Wednesday, June 26, 2013

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”

A review of Kytmannow, T. 2008. Portal Tombs in the Landscape: the chronology, morphology and landscape setting of the portal tomb of Ireland, Wales and Cornwall. Oxford: BAR British Series 455.

Rena Maguire

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I have never liked the traditional implication that portal tombs were in some way inferior to court, passage and wedge tombs. Archaeology may have ‘trends’ and fads but there are some areas of study which seem to be the academic equivalent of the little black dress – eternally in fashion. The gleaming white stones of Newgrange always generates the megalithic sexy. It would appear that a single chamber, a pair of side stones and a capstone get you nowhere in the research stakes. Not very fair on the stark, elegant portal tombs which are no less wonderful for their simplicity.

Raftery (1951) theorised that the portal tomb was a degenerated court cairn, last in the chronological line of the great Neolithic monuments. Archaeologically, it seems to have been a case of giving a dog a bad name as serious studies involving portal tombs have been scant. Dr Tatjana Kytmannow’s research and subsequent publication ‘Portal Tombs in the Landscape: the chronology, morphology and landscape setting of the portal tomb of Ireland, Wales and Cornwall’ (2008) is a timely, important, and welcome addition to academic knowledge of the Neolithic period.

Kytmannow writes accessibly and succinctly, tackling thorny issues from the first chapter. No, there has not been any major study of the portal tomb, least of all one that analyses distribution, landscape, morphology, anomalies and chronology. Yes, there most certainly are major issues with past chronologies offered for the portal tomb, not just in Ireland, but in Cornwall and Wales. The research questions posed are straightforward and pertinent, with chronology as the most important. Archaeological interpretation is useless unless we can place the feature or artefact within an accurate temporal context.

No-one has previously challenged the theories of Raftery (1951) and O Nuallain (1983). The chapter dealing with the history of past research left me feeling frustrated; how the portal tomb was consigned to a late period of the Neolithic, and remained generally unquestioned, probably because most were too scared to go academically head to head with some of the giants of 1950s Irish archaeology. Valuable work was carried out from the 1990s onwards by the ubiquitous Alison Sheridan (2003), Elizabeth Shee-Twohig (1990) as well as Schulting and Whittle (2003). Much of this appears to have created the impetus to allow the development and refinement of Kytmannow’s research.

Kytmannow asks the right questions, the ones we should have been asking, and not accepting answers from the past - how early or late should we place the portal tomb in the chronological development of megalithic structures? How long did they remain as important ritual foci within the landscape? Just how simple is the construction of the portal tomb? Are there regional variations? What is the nature of the interaction between megalith and landscape? Can that interaction tell us anything of beliefs and cosmologies of those early times? Is there any pattern across Ireland, Wales and Cornwall which may indicate the role played by these enigmatic structures?

If you like solid archaeology built up with common sense, this volume will please you immensely. Kytmannow acknowledges that phenomenology is too subjective a method to utilise on the study of megaliths. It is irrelevant how many wooden door frames modern theorists raise on stone circles on windswept moorland – when used solely to analyse distant prehistory, it is the equivalent of seeing shapes in clouds; everyone will see something different according to their own perceptions of the world. This is not to mention the more prosaic concern that the landscape we see may be very different than that of the Mesolithic or Neolithic. As someone who places a high value on good old environmental and landscape archaeology, I found myself sitting nodding sagely with each cautionary point Kytmannow made.

My criticism of the morphology chapter is purely aesthetic. The pictures are so plentiful of each variation of portal tomb, and their cup, ring and squiggle markings, I ached for them to be in colour. I found myself getting slightly distracted from the technical information because of the quality of the images, many of which are stunning. I suspect if they were in colour it would have taken me a very long time to read the publication, as I’d be poring over the photos of cairns and cup marks! That being said, it is one of the most thought provoking chapters within the volume. The analysis of colour symbolism, stone materials used and general chaîne opératoire leaves the reader wanting an entire book to develop the ideas further.

New calibrated date ranges are offered for seven of the Irish portal tombs, taken from radiocarbon dating on deposits of human bone within the structures. Kytmannow correctly points out that all dates obtained must be classified as termini ante quos, and do not provide an absolute chronology for megalithic construction. Bayesian models applied to the new spectrum of dates suggest that the portal tomb was no ‘Johnny come lately’ in the archaeological record, indicating construction during the Early Neolithic period, c. 4000 BC–3800 BC, with regular use for over 500 years. Some portal tombs display evidence of continuity of use, albeit sporadically, into the Bronze Age. One of the sites mentioned, Drumanone, got me quite excited as my own research indicates that this particular portal tomb (referred to by 19th century antiquarians as the cromlech of Diarmuid and Grainne) was still a relevant ritual site into the Iron Age (Maguire 2013, in press).

