Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Carrowkeel & Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery

Today was the wettest day we have had but like the postman we will venture on to see the sites of our ancient ancestors.

On our way to Sligo we stopped to view what could be seen of Lough Key & Lough Arrow. The name Sligo means "Shelly River" in Gaelic. Sligo is located in the northwest of Ireland, about forty miles from Enniskillen and the border with Northern Ireland, and 135 miles from Dublin. Once a major port city located at the mouth of the Garavogue River.

Lough Key

A Gaelic Chieftain

Lough Arrow

Our first of the megalithic monuments was to stop at Carrowkeel. This neolithic necropolis is believed by some to be the stone age location of the capital of the Sligo region. We felt incredibly alone in this part of the country with the thick fog we could not see 100 metres in front of us giving us a sense of complete isolation from the world.

About 15 cairns sit on limestone shelves most of which are round in shape and contain limestone slabs. Archaeologists have found neolithic artifacts here from 2500 BC, and date some of the tombs from the Bronze age around 1500 BC. On the limestone face below Carrowkeel’s summit are the impressions of some 80 huts built as long as five thousand years ago. Situated in the Bricklieve Mountains, the tombs date from 3200 to 2400 BC, 321 metres high. The name Bricklieve (Breac Sliabh) translates as Speckled Mountain; Speckled can mean many things in old Irish including portal and magical, and there are two other powerful Speckled sites in Sligo: Tobernaveen near Carrowmore and the Cursing Stones on Inishmurray. Carrowkeel also boasts 140 circular stone foundations, which are thought to be the remains of a prehistoric village. This is the sight of the largest concentration of passage tombs in Ireland.

These passage tombs are sunken burial chambers made of large limestone slabs, topped with huge piles (cairns) of rocks. These tombs are most usually located high upon hills and mountains and dot the landscape around Sligo County, forming a larger network of ancient sites whose mysterious origin is still largely debated. The Carrowkeel complex, believed to have been constructed between 3000 and 2000 BC, remained in use until 1500 BC. The cairns, built of limestone with interior chambers roofed with large limestone slabs, range in size from 25 to 100 feet in diameter. The site was used in Christian times as a burial place for unbaptised children. Carrowkeel was rapidly and very poorly excavated in 1911, often with the use of dynamite, and each of the cairns was assigned an identification letter.

The site is a large isolated block of carboniferous limestone that reaches a height of approximately 300m. A striking feature of the Bricklieve Mountains is that they are cut into four slices by narrow rift valleys which run north-north-west and south-south-east. The walls of these valleys are vertical cliffs which vary between 10-30m in height.

The first tomb is Cairn G by crawling through a narrow passage it is possible to enter the womb of the ancient mother. Cairn G faces NW not quite in the direction of distant Knocknarea, but aligned to mid-summer sunset. 5000 year old tombs, protruding from bog-land formed 12,000 years ago, after the last ice age, made of rocks 300 million years old, looking out at distant mountains 900 million years old. The entrance is big enough to crawl into but a stone about 12 inches from this entrance makes things tricky, once inside the chamber it is about 7 foot tall. The chamber is polygonal in shape with three chambers leading off it, all have large lintels above their doorways. There is no decoration in this tomb but there are two light boxes here. The first is above the entrance and the second is above the rear chamber entrance.

Starting our walk up to the cairns we can't see 100 metres in front of us

Standing at the entrance of Cairn G having conquered the mountain

Looking from Cairn G to Cairn H

Inside Cairn G

Looking back to the Entrance of Cairn G

About to climb out of Cairn G into the world once again

Commencing out walk to Cairn H

Cairn H Entrance

Inside Cairn H it was to low to enter without sliding on our stomachs which it was too wet to do
Cairn K this tomb is possibly the best of the complex. Set right on top of the hill once you enter crawling like an ant on all fours feet first you can stand in the chamber some 3m tall and with a corbelled roof. The three sub-chambers form a cruciform shape one chamber has a large triangular stone which draws your eye and it would be reasonable to suggest that it carried some meaning.

