During the Neolithic period the bones of the dead were buried inside their houses, beneath the floor, or close to them. There must have been a motivation to keep the physical memories of their loved ones so close. Contrasting with this was the practice of keeping the bones of a few people interred inside passage tombs on the high places. Why? Were these people important? Chiefs? If they were important people then I would imagine their bones would have been kept close, like family. This puzzle has never sat well with me. Of course I realise it is all a wild leaping of conjecture with so little evidence, but I like to let my imagination run.
Slieve Gullion passage tomb is the highest passage tomb in Ireland. It sits in the Ring of Gullion; an area steeped in folklore. A few months ago a friend took me on my first trip to see the summit passage tomb. I had wanted to see it, to sit inside it, for a long time. It did not disappoint.
It is said that this passage tomb is aligned to the sunset on the winter solstice and could be up to 6000 years old. When I visited I was under the impression that it was the house of the dead; a pilgrimage place. I imagined the long midwinter walk with the bones of lost family or friends.
Yet, there is a new possibility. The prehistoric tombs that may have been used as ‘telescopes’.
Sitting in the inner chamber allowed a better, darker, view of the small patch of sky down the narrow passage. I imagine that most of the stargazing would have been done in the darker winter months. Inside the dark stones on the high places; the coldest places. A fire would have been impractical to the astronomers dark-adjusted eyes. Presumably they spent long hours wrapped up and watching that one patch of sky to time or measure the stars movements. When to plant a particular crop, when to slaughter the surplus animals before winter, when to carry out ceremonies. It would have been a strange and lonely place to spend your time, but maybe it was a kind of home. Maybe it makes sense that these places were the resting place for the bones of ancient astronomers.