New Landmark Study of Ireland’s Caves

An IT Sligo archaeologist has written the first book to explore the archaeology of caves in Ireland.

The landmark work is the culmination of more than 10 years research by Dr Marion Dowd, who lecturers in Prehistoric Archaeology.

Published by Oxbow Books, Oxford, “The Archaeology of Caves in Ireland” is also the first to examine how caves in any European country have been used through time.

It was launched at the IT Sligo on Friday (May 8) by Professor Gabriel Cooney, Professor of Celtic Archaeology at UCD.

Dr Dowd says the long-held stereotypical perception of “cavemen” is way off the mark.

“Contrary to popular belief, we have no evidence to indicate that people lived in caves in pre-Christian times. In fact, all the evidence indicates that for over 8,000 years caves were associated with ritual and religious life.

“The fact that these were silent underground spaces shrouded in darkness had a major impact on prehistoric people. Almost certainly they perceived caves as places of the spirit world, and associated with the dead. Caves were sacred places in the landscape.”

Tracing how caves have been used over the 10,000 years of human occupation of Ireland, it starts with the oldest known ritual site in the country, Killuragh Cave in Co. Limerick.  “Here nomadic hunter gatherer groups travelled up the Mulkear River, stopped at this small cave, and left offerings of stone tools and bones of their dead ancestors,” she explains.

“This site is remarkable in that it is small and well hidden but was a focus for prehistoric rituals spanning thousands of years. It reveals to us the religious significance of caves in pre-Christian times.”

The book features several of Dr. Dowd’s excavations including a small cave on Knocknarea Mountain in Co Sligo where the dead were placed over 5,000 years ago to allow the corpses to decompose. Following this, the bones were brought to a secondary burial place.

Her work in Glencurran Cave in Co. Clare is also included. An excavation led by Dr Dowd uncovered the largest Viking necklace found in Ireland in 2004.

Dr Dowd says that with the arrival of Christianity in the 5th century, attitudes to caves changed. From that time there is evidence that people began living in caves, using caves for storage and as workshops. However, medieval mythology has also revealed that caves were also strongly associated with the supernatural.

“Various manuscripts tell us that caves are strongly associated with powerful supernatural women. Caves are places of the feminine and are threatening to mortal males. We find the same in the folktales of recent centuries.”

Dr Marion Dowd with Dr Jerry Bird, Head of the School of Science at IT Sligo, at the launch of Dr Dowd’s book, “The Archaeology of Caves in Ireland”.

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