Monday 29 March 2021

Animal remains from the Parknabinnia Neolithic court tomb in County Clare, Ireland.

Large monuments made of stone (Megaliths), or timber and earth, appeared across much of Western Europe with the onset of the Neolithic. These monuments are often funerary in nature (tombs), but were clearly not simple burial sites, but locations to which people would regularly return to carry out ritual activities. The builders of these tombs are presumed to monuments are presumed to have been farmers, and the rituals associated with the structures appear to have been linked to spring, and possibly fertility, as many of them contain, alongside Human remains, the remains of young domestic Animals (which would have been born in spring, as well as Hares, which, due to their mating habits, are far more conspicuous in spring than at other times of year.

One such tomb where a mixture of Human and Animal remains have been found is the Parknabinnia Neolithic court tomb in County Clare, Ireland, which has produced numerous Hare and juvenile domesticate remains. However, caution must be used when studying Animal remains from ancient monuments. Many megalithic structures were excavated before the development of modern archaeological methods (as large conspicuous structures, they were obvious targets for early archaeologists), and Animal remains were often removed without any attention to their stratigraphy or placement. This meant that modern remains introduced to the site, via nesting in burrows or being brought there by predators, became mixed with more deeply buried remains which date to the original deposition; this is particularly true for small Mammals, Birds, and Amphibians. Radiocarbon dating of Cattle and Sheep/Goat (these are often impossible to distinguish) remains from Parknabinnia yielded dates from the second millennium AD (i.e. less than a thousand years old) or no date at all, although it is likely that the samples which yielded no dates were ancient, and that these contained insufficient collagen to produce a result.

The Parknabinnia Neolithic court tomb in County Clare, Ireland, seen from the southwest. Andreas Borchert/Wikimedia Commons.

The Neolithic portal tomb of Poulnabrone, which is 7 km to the north of Parknabinnia, has yielded dates from Human, Cattle, Sheep and Hare remains, all of which were Neolithic in origin. Like Parknabinnia, the Poulnabrone fauna is dominated by young domestic Animals and Hares, something seen also seen in other Irish Neolithic sites, such as Fourknocks and Labbacallee, as well as sites in southern England. 

Hares, Lepus timidus hibernicus, and Rabbits, Oryctolagus cuniculus, are similar Animals, both members of the order Lagomorpha, and their remains can be difficult to tell apart. However, the two species have very different behavioural patterns, with Rabbits living in large communal burrows, while Hares are largely solitary, living in vegetated depressions but not generally digging, and becoming conspicuous in spring when the males compete for females. Importantly, while Hares are native to Ireland, Rabbits were introduced by the Anglo-Normans in the Medieval period, so any Rabbit remains must be more modern than a Neolithic site.

In spring European Hares aggregate and the males compete aggressively for the attention of females, making them highly conspicuous, whereas at other times of year they are rarely seen. Tiia Monto/Wikimedia Commons.

Lagomorph remains have been recorded in Irish megalithic tombs since the earliest investigations, but these have generally been considered to be intrusive, the result of modern Rabbits burrowing into tombs, and therefore little effort has been made to preserve or accurately record these bones. Sites at which such remains have been found include the Moylehid passage tomb in County Fermanagh, the Labbacallee wedge tomb in County Cork, the Audleystown court tomb in County Down, the Fourknocks passage tomb in County Meath, the Carrowmore passage tombs in County Sligo, and the Ashleypark Linkardstown-type cist in County Tipparary. Importantly, Lagomorph remains from the Poulnabrone portal tomb in County Claire, excavated in 1985-86, were successfully radiocarbon dated, yielding dates of 3340–3027 BC, 2336–2140 BC, and 2341–2057 BC. The oldest of these dates is considered to be Neolithic, the younger two Chalcolithic, or 'copper-aged', i.e. the time during which the earliest metalworking, all in copper, appeared in Europe, before the advent of more durable bronze tools.