Cairn K

Looking into the Entrance of Cairn K

Looking back out to the entrance from inside the Cairn

Corbelled Roof

Looking back out the tomb up the raised/stepped walkway to the entrance

Looking back to Cairn K as we leave

Looking back down to Cairn H & Cairn G

Looking back over our trek from Cairn G to Cairn K

We can faintly see the Lough as the fog and rain starts to break up

The difference from when we left on the walk and couldn't see in front of us

Our next stop was to visit Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery lying about a mile to the east of Knocknarea, is a megalithic stone cemetery, the largest in Ireland, which covers an area about a one and a half square miles. The approximately 65 monuments here are oval-shaped clusters, with a cairn (pile of stones) in the centre. They’re known as “Portal Tombs” or “Dolmens,” and are generally made of two upright stones that create a small chamber roofed by a flat flagstone. The tombs are spread out over a large area that cuts across numerous local farms, creating a unique collision of the present and the distant past. It’s location on a flat plain is a bit unusual, given that most pre-historic tombs were set on hilltops. Included here is a tomb that archaeologists have dated at 4600 BC, which, if correct, would make it the oldest portal tomb in Ireland and pre-dates Newgrange by 700 years and is older than the pyramids. Also one of the most important, megalithic sites in Europe.

Tomb 54 partially hidden by soil, made of rock called gneiss which was scattered freely as glacial erratics on the limestone landscape from the Ox Mountains some distance to the south.
Tomb 52A has it's cap stone missing and remains unexcavated 
Tomb 52B a well preserved tomb with intact dolmen - five upright chamber stones appear to have been assembled first with stone packing at the base 
Tomb 51 Listoghil (the Fort of Overthrow or Ryefort) is considered to be the most important site at Carrowmore as it seems to be the central tomb with many other tombs orientated towards it. This monument is unique in Carrowmore as it is the only one to have had a covering cairn and it was reportedly 15m high before being plundered for stone to build local walls. The cairn was 32 meters in diameter. The tomb at the centre makes this tomb unique at Carrowmore as well. It is almost a huge cist tomb, but still echoes the dolmen like tombs at the site. Although there is a passage now leading to the tomb for the public to gain access there is no evidence that there ever was an opening to the tomb. However, the tomb is aligned to the Samhain (October 31st) and the Winter Solstice on December 21st sunrise and this indicates that the tomb was freestanding at some point in its history before being covered with a cairn and blocking the alignment. The construction of the tomb and outer boulder circle (consisting of over 100 stones) happened around 3500 B.C. It would have not been dissimilar to other tombs at Carrowmore at this time. In 2003 the tomb was restored and it was decided to replace the cairn but not to the extent that it would cover the tomb. Rather the cairn has been built up with a large central area left clear so the tomb can be accessed. 

Tomb 51 the central tomb is known as Listoghil - before excavation about 20 kerbstones were visible in a sprawling uneven mount 2.5 metres high. The capstone of the chamber was exposed, it was also used as a stone quarry a one point. Restored to what it is believed to be the original profile, it faces East South East towards the rising sun of the start and end of winter.
Looking down the entrance of Tomb 51 to the Dolmen 


Looking back at the tomb

Tomb 56 
Tomb 57 This is one of the few unexcavated tombs at Carrowmore a fine boulder circle about 17m in diameter and consisting of 33 stones. The SE corner of this tomb forms part of a field boundary,   this one corner is not looked after and is very overgrown.
Tomb 57 

Tomb 3

Looking back at Tomb 3
Tomb 7 probably the most famous tomb at the site, the surrounding kerb circle consists of 31 stones and is 12.5m in diameter. The central tomb is again dolmen like but is a polygonal passage tomb made up of 6 stones with a large capstone on top. The date given from radio-carbon dating is 4200 B.C and this again comes from the controversial dates from the Swedish excavation in the 1970’s. There were many sea shells found here along with cremated human bones and antler pins. An arrow head was also found. This arrow head is dated to 2500 B.C. This again indicates that the site was used over a period of time. This tomb along with tomb 13, across the road, is very well preserved and it has been speculated that these two tombs formed an entrance to Carrowmore.
The centre of Tomb 7

Looking towards the entrance of Tomb 7

Looking back across to Tomb 51

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