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Facilitating Transitions: Postmortem Processing of the Dead at the Carrowkeel Passage Tomb Complex, Ireland (3500-3000 cal B.C.).

Ireland has a rich prehistoric archaeological record. This abundance is particularly evident in the substantial number of surviving Neolithic funerary monuments (Scarre 2007; Shee Twohig 2004). Apart from the well-known passage tombs, these also include portal tombs, court tombs, so-called Linkardstown-type tombs and other unclassified megalithic monuments (Cooney 2000; Jones 2013; Shee Twohig 2004). The dead were also placed in caves (Dowd 2008). The diversity in modes of burial suggests that the perceptions of death and the afterlife in the Neolithic changed in tandem with and as a consequence of social changes (Bradley 2007; Parker Pearson 1999; Whittle 1996). Societal change is implicit in the sudden appearance (a "frenzy" of construction [Scarre 2010:183]) of a variety of megalithic funerary monuments and communal tombs beginning in the Neolithic period. Over the period when passage tombs were constructed in Ireland, a decrease in the archaeological evidence of settlement is observed, which suggests substantial societal and economic shifts occurred simultaneously (McLaughlin et al. 2016). A sense of transformation--in particular, shifting perceptions of death and the afterlife--is also apparent in the changing funerary practices relating to the treatment of the dead and how their mortal remains were perceived by society. It is evident that postmortem processing and diverse secondary burial practices were important funerary rites for Neolithic societies (see Crozier 2016; Fowler 2010; Murphy 2003; Reilly 2003; Robb et al. 2015).

This study discusses new evidence of body-processing and secondary funerary rites undertaken in the Irish Neolithic as revealed from an osteological and taphonomic reanalysis of human bones excavated at the Carrowkeel passage tomb complex in County Sligo more than a century ago. The complex at Carrowkeel includes 26 passage tombs and probable passage tomb tradition sites (Hensey et al. 2014), as well as over 150 enclosures/hut sites within an area of about 25 km (2) (Bergh 2015) (Fig. 1). The tombs/monuments are prominently situated in the Bricklieve Mountains with panoramic views of the surrounding landscape. In addition to this impressive topographical location, the investment of imagination and energy that produced the remarkable diversity of forms and the scale of its monuments indicates that Carrowkeel had a particularly important role and function in this region in the Neolithic. Despite this situation, the complex has been subjected to far less modern research than its more famous counterparts: Loughcrew and the Boyne Valley (Bru na Boinne) in County Meath in the east of Ireland (e.g., Eogan 1986; O'Kelly 1982; Shee Twohig et al. 2010; Smyth 2009), and Carrowmore in County Sligo (Bergh 1995; Bergh and Hensey 2013; Burenhult 1984, 2003).

Archaeological Background

The first substantial archaeological investigation of Carrowkeel was conducted in the late spring and summer of 1911. The excavation was directed by Robert Alexander Stewart Macalister (1870-1950), professor of celtic archaeology at University College Dublin, assisted by Robert Lloyd Praeger (1865-1953), a naturalist, writer, and librarian at the National Library of Ireland, and Edmund Clarence Richard Armstrong (1879-1923), assistant keeper of antiquities at the National Museum of Ireland. During a total of only 18 days, and with the help of local laborers, the team investigated and described 14 cairns (Fig. 2). They also recorded two megalithic structures and a large group of enclosures/hut sites (Hensey et al. 2014; Macalister et al. 1912). A substantial amount of human and animal bone, together with a small collection of pottery, bone, and stone artifacts, was recovered. The skeletal material was analyzed by R. A. S. Macalister's father, Alexander Macalister (1844-1919), professor of anatomy at the University of Cambridge, who was also present during some of the archaeological excavations. Alexander Macalister's analysis of the remains was published as a summary in the excavation report in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy in early 1912, only a few months after the excavation was concluded (Macalister et al. 1912). Radiocarbon dates obtained from human and animal bones recovered from within the passage tombs in later studies have consistently returned Middle to Late Neolithic dates (3600-2500 cal B.C.) (Bergh 1995; Hensey et al. 2014; Kador et al. 2015), although the area continued to be used for funerary purposes well into the Bronze Age, as indicated by cist burials and Bronze Age pottery vessels associated with some of the monuments (Hensey et al. 2014).

Osteological Material and Methods

The human bone assemblage from R. A. S. Macalister's excavations at Carrowkeel is curated by the Duckworth Laboratory at the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies (LCHES), University of Cambridge, England. A small amount of material is also held by the National Museum of Ireland (NMI) in Dublin, Ireland. For a long time, the whereabouts of the Cambridge assemblage was unknown to Irish archaeologists, and the bones have not been studied since the original analysis in 1911 (discussed in Hensey et al. 2014). The material comprises 5.7 kg (2,344 fragments) of cremated and 9.7 kg (755 fragments) of unburned commingled remains that had been recovered from up to seven individual passage tombs. Some of the curated Carrowkeel material is from uncertain tomb contexts, and these have been labeled as Cairn B/G, Cairn E/F, Cairn H/K/O, and Cairn ? (Table 1). The bones were macroscopically analyzed in a well-lit laboratory environment, with the occasional aid of a magnifying glass, following standard osteological guidelines and protocols (Brickley and McKinley 2004; Buikstra and Ubelaker 1994). Age at death was estimated from bone measurements of neonatal and infant remains and by epiphyseal fusion of juveniles and adults (Scheuer and Black 2000; Szilvassy 1988). Sex was determined from pelvic and cranial morphological features (Sjovold 1988). Bone surface analysis with the aid of a scanning electron microscope was not available for this study.