Lagomorph remains dated to the Neolithic and Chalcolithic have also been recovered from archaeological sites in Iberia, where they have been extracted from caves, pits, and megalithic structures, often associated with Human remains, although the identification of these is more difficult as both Hares and Rabbits would have been present in Iberia at this time. Small Lagomorph bones have also been recovered from the Ascott under Wychwood and Lanhill barrow tombs in Oxfordshire and Wiltshire, southern England, although most of these have been considered to be Rabbit, and therefore modern.

In a paper published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports on 24 December 2020, Fiona Beglane of the Centre for Environmental Research Innovation and Sustainability at the Institute of Technology, Sligo, and Carleton Jones of the School of Geography, Archaeology, and Irish Studies at the National University of Ireland Galway, present the results of an analysis of the ages of Lagomorph and domestic Animal bones from the Parknabinnia Neolithic court tomb in County Clare, and discuss the implications of these.

The Parknabinnia Neolithic court tomb in County Clare is part of a cluster of atypical court tombs in the north Munster region of western Ireland in the north Munster region of western Ireland. Further examples of these atypical court tombs are found in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and England. Like all court tombs they are thought to date to the Early Neolithic (3800-3600 BC in Ireland), when agriculture was first introduced to the region.

The location of the Parknabinnia Neolithic court tomb. Beglane & Jones (2020).

The tomb is about 13 m in length, and comprises a central gallery made up of two 1.5 x 1.5 m chambers, surrounded by a short cairn. The chambers are arranged in line, with an entrance, via a narrow, straight forecourt, to the southeast. It is thought that the inner chambers would have been roofed and the outer forecourt unroofed. Like other small megalithic structures, it is thought to have served as a centre of worship for local farming communities. Similar small monuments are known from across Ireland and Britain, and all seem to have shared a similar usage history, with the sites being used as a collective burial site, where earlier burials were disturbed and rearranged to make way for later burials.

Site plan for the Parknabinnia Neolithic court tomb. Beglane & Jones (2020).

When excavated the tomb was found to be filled largely with loose stones, with some void spaces. Mixed in with the stones were both Animal and Human bones, as well as some artefacts. Patches of uncompacted very dark brown/black organic silt loam were presumed to have filtered down between the stones after they were put in place. Beneath the stones were patches of light orange-brown clay loam and limestone bedrock, thought to represent the original ground surface. It is thought that after being originally built, the site suffered several subsequent roof collapses, and that, rather than clear the debris out, the Neolithic users emplaced new rooves and continued to emplace further Human and Animal remains on top of the rubble.

The minimum number of individuals for each species present was calculated using the minimum number of elements (i.e. the number of individuals present must be at least equal to the number of any bone that is unique within the skeleton) and the maturity of the bones (i.e. bones of different ages must come from different animals, even if they are from different parts of the skeleton). It was clear from immediate visual inspection that a number of very young Pig and Dog specimens were present. Of the numerous Lagomorph bones present, only one was positively identified as belonging to a Rabbit (and therefore being modern); all others were at least potentially from Hares.

The bones were assessed for their state of preservation, taking into account fragmentation, colour, weathering, signs of cutting by Humans or gnawing by Dogs or Rodents, and evidence of burning. Only obvious damage to unidentified bones was recorded, these were otherwise left out of the study.

Radiocarbon dates were obtained from six Animal bones at Parknabinnia, two Hare and four Dog. These were compared to dates previously obtained from Human remains.

The Parknabinnia tomb contains the remains of at least 20 Humans, predominantly adults but with adolescents, children, infants and neonates also present. Adult females were more common than adult males. A range of artefacts were also present, including pottery, lithic, and bone items.

