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Irish Megalithic Tombs (2nd edn), by ELIZABETH SHEE TWOHIG
Shire Archaeology no. 63. 2004. 72 pages, 11 colour & 31 b/w illustrations. ISBN 0 7478 0598 9 (£5.99)

It is the stated objective of Shire Archaeology ‘to publish authoritative, well-written and well-illustrated books, by experts on the subject’, and in Elizabeth Shee Twohig’s Irish Megalithic Tombs, here in its second edition, they have again fully realised that aim. Published originally in 1990, this new edition has been completely rewritten to incorporate new research, providing a succinct, up-to-date and readable account of what by any measure is a remarkable series of Neolithic and Early Bronze Age monuments. (That such a revision was opportune is indicated, perhaps, by the fact that almost half the references in its Further Reading section post-date the 1990 edition).

There are some 1600 known megalithic tombs in Ireland, and although they are a subject of widespread and wholly understandable interest, they have, as the author points out, been dealt with for the most part either in academic journals or in picture books with little text. The conciseness of this book is therefore most welcome. To condense such a large subject into this slim volume must have been a challenge in itself, but Shee Twohig succeeds admirably, producing a clear, comprehensive and well illustrated text.

From the Introduction the author follows the standard classification and sequence for these monuments – of court tombs, portal tombs, passage tombs and wedge tombs. She neither glosses over, however, nor dwells on the difficulties implicit in both this typology and chronology, but simply draws the reader’s attention to the wide variation of form within each type (or tradition), to the overlapping of forms and the presence of unclassified tombs (as well as other forms of burial), and to the unreliability of many of the early radiocarbon dates.

The second chapter, History of Irish megalithic tomb studies, squeezed of necessity into just four pages, is a useful preface to the rest of the book, outlining the combination of antiquarian interest (by John Aubrey, Edward Lhwyd and others), systematic survey (from the early 19th century through to the continuing Survey of the Megalithic Tombs of Ireland) and both large and small-scale excavations, that have contributed to the present state of knowledge.

The next four chapters, describing the four main tomb types, Court tombs, Portal tombs, Passage tombs and Wedge tombs, follow a largely similar pattern, covering tomb structure and design; distribution, topography and association; burial practice; dating; and origins and affinity. They are illustrated with a selection of monument plans, photographs (including in this edition a number of colour plates), finds drawings and distribution maps. Most useful are the isometric drawings of the Annaghmare court tomb, Greengraves portal tomb and Baurnadomeeny wedge tomb, showing the distinctive construction of each type and identifying their component parts.

I would have found it useful to have had a similar drawing for Passage tombs – instead there is a plan and section of the Newgrange passage and chamber. An isometric of a complete and more typical monument (showing, for instance, its kerb) might have allowed a better comparison between this and the other tomb types. It could also have counteracted the impression sometimes given that the small number of very elaborate passage tombs are the norm for the type; while it is inevitable that passage tombs should have been dealt with slightly differently (this chapter also discusses, for instance, tomb orientation, carvings and later activity around passage tombs) the majority of the passage tomb figures and photographs relate to the most elaborate examples (such as Newgrange, Knowth and Fourknocks). This is a mere quibble, however, and the accompanying text more than makes clear the extent of both the regularity and variability displayed in passage tomb construction.

As the chapter subdivisions indicate, there is a lot to cover in these chapters, and the fact that this is achieved is due in part to Shee Twohig’s condensed and matter of fact style. There is really only room to present the data, and she certainly manages to pack it in; for that reason alone one will find references to this ‘popular’ book in many academic works on the subject. Discussion is confined to the short Conclusions chapter; perhaps it should more accurately have been entitled Questions, as in it she asks (inter alia) ‘Why were these tombs built?’ and ‘What type of society was prepared to expend so much time and effort on building houses for the dead?’ Rather than attempt, in just two pages, to provide conclusive answers, Shee Twohig points to certain aspects of the evidence that she has already presented (e.g. burials, orientation and artefacts etc.) within which the answers may be sought, and she ends with a series further questions that both indicate lines of academic enquiry and leave the general reader wanting to know (and ask) more.

For that reader, the final sections of this book are a valuable resource. First there is a list of over 130 Sites to visit, by county, with details of tomb type, national grid reference and published reference. As there are few places in Ireland where one is more than a few miles from one of these monuments, this book would be an invaluable accompaniment to anyone wanting visit them in person. And for the armchair enthusiast, Further reading provides a further comprehensive list of more general references covering the subject. In summary, the first edition of Irish Megalithic Tombs was essential reading for anyone interested in these monuments – this timely revision will ensure it remains so.

Andrew B Powell
Wessex Archaeology

Review Submitted: December 2004

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

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