The degree of incineration of the cremated bones and the condition of the unburned bone were determined and classified according to the descriptions by Wahl (1982) and McKinley (2004). The relative fragmentation of the cremated and unburned samples was assessed by considering both the average weight per fragment the ratio of the number of fragments (NISP) to the minimum number of elements (MNE) (Lyman 1994:336-338). (1) Bone fragment weight was measured using an electronic digital scale with 0.01 g accuracy (OHAUS Scout Pro).


Cremated and unburned bones are present in nearly equal proportions when quantified by the minimum number of individuals (MNI), with at least 22 individuals present in the cremated and 18 individuals present in the unburned material. These samples include remains of both non-adults and adult males and females (Geber et al. 2016). By context, the largest quantity of the unburned bone assemblage derives from Cairn K and the smallest amounts from Cairn F (Table 1). The assemblage is characterized by its taphonomic uniformity in appearance and its generally excellent state of preservation, both within and between tomb contexts. The unburned material is composed of bone fragments that almost exclusively display solid cortices and primarily only none (Grade 0) to moderate (Grade 3) post-depositional surface alterations (Table 2) (McKinley 2004). No calcite deposits, which have been noted among human bones from megalithic tombs in England (see Barnatt and Edmonds 2002), were observed in the Carrowkeel assemblage. The bones display no clear evidence of bleaching or exfoliation due to exposure and weathering (see Behrensmeyer 1978), which is of particular interest in this context (see discussion below). Nor do the bones display any evident humus soil stains, suggesting that they had been surface depositions and had not been exhumed from the ground prior to being deposited in the chambers. Furthermore, only seven bone fragments displayed distinct marks of rodent gnawing (most likely caused by wood mice; see Haglund 1997), and there is no evidence of carnivore gnawing on any of the remains that might have indicated body exposure that would have allowed for animal scavenging as part of the burial rite (see Smith 2006).

Cremated remains

The demographic profile of the individuals represented by the cremated material in the Carrowkeel assemblage has a higher proportion of non-adults and adult females compared to those represented in the unburned remains (see discussion in Geber et al. 2016), although this difference is not exclusive as unburned child and female remains are also present in the tombs.

The efficiency of the cremations and the consistency of the appearance of the Carrowkeel cremated bones suggest that a particular result was being sought in a careful and measured process. The predominantly pale cream-white color of the bones (see Table 3) indicates that they had been exposed to temperatures exceeding 800[degrees]C during the cremation and that they had been fully and completely incinerated (Ellingham et al. 2015; Ulguim 2015; Wahl 1982). This observation alone is significant, as it indicates that the physical end result of a cremation--in terms of the appearance of the cremated bones--was potentially just as important as whatever symbolic value was attached to the process (cf. McKinley 2008). The heat-induced cracks and fissures on the cortical bone surfaces were curvilinear and transverse in appearance, indicating that they are more likely to have been cremated while "fleshed" or "green" than while "dry" (see Baby 1954; Binford 1963; Buikstra and Swegle 1989; Thurman and Willmore 1981), although the reliability of using these features and patterns to determine pre-burning conditions of human bone has been questioned (see Goncalves et al. 2015). The bones did not display any evidence of secondary staining (e.g., from soot and smoke, as described by Herrmann 1972), and this condition may suggest that they had been sorted and possibly cleaned (or even washed) before they were collected and interred in the tombs (see Gejvall 1961). This procedure is further indicated by a complete lack of pyre debris in the material (cf. O'Donnell 2016). The curated cremated bone samples from Carrowkeel comprise relatively large and well-preserved fragments. More than 90% of the weighed material comprises fragments measuring larger than 10 mm in size (Table 4). This proportion is a stark contrast to other prehistoric cremation burial samples elsewhere in Ireland, where fragments of the 10 mm size category have been observed in relative quantities of about 15% (e.g., Geber 2009). It is even higher in comparison with the degree of fragmentation reported from modern cremations, where between 43% and 71% of bones by weight comprise fragments measuring 10 mm in size or more (see McKinley 1993).

Perimortem cut marks on unburned bone

The most significant discovery from the reassessment of the Carrowkeel assemblage was the presence of a minimum of 91 cut marks on 12 or possibly 13 un-burned bones. These were not mentioned in Alexander Macalister's report, and it seems likely that he did not observe them during his analysis. Prior to this study, only two instances of dismemberment and/or defleshing with the use of lithic tools have been recorded from Neolithic burial sites in Ireland. In an unpublished account from the archaeological excavations undertaken at the Carrowmore megalithic complex in County Sligo during the 1990s, three bones from the same cranium (frontal, right temporal, and right zygomatic) from one monument (Tomb No. 51) displayed transverse cut marks that were interpreted as evidence of defleshing (Burenhult 1998:6, 18). (2) Another case was discovered during a reanalysis of human bones excavated from a megalithic tomb at Millin Bay in County Down in 1953, which consisted of an adult male mandible with clear cut marks across the right ramus and gonion (Murphy 2003).

The new evidence from Carrowkeel presented here shows that this aspect of the Neolithic funerary rite, which has been frequently reported from numerous locations across Europe (e.g., Crozier 2016; During and Nilsson 1991; Nunez and Liden 1997; Robb et al. 2015; Walsh et al. 2011), was also present in Ireland. It is a distinct possibility that a reexamination of bone assemblages from other excavations, especially those conducted in the earlier parts of the twentieth century or even before, could reveal further evidence of these practices that has thus far been overlooked. This evidence suggests that the people of Neolithic Ireland may have shared similar beliefs and ideologies concerning the treatment of the dead with communities beyond the Irish Sea.