The site also produced a large number of Animal bones and teeth, including 1683 skeletal elements which were attributed to Mammals, 271 to Amphibians, 155 to Birds, and 621 which could not be attributed (ribs and vertebrae). The Mammal skeletal elements were identified as having come from Cattle, Sheep/Goat, Pig, Dog, Cat, Hare, and one possible Rabbit bone from an area of modern disturbance, as well as some elements attributed to 'very small Mammals' (Rodents etc.). Hare bones and teeth were by far the most numerous, with 1259 identified in the assemblage, representing at least 38 individuals. These were scattered throughout the tomb, but were often in clusters, and these clusters were often associated with Human remains. Hares can give birth any time between January and October, so the age of juvenile Hares is not a good proxy for season. The Parknabinnia tomb contained adult, sub-adult and juvenile Hare remains, although juveniles were much rarer. The presence of Hare bones throughout the tomb might be interpreted as a sign of post depositional disturbance, but Beglane and Jones' corelation of the ages of the Human and Hare remains in the tomb strongly suggests they were originally buried together.

Skeletal elements from Dogs, Pigs, and Cattle were also very common at the Parknabinnia tomb. A total of 218 Dog bones and teeth were recovered, mostly from Chamber 1. Based upon analysis of unique skeletal elements, these represent at least five individuals, but when size and colour of the specimens is also taken into account, Beglane and Jones calculate at least nine Dogs are present. Radiocarbon dating of these remains suggested that they were deposited over a wide time range, however, one grouping of three large puppies (represented by 61 skeletal elements) is noteworthy. These were aged between one and four months at the time of death, and had reached a height of about 23 cm, comparable to a modern Jack Russell, suggesting that the adults of the breed would have been medium-to-large Dogs by modern standards. These have been corelated to what Beglane and Jones identify as Phase II in the deposition of Human and Hare remains. Two of the Dog mandibles show signs of gnawing, suggesting that the tombs were open to other carnivores after the remains were deposited.

A total of 51 Pig skeletal elements were recovered, predominantly from Chamber 1 and Trench C (which contained material derived from the northeast quadrant of the cairn). Analysis of the age of these elements the remains comprised at least one individual aged 3–7 weeks, and one or two individuals aged 2–4 months, as well as a larger sub-adult. Before the advent of modern Animal husbandry techniques, Pigs would almost always have given birth in spring, implying that the very young Pig remains were deposited in spring or early summer.

In addition the site yielded 90 skeletal elements attributed to Cattle, most of these again from young Animals; one second phalanx appeared to be from an individual more than 24 months old, but all of the remaining bones were unfused, suggesting they came from juveniles. Notably, twenty four post cranial bones were identified, all but two from Trench C, which are thought to have come from a calf of 7-8 months gestation (i.e. 1-2 months premature). Again, pre-modern Cattle would have been expected to give birth in spring, suggesting the calf was buried in late winter or early spring. Four of the teeth recovered also appear to have come from a prenatal individual, probably the same one as the bones. In addition two teeth were found which appeared to come from an individual aged 6-17 months, two from a 15-30 month old Animal, and one from an Animal aged 24-30 months.

Only ten skeletal elements (0.37% of the total assemblage) showed signs of post-mortem gnawing, strongly arguing against the idea that the bones came from carcasses carried into the tomb by carnivores after the Human remains were interred. The gnawed bones comprised four Hare pelvises, three Hare femurs, two puppy mandibles, and a puppy metatarsal. The fleshiest part of a Hare is around the pelvis and the upper part of the back legs, and the shape of the Hare makes in necessary for most predators to gnaw at the bones of this area in order to access the meat, making it likely that these Animals were placed in the tomb with flesh on their bones. 

Beglane and Jones obtained radiocarbon dates from two Hare bones and four Dog bones. A single Hare bone sample from Chamber I was dated (UBA-21205), yielding a date of 3622–3371 BC. This correlates with the date obtained previously from a Human bone sample (GU-10577) within the same chamber, 3650–3350 BC. Both of these bones were located low within the generally amorphous bone fill of the chamber, and within 0.2 m of the northern boundary slab, an area where the bone layer was thicker, possibly as a result of tidying older bones to one end of the chamber to make way for new burials. Both the dated Hare and Human bones are therefore considered to have come from Phase I of the tomb's history; the original phase of use.

