About 9,000 years ago, Mesolithic humans in Ireland buried someone important on the banks of the River Shannon in Hermitage, County Limerick. The burial, originally uncovered in 2001, is notable for several reasons. First, according to a press release, it is the earliest recorded burial in Ireland. Second, the remains were cremated, which was unusual since in most burials of this period bodies were covered intact. The site also had a large wooden post planted near it, marking the site, another unusual feature for burials in Europe.
But new analysis of a polish adze or axe head recovered from the grave is changing the story of Ireland’s early inhabitants even more. Laura Geggel at LiveScience reports that the axe, made of shale, appeared little used, meaning it was likely an object created to accompany the deceased. Researchers took a closer look at the axe and found that the axe was probably never used as a tool and that tip was intentionally blunted, perhaps as a funerary rite symbolizing the owner’s death. The research appears in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal.
“This type of insight into burial practices is incredibly rare for this part of the world,” Aimée Little, an archaeologist at the University of York and lead author of the study tells Geggel. “Nine thousand years ago, people in Ireland were making very high-quality artifacts specifically to be placed in graves.”
The polished axe is probably the oldest such axe ever found in Europe. According to the press release, it’s also something of an anachronism. “The adze is exceptional as we traditionally associate polished axes and adzes like this with the arrival of agriculture in Europe, around 3000 years later,” says Ben Elliott, an archeologist at York and co-author. “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.”
Little tells Fiona Gartland at The Irish Times that the axe shows that people in Ireland at that time weren’t just hunter-gatherers eking out an existence. They had a well-developed culture that included taking care of the dead. “You have really, very complex behavior at play here, in terms of the making and treatment of the adze as part of the funerary rights,” says Little. “We make the argument it was probably commissioned for the burial and was probably used as part of the funerary rights, possibly to cut the wood for the pyre for the cremation, or to cut the tree used as the grave post marker.”
The cremation too, which requires a fire between 645 and 1,200 degrees would have also required some know-how and experience, Little tells Gartland. In fact, she says whoever prepared the grave took painstaking effort to pick up every tiny fragment of bone to put in the burial.
While the axe may prove to be the oldest polished axe in Europe, it is by no means the oldest in the world. That distinction goes to a 49,000-year-old stone axe found in Australia in May.