An Cheathrú Mhór
Tomb 7 at Carrowmore, a passage tomb within a stone circle.
|Location||County Sligo, Ireland|
|Region||Atlantic Megalithic Zone|
|Type||Passage tomb complex|
|Cultures||Irish Passage Tomb Tradition|
|Excavation dates||1977–1980, 1994–1998|
|Ownership||Public and private|
|Official name||Carrowmore Passage Tomb Cemetery|
Carrowmore (Irish: An Cheathrú Mhór, 'the great quarter') is a large group of megalithic monuments on the Cúil Irra peninsula near Sligo, Ireland. They were built in the 4th millennium BCE, during the Neolithic era. There are thirty surviving tombs, the earliest dating to around 3700 BCE, making Carrowmore the largest and among the oldest cemeteries of megalithic tombs in Ireland. It is considered one of the 'big four' along with Carrowkeel, Loughcrew and Brú na Bóinne. Carrowmore is the heart of an ancient ritual landscape which is dominated by the mountain of Knocknarea to the west. It is a protected National Monument.
Placed on a small plateau at an altitude of between 36.5 and 59 metres above sea level Carrowmore is the focal point of a prehistoric ritual landscape which is dominated by the mountain of Knocknarea to the west with the great cairn of Miosgán Médhbh on top. To the east, in Carns townland, two large cairns overlook Lough Gill, and along the eastern boundary of the peninsula the Ballygawley Mountains have four passage tombs at their peaks.
Thirty monuments survive in Carrowmore today. There may have been more monuments in the complex originally, but some fell victim to quarrying and field clearance during the 18th, 19th and early 20th century. The complex is about one kilometre north-south and 600 metres east-west. Most of the sites are "satellite tombs" which surround the largest monument, placed on the high point of the plateau, the cairn (now restored) called Listoghil.
Because of the clustering of the monuments, certain morphological features presented by the tombs, and the assemblage of material found within some of the monuments, Carrowmore – like Newgrange, Loughcrew and Carrowkeel – is classified by archaeologists as being part of the Irish Passage Tomb Tradition. However, in some respects the Carrowmore sites are atypical passage tombs. For example, none of the tombs have lintel-covered, tunnel-like, passages that are a feature of most Irish passage tombs, and only one site (Tomb 51, Listoghil) possesses a cairn.
The Satellite Tombs
The tombs (in their original state) consisted of a central dolmen-like megalith with 5 upright orthostats bearing a roughly conical capstone on top, enclosing a small pentagonal burial chamber. These were each enclosed by a boulder circle of 12 to 15 metres in diameter. The boulder circles contain 30 to 40 boulders, usually of gneiss, the material of choice for the tombs. Sometimes a second, inner boulder circle is also present. Entrance stones (or passage stones, crude double rows of standing stones) extend from the central feature, showing the intended orientation of the dolmens. They are not oriented to points of the compass but generally face towards the area of the central cairn. In four examples, monuments are situated in pairs.
Each monument was built on a small level platform of earth and stone which is one of the secrets of the dolmens' longevity as a well-executed stone packing surrounded the base of the upright stones, locking them in place. One of the satellite tombs, Tomb 27, has a cruciform passage tomb plan, a feature seen in the chambers of later passage tombs like Newgrange or Carrowkeel. The roof – now gone – may have been of stone slabs or corbelled.
Listoghil or Tomb 51
Listoghil which was erected c. 3500 BC, is 34 metres in diameter and has a unique box-like chamber with the only megalithic art so far found at Carrowmore. Three large boulders were found beside the central chamber and under the cairn; these may be the remains of a destroyed passage or of a megalithic construction predating the cairn. As many of the satellite tombs face the central area, the location of Tomb 51 appears to have been the focal point around which the cemetery developed. This monument was found to contain inhumations in addition to cremations.
Gabriel Beranger visited the site in 1779 and illustrated some of the monuments. These drawings are a valuable record of the state of Carrowmore at the time, showing some monuments now destroyed or damaged.
Early unrecorded antiquarian digs disturbed the Carrowmore tombs, such as conducted by local landlord Rodger Walker in the 19th century. Walker kept poor records of his activities, and it has been said that his excavations were more in the line of treasure hunting. Some of the material recovered is now at Alnwick castle in Northumberland, England The sites were surveyed and numbered by George Petrie in 1837, while William Gregory Wood-Martin made the first recorded excavations in the 1880s.
Excavations led by the Swedish archaeologist Göran Burenhult were conducted over two seasonal campaigns, 1977–1982 and 1994–1998. Ten tombs were fully or partially excavated. Listoghil was excavated in 1996-8.
