Poulnabrone - Prehistoric Billboard or Ancient Monument?

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Poulnabrone was a place of rituals. It may also be a giant megalithic street sign designed to make it clear who ruled the neighborhood

By Carleton Jones

I’ve had the privilege of studying, surveying and excavating archaeological sites of many types across Ireland. The experiences have ranged from the pleasant summer excavations to the grim wintertime digs where the muddy, frozen trenches resemble a scene from the First World War. The sites have ranged from massive stone monuments built by Ireland’s first farmers to an Early Medieval souterrarin - a complex underground passageway with trap-doors and secret air holes.

Out of all these, the sites that interest me the most are the massive prehistoric stone constructions known as megalithic tombs.

Irish Megalithic MonumentOwning the Territory
These monuments contain human bones, but were much more than tombs. The careful arrangement of bones, the inclusion of animal bones, the use of fire and celestial “calendar” alignments make it clear that these monuments were used for a variety of rituals. In addition to funerals, those rituals may have also included communing with ancestors, rites of fertility and rites of regeneration. These would have been communal rituals repeated generation after generation. They would have been meant to hold the community together, but also to bind people to the monument and to the surrounding land. One aspect of many megalithic tombs, in fact, appears to be a desire to proclaim territorial rights.

Poulnabrone, the first megalithic tomb I encountered in Ireland, is still one of my favorites. It was built to impress, and it still does over 5,000 years later. It forms a striking silhouette that catches your eye from afar and is a solid testament to the strength and cohesion of the group that built it. In prehistory, as today, it was located on a main route into the Burren. One of its roles seems to have been that of a prehistoric billboard.” As a traveler entered the Burren from the north, the impressive bulk of Poulnabrone would leave no doubt in their mind that they were entering the Burren tribe’s territory.

Mass and Energy
But there is probably more to Poulnabrone. Early antiquarians sometimes dismissed megalithic tombs as “rude stone monuments,” lacking in aesthetic value. Today, with a more open mind, it is not hard to see its aesthetic qualities. The monument is an amazing balance of mass and energy. The mass is provided by the bulky stones rising straight up from the ground while the energy is captured in the almost precarious tilt of a massive capstone, balanced high above and pointing skywards. Perhaps, Poulnabrone embodies a that long gone society’s striving for spiritual answers, in much the same way a Gothic arch or a steeple on a modern church reaches towards heaven.

Poulnabrone shows us that there are many ways to look at, experience, and explain a prehistoric monument. If you make a visit to Ireland, Poulnabrone and the other megalithic tombs on the Burren are well worth a visit. Just keep an open mind!

Poulnabrone is near Ballyvaughn, on the Corfin – Ballyvaughn road. More information about the archaeology of the Burren and the Aran Islands can be found in the recently published book by Dr. Carleton Jones: The Burren and the Aran Islands – Exploring the Archaeology. Published by Collins Press, West Link Park, Doughcloyne, Wilton, Cork, Ireland. www.collinspress.com

Dr. Carleton Jones is a Lecturer in the Archaeology Department, National University of Ireland, Galway.