The dates suggested by Kytmannow’s stringent research would indicate that court tombs and portal tombs were pretty much contemporaneous with each other, which would account for the hybridisation of some portal tombs which appear to contain aspects of the multi-chambered court cairn structures. Examples such as Ballykeel, in Armagh, and Cerrig Y Gof in Wales, both discussed comprehensively in Chapter 5, provoke many questions in the readers mind. As the portal tomb is obviously not a sloppy de-evolution of the court cairn, but a statement of monumentality in its own right, can these hybrid structures offer an insight into early Neolithic intercommunity (or even possible gender related) relationships? To me at least, they deserve a whole separate study of their own.

I relished the clear-eyed logical methodology employed in the analysis of the portal tomb within both micro and macro-regions. In both Ireland and Wales, the portal tomb appears to be a reinforcement of the Neolithic maritime aversion (Richards & Schulting 2006), as direct views of the sea are avoided where possible. It is not surprising that the diets of the portal tomb users do not include fish. Portal tombs are monuments of the pastoralist, placed parallel to small bodies of water such as streams and springs. These are monuments placed on light soils, on boundaries between fields and uplands, wildflower- rich heavens for the dead, where they can observe the seasonal agricultural cycle, from a safe distance, perhaps? The location of portal tombs to sparkling, mobile water couldn’t help but make me wonder if this was the genesis of the pan-European cult of water worship, and wetland deposition which would commence by the Early Bronze Age.

There are tantalising suggestions of funerary rituals far removed from the hoary old chestnuts of fertility and sun deities: there is the implication that the ceramics placed in portal tombs were not specially made for the deceased to take with them into the Great Beyond. It would appear from the abrasions and wear on the basic carinated ware that most specimens had been broken elsewhere, and lay ‘dead’ in a rubbish pile before being brought into the portal tomb to join other dead things. This appears to apply to the debitage and lithics interred within the great stones too. These are not grave goods as we understand them. These are part of some ritualisation we have not examined to the lengths it deserves.

Dr Kytmannow offers her own criticism of the volume - it is an old fashioned study, she states, which is reliant on practical archaeology. I do not find this a valid critique, but something which many should emulate. My own small criticisms have little to do with the text, but more the presentation of images. I maintain this volume would best be done justice with colour plates. This would sort out the pie-chart issue of two sets of data both represented by plain glossy white paper, which is a bit confusing at times in such a data rich manuscript.

Kytmannow leaves us begging for more, which is absolutely no bad thing in the academic world. Personally, I want a volume examining the relationships between Neolithic settlements and portal tombs. I want more on the portal tombs which display the characteristics of court tombs. Lets be honest - I’m such a brat, I just want more of all the moments in the book which offer glimpses of an Early Neolithic that differs from our simplistic view of a complex society calling to mind the Hartley quote “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

I think this work will become increasingly important as more hardy souls choose to break with the past and look at scientific evidence, facts, and figures. There is much to delight anyone with a passion for the past here. Dr Kytmannow deserves congratulations on a quietly powerful piece of research. Highly recommended reading indeed.


Maguire, R. 2013 ‘Asking Y: The use and possible European origins of the Irish Y-shaped pendant’’ in press.

O Nuallain, S. 1983 ‘Irish Portal Tombs: Topography, Siting and Distribution’. JRSAI 113, 75-105.

Raftery, J. 1951 Prehistoric Ireland. London: Batsford Press.

Shee-Twohig, E. 1990 Irish Megalithic Tombs. Princes Riseborough: Shire Publications.

Richards, M. & Schulting, R. 2006 ‘Touch not the fish: the Mesolithic-Neolithic change of diet and its significance’ Antiquity 80 (308), 444 - 456.

Schulting, R. & Whittle, A. 2003 ‘Construction and primary use of chambered tombs in England, Wales and Scotland’ in Burenhult, E. (ed.) Stones and Bones: Formal disposal of the dead in Atlantic Europe during the Mesolithic/Neolithic interface 6000 - 3000 BC. Oxford: BAR International Series 1201. 73-76.

Sheridan, A. 2003 ‘The Chronology of Irish Megalithic Tombs’ in Burenhult, E. (ed.) Stones and Bones: Formal disposal of the dead in Atlantic Europe during the Mesolithic/Neolithic interface 6000 - 3000 BC. Oxford: BAR International Series 1201. 69-73. 

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