9000-Year-Old Polished Axe Uncovered in Ireland

The highly polished stone adze. Image courtesy of York University.
The highly polished stone adze. Image courtesy of York University. / The highly polished stone adze. Image courtesy of York University.

Between 7530 and 7320 BCE, a funeral took place on the banks of the river Shannon in what is today County Limerick, Ireland. Now, more than 9000 years later, the site provides a window into the burial practices of the area’s ancient inhabitants. As The Irish Times reports, the grave suggests that Mesolithic Irish people led more complex lives than we previously believed.

The artifact that led to this conclusion, discussed in a paper recently published in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal, was a stone axe. The polished shale tool, called an adze, was found buried with cremated remains in a pit first discovered 15 years ago. It appears to have been used only for a brief period before someone went out of their way to blunt it. This might indicate it was made especially for the funeral, and that blunting the blade was a symbolic act performed during the rites.

Handled axes dating back as far as 44,000 years have been found elsewhere in the past, but this highly polished tool is believed to be the oldest adze discovered in Europe. Researcher and paper co-author Ben Elliot said in a statement:

"The adze is exceptional as we traditionally associate this polished axes and adzes like this with the arrival of agriculture in Europe, around 3000 years later. Although polished axes and adzes are known from pre-agricultural sites in Ireland and other parts of Europe, to find such a well-made, highly polished and securely dated example is unprecedented for this period of prehistory."

The site it was uncovered from is also remarkable: The body was cremated before it was buried, a rare practice at the time, and it had the unusual distinction of a wooden post nearby to mark it. The grave may not be the most famous prehistoric burial site in Ireland—that distinction belongs to Newgrange—but it is the oldest known grave in the country.

[h/t The Irish Times]