Book Reviews

“Death in Irish Prehistory” by Gabriel Cooney

Reviewed by Dr Rena Maguire FSAScot

Death in Irish Prehistory, Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 2023. 454 pages, paperback, £28.00. ISBN 978-1-80205-009-7. Reviewed by Rena Maguire FSAScot, December 2023.

Every so often, an Irish archaeology book breaks the mould of typical academic texts and raises the bar for everything which comes after it. Almost a decade ago, that pioneering text was Early Medieval Ireland, AD 400-1100 (O’Sullivan et al 2013), aka the ‘white book’, so good it is now in its second edition. Professor Gabriel Cooney’s Death in Irish Prehistory is the new contender for groundbreaking (no pun intended) publications.

The first thing the would-be reader notices is the shape and size of the book – chunky but small. The portable size generates an accessibility and intimacy usually lacking from the typical A4 archaeology text – this is a book meant to be carried with you, and actively read. There is something almost retro about the tactile cover, with its almost dreamlike drawing of a crouched interment on a soft grass-green background.

Few archaeology books open with poetry, but one of Bernard O’Donoghue’s (2003) poems, ‘The Company of the Dead’, sets the atmosphere and theme of the text – “their only wish now to get warmer”. The symbolism is appropriate, as archaeology is a gentle form of necromancy performed by trowel and laboratory, which allows us to learn about the dead through what they have left behind.

This is a hugely ambitious book, offering a state of the nation overview as to how humans in Ireland dealt with death, over a span of 10,000 years. Each chapter takes us through a specific time period, from the Mesolithic to the end of the Iron Age, although Cooney also prepares the reader for new research developments regarding much earlier human habitation. The first chapter sets out the structure of the book, and the ideas presented within it. All archaeological evidence is examined within a variety of practical and theoretical frameworks. Cooney introduces and explains some of those frameworks almost imperceptibly, woven in as part of the journey the reader is about to embark on – from excavation and post-excavation methods, which provide the raw data of ancient deaths, to questions about how we negotiate cosmology, population, social identities, violence, conflict and health of the past. In Cooney’s hands, these modern analytical processes become part of the story of the people of the past.

Each subsequent chapter dealing with a chronological period commences with an imagined scenario of an individual’s death in that era and the response of their contemporaries to it. From the solemn cremation of the Bronze Age elder to the re-use of a much older monument for a vivacious woman of the Iron Age, each brief prelude reminds us that while modern excavations are precise and scientific, the remains within any burial were once people like us, and their mourners grieved and remembered their loved ones just as we do. I particularly enjoyed the prologue for Mesolithic Rockmarshall, a rare site which has produced human remains. It is a liminal place of rich, deep history, beautifully captured by Cooney’s narrative, and made me smile and remember carrying out coring and geophysics there.

Case studies of various sites are mapped and depicted clearly, presenting the latest thoughts and findings on each example used. Depictions of burials, such as that in Edmondstown, Co. Dublin (Fig 5.10, page 201), listing characteristics of Bronze Age burial beside it, are useful visual aids. Where many previous texts have failed in clarity, this succeeds, thanks to the illustrations by the talented Conor McHale, a seasoned and respected archaeologist himself. It may also be a first in archaeology to say that an illustration of mortuary processes leading to the transformation of the dead – a complex set of ideas at best – is both sweet and cute (Fig 4.9, page 154).

Death in Irish Prehistory may be a feast for the eyes and mind, but its main course is the story told by the changing styles of how the dead were treated through those 10,000 years. The living bury the dead, and what we see in the archaeological record is their view of the dearly departed who they shared their world with; it is their choice to decide if it was a ‘good’ death to memorialise, or a ‘bad’, transgressive death to conceal. As societies change with new arrivals of people and ideas, these views change too, making treatment of the dead very much about living. Sometimes continuity with the deep past is used to emphasise ancestry and a sense of belonging within an area, for example, later burials at Tara, Co. Meath. Yet there are outliers when the living resorted to very ancient practises, such as the Iron Age infant burial within a shell midden at Culleenamore, Co. Sligo (p.103). The reader cannot help but wonder what human tragedy inspired this return to a Mesolithic practice.

The use of literature throughout the book ‘warms’ up and humanises the story of the dead, just like the fire symbolism in O’Donoghue’s poem in the preface. Cooney never loses sight of the fact that we are dealing with humans, just like us, and only separated by time, and writes with a rare blend of clarity and compassion. The maps and site plans are superlative, the drawn images have their own nuances depending on what is being narrated: Conor McHale is to be commended for that sensitive approach.

This book could possibly be criticised gently for being all things to all people. Cooney, however, appreciates in his summary that this book is not the final and definitive word on the study of death in Irish archaeology – I suspect that he is very aware that its mission is to inspire a great deal more research and collaborations. As it can be as easily read by archaeologists as by students, or the passing tourist who wants to know more after a visit to the National Museum of Ireland, I suspect it will accomplish its mission. Clear a space on the bookshelf for this one, you will be using it for quite some time.

Rena Maguire FSAScot

IRC Postdoctoral Fellow, University College Dublin.

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