These Prehistoric Monuments Found In Ireland May Have Served As ‘Routes For The Dead’

Published May 3, 2024

Using LiDAR technology, archaeologists found that prehistoric monuments across County Wicklow may have served as routes to guide spirits to the afterlife.

Keadeen Cursus Line

James O’DriscollBaltinglass, Ireland, where the cursus monuments were discovered.

In a recent archaeological survey, researchers revealed the presence of hundreds of previously unknown historic monuments scattered across the Irish countryside, including a “massive” Bronze Age hillfort and early medieval fortifications.

However, the most significant of these finds were five particularly rare structures from prehistoric times. Now, archaeologists believe these “cursus” monuments may have been constructed as “routes for the dead” to guide spirits to the afterlife.

The study, which was published in the journal Antiquity on April 25, was led by the University of Aberdeen’s Dr. James O’Driscoll with support by the Community Monuments Fund and Wicklow County Council.

Using LiDAR technology, O’Driscoll and his team examined the newly discovered monuments in Baltinglass, in eastern Ireland’s County Wicklow. The region was known to have been occupied during the Early Neolithic (around 3700 B.C.E.) and the Middle to Late Bronze Age (1400 to 800 B.C.E.), but details about the 2,000-year gap in between, the Middle Neolithic, remained elusive until now.

What Cursus Monuments Reveal About Middle Neolithic Life In Ireland

For a long while, researchers believed that Baltinglass had simply been abandoned during the Middle Neolithic period, based on a lack of evidence that the region was occupied. But the discovery of these prehistoric monuments, which likely date to the Middle Neolithic era, challenges that notion.

The five trench-like structures, known as cursus monuments, had been hidden for millennia. However, the LiDAR scans revealed the abundance of these structures, as well as how they were aligned, hinting at a greater ritual significance.

LiDAR Scans Of Baltinglass Monuments

James O’DriscollLiDAR scans of the cursus monuments across Baltinglass.

They also reveal a complex understanding of the relationship between nature, life, death, and rebirth in ancient Ireland.

Cursus monuments were likely used for a variety of purposes, including marking significant solar events. Their positioning along the landscape coincides with the sun’s cyclical movements, as well as a number of known burial sites. O’Driscoll suggests these alignments hint at a spiritual purpose — to guide the dead from the mortal plane to the afterlife.

How Cursus Monuments Served As A ‘Route For The Dead’

“The function of cursus monuments is uncertain,” O’Driscoll writes in the study, “though most academics agree that they played some ceremonial or ritualistic role… It may be significant that at least three of the Baltinglass cursus monuments are aligned with significant burial complexes. Notably, at all three sites, the burial complexes are aligned directly between the respective cursus and the rising sun during the summer solstice or autumn equinox.”

However, he notes, it’s likely that the cursus monuments were significant in several ways, and that caution should be applied when trying to interpret them.

Still, O’Driscoll suggests the cursus monuments’ purpose may be linked to the dead.

Keadeen Cairn

James O’DriscollThe robbed-out cairn atop Keadeen Mountain, which coincides with the route of the cursus monuments.

“We might also consider these monuments as routes for the dead, where the living processed with the deceased in a set route which may, in places, have involved a sacred river,” O’Driscoll writes. “The cursus may have directed the traveler towards their final resting place in a burial monument, which, at Baltinglass, lay deliberately just out of sight of the living processing within or alongside the cursus.”

The Baltinglass cluster of cursus monuments is the largest group identified in Ireland so far. Previously, cursus monuments were only known to exist in pairs at Newgrange, Knockainey, and Brewel Hill — though there are similar clusters found in parts of Britain.

Unlike the British clusters, though, those found in Ireland — particularly at Baltinglass — were more often constructed on steep inclines and mountains. The way they are positioned to align with solar events suggests ancient people could have viewed the sun rising above burial structures as being symbolic of “the ascent of the dead into the heavens.”

“Further analysis of the Baltinglass cursus monuments, as well as Irish examples more broadly, holds great potential for understanding Middle Neolithic ritual and ceremonial practices,” O’Driscoll concludes. “The lack of detailed analysis, survey and excavation of the broader corpus of Irish cursus monuments hinders further progress, however, and a necessary next step is a comprehensive catalogue of sites.

“Until then, the Baltinglass cursus complex remains a unique example of the complex ritual and ceremonial practices of the Irish Middle Neolithic.”

After reading about the significance of cursus monuments in ancient Ireland, learn all about Ireland’s famous Blarney Stone. Then, read about Newgrange, the Irish tomb that’s older than the pyramids.

Austin Harvey
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Austin Harvey has also had work published with Discover Magazine, Giddy, and Lucid covering topics on mental health, sexual health, history, and sociology. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Point Park University.
Maggie Donahue
Maggie Donahue is an assistant editor at All That's Interesting. She has a Master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a Bachelor's degree in creative writing and film studies from Johns Hopkins University. Before landing at ATI, she covered arts and culture at The A.V. Club and Colorado Public Radio and also wrote for Longreads. She is interested in stories about scientific discoveries, pop culture, the weird corners of history, unexplained phenomena, nature, and the outdoors.
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Harvey, Austin. "These Prehistoric Monuments Found In Ireland May Have Served As ‘Routes For The Dead’.", May 3, 2024, Accessed May 23, 2024.