Secrets of portal tomb to be revealed to students during Science Week

A portal tomb, excavated only two years ago in Kerry, has revealed evidence of some of the earliest agricultural activity in north-west Europe.

Secrets of portal tomb to be revealed to students during Science Week

DNA sequencing on bone fragments which were found at Killaclohane Portal Tomb near Milltown has helped scientists discover more about the secrets of one of Ireland’s oldest standing structures.

Kerry County Museum will today reveal the secrets of Killaclohane Portal Tomb, which dates back 6,000 years, to students as part of Science Week, which runs until November 19. ‘The Tomb in the Lab’ is a series of discussions, demonstrations, and displays based on the site, Kerry’s oldest- known man-made structure, dating back to around 3800 BC.

The Neolithic tomb underwent a major excavation and restoration programme in 2015 and the artifacts found, including human bone, pottery fragments, and flint tools, have been the subject of intensive scientific scrutiny.

County archaeologist Michael Connolly says the site is the most significant in Kerry and in a national context is comparable to the Poulnabrone Dolmen in The Burren. It is Kerry’s oldest burial ground.

“They’re very different structures but of very similar age and both sitting at the beginnings of early settlement when society was changing from a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle to farming,” said Dr Connolly.

The two portal stones on the structure are approximately 1.8m in height and the capstone measures 3.6m by 3m and weighs 13.5 tonnes.

Locals have known of its existence for generations but it was only preserved and excavated after landowner Kenneth O’Neill became concerned it had deteriorated in 2014.

“The tomb had been used over thousands of years,” said Dr Connolly. “There was a burial chamber put into it in the Bronze Age; there was evidence of it being used in the Iron Age and in the early medieval period.

“We even found a coin of King Henry VIII in the 1520s, which had obviously been thrown in by someone visiting the area at that time.”

Charred bone fragments dating to the Bronze Age, and analysed using DNA sequencing, are those of an adult female. That the remains were cremated has limited the information that can be gleaned, as burning destroys DNA.

Any unburned bone would long have been eroded by the highly acidic soils in the area but scientists were even able to determine the type of timber used at cremation.

“It’s impossible to say if she was a queen or princess because we don’t know the criteria for being buried at one of these tombs,” said Dr Connolly. “What we can say is that she would have had status, but what specifically that was, we just don’t know.

“Maybe she was regarded as a seer or a holy woman or just from a wealthy group or an elite.”

He said the fact that the remains date to the Bronze Age tells us that the monument was seen as hugely significant thousands of years after it was built. Pottery fragments from that era were also found at the site.

Work is also being carried out on a second portal tomb in Killaclohane Wood, about 500 metres away. An initial phase of work on the second site was carried out this year and archaeologists will return in 2018 to carry out the main body of work. The dig has produced pottery, flint arrowheads, and more cremated bone fragments.

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