The cut marks on the Carrowkeel bones were observed only on postcranial elements, which anatomically derived from a minimum of one adult individual of unknown sex. The bones in question were, however, present in at least two separate monuments (Cairns H and K). The cut marks were generally linear or very slightly curved shallow scores with an uneven V-shaped profile (cf. Greenfield 1999) located at or near the attachment sites for tendons and ligaments associated with the major joints of the body. The cut marks were identified as perimortem on the basis of the sharpness of the margins and a patination of the internal surface of the incisions, which corresponded to the surface condition elsewhere on each affected bone. The scores themselves displayed a uniform appearance, which is likely to indicate that they were all created using the same type of lithic tool, which for a northwest Irish Neolithic context is most likely either locally sourced chert (Bergh 2009), flint from Cretaceous geological deposits (Costa et al. 2005), or possibly even quartz (some fragments of which were found with the bone curated at the LCHES). No scrape marks were identified, and this, in combination with the anatomical location of the incisions, suggests that they were undertaken for the purpose of disarticulation and dismemberment rather than defleshing (Reichs 1998), although it cannot be ruled out that the latter occurred as part of this process. The disarticulation involved the shoulder, elbow, hip, knee, and ankle/foot joints. The absence of evidence elsewhere does not necessarily mean that other articulations were not involved, as the frequency of cut marks made by lithic tools on bones are likely to also have been dependent on the skill and experience of the person(s) who performed them (cf. Dewbury and Russell 2007). Radiocarbon dating of two of these bones indicated a date of circa 3500-3050 cal B.C. (Table 5).

Disarticulation of a left and right shoulder was interpreted from two bones found in two separate contexts. A left first rib from Cairn H displayed multiple (n [greater than or equal to] 18) coronal cuts across the attachment sites for musculature (e.g., the scalenus medius and/or serratus anterior) on the superior surface (Fig. 3a). The primary objective of the cuts, however, is likely to have been to sever the brachial plexus and thereby allow for the shoulder and upper limb to be separated from the trunk. Additional indirect evidence of shoulder disarticulation, which reveals a detailed understanding of the gross anatomy of the human body by the person(s) who undertook this procedure, can be interpreted from the presence of a minimum of 19 cuts running superoinferiorly across the dorsal surface of the right lamina of a cervical vertebra (from C3-C6) found in Cairn K (Fig. 3b). While these cuts may relate to an effort to disarticulate the head from the neck, it is more likely that they were made in a procedure where the superficial and intermediate dorsal neck muscles (e.g., trapezius, splenius capitis, and splenius cervicis) and adjacent structures were severed in order to enable the levator scapulae and/or rhomboid minor muscles to be exposed so that the superomedial connection between the scapula and the neck could be separated.

A fragment of a left humerus recorded as being recovered from Cairn K displayed two or possibly three transverse cut marks across the anterior surface of the distal portion, just superior of the medial epicondyle (Fig. 4a). These incisions would have cut through the pronator teres and adjacent connective tissues, and thereby allowed for the bones to be exposed and separated at the joint.

Fragments from one left coxae and a left and a right femur recovered from Cairn K, all possibly from the same individual, displayed multiple cut marks that are consistent with an intentional disarticulation of the hip joints. The coxae exhibited four oblique cut marks on the anterolateral surface of the iliac blade (Fig. 4b), which would have cut through the proximal attachments of the gluteus minimus and gluteus medius. The left femur displayed five or possibly six oblique cuts across the anterior surface of the shaft, just inferior of the greater trochanter. These are likely to have cut through the distal attachment of the gluteus minimus. At roughly the same level on this bone fragment, on the posterior surface, were four oblique cuts and one almost longitudinal cut on the proximal portion of the linea aspera, which would have cut through the distal attachment of the gluteus maximus. There were also two possible cuts, running at an oblique angle, on the anterior surface farther down toward the mid-shaft portion of this bone. These marks are more difficult to interpret but may relate to incisions through the vastus lateralis, which in that case may primarily relate to cutting through the superficial tensor fascia lata, which runs across the thigh at that location. If so, this procedure would have aided in exposing the hip joint and thereby allowed for the bones to be disarticulated.

The right femur displayed a transverse cut mark running across the anteromedial surface of the neck, which is likely to have been undertaken for the purpose of disconnecting the ischiofemoral ligament to enable the head of the femur to be pulled out of the acetabulum. There was also a shallow oblique cut running across the anterior surface just medial of the greater trochanter, which may have preceded the cut on the neck, as it would have enabled the bones to be exposed by cutting open the overlying muscle tissues at the anterior portion of the hip joint. This femur fragment also displayed five oblique and two transverse cuts at the quadrate tubercle on the posterior surface (Fig. 4c), that would have cut through the lateral attachment of the quadratus femoris, which connects to the ischial tuberosity.

