
This tells us two quite different things. One is that these people were looking carefully at the human body: they knew the shape of the child in the womb. The other is that this capacity to observe humanity went hand in hand with a desire to transcend it.
With thanks to Eamonn Kelly
Where to see it National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology, Kildare Street, D2, 01-6777444, museum.ie