Thursday 23 March 2023

Were cattle used to move megaliths?

Article Source: First evidence for cattle traction in Middle Neolithic Ireland: A pivotal element for resource exploitation Pigière F, Smyth J (2023) 

PLOS ONE 18(1): e0279556. 

Construction of megalithic monuments—Enabling passage tomb architecture? 

Ireland, like several northwest European regions in the 4th and 3rd millennia BC, is characterised by its megalithic architecture, and the link between megalith construction and the use of cattle for traction deserves consideration. In the Funnel Beaker (TRB) culture of northern Europe, evidence includes wheel tracks associated with the megalithic tomb at Flintbek, engravings of cattle teams yoked to two-wheeled vehicles at the Züschen I megalithic tomb, and the four-wheeled wagons with drawbars and yokes depicted on the pottery vessel from Bronocice. In the later TRB, c. 3500 cal. BC onwards, it has been argued that land clearance for cultivation with the cattle-driven ard went hand in hand with the use of the retrieved material–mostly small and medium-sized glacial erratics—for megalith construction . In 4th millennium BC Ireland, the picture is somewhat different and certainly more fragmented. As outlined above, based on the current state of knowledge, ard cultivation, wheeled transport and cattle traction seem not to appear simultaneously, and the size ranges of stones utilised in the construction of megalithic monuments frequently exceed those in TRB tombs. 

Recent programmes of radiocarbon dating and mathematical modelling have also resulted in considerable blurring of traditional tomb typo-chronologies, with early passage tombs, court tombs and portal tombs all conceivably contemporary with one another and the Kilshane cattle. Nevertheless, the small amount of pottery from the Kilshane enclosure ditch, comprising a Middle Neolithic broad-rimmed globular bowl and a single sherd from a second globular bowl, links our traction data more closely to passage tomb horizons. The absence of evidence for cattle traction (and oxen) in the Irish Neolithic has created an understandable reluctance to speculate on the construction methods of passage tombs and megalithic monuments in general. In the light of the Kilshane data, some well-recognised aspects of passage tombs as a monument class can be re-evaluated, namely their tendency to be sited at higher elevations than earlier monuments and with a high degree of inter-visibility, argued to reflect more extensively networked Middle Neolithic communities. The earliest passage tomb activity recorded to date, at Carrowmore, Co. Sligo and Baltinglass, Co. Wicklow, at c. 3700/3600 cal. BC, is in upland landscapes, with the Baltinglass tomb at an altitude of nearly 400 metres above sea level. So-called ‘developed’ passage tombs c. 3300–3000 cal. BC, such as those found 25 km to the north of Kilshane in the Boyne Valley, have long been recognised as incorporating kerbstones, orthostats and other stone elements sourced from long distances, up to 75 km in the case of quartz and granite cobbles from Newgrange. In these scenarios, cattle may have been used and even enabled the transport of both large and small stones over long distances and to higher terrain, as well as considerably easing efforts at a more local scale. Once on site, manoeuvring large structural stones into position would presumably have been easier with animal traction.

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