On our Exploring Ireland tour one of the regions we explore in detail is the Burren, the famous area of exposed limestone shelves that forms the northwestern section of County Clare. It is an area that is evidently of prime interest for travellers interested in geology and botany, but also for those who are fascinated by archaeology and history, as traces of human activity dating from a range of about six thousand years are preserved here.
We see various geological formations, among them one of Ireland's most famous caves, and human-made monuments including two ringforts (they are the standard form of settlement in 'Celtic' Iron Age Ireland, from some centuries BC until about a thousand years ago), one made of stone and one of earth, another early monastery with its High Cross, Round Tower and chapel, a 15th-century Tower House or fortified dwelling - and Poulnabrone.
Poulnabrone (the name is probably derived from Poll na mBrón, meaning 'the hollow of the quernstones) is one of over a thousand Megalithic tombs found in Ireland. Megalithic monuments (the term indicates that they are constructed from large stones) date from the Neolithic era, the period when agriculture, animal husbandry and permanent settlement were first practised - in Ireland that means about 4,000 to 2,500 BC. These monuments are part of a wider tradition that also occurs in Britain, northern and western France, northern Spain and Portugal, as well as Scandinavia, i.e. Europe's Atlantic fringe, and some are found further afield.
More precisely, Poulnabrone is one of less than two hundred Irish monuments belonging to the type we now call 'Portal Tombs' (colloquially, they are sometimes called dolmens, a word derived from Breton). As can be said for most of them, its construction, of local limestone, is impressive in its simplicity and its durability. Only few Irish Portal Tombs have been systematically excavated so far, but luckily, Poulnabrone is one of them.
The archaeological excavations, in the late 1980s, revealed some precious information about the monument, its use and its date.What is left standing today is only the burial chamber, or part of it. The entrance was on the right-hand side (in our image), were the capstone is at its highest. The chamber appears to have extended a little further at the back, where a second capstone can be seen lying on the ground. The chamber as we see it now was surrounded by an oval cairn of soil and stones, partly burying the burial chamber and altogether creating a much larger monument, perhaps widely visible in the flat landscape surrounding it (depending on vegetation cover). The presence of such a cairn, often extending above the chamber itself, is assumed for all or most megalithic tombs: in some cases it survives, but at Poulnabrone it has been eroded away nearly entirely.
The tomb contained over 14,000 bone fragments, most of them very small, representing the incomplete remains of at least 36 individuals, all of them inhumed and not cremated. It is not clear whether they were originally buried at the site or brought from elsewhere, or whether the tomb was cleared out or reorganised once or several times during its use. That use occurred in the fourth millennium BC, from about 3,800 to 3,200 BC. Mixed in among the bones were various flint and stone tools and weapons, a few bone or antler ornaments and a number of sherds of Neolithic pottery.
It's important to note that Poulnabrone is, on the one hand, just one of numerous megalithic tombs in the area, but also that it is the second largest Portal Tomb we know in Ireland (the chamber is only 4m/13ft long, but the covering mound would have measured about 10 by 8m or 33 by 26ft). So, it probably represents a collective place of burial for one or several small communities that existed in the area and that felt a need to place some of their deceased (the number is quite low considering the apparent centuries of use) in a fairly elaborate and visible monument, thus leaving a mark on their landscape that is still visible over 5,000 years after it was created!
If you'd like to discover the history of Poulnabrone along with many other highlights please take a look at our expert-led tour of Ireland.