Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Carrowkeel, County Sligo

"I lit three candles and stood awhile, to let my eyes accustom themselves to the dim light. There was everything, just as the last Bronze Age man (sic) had left it, three to four thousand years before. A light brownish dust covered all... There beads of stone, bone implements made from Red Deer antlers, and many fragments of much decayed pottery. On little raised recesses in the wall were flat stones, on which reposed the calcinated bones of young children."

These are the words of R.S. Macalister who in 1911 was the first person in thousands of years to enter the Neolithic tombs of Carrowkeel. Unfortunately Macalister and his team did great damage to these wonderful monuments, using dynamite and sledgehammers to enter the tombs rather than a careful excavation.

Each of the peaks of this northern end of the Bricklieve Mountains features passage tombs
Despite this violation, Carrowkeel still remains one of the most spectacular and breathtaking archaeological landscapes in Ireland, and is simply a must-see for anyone with any interest in our prehistoric past. They are situated at the northern end of the Bricklieve Mountains in County Sligo, and cover a number of the peaks that tower over the surrounding landscape. As well as a large number of tombs, at Mullagh Farna, archaeologist Dr Stefan Bergh with Anthony Corns and Robert Shaw of the Irish archaeological research unit The Discovery Programme carried out a high resolution survey of the area using digital photogrammetry and identified 153 hut sites and enclosures that probably indicate the homes of the people who constructed the tombs, a Neolithic village in the shadow of the mountains. If you'd like more information on this site visit the NUI Galway website here.
View from Cairn G with H & K in the background
We visited three of the passage tombs on the 2nd September 2013 and it was a fantastic experience! The tombs first appear as stone cairns, and are constructed from the abundant local carboniferous limestone. They are passage tombs, and were built around 5,000 years ago in the Neolithic period. This was the time of the first farmers in Ireland, the people who began to cut back the dense forests that covered the country to create fields for tillage and pasture. The most famous passage tomb cemetery in Ireland is the Brú na Bóinne (Bend of the Boyne) including the iconic sites of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth, but Carrowkeel is equally as important, with its fourteen tombs.

When the tombs were ‘investigated’ by Macalister and his team, each of the tombs were assigned a letter. We visited the easiest to access tombs, Cairns G, H and K. Each of the tombs was accessible, though please do take every precaution not to disturb or damage the tombs if you wish to enter.

View out through the lightbox above the entrance of Cairn G
 Cairn G in particular was notable as it has a lightbox above the entrance, similar to that of Newgrange, only Cairn G is aligned with the sunset of the summer solstice. Cairn G is believed to predate Newgrange by more than 700 years, and is more simple with a much smaller passageway leading to the burial chamber. Inside Cairn G, Macalister reported finding deposits of cremated human bone, beads from a necklace and sherds of pottery. I didn’t access the next tomb, Cairn H, as it looked far too tight a squeeze. It appeared to be a narrow undifferentiated passage (meaning it did not open into a burial chamber at the end). The third tomb we visited, Cairn K, was a little easier to enter. A narrow cruciform shaped passageway led to a burial chamber. Inside this Macalister found deposits of cremated human remains under the flagged floor of the recesses in the chamber, and stone beads and pottery. They also discovered a Bronze Age urn, showing that these sites still held power and significance thousands of years after their first construction. 
View along the passageway of Cairn K looking towards the entrance
Carrowkeel has much in common with Seefin in County Wicklow. Both are large stone cairn-type passage tombs that are positioned high above the surrounding landscape with incredible views. Perhaps those who constructed the graves so high above the landscape, wanted to claim ownership of all they could see. That by placing their ancestors far above the low lying lands of the living, the shades of their forebears could watch over them from their tombs.  
Cairn K with its entrance facing out towards the North
You’ll find Carrowkeel around 30km or so from Sligo Town. Aim for Castlebaldwin on the N4 road between Sligo and Boyle, and the tombs are well signposted from there. The road winds considerably upwards, take the well formed tarmac road down to the site. At the end of this road you’ll find a closed gate, simply open the gate (being sure to close and tie it again behind you) and drive up the hill. 

You’ll come to a small area you can leave your car where you will see there is a sign indicating you shouldn’t drive any further. Follow the advice of the sign and park up, walking along the track for around 1 – 2km. You’ll see Cairn G above you to the right, so leave the stony path and follow the rough track upwards through the bog towards it. Do mind your footing as the ground can be treacherous on a bad day. The weather day we visited was mixed but largely dry, even so the wind was really strong when we reached the top, so do take care and wear appropriate footwear.

The burial chamber of Cairn K
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The views over the landscape of County Sligo are just spectacular!
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At Carrowkeel you can really see how the glacier carved out the landscape over 10,000 years ago