Chamber 2 is considered to comprise two significant stratigraphic units. The first of these is an area of tightly packed bones pressed against the southern wall of the chamber. Dates have previously been obtained from Human bones within this unit, and used to assign them to Phase one of the tomb's usage. It is thought that the bones were moved to the southern fringe of the chamber during a period of tidying, to make way for new burials. These later burials are thought to make up the second stratigraphic unit, a less concentrated layer of bone spread across the chamber. A Hare bone from this chamber (UBA-21206) yielded a date of 3310–2924 BC. This again correlates with a date obtained from a Human bone found within the chamber (GU-10572), which yields a date of 3350 – 2900 BC, both of which came from the more dispersed bone layer, thought to represent Phase II of the tomb's usage.

The 218 Dog bones from the Parknabinnia tomb appear to represent at least four stages of deposition. A radiocarbon date obtained from a single calcaneus (UBA-33268) derived from one of the three large puppies in Chamber I yielded a date of 3483–3104 BC, suggesting that it derived from Phase II of the tomb's use. A single right femur (UBA-35055) from a group of at least four neo/prenatal puppies yielded a radiocarbon date of 2470–2206 BC, suggesting a Chalcolithic origin. A fifth metacarpal from a large Dog (UBA-33267) yielded a date of 1006–845 BC, interpreted as bronze age, while a second metacarpal from a medium-sized Dog (UBA-35056) appears to be modern in origin.

Therefore both Chambers 1 and 2 have yielded Human and Hare bones that were contemporary to one another and which dated to phases I and II of the tomb's use. One of the groups of puppies also seems to date from Phase II.

Hare bones are the most abundant remains from Parknabinnia tomb, both in terms of the total number of specimens collected, and the number of individuals these represent. This was the case in both chambers of the central gallery, and in the surrounding cairn (as evidenced by the remains recovered from Trench C). Radiocarbon dating of the Hare bones from the two inner chambers showed their deposition was contemporaneous with that of the Human remains of Phases I and II. However, the distribution of skeletal elements within the chambers is apparently not even, with the remains from Chamber 1 showing a pattern consistent with whole Hare carcasses being deposited there, while Chamber 2 is suspiciously depleted in forelimb elements.

The environment within the Parknabinnia tomb is enclosed and alkaline, ideal for the preservation of bone material (acid conditions, in contrast, are very bad for bone preservation), and the bones present are for the most part very well preserved. Few of the bones show any signs of trampling, many had fallen into protective crevicies, and others had been carefully tidied to one side by later users of the complex. Signs of scavenging by carnivores are extremely rare. This being the case, good preservation of all skeletal elements would be expected, and the number of fore- and hindlimb elements ought to be approximately equal. 

A previous study, carried out by Maxime Pelletier, Aurélien Royer, Trenton Holliday and Bruno Maureille, at cave deposits at Regourdou, France, (a natural pitfall trap for small Animals) found that hindlimb bones, which are slightly more robust than the forelimbs, do have a slightly better preservational potential than the hindlimbs. This pattern was repeated in the cairn material extracted from Trenches A, B, and C, but differed in the more enclosed, and presumably protected, environment of the inner chambers. In Chamber I, the number of fore- and hindlimb elements is roughly equal, consistent with the theory that the chamber presents a more protected environment than the Regourdou cave deposits, and that the forelimbs therefore had as good a chance of being preserved as the hindlimbs. However, in Chamber 2, the proportion of forelimb elements to hindlimb elements is three times lower than in the Regourdou cave deposits.

Survival of elements for Hare in (a) Trenches A, B, C and in (b) Chambers 1 and 2 compared to the sitewide averages and to Pelletier et al. Beglane & Jones (2020).