The remaining 37 cuts identified in the Carrowkeel material were located on adult tarsal and metatarsal bones from an unknown context, and they all appear to relate to disarticulation of a left and right ankle joint (Fig. 5). The original context from which all these elements was found is uncertain, but the overall shape and size--and the reassociation of bones that was possible with many of these--would suggest that they are from the same individual and that they probably were all recovered from a single original context. One left calcaneus displayed a minimum of five axial cuts across the superior aspect of the lateral surface of the body that is likely to have cut through the distal attachment of the calcaneofibular ligament, and there were also two slightly oblique cuts running across the medial surface which would have involved the long tendon of the flexor hallucis longus. The latter structure, along with the tendon of the tibialis posterior, was most likely also cut through at the mid-tarsal level on the plantar surface of a left foot, as indicated from three parallel cuts on the plantar surface of a cuboid bone.

Another tarsal bone, a lateral cuneiform from a left foot, displayed one or possibly two cuts across the dorsal surface. This or these incisions would have cut through the long tendon of the extensor digitorum longus, among other structures, and would have severed the soft tissue connection between the distal phalanges and the leg. While the anteroposterior direction of the cuts in the sagittal plane may argue against that interpretation, they make functional sense when we consider that cutting through cadaveric tissue with a lithic blade most likely required a support base, as flaked stone tools dull quickly, particularly during the process of disarticulation (Braun et al. 2008), and the bone itself was probably used as a base on which the tendon could have been placed and arranged so that it could have been cut through with more ease. The remaining cuts were all present on metatarsal bones. Longitudinal and oblique cuts were present on the shafts on the dorsal surface of all of these bones which are likely to have cut through the extensor digitorum brevis tendons, and also on the plantar surface of three bones which would have involved the flexor digitorum brevis tendons.

In addition to these cut marks was a possible--but uncertain--cut noted across the superior margin of the neck of a right adult rib from Cairn H. If this is in fact an incision from a lithic blade, it is likely to have originated either from a cut through the costotransverse ligament or from a procedure where the vertebral attachments of the tendons of the back muscles (e.g., trapezius) were cut through. In the latter case, this incision would then have enabled the shoulder to be disconnected from the trunk.

Fragmentation of bone

In their description of one of the tombs (Cairn F), Macalister et al. (1912:326) mentioned that some bones (described as "bone dust") were found to be "much trampled" on the floor. It is apparent, however, that the bone material they described as bone dust is not part of the collection curated by the LCHES or the NMI. The degree of fragmentation of the human bone material that has been assessed appears to conform to a general pattern: the samples that included the smallest fragments of cremated bone also included the smallest fragments of unburned bones, and vice versa. Whether this pattern signifies an aspect of the rite that was spatially manifested within the Carrowkeel complex deserves consideration but is difficult to ascertain, as it is unclear to what degree the curated samples from the 1911 excavation represent a bias toward larger fragments. Macalister et al.'s (1912:328-329) description of the cairns vis-a-vis the levels of prehistoric structural damage or collapse--for instance, the collapse of the passage at Cairn H--could not account for the degree of fragmentation of cremated bone present at different sites across the complex.

The most noticeable and highest degree of bone fragmentation was observed in samples from Cairn B, which stands out as a clear outlier in comparison with other tombs--for the unburned bone in particular. Of the cremated samples, the least-fragmented material was recovered from Cairns H and K (see Table 4); and of the unburned samples, the least-fragmented bones were present in Cairns K and E (see Table 2). The significance of these differences (and similarities) between tomb contexts is difficult to determine. The large fragments of the cremated bone would imply that intentional crushing and pounding of remains after a cremation (see Lisowski 1968; Sigvallius 1994) is unlikely to have been part of the funerary rite at Carrowkeel--or at least that it did not involve the bones that were deposited in the tombs.

The fragmentation of the unburned bone, however, is unexpected considering the excellent state of preservation of these remains. Among these samples, only one humerus, two radii, and one ulna were complete among the major long bones in adult remains. The remainder (including femora, tibiae, fibulae, and fragmented portions of humeri, radii, and ulnae) were all fragmented. Nearly 70% (114/165) of all fragments from these long bones comprised less than half of the element, and it is evident that these fragments comprised primarily the shaft portions of these bones. The least relative fragmentation was observed in the smaller tubular bones, such as the metacarpals, metatarsals, and phalanges and other elements such as tarsals and vertebrae (see Fig. 6). Considering that the latter bones would be generally more fragile than primarily compact skeletal elements such as crania and long bones, it is likely that fragmentation of the un-burned remains was, to a certain extent, a pars pro toto component of the overall burial practice. The fragmented bones all displayed typically "dry" or "mineralized" bone fracture patterns, with perpendicular transverse or splintered uneven fracture margins, rather than helical oblique patterns with a smooth fracture surface textures expected from "fleshed" or "green" bone (Outram 2001; Outram et al. 2005), which indicate that these alterations occurred postmortem.

The Funerary Rites at Carrowkeel: Processing the Dead

A complex and widely diverse set of funerary rites is characteristic of burial practices in the Neolithic across Europe. The reasons for the diversity of burial practice have long been discussed in the archaeological literature. Sometimes a chronological explanation is proffered, but divergent forms of "burial" are often found within the same monument and in some cases have been demonstrated to be of similar age. Most commonly, diversity has been interpreted as an expression of social stratification (e.g., Binford 1972; Brown 1981). However, this diversity can also be viewed merely as a mortuary variation, which in fact is a rule rather than an exception in most cultures throughout history, including those of today (see Larsson 2003), and hence does not necessarily correlate with status. The manner in which corpses were processed and handled may be less important than the actual physical interaction between the dead and the living. The fact that burial practices involved a secondary stage does indicate that interaction or interrelation with the deceased was particularly important. It can be viewed as a manner in which the living were able to physically aid the dead in reaching their next transitional stage. At Carrowkeel, elaborate and varied interactions with the dead are attested through choices made by the living that resulted in the cremation, dismemberment, or fragmentation of the bones of the dead.

