Sometime in the Early Bronze Age, Irish people began to bury their dead in single graves. This suggests something about their attitude to death and, perhaps more importantly, hints at their attitude to life. A notion is emerging that what is significant is not just the life of the community or of political or religious leaders. Individual lives matter. Not only are the dead given an individual burial, but the idea also takes hold that they will continue in some other form.
‘There seems to be a change’, says Éamonn Kelly of the National Museum, ‘from the more communal approach of the great megalithic tombs to a more individualistic approach. This suggests that there was some sort of a change in how society was organised’.
These pots are among the many ‘food vessels’ that survive from this period, some of which are vase-shaped, some bowl-shaped. The abstract geometric decoration found on bowls of the era is very similar to that on Irish metalwork of the same period, especially on the gold lunulae. On the base of some pots is a starburst pattern that may relate to a sun cult.
The vessels were made to be buried with the dead. The graves are generally just large enough to hold the body and the accompanying pots. Adding to this sense of a new awareness of the individual is an apparently wide choice of burial forms. Some members of the community do not seem to have been accorded a formal burial at all. Those who were, experienced an extraordinary and shifting diversity of funerary rituals: cremation, unburnt burial, disarticulated remains, multiple burials, pit graves, cist graves, flat graves and graves in or under mounds all occur over the five or six centuries before 1500 BC. Thereafter burials are rare in the Bronze Age.
To our eyes, the most moving of these burials are those in which the dead person has been arranged in a foetal position. Why were the dead placed as if they were curled up in the womb? The obvious suggestion is of a simple and beautiful metaphor: the tomb is a womb. The dead are to be reborn into another life. The drink or food in the vessel is meant to sustain them on the journey from one state to the other. This tells us both that these Bronze Age people were looking carefully at the human body: they knew the shape of the child in the womb; and that this capacity to observe humanity went hand in hand with a desire to transcend it.