In this essay, the development and role of wedge tombs in Ireland will be discussed with particular attention to their distribution, orientation, when they were being built, function, form, folklore as well as discussing a few excavated examples.
The wedge tomb is the most common megalithic monument in Ireland with 505 known (O’Brien 1999, 7). Wedge tombs are found across Ireland but 75% are located in the western half of the country, with high concentrations in Sligo, Clare, Tipperary, Cork and Kerry (Waddell 2010, 106). The western bias as Jones (2007, 219) explains is possibly due to the Atlantic seaboard connections, while eastern Ireland had more connections with Britain, this could also show how the wedge tomb was introduced to Ireland, the early metallurgists travelling from Europe to Ireland, bringing with them knowledge of metal working and introducing the gallery tomb tradition as seen in the Armorican “allées coverts” (O’Brien 1999, 11). The French gallery tombs are noted t have distinct similarities to the Irish wedge tomb, notably the presence of portico’s/antechambers, septal stones, chambers, orthostatic facades and their overall gallery form (Apsimon 1986 In: O’Brien 1999, 11).
Wedge tombs are orientated towards the setting sun; a possible suggestion from Jones (2007) is that they may have functioned as an opening to the Otherworld incorporating the symbolic dichotomy of light and life versus darkness and death. Likewise Scarre (2002, 160) mentions that these tombs brought believers into contact with the supernatural and were central to their beliefs. The belief in supernatural power was expressed through words and actions in ritual ceremonies, appeasing the tomb spirits and celebrating the community endurance through reverence for their ancestors (Scarre 2002, 160). The appearance of wedge tombs saw further expression of solar religion in Ireland following on from the passage tomb cosmology and sun worship (Scarre 2002, 161). The orientation of each monument may reflect the position of the setting sun on the day the monument was built or at the time of someone’s death (Scarre 2002, 162). The symbolism of the setting sun and the belief amongst people that the sun died every evening was perceived as the domain of the dead, this may have been central to how the Bronze age people understood death and journeying to the Otherworld (Scarre 2002, 162). The orientation of wedge tombs has close similarities with many stone circles and rows, showing and obvious connection between the orientation of these monuments towards the setting sun in darker months and the funerary use of the monuments (Scarre 2002, 163).
Brindley and Lanting (1992 In: Bradley 2007, 148) explain that radiocarbon dates have suggested that the Irish wedge tombs were built between 2400-2100BC while Parker Pearson (2005, 91) argues that they probably date to the period after 2000BC, others such as Apsimon (1986 In: O’Brien 1999, 11) has suggested that the...