The ideological background for the intended physical destruction (or perhaps better described as "de-construction") of the body through fire, stone tools, or natural decomposition has often been discussed as a reflection of a dualistic religious concept in which people transitioned into different realms of consciousness after death (Lewis-Williams and Pearce 2005; Midgley 2010). The processing of bodies could, therefore, be interpreted as a way to aid the deceased, or rather their non-material selves, in the transition to a state of postmortem existence. The bodies of the deceased being brought to the passage tomb complex could be seen as an important first milestone on that journey, a place of introduction to the land of the dead. In addition, the practice may have helped the survivors come to terms with their loss. Goss and Klass (1997) have discussed four methods of contemporary Tibetan death rituals--sky rituals (exposure), cremation, ground burial (inhumation), and water burial--as different means for the dead to transition to other states. These postmortem journeys involve a transference of consciousness, which is aided and facilitated by the surviving relatives and the living community who perform these rites. By facilitating these transitions, the living are not only performing a "final act of compassion" for the dead but also resolving their own grief.

Transition through fire

The process of cremation is a process of transformation, and it is easy to understand how the fire and the heat that engulf the corpse, and the smoke it generates (both its smell and visual effect), could have been viewed as a physical transitional event in which the soul or spirit of the dead person was finally released from its physical boundaries (see Graslund 1994; Nilsson Stutz and Kuijt 2014; Oestigaard 2005; Thompson 2015). The transformation is also materialist in terms of how the skeletal remains change form through cremation--after the flesh and soft tissue have been consumed by the fire, the bones of the skeleton fragment, distort, shrink, change color, and become more dense and brittle (Buikstra and Swegle 1989; Ellingham et al. 2015; Iregren and Jonsson 1973; McCutcheon 1992; Shipman et al. 1984; Walker et al. 2008). This alteration is, however, only apparent in fully incinerated and completely cremated remains where all organic components of bones have been destroyed and fusion of bone mineral has occurred (Ellingham et al. 2015; Iregren and Jonsson 1973); if only charred and burned, bones keep their shape and appearance, with the exception of black and sooty patches observed on the surfaces. To make sense of these processes and their end results, and to understand their significance, it is important to make a clear distinction between cremation and cremation burial or deposit. These terms are not synonymous; cremation relates to the process of burning/cremating a corpse on a pyre, while a cremation burial or deposit is the interred or placed material of the cremated remains (McKinley 2000; Thompson 2009). These two distinctive "phases" within the funerary rite would have held different symbolic meaning and significance, and therefore require clear differentiation when being discussed and interpreted (see Quinn et al. 2014).

When discussing the significance of cremation in prehistory, it is important to consider the practical aspects of the rite. A cremation would have required a lot of communal investment, not only in terms of resources but also with regard to labor. McKinley (2008) has estimated that 700-900 kg of fuel would have been required to complete a cremation of an adult corpse in prehistory. In addition to the time required to construct a pyre, the procedure in which the cremation was prepared, maintained, and, eventually, the bones collected after it had been completed would have taken numerous hours, possibly even days (Holck 1997; McKinley 2006). A cremation would also have been a highly visual manifestation; depending on where the cremation took place, it may have been visible for miles. It is currently not known where the cremations at Carrowkeel took place. No indications of pyre sites or cremation trenches were discovered during previous excavations at the complex--which seemed to be the case at Fourknocks II (Hartnett 1971). However, even with modern excavation techniques, low archaeological visibility could mean that pyre sites might not be found (Arcini 2005; Graslund 1975; McKinley 1997).

Depriving the body of flesh

Witnessing the dismemberment of human remains as a ritual practice would have been a very different experience from attending a cremation. Those in attendance would have observed specialist(s) carrying out physical work that involved blood, secretions, smells, and intimate contact with the corpses. The detail shown by the examination of the bones suggests a daytime activity, and not one easily witnessed by large crowds unless intentionally staged. The evidence of dismemberment, as indicated from the location of the perimortem cut marks on bones, suggests that excarnation was part of the burial practice at Carrowkeel. This procedure has commonly been suggested to have been an integral part of the Neolithic funerary rite (e.g., Dowd 2008; Renfrew 1979; Smith 2006), but the term excarnation has not been used in a consistent manner and therefore has come to entail different meanings in the literature. For example, Reilly defined excarnation as the process of "burying the corpse in a temporary grave or exposing it to the elements until only a skeleton remained" (2003:135), while Dowd defined it as a procedure where "the corpse is exposed and the flesh decomposes naturally, leaving a dry skeleton" (2008:309). Etymologically, however, the term relates to the exposing the bones from covering soft tissues, deriving from the Latin excarnare, meaning "deprive of flesh" (Oxford English Dictionary 2016). To explain the processes relating to some of the aforementioned definitions, the term exposure has been used (e.g., Harris 2010; Knusel and Robb 2016), which in many cases would be more accurate.

