Caves – The Facts and The Folklore

Fine below a Press Release for the Irish Cave Archaeology Project.

Over 700 caves are dotted across the limestone regions of Ireland and may hold archaeological secrets dating back as far as 10,000 years.  An exciting new project run by leading cave archaeologist, Dr Marion Dowd of IT Sligo, is set to explore and document the facts and folklores of Irish caves.

The ‘Irish Cave Archaeology Project’ is prompted by finds already made, including human bones ranging from small body parts to full skeletons of men, women and children; jewellery made from shell, amber and bone; the remains of sacrificed newborn calves, lambs and piglets.  Folklore traditions reveal that caves were seen as places of ghosts and ghouls, gateways to the Otherworld or a home for a supernatural woman that preyed on mortal men.  With uses varying from burial chambers to places to live, caves in Ireland have a diverse history and usage.  For a cave archaeologist, this rich heritage represents a feast of untapped artefacts waiting to be discovered.

Dowd comments: ‘People have been using caves around Ireland for almost 10,000 years.  In the 19th and 20th centuries, some were documented by antiquarians looking for bones of extinct animals such as woolly mammoth, bears and Arctic lemmings.  They also turned up human bones and artefacts many of archaeological significance.  More recently, cavers have discovered and explored caves all over the country.  These caves open up for us a cultural, religious and physical history dating back through prehistoric, medieval and modern times.’

Evidence indicates that for about 8,000 years, caves were used mostly for religious activities.  These deep dark, often sacred, places were associated with death and the ‘Otherworld’.  They were used for excarnation, where a corpse was left to fully decompose prior to the bones being removed for burial.  Often small bones and beads were left behind, to be found thousands of years later. Caves were also used for burial, with extensive finds already documented in Co Waterford.  During the Bronze Age, caves were used for burying high ranking individuals.  In 1805, a skeleton covered in small sheets of gold was discovered in a cave in Co Cork.  Burial traditions with offerings continued into the Iron Age. At caves in Co Sligo, human teeth were placed in the caves, possibly associated with the annual harvest festival of Lughnasa.

The coming of Christianity to Ireland in the 5th century AD, saw major changes   in how caves were used and perceived. For the first time, there was extensive occupation of caves, as they became home to individuals, possibly travelling labourers or craft workers. It is likely that the association between caves and death and the Otherworld was largely destroyed by the Church.

‘The folklore surrounding caves is also very revealing’ says Dowd. ‘Medieval manuscripts record that the Cave of Cruachain, Roscommon was the entrance to hell and a series of supernatural and dangerous animals and women emerged from the cave, particularly at Samhain, the 1st of November. Folklore collected over the past two centuries also relates the theme of supernatural woman living in a cave who often poses a threat to mortal men.

Cave archaeology is a largely untapped area in Ireland partly because many of the sites are difficult to find and excavation is slower and more difficult than on an open site. The work is worth the effort however, because caves offer ideal places for preservation of material that would decay in the outside world. Caves have a constant cool temperature that does not change with the seasons. It is probably because of this constant dark silent environment that caves were seen as Otherworldly places to our distant ancestors!’

The ‘Irish Cave Archaeology Project’, is funded by The Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences (IRCHSS).  If you have information on unpublished discoveries in caves or folklore and folk traditions related to caves in Ireland, you can contact Marion Dowd at: dowd.marion[at]itsligo.ie.

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