Ancient axe used in Shannon funeral

Archaeologists believe the oldest polished stone axe ever found in Europe was used, more than 9,000 years ago, as part of a funeral ritual in Limerick.

A team from the University of York’s archaeology department have shed new light on the beliefs of early Mesolithic hunter-gatherers who made their home on the banks of the River Shannon at Hermitage.

The site is the earliest recorded burial in Ireland and archaeologists, led by Dr Aimee Little, analysed cremated remains and artifacts given as grave offerings which were found there. They date from 7530BC-7320 BC.

Unusually for such an early burial, the person’s body had been cremated first and then buried.

The site also featured evidence of a grave-marker. It is likely a post would have marked the spot at which the cremated remains were buried long after the event itself.

A highly polished stone adze, or axe, was interred with the remains and archaeologists believe it to be the earliest known discovered in Europe. They believe it was specifically made for the burial.

Microscopic analysis of the adze’s surface demonstrated a short duration of use, indicating its purpose was for funerary rites.

It was then intentionally blunted, probably as part of funerary rites which the researchers suggest may have been a ritual act symbolising the death of the individual.

The team says the axe shows a rare and intimate glimpse of the complex funerary rituals taking place on the banks of the River Shannon during the Mesolithic era.

The findings, published in Cambridge Archaeological Journal, mark Hermitage out as an important site for the early prehistory of north-west Europe.

“Through technological and microscopic analysis of the polished adze, it has been possible to reconstruct the biography of this remarkable grave offering,” said Dr Little.

“The special treatment of this adze gives us a rare and intimate glimpse of the complex funerary rituals that were taking place at a graveside on the banks of the River Shannon over 9,000 years ago.”

Another team member, Dr Ben Elliott, said the adze is exceptional as archaeologists traditionally associate polished axes, and adzes like it, with the arrival of agriculture in Europe around 3,000 years later.

“Although polished axes and adzes are known from pre-agricultural sites in Ireland and other parts of Europe, to find such a well-made, highly polished and securely dated example is unprecedented for this period of prehistory,” he said.

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