Sacred spaces: in the presence of ancestors

John Creedon, Martina Butler and Sam Moore discuss the loss of vulnerable coastal archaeological sites on the Wild Atlantic Way. Photo by Michael Gleeson, courtesy of The MASC Project.

Alicia Wikner, Executive Staff

Sam Moore, an archaeologist from the Sligo Institute of Technology with a fascination for Irish passage tombs, recently presented to the Sewanee community a collection of prehistory tombs as well as speculations on their purposes in his lecture “Concentrating the Sacred.”

In Moore’s area of study in Ireland, around Sligo, lies the many, and complex, Irish tombs of the mostly Neolithic era, also known as megaliths. Megaliths are defined as big stone monuments, and Sligo is home to 218 out of the 1,448 megaliths that have been found across the globe.

Court Tombs, which are one of the earliest monuments, are dated to have been built around 3800-2800 BC, while the Portal Tombs date back to around 3800-2800 BC.

Portal Tombs are shaped like entrances, often with one large stone balanced on a group of supporting pillars, also made of stone. While showing a photo of one of the larger known Portal Tombs, Moore commented, “[The Portal Tombs] are really impressive monuments in their own right, with really big capstone. This bottom [stone] weighs 70 tons.” The largest capstone in Europe was carried 900 kilometers and weighs a whopping 300 tons, an almost unimaginable feat without the luxury of modern technology.

After a rundown on the structure and types of tombs that had been excavated, Moore moved into the more speculative part of his presentation. “My hypothesis is that these centers, these tombs, take on the same role as pilgrimage centers in different parts of the world,” he explained.

Many of the Irish tombs hold a quality of mystery, easily spotted from miles away where they are often placed on hills, overlooking the landscape, only to reveal slithering passageways and human bones within the hidden halls beneath the grass.

A variety of people come to visit them, both for scientific and spiritual fulfillment. “From Isreali newagers with diggiridoos to…people painted blue dancing around; there is a constant reinvention of place,” Moore said.

This role of a center for revitalization stands somewhat oddly in contrast to their function as a resting place for the dead, but perhaps these two ideas can congregate around the idea of journeying, whether it be in the land of the living or that of the dead. Moore emphasized the belief in ancestors as Sacra, or “sacred objects that possess a ritual significance, such as holy bones.”

“Most societies think of ancestors as genealogical ancestors, but when you start looking into ancestors in different societies, they become supernatural entities. ancestral bones as relics that contain spiritual powers,” he said. Ancestors as something sacred then became the foundation for Moore’s understanding of Wrapping, a technique used by many Irish tombs, where space is divided by thresholds, shown in photos as being created using stone inside of tunnels, and these obstacles wrap around the sacred center, or the axis mundi, thus enhancing it. Thresholds can also be natural elements, such as rivers and hills.

“There is something secret in being wrapped, concealing something secret or dangerous,” Moore explained, smiling as he pointed to a photo of an older woman excitedly unwrapping a Christmas gift. “You don’t want what’s inside becoming polluted by the profound coming in from the outside.”

Some tombs have been integrated into the land, such as Avebury, a city with part of it encompassed by the largest stone circle in Europe, which originally contained about 100 stones.  Moore reminisced about his visit, describing how “you can sit in the oldest stone circle in the world and have a pint of beer, it’s very Tolkien-esque.”