This depletion in forelimb bones in Chamber 2 compared to both the Chamber 1 and the Regourdou cave deposits requires an explanation, as it appears to be too great to have occurred by simple chance. Beglane and Jones speculate that the Hares in Chamber 1 may are likely to have been deposited whole, but that the Hares in Chamber 2 may have been skinned before deposition, with the forelimbs removed with the skins and used elsewhere, although the reason for this remains obscure.

The Hare remains from the cairn deposits contain a higher proportion of forelimb elements than Chamber 2 (although no more than would be expected by comparison to the Regourdou cave deposits), so Beglane and Jones consider the possibility that Hare remains may have been transported from Chamber 2 to the surrounding cairn. The site appears to have undergone periodic roof collapses and replacements, so it is not inconceivable that rubble could have been removed from the chamber and added to the surrounding cairn. Potentially the smaller elements of the Hare forelimbs would have been more likely to have been inadvertently moved at the same time. However, if this were the case, it would be expected that some of the smaller bones of the Human skeletons, particularly the small bones of the feet, which are easily overlooked, would also be moved, and there is no evidence for this, which probably rules out this practice as a cause for the distribution of the Hare forelimb bones.

Beglane and Jones note three distinctive features about the Animal remains from the Parknabinnia Neolithic court tomb. Firstly, there is the dominance of Hare skeletal elements. Secondly, there is the curious lack of Hare forelimb bones in Chamber 2. Finally, there is the predominance of very young Animals among the domestic Animal remains.

The large number of Hare remains requires the examination of the possibility that the remains might have been brought to the tomb by a carnivore, such as a Wolf, Fox, Dog, Lynx, Wildcat, Stoat or Golden Eagle (the Hares getting there by themselves can be ruled out, as Hares do not usually burrow into such structure, or at all, and the tomb does not form a natural pit trap). However, while Dog remains are found within the tomb, evidence for carnivore activity at the site is extremely limited, with only 0.37% of the skeletal elements showing signs of gnawing,  which probably rules out this as an explanation for the presence of the Hare bones. In contract, radiocarbon dating clearly shows that the Hare remains were interred at the same time as the Human remains, strongly suggesting the two are linked, and the differential treatment of the Hare body parts suggests that they may have been used in some form of ritual activity.

This theory is supported by the similar pattern of Animal burials seen at other Neolithic and Chalcolithic tombs seen in the same area, notably at the nearby Poulnabrone portal tomb, where the fauna is also dominated by Hares and very young domestic Animals. Unfortunately, Poulnabrone excavated in the 1980s, and little detail of the Hare remains w as published, preventing a detailed analysis of these remains with modern techniques.

This situation is also seen at Glencurran Cave, again in County Claire, with all three sights being within 7 km of each-other. The deposits at Glencurran Cave were found 45 m from the cave entrance, and included neonatal lambs, calves, and piglets, as well as perforated Cowrie and Periwinkle shells, late bronze age pottery, adult Human bones, including some dated to the late bronze Age, a 2–4 year old late-bronze-age child, and a neonatal child, as well as five adult Hares, one of which produced a Neolithic date. The wide range oof dates obtained from the Glencurran Cave make assessment of the material difficult, but the excavators did note an apparent link between much of the material and fertility, birth, and spring, including the presence of neonatal Animals, Hares, and Cowries (which are often associated with the female anatomy). Beglane and Jones suggest that the inclusion of Hares in all of these deposits may indicate that they played an important role in the belief system present in the area in prehistoric times, and that they were associated with fertility and regeneration.

Beglane and Jones also note the presence of neonatal domestic Animal bones within the Parknabinnia tomb as likely to be significant. Both piglet and calf remains were almost certainly deposited in spring (puppies are of less clear seasonal importance). The distribution of the Animals is also different, with puppies and piglets placed inside the tomb, while the calf remains were outside. This may have been linked to the size of the chambers, where only a few people could have been present during ritual activities, while rituals carried out outside could have included a wider section of the local community. The subsequent reworking of the remains within the tomb by later users makes it impossible to determine if their was originally any correlation between the age and sex of the Human burials and the Animals buried with them, but the distribution of the Animals does suggest that different Animals were used in different rituals.

