Europe’s oldest polished ax sheds light on the funerary practices of Ireland’s early inhabitants


According to a new research, the ax found inside Ireland’s oldest human grave was likely made for burial. Widely considered to the oldest known polished ax in all of Europe, the artifact dates back some 9,500 years to around 7530 B.C. The discovery, archaeologists believe, could enhance our knowledge of the complex funerary practices of the region’s early Mesolithic inhabitants. Speaking about the findings, Aimée Little of UK’s University of York said:

This type of insight into burial practices is incredibly rare for this part of the world. Nine thousand years ago, people in Ireland were making very high-quality artifacts specifically to be placed in graves.

The prehistoric grave was unearthed at Hermitage, an area near River Shannon in the Irish city of Limerick, back in 2001. In addition to the polished shale ax, Little and her team also uncovered a microblade and a flint microlith, all of which were later analyzed for shed some light on the ways of life and funerary customs of the early hunter-gatherers of Ireland.


Examination of the artifacts revealed that the ax was still quite new when buried, indicating therefore “that this object was commissioned for the deceased and employed in their funerary rites”. Furthermore, the ancient adze had a blunt end, meaning that it could possibly serve as “a ritual expression of the death of the individual”. Ben Elliott, a research fellow of archaeology the university, added:

The adze is exceptional as we traditionally associate [these] polished axes and adzes like this with the arrival of agriculture in Europe, around 3,000 years later. 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.


More significant, perhaps, is the fact that, instead of a dirt-covered prehistoric skeleton, the archaeologists actually recovered the buried cremated ashes of the deceased. Recently published in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal, the research provides evidence that in turn suggests that Mesolithic hunter-gatherers might have also placed a grave marker (like a tombstone) at the time of burial. Little went on to say:

That the earliest recorded grave in Ireland is a cremation, and there are two more cremations of later date at the site, suggesting this was a special place known about and returned to over hundreds of years… Such a form of memorialization is rare in Europe at this time.

Source: University of York

You May Also Like: