Saturday, June 28, 2014

Carrowkeel Megalithic Cemetery - County Sligo

Lough Arrow viewed from
Carrowkeel Megalithic Cemetery
Carrowkeel Neolithic or New Stone Age passage tomb cemetery is situated in south County Sligo, near the village of Castlebaldwin.  The tombs are between 5400 and 5100 years old (3400 to 3100 BC), and predate the Pyramids of Egypt's by 500-800 years. Carrowkeel is one of four major passage tomb cemeteries in Ireland (the other three are Brú na Bóinne, Lough Crew, and Carrowmore). A total of 14 tombs have been recorded in this cemetery. Six more passage tombs are located close by in what archaeologists call the Keshcorran complex.

A passage tomb consists of a narrow stone-lined passage leading to a chamber. Other smaller chambers may open off the main chamber. The passage and chambers are roofed with capstones but larger chambers tend to be corbelled. A round cairn covers the actual tomb and the cairn is usually surrounded by kerbstones.

The mountain range containing Carrowkeel Cemetery is called the Bricklieve Mountains, which means the speckled mountains in Irish. This may refer to their appearance when more quartz rock survived on the outside of the cairns, causing them to sparkle in the sun. The Carrowkeel cairns are built on hilltops at altitudes between 240 and 360 meters.  

A common feature of Irish cairns is that the passage of one monument is frequently oriented to another prominent cairn, as well as the rising or setting position of the sun and moon. This occurs at several of the Carrowkeel cairns. For example, Cairn B opens towards Knocknarea and ruined Cairn M is oriented to Kesh Cairn. The tombs were largely intact when rediscovered and hurriedly excavated in 1911. The cairns were designated at this time by letters and this naming convention remains today.

Archaeologists do not know what ritual function, in addition to acting as burial places for the dead, the passage tombs served for these cultures. A reverence for the sun is suggested by the alignment of many of the passages to the rising or setting of the sun on yearly solstice or equinox events.

The Cairns

Three Cairns at Carrowkeel
Photo: bettlebrox -
Cairn B is 22 metres in diameter, making it one of the larger cairns in the Bricklieve group. The passage is about 3 metres long and widens to a small chamber. The entrance is high up in the body of the cairn. In 2010 a local archaeologist discovered the first panel of megalithic art recorded at Carrowkeel consisting of two small spirals.

Cairn F is the largest and most important of the cairns at Carrowkeel. It has a diameter of 26 metres and probably stood 8 - 10 metres high. The cairn contains a very large well-built chamber formed from massive squared limestone slabs with five compartments, two at each side and an end recess. The passage is about 8m long.

Cairn G is the best preserved of the Carrowkeel monuments and is a fine example of a cruciform Irish Passage Cairn. It is a classic Irish passage tomb, consisting of a short passage leading to a central chamber with three equally spaced side chambers. The most interesting feature of this tomb is the roofbox situated above the entrance.  The sun enters the chamber through the roofbox at sunset around the summer solstice and illuminates the back of the chamber. The only other known roofbox was discovered at Newgrange .
Cairn G showing roofbox

Carrowkeel Cairn G is estimated to be 700 years older than Newgrange and is smaller and less sophisticated. The passage is two meters long compared with nineteen meters at Newgrange.

Cairn K was also constructed with the classic cruciform shaped chamber and has an intact dry-stone corbelled roof. The 7 metre-long passage is orientated to Queen Maeve's Cairn on the top of Knocknarea. It has a diameter of about 21 meters, is some 6 meters high, and is surrounded by a thick layer of bog, which has covered any kerbstones. The items found during the excavation of Cairn K in 1911 were typical of the finds in the other cairns: pieces of the Neolithic pottery, known as Carrowkeel Ware since that time; cremated human remains, chalk balls, antler pins and pendants.

Hut Sites

Nearby, at Mullaghfarna, archaeologists have identified more than 150 small stone lined hollows with entrance features which are believed to be Neolithic huts or enclosures.  Their circular stone foundations, with diameters ranging from 8 m to 18 m, still mark the spots where the tent-like huts stood. These hut sites may date from the third millennium BC. In 2003, trial excavations at three of the sites produced finds from the Neolithic/Bronze Age including:  chert scrapers, a flint knife, fragments of cremated bone, decorated pottery and charcoal. Similar objects were discovered during the excavation of hut sites on Knocknarea in 2000.

This prehistoric village is likely to have been connected to the Carrowkeel cairns and may have housed the workers who built the passage tombs, or perhaps their descendants, who attended some ancient ritual there.


The earliest evidence we have for human occupation in Ireland dates from around 8000 BC. For the next 4000 years our ancestors survived by hunting, fishing and gathering wild plants. The gradual introduction of farming to Ireland around 4000 BC brought domesticated cereals and animals from Britain and the European mainland. Shortly after this time, people began to build megalithic tombs such as those at Carrowkeel, Carrowmore, Kesh and Knocknarea.

All told, there are 27 passage tomb monuments in the Carrowkeel-Keshcorran Complex, a total that includes three monuments located nearby but not in the Bricklieve Mountains. Archaeologists do not know what ritual function these passage tombs served, in addition to acting as burial places for the dead, for these cultures. The alignment of many of the passages to the rising or setting of the sun on yearly solstice or equinox suggests reverence to the sun. The presence of items not normally associated with the everyday life of these people and also the discovery of prehistoric art also point to a ritual function for these sites.

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