Furthermore, Beglane and Jones note that this belief system does not appear to have been restricted to the local area. Neonatal and juvenile domestic Animals also dominate the fauna recovered from the Cotswold-Severn tombs in England, where they are also presumed to have been deposited in the spring, possibly in association with seasonal fertility rituals. In Iberia, Lagomorph bones and figurines have been recovered from a number of Neolithic and Chalcolithic burial sites, with the bones again being presnt in such volumes that it is presumed their inclusion was both deliberate and important, while Lagomorph figurines are known almost exclusively from burial sites, sugesting an important role for Lagomorphs (Hares and Rabbits would both have been present in Iberia during the Neolithic and Chalcolithic), possibly indicating a connection between death, fertility, and rebirth. These figurines peak in abundance around the middle of the fourth millennium BC in Iberia, which correlated with the dates of the Hare and puppy burials at Parknabinnia (mid-to-late fourth millennium BC).

Lagomorphs are important Animals in folklore across Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Beglane and Jones note that it can be dangerous to invoke modern folk-tales to explain ancient beliefs, but also note that many of the Lagomorph-related stories share common threads across very wide geographical ranges, which may indicate these stories are very ancient.

Many cultures have considered Lagomorphs to be bad luck, to the extent that in some societes people were reluctant to name them. Lagomorphs were seen as trickster spirits in many cultures in India, Africa, Europe, and North America, stories which survive today in the Tales of Brer Rabbit and the Bugs Bunny cartoons. In Ireland, Wales, and Scandinavia they have also been associated with witches and witchcraft, a common story being about a witch who transforms herself into a Hare in order to succle milk from a neighbours Cow. Interestingly, the Seven Streams waterfall, about 4 km from Parknabinnia, is associated with a folk-tale about an old woman using trickery to milk a magical ‘cow of plenty’ into a sieve that the Cow could never fill.

Lagomorphs also have positive roles in folklore, particularly in association with spring, fertilty, and the Moon. Today the Easter Bunny appears on the first Full Moon after the Spring Equinox. Lagomorphs were connected to a number of fertility and lunar goddesses in ancient times. In the eighth century AD the Venerable Bede claimed that the Christian festival of Easter took its name from the Saxon goddess of the dawn, who was named Eostre. Little is known of this deity, but she was probably a fertility goddess, and while there is no known connection between Eostre and Lagomorphs, other European fertility goddesses certainly do have this connection. Hares were traditionally also widely hunted in Europe around Easter, which has been cited as a metaphor for persuits of a more sexual nature.

Lagomorphs have also been widely associated with healing, and the production of amulets, something which survives today as the Lucky Rabbit's Foot charms used to ward off sickness or the evil eye. This practive seems to date back to at least 400 AD, when Marcellus of Bordeaux recommended that cutting off the foot of a rabbit and binding it to a patient would give a ‘marvellous remedy’.

The absence of forelimbs from Hares in Chamber 2 at Parknabinnia could potentially be related to such a belief, with the forelimbs of the Hares being removed to make magical amulets of some description, or for use in some other, unknown, ritual.

Beglane and Jones conclude that, while some Animal remains within megalithic tombs are undoubtably later introductions, the preponderance of Hare and young domestic Animal remains at Parknabinnia clearly indicates that they were placed there deliberately. This use of young Animals from species witrh a seasonal cycle and Animals closely associated with spring due to their behaviour strongly suggests that the site was used for rituals during the spring, possibly with Animals being placed there as part of some seasonal offering connected to fertility and renewal. Such a role is still attributed to Hares in modern folklore, and may also be the explanation for the presence of Hare remains at other Neolithic sites in Western Europe. Many archaological sites in the region have been suggested as being linked to spring/fertility rituals, and it is possible that Hares played an important role in these.

See also...

Follow Sciency Thoughts on Facebook.

Follow Sciency Thoughts on Twitter.