When attempting to interpret the burial rite at Carrowkeel, the use of an accurate definition of excarnation provides a significant aid. While cremated and unburned bone derive from two distinctly different mortuary practices, in the context of excarnation, and following the true meaning of the word, they achieve a degree of commonality. In that sense, cremation and skeletonizing of bodies can be viewed as potentially equally accepted modes of depriving the body of flesh and impute that this was done primarily for symbolic reasons rather than for the process of cremation, inhumation, and/or exposure alone. At Carrowkeel, removal of flesh was achieved by cremation as well as by leaving bodies (or perhaps only body parts) to decompose naturally. In support of the latter scenario, the unburned bone material shows a lack of evident surface staining as well as well-preserved cancellous bone portions and elements (e.g., epiphyseal ends of long bones and vertebrae). This condition suggests that bones had not been inhumed (see discussion below) or exposed to the elements during the process of decomposition (Galloway 1997).

The uniform appearance of the bone assemblage from Carrowkeel, and indeed the distinct pattern of anatomical precision in relation to where cut marks were located on bones, indicate that the specific process through which these transitions were achieved had a significant role as well. This process most likely also included the physical act of bringing the human remains to the passage tombs themselves (cf. Appleby 2013; Oestigaard 1999) and the deposition of the skeletal materials in the chambers and passages. These processes, when practiced within the ceremonies of the funerary rite, would have provided opportunities to maintain or create new social bonds within and between societies (see Tilley 1996). As such, the importance of the rites would have encompassed much more than achieving the requisites and expectations of the communal religious beliefs and cult praxis.

Processing bodies through fragmentation

The evident fragmentation of human remains in the Carrowkeel passage tombs, either by cremation, dismemberment, and potentially further postmortem processing, may be an attempt to homogenize the bone material and form a coherent physical representation of the dead that would no longer be represented by a body or corpse. Fragmentation of human remains as an integrated anthropogenic component in the Neolithic burial rite has also been suggested in a recent taphonomic study of funerary deposits from Orkney (Crozier 2016). Crozier's study identified not only evidence of dismemberment and defleshing but also intentional breaking of bones by stone tools, as indicated by the presence of percussion pits. No such evidence was observed in the remains from Carrowkeel, but the fracture pattern of the unburned bone--and indeed the protected structural context in which they were found--suggests that postmortem breakage of the bones was considered a part of the rite.

On a more holistic level, this fragmentation of the dead may be viewed as an expression of a broader paradigm that has been suggested for Neolithic societies. The evident intentional fragmentation and destruction that is often observed in the case of the material culture have been suggested to represent modes of "enchainment" between people and their environs, and that the rituals and processes during which they were made enabled social unifications and identities to be formed (Chapman 2000; Larsson 2015). When taking this idea into consideration, the rites and procedures involved in the act of processing the dead at Carrowkeel may therefore have helped the dead in their transitions to other realms and also functioned as important social constructs for the living community and people who performed them.

Contextualizing the Mortuary Rite at Carrowkeel

The human remains from Carrowkeel reveal diversity in secondary funerary practices, something that may have been of particular importance to the community or communities who constructed and used the monuments. The fact that a significant proportion of the human bone material from Carrowkeel comprised unburned bones is noteworthy, because cremation is generally considered the predominant funerary rite associated with passage tombs excavated elsewhere on the island (Cooney 2014; Cooney and Grogan 1994; Dowd 2015). Cremation also seems to have been the prevalent funerary rite in the Irish Neolithic overall, occurring in nearly 60% of all burials known to date (Murphy et al. 2010). The presence of significant amounts of both cremated and unburned bones indicates that diverse funerary rites were integral to the use of these monuments, although the original significance of these is difficult to ascertain. When considering the relative representation of individual skeletal elements between the cremated and unburned material, there was no substantial difference between these samples (see Geber et al. 2016), suggesting that there was not a specific selection of body parts used for either rite.

The choice between cremation and non-cremation in prehistory has traditionally been interpreted as manifesting adherence to social practices, that is, that the rites had different symbolic meanings and roles (Rebay-Salisbury 2012). Cooney discusses inhumation (he uses the term to include surface depositions of unburned bone in megalithic tombs, which are technically not "inhumed" in the strict meaning of the word) and cremation as distinctly different but contemporaneous mortuary rites in the Irish Neolithic, and he argues that unburned and cremated bones had different symbolic connotations that were spatially manifested in the manner in which they were deposited both within and in the perimeters of megalithic monuments (Cooney 2014). (3)

The original spatial distribution of cremated and unburned bones inside the Carrowkeel tombs is largely unclear. Unfortunately, the original excavation and analysis of the remains from 1911 have contributed to a deterioration of the archaeological record, as many of the remains have been mixed and the original context and stratigraphy of a substantial proportion of the material cannot be ascertained (see Geber et al. 2016; Hensey et al. 2014). The infrequent direct references to the location of the bones in the 1912 publication only state in general terms that they were found in the main chambers and recesses of the tombs (Macalister et al. 1912), though more specific locational information is in certain instances alluded to in Alexander Macalister's handwritten notes found with the bone assemblage at the LCHES. The quantitative and demographic analysis of the remains (see Geber et al. 2016) can discern potential but only tentative contextual disparities in relation to the physical build and sex of the individuals interred in the monuments. Although the picture is unclear, the tombs may have had different social functions.

