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Human remains discovered on Nephin range were more than 5,000 years old


ANCIENT DISCOVERY Dr Marion Dowd, IT Sligo and Michael Chambers, investigating the human remains in the cave.  Pic: T Kahlert

‘Ritual pit’ in hidden cave contained bones of at least ten individuals

Anton McNulty

A CAVE located in the Nephin Mountains where human bones were discovered by a hill walker in 2016 is likely to have been a ritual site for the dead from the Neolithic period.
Research has revealed that the cave, a natural boulder chamber, was used for human burial practice through the Neolithic period, from as early as 3,600 BC. At least ten individuals – adults, teenagers and children – were placed in the chamber over a period of up to 1,200 years, according to the research.
Local man Michael Chambers stumbled across the previously unknown cave in August 2016  after following a fox while walking on Bengrom Mountain above his home village of Shramore, outside Newport.
Members of the Nephin Begers Hill Walking Group subsequently returned to the cave and found a second chamber, where the bones were located. On making the discovery, Mr Chambers contacted the gardaí, and the bones were taken away for analysis, including carbon dating.
Once it had been determined that the remains were ancient, the National Monuments Service of the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, in consultation with the National Museum of Ireland, commissioned a rescue excavation. This was carried out by Dr Marion Dowd of IT Sligo.
“Large pieces of quartz had been placed in and around the bones,” Dr Dowd explained. “When the radiocarbon dates came through it was very exciting. Not only were the bones Neolithic, but the dates showed the site had been used for over 1,000 years.”
The research by Dr Dowd suggests that bodies were brought into the cave chamber and laid out in a pit. At some later point, the skulls might have been deliberately broken as part of a complex burial ritual and the larger bones removed.
Dr Linda Lynch, an osteoarchaeologist who examined the human bones believes that the discovery indicates highly complex processing of the dead.
“This was not a burial site as such, but a ritual place where bodies were placed to decompose. Only a very small proportion of each skeleton was found, with the majority of bones apparently deliberately removed,” she said.
Josepha Madigan TD, Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, praised Mr Chambers for reporting the find.

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