Recent excavations by the National Roads Authority for the Inner Relief Road route in Maugheraboy near Sligo – three kilometres from Carrowmore – have shown that a causewayed enclosure existed at the same time as Carrowmore. Causewayed enclosures are diagnostic of Neolithic activity in Europe.
The Carrowmore burial assemblage is fairly typical of that of the Irish passage tomb tradition. It includes antler and bone pins with mushroom shaped heads and stone or clay balls. The excavations also uncovered unopened mussels and oysters, echoing the finds of shell middens along the coast of Cúil Irra. Quartz fragments accompanied most of the burials; quartz and quartzite clearly had ritual significance in the passage tomb tradition. The antler pins, shellfish, and ornaments made from sperm whale teeth found in the graves, might suggest that the earliest monuments were built by people who followed hunter-gatherer lifeways; but the presence of small amounts of Carrowkeel ware Neolithic pottery at these sites is also suggestive of farming influence.
The chambers contained the remains of multiple individuals. Most of the Neolithic burials at Carrowmore appear to have been cremations. The chambers were re-used intermittently for burial and deposition of artefacts by the people of the Bronze Age and Iron Age a long time after the initial construction.
The small Carrowmore dolmens seem not to have been covered by stone cairns: although such ideas were once popular among antiquarians, the discovery of "settings" of stone and finds close to the chambers and of Roman and Bronze Age artefacts make it unlikely – according to Burenhult – that such cairns ever existed.
Radiocarbon dates from the survey and excavation project in the 1970s, 80s and 90s by Professor Göran Bürenhult generated some controversy amongst archaeologists. Burenhult interpreted the dates to indicate that most of the monuments were erected and used between 4300 and 3500 BC, by a hunter gatherer community. For example, a sample taken from the chamber of Carrowmore 3 (called Tomb 4 by Burenhult) was claimed to indicate a date of 5400 BC. This conclusion is not accepted by the wider international archaeological community. The earlier use of the sites, or incorporation of older material predating the stone tombs cannot be ruled out.
Perhaps the primary outcome of Burenhult's work is that it demonstrated that the Carrowmore passage tombs pre-dated the focal passage tombs in the Boyne valley, County Meath such as Knowth and Newgrange. But his Mesolithic 'Tombs for Hunters' interpretation of the early Carrowmore dates, first presented in 1982, received critical revision in the quarter century that followed. A source critical review of the older work and 25 new radiocarbon dates has demonstrated that the Carrowmore monuments are more likely to have been constructed in the second quarter of the fourth millennium BC.
Though some of the samples from the Burenhult excavations produced pre-neolithic dates, the sample material was charcoal, which is susceptible to a number of methodological problems. However, 25 recent AMS dates on bone and antler pins from the monuments have contributed to the story of activities at Carrowmore, and counterbalanced earlier claims for Mesolithic megalith construction within the complex. The usage of the Carrowmore satellite tombs is shown to have spanned the era circa 3750 BC to circa 3000 BC. This data set is supported by palaeo-environmental studies in adjacent lakes conducted by Stolze, O'Connell, Ghilardi and others, showing farming activity coincident with or preceding monument use.
Research at Carrowmore has influenced the story of the development of the passage tomb tradition in Ireland. The data from this site overturned the theory once prevalent in Irish archaeology that tomb building spread from east to west across the country, and that the large complex tombs such as Newgrange represented the beginning of the tradition. Although we do not have reliable dates from many important Irish passage tomb sites, and early dates have been obtained elsewhereit is possible that Carrowmore represents some of the earliest passage tombs constructed in Ireland.
The building of megalithic tombs is a widespread phenomenon, extending from the Mediterranean along the entire west coast of Europe into Scandinavia. Whether this represents the spread of an ideology or of people has been debated. Perhaps both now seem likely, as the picture now emerging from archaeology is one of greater complexity than previous models had assumed. There are indications that in Ireland many of the principal centres were in use simultaneously. The role of megaliths as monuments and foci of ceremony and celebration, as well as markers on the landscape is emphasised by archaeologists such as Richard Bradley.
The building of large cairns such as Listoghil or Miosgán Médhbh on Knocknarea or Newgrange may represent a later phase of megalith-building of greater scale and ambition than earlier passage tombs. The area of the Cúil Irra peninsula and its hinterlands is dotted with such tombs, often on hilltops, which inspired Stefan Bergh to style it the "Landscape of the Monuments".
There has long been debate about how the different Neolithic monument types – passage tombs, court tombs and portal dolmens – all of which occur in County Sligo – should be interpreted. Once thought to be indicative of different cultures or peoples, they are now known to have co-existed with each other, and therefore may represent different functions within a single community. Perhaps research into DNA or other techniques of the future will help resolve these questions.