The taphonomic analysis in this study appears to single out Cairn B as an outlier in relation to the other contexts; this tomb included a higher proportion of more-fragmented bones in both the cremated and un-burned samples. Other potentially disparate tombs were Cairns H and K, which were not only the monuments that included bones with evidence of dismemberment but also contained the least-fragmented bone samples. While there is an overall uniformity of the condition and appearance of the human remains from the various tombs at Carrowkeel, these subtle taphonomic differences may be indications of variability in the funerary rite that was expressed spatially within the complex, which may relate to the architectural variation of the passage tombs themselves (Hensey 2015:144-147; Macalister et al. 1912). This variation may therefore be interpreted in a similar manner as Cooney's (2014) reading of the spatial pattering of cremated and unburned bone depositions at Irish megalithic tombs. The bones may have incorporated a symbolic meaning relating to communal identity that defined both the use of the monuments and how they were socially perceived in the landscape itself. The manner in which they were deposited in the passage tombs following processing could have been one of the most significant aspects of the burial rite.

The passage tombs of the Neolithic have sometimes been interpreted as architectural imitations of caves that also served a mortuary purpose (Dowd 2015; Lewis-Williams and Pearce 2005), and that the construction of these monuments manifested not only social presence in the landscape but also a certain degree of control of access and connection to the realm of the dead. Dowd (2015) has argued that caves performed a particular mortuary function in Neolithic Ireland as excarnation places with, in some instances, the bones later being deposited in megalithic monuments. If so, the use of passage tombs as structures in which bodies (or perhaps only body parts) underwent similar processes of excarnation and fragmentation appears plausible. In contrast to caves, however, the majority of the bones would then remain at the location where they were excarnated. It should be noted that the recent discoveries of probable excarnation practices from Cave K near Queen Maeve's tomb on Knocknarea Mountain, only 25 km north of Carrowkeel and within 1 km of the passage tombs on the mountain summit, may have a bearing on this discussion (Dowd and Kahlert 2014). Though Neolithic bone has not been found in the extensive Kesh Caves or the seven additional caves found in the vicinity of the Carrowkeel complex, it cannot be ruled out that similar practices occurred there.


Alexander Macalister's analysis of the Carrowkeel bones in 1911 stands up well to modern scrutiny when taking his estimations of the minimum number of individuals and his metrical analysis into account (Geber et al. 2016). His study was a product of its time, which placed a particular focus on craniology and metric analysis. To include new methods from the evolving discipline of bioarchaeology and its precursors--in particular, the advent of taphonomic analyses of bone--was a focus of the current reassessment of the Carrowkeel material. This study has highlighted that many old curated collections of previously studied archaeological bone may still have considerable scientific potential, which has been shown from many reassessments of Neolithic samples in particular (e.g., Crozier 2016; Walsh et al. 2011).

In the case of Carrowkeel, the reanalysis of the assemblage has highlighted the high level of complexity and diversity of the funerary rites, which perhaps was not fully recognized previously. This complexity is particularly evident in the manner in which the bodies of the deceased were processed and handled after death. This treatment included cremation, dismemberment, and possibly intentional fragmentation of remains. The evidence of postmortem body processing at Carrowkeel is not unique from a European perspective, but it remains a rarely reported occurrence from the bioarchaeological record from Ireland. This discovery provides another key to understanding the social significance of this fascinating cultural and ritual landscape for the people who constructed and used it over several centuries, five thousand years ago.


The authors would like to thank Dr. Marta Mirazon Lahr and Maggie Bellatti at the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies, University of Cambridge, and Dr. Andy Halpin and Judith Finlay of the National Museum of Ireland for access to the Carrowkeel bone materials curated at their respective institutions. Thanks are also due to Dr. Niels Hammer and Gail Elliot of the Department of Anatomy, University of Otago, for help with the interpretation of the anatomical location of the cut marks on the bones, and to the three anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and suggestions on the manuscript. We would also like to thank Robert McPhee of the Department of Anatomy, University of Otago, for his illustrations in Figure 5. This research was partly funded by the European Research Executive Agency under the Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship award to Thomas Kador (Movement and Migration in Irish Prehistory). We also wish to express our gratitude to the Royal Irish Academy and the [.sup.14]CHRONO Centre, Queen's University Belfast, for funding the cited radiocarbon dates under the 2014 Royal Irish Academy dating grant scheme.

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Jonny Geber, (a*) Robert Hensey, (b) Padraig Meehan, (c) Sam Moore, (d) and Thomas Kador (e)

(a) Department of Anatomy, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand

(b) Independent researcher, Glencar, County Sligo, Ireland

(c) Independent researcher, Shriff, Dromahair, County Leitrim, Ireland

(d) Applied Archaeology, School of Science, Institute of Technology, Sligo, Ireland

(e) UCL Culture, University College London, London, United Kingdom

(*) Correspondence to: Jonny Geber, Department of Anatomy, Otago School of Biomedical Sciences, University of Otago, PO Box 56, Dunedin 9054, New Zealand


Received 26 August 2016

Revised 21 December 2016

Accepted 22 December 2016

(1.) The calculation of MNE values considered crania as complete units, and because many of these were in articulation, quantification of number of elements for individual cranial bones was not undertaken.

(2.) This specimen has been radiocarbon dated to circa 3500 cal B.C. (4625 [+ or -] 60 B.P.) (Ua-11581).

(3.) The chronological relationship between the cremated and unburned human bone deposits at Carrowkeel will be discussed by the authors for a forthcoming paper.

DOI: 10.5744/bi.2017.1001
Table 1. Quantification Summary Table of the Human Remains Recovered
from Passage Tombs at Carrowkeel Excavated in 1911 (Abbreviations:
MNI = minimum number of individuals; MNE = minimum number of elements;
NISP = number of identified specimens). MNE values include crania
counted as one unit, and the category "Total" is an amalgamation of the
material in total, irrespective of context.

