, Volume 16, Issue 5, pp 349-365
Date: 26 Apr 2006

Interpretation of charcoal and pollen data relating to a late Iron Age ritual site in eastern Ireland: a holistic approach

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Abstract

The study of charcoal produced by five burning episodes that occurred in a rapid succession within a ritual pit dating to the late Iron Age at Raffin Fort, Co. Meath, Ireland, reveals considerable variation in the charcoal assemblages resulting from each burning episode. Wood selection processes are considered against the background of information on woodland composition and land-use history provided by a detailed pollen diagram from nearby Emlagh Bog, the chronology of which is based on both AMS 14C dates and tephra analysis. A human skull fragment lay on top of the charcoal layers but the radiocarbon evidence indicates that the skull predated the burnings by at least a century. This and other evidence indicate a ritual pit with the skull as a human relic. It is suggested that, in this instance, wood selection was neither random nor determined solely by availability or combustibility, but instead may have been informed by socio-religious belief systems pertaining to trees and wood. Early Irish documentary sources, which reveal a complex ethnography of wood and trees in later prehistoric and early historic Ireland, are reviewed. The results shed fresh light on aspects of late Iron Age archaeology in a part of Europe that was outside the direct influence of the Roman world. New information is provided on a distinctive feature in late Holocene Irish pollen records namely the Late Iron Age Lull (ca. a.d. 1–500). During this time, widespread regeneration of woody vegetation took place. In the subsequent early Medieval period renewed farming activity resulted in substantial decline in woodland, a pattern also seen at many other locations in Ireland.

Communicated by F. Bittmann