The Dump Crisis
Carrowmore was the subject of an extended legal battle during the 1980s when in 1983 Sligo County Council sought to place a municipal landfill dump on a quarry site about 100 yards from part of the complex. The council's decision was contested by five local residents in the High Court, in Dublin in late 1983, and the High Court ruled that the County Council could proceed with its plans, on certain conditions. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court which ruled against the Council in 1989.
A notable feature of the judgment was that it marked the first explicit legal recognition of the idea of an architectural landscape, extending the legal protection of a national monument to include the surrounding area.
In 1989–90 the State purchased approximately 25 acres (10 ha), on which stood a number of monuments and a small cottage. The cottage was developed for use as a basic visitor interpretative facility run by the Office of Public Works, this development marked the first stage in developing the Carrowmore archaeological complex for public access. Later land purchases means that most of the site is now under public ownership.
The small farmhouse is close to the R292, approximately 2 kilometres east of Ransboro crossroads. It houses an exhibition, and from March to the end of October provides both guided tours and multi-lingual self-guide options for the Carrowmore megaliths. Admission is €5.00 for adults, and there are discounts for seniors, groups, students and families. Most of the tombs can be accessed from there. The centre is open daily from 10.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m during the summer.
- Bergh, Stefan (1995) Landscape of the monuments. A study of the passage tombs in the Cúil Irra region, Co. Sligo, Ireland. Stockholm: Riksantikvarieämbetet Arkeologiska Undersökningar ISBN 9171929452
- Herity, Michael (1974) Irish Passage Graves Dublin. Irish University Press. pps 14–18. ISBN 0-7165-2167-9
- "Gabriel Beranger".
- Ireland, Aideen M. (2002) Roger Chambers Walker: A Sligo Antiquarian The Journal of Irish Archaeology Vol 11. pp. 147–187. JSTOR 30001663
- Danagher, Ed (2007) Monumental beginnings: the archaeology of the N4 Sligo Inner Relief Road (NRA Scheme Monograph 1) ISBN 978-1-905569-15-1
- Burenhult Göran, (2005) Carrowmore: Tombs for Hunters British Archaeology Issue 82. http://www.archaeologyuk.org/ba/ba82/feat2.shtml Archived 29 November 2014 at the Wayback Machine
- Cooney, G., Bayliss, A., Healy, F., Whittle, A., Danaher, E., Cagney, L., Mallory, J., Smyth, J., Kador, T. and O'Sullivan, M., T. and O'Sullivan, M. (2011) 'Chapter 12: Ireland' In: A. Whittle, F. Healy and A. Bayliss (eds). Gathering time: dating the early Neolithic enclosures of southern Britain and Ireland. Oxford: Oxbow Books
- Bergh, Stefan and Hensey, Robert (2013) The Neolithic Dates from Carrowmore 1978–98; A source critical review hdl:10379/3570
- Bergh, Stefan and Hensey, Robert (2013) Unpicking the Chrolonogy of Carrowmore in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 32 (4) pp 343–366 doi:10.1111/ojoa.12019
- Bergh, Stefan and Hensey, Robert (2013) Unpicking the Chrolology of Carrowmore Oxford Journal of Archaeology, Volume 32, Issue 4, pp 343–366, doi:10.1111/ojoa.12019
- O’Connell, M., Ghilardi, B. and Morrison, L. (2014). A 7000-year record of environmental change, including early farming impact, based on lake-sediment geochemistry and pollen data from County Sligo, western Ireland. in Quaternary Research, 81, 35–49
- Schulting, R., McClatchie, M., Sheridan, A., McLaughlin, R., Barratt, P., & Whitehouse, N. (2017). Radiocarbon Dating of a Multi-phase Passage Tomb on Baltinglass Hill, Co. Wicklow, Ireland. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society.
- Hensey, Robert; Meehan, Pádraig; Dowd, Marion and Moore, Sam. A century of archaeology—historical excavation and modern research at the Carrowkeel passage tombs, County Sligo. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, 2014, p. 1-30
- "The Supreme Court decision on Carrowmore was welcomed".
- Tombs for Hunters, Burenhult, G, British Archaeology 82, 2005, pp22–27.
- Landscape of the Monuments, Bergh, S. University of Stockholm, 1995.
- Unpicking the Chronology of Carrowmore. Bergh, S & Hensey, R. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 32(4) 343–366, 2013.
- Altering the Earth. The Origins of Monuments in Britain and Continental Europe, Bradley, R. Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 1993.
- Monumental Beginnings, Danagher, E. Dublin: National Roads Authority, 2007.
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