Monument              Unburned                      Cremated
              MNI  MNE  NISP   Weight (g)  MNI  MNE  NISP   Weight (g)

Cairn B        2    52  116      402.84     3    28    619  1,161.77
Cairn E        3    17   25      344.12     3    19    276    782.58
Cairn F        1     1    1        0.20     2    12    181    224.65
Cairn H        8   121  164    2,012.32     1     2      6     35.15
Cairn K       12   234  324    4,838.61    19   112    947  2,837.21
Cairn B/G      1     2    3        4.76     1     5      6     17.31
Cairn E/F      1     1    1        2.16     2    10     96    131.94
Cairn H/K/O   13    17   24      532.62     9    12     45    133.75
Cairn ?        7    88   97    1,610.00     3    18    168    424.62
Total         18   488  755    9,747.63    22   153  2,344  5,748.98

Table 2. Summary Table of Taphonomic Characteristics of the Unburned
Bone Material from Carrowkeel by Tomb Context (Abbreviations: W =
weight [g]; NISP = number of identified specimens; MNE = minimum number
of elements). The category "Total" is an amalgamation of the data,
irrespective of context.

Monument      Bone Surface Preservation %NISP (McKinley 2004)
              Grade 0   Grade 1   Grade 2   Grade 3   Grade 4

Cairn B        70.69    25.86      1.72      1.72     --
Cairn E        16.00    44.00     24.00     16.00     --
Cairn F       100.00    --        --        --        --
Cairn H        71.95    24.39      3.66     --        --
Cairn K        20.37    38.89     32.41      6.79       1.54
Cairn B/G     100.00    --        --        --        --
Cairn E/F      --       --        --        --        100.00
Cairn H/K/O    70.83    29.17     --        --        --
Cairn ?        64.95    25.77      7.22     2.06      --
Total:         46.89    31.66     16.69     3.97        0.79

Monument           Modification %NISP          Fragmentation
              Cut marks   Rodent gnaw marks   W:NISP   NISP:MNE

Cairn B       --          --                   3.47    2.23
Cairn E       --          --                  13.76    1.47
Cairn F       --          --                   0.20    1.00
Cairn H       1.22        0.61                12.27    1.36
Cairn K       1.54        1.85                14.93    1.38
Cairn B/G     --          --                   1.59    1.50
Cairn E/F     --          --                   2.16    1.00
Cairn H/K/O   --          --                  22.19    1.41
Cairn ?       7.22        --                  16.60    1.10
Total:        1.85        0.93                12.91    1.55

Table 3. Quantitative Description of the Total Cremated Human Bone
Material from Carrowkeel by Grade of Color/Incineration (combustion
grades, color, and stated temperatures after Wahl 1982: Table 1).

Grade  Color Description        Temperature

I      yellowish white,          < 250[degrees]C
       ivory colored, glassy
       light gray
II     brown, dark brown,       c. 300-400[degrees]C
III    gray, milky light gray,  c. 400-550[degrees]C
       bluish gray
IV     milky white, matte       c. 650-700[degrees]C
V      old white,               [greater than or equal to]
       cream-colored               800[degrees]C

Grade  % weight   % NISP

I       0.00       0.00

II      0.56       0.51

III     4.07       2.31

IV      4.04       2.56

V      91.32      94.80

Table 4. Summary Table of Taphonomic Characteristics of the Cremated
Bone Material from Carrowkeel by Tomb Context (Abbreviations: W =
weight (g); NISP = number of identified specimens; MNE = minimum number
of elements). The category "Total" is an amalgamation of the data,
irrespective of context.

Monument      Grade (Wahl 1982)       Fragmentation
                                  W:NISP   NISP:MNE

Cairn B       III-V               1.88     22.11
Cairn E       II-V                2.84     14.53
Cairn F       III-V               1.24     15.08
Cairn H       V                   5.86      3.00
Cairn K       II-V                3.00      8.46
Cairn B/G     V                   2.89      1.20
Cairn E/F     III-V               1.37      9.60
Cairn H/K/O   III-V               2.97      3.75
Cairn ?       II-V                2.53      9.33
Total         II-V                2.45     15.32

Monument                 Fragment Size % weight
              [greater than or equal to] 10 mm  5-9 mm  2-4 mm  < 2 mm

Cairn B        93.91                             6.09           --
Cairn E        97.75                             1.99   0.27    --
Cairn F        71.24                            26.82   1.95    --
Cairn H        91.61                             8.39   --      --
Cairn K        95.56                             4.08   0.35    --
Cairn B/G     100.00                            --      0.00    --
Cairn E/F      83.83                            15.88   0.30    --
Cairn H/K/O    97.79                             2.17   0.04    --
Cairn ?        93.98                             5.59   0.44    --
Total          94.23                             5.44   0.33    --

Table 5. [.sup.14]C Dates of Two of the Unburned Human Bones with
Evidence of Cut Marks

Element       Age    Tomb     [.sup.14]C Date B.P.  Cal 95.4%

Rib, right    Adult  Cairn H  4571 [+ or -] 69      3518-3031 cal B.C.
Femur, right  Adult  Cairn K  4528 [+ or -] 56      3488-3028 cal B.C.

Element       Lab ID

Rib, right    UBA-26981
Femur, right  UBA-26982
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Author:Geber, Jonny; Hensey, Robert; Meehan, Padraig; Moore, Sam; Kador, Thomas
Publication:Bioarchaeology International
Date:Mar 22, 2017
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