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A century of archaeology – historical excavation and modern research at the Carrowkeel passage tombs, County Sligo

  • I.T. Sligo

Abstract and Figures

The Carrowkeel complex represents one of the four main groups of passage tombs in Ireland. Although less well known than its counterpart in the Boyne Valley, new discoveries in recent years have renewed interest in this internationally significant yet under-investigated site. This paper reviews the 1911 excavation of passage tombs at Carrowkeel and presents new research and discoveries that have been made since. New dates (from a radiocarbon dating project undertaken by the authors) which demonstrate activity within the complex towards the end of the fourth millennium BC are discussed. The authors consider the significance of the recently discovered passage tomb art within the complex, and outline the prospects for future research there, particularly with regard to human bone assemblage from the 1911 excavations.
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A century of archaeology*historical excavation
and modern research at the Carrowkeel passage
tombs, County Sligo
Institute of Technology, Sligo
Institute of Technology, Sligo
[Accepted 27 August 2013. Published 18 November 2013.]
Abstract The Carrowkeel complex represents one of the four main groups of passage
tombs in Ireland. Although less well known than its counterpart in the Boyne
Valley, new discoveries in recent years have renewed interest in this inter-
nationally significant yet under-investigated site. This paper reviews the 1911
excavation of passage tombs at Carrowkeel and presents new research and
discoveries that have been made since. New dates (from a radiocarbon dating
project undertaken by the authors) which demonstrate activity within the
complex towards the end of the fourth millennium BC are discussed. The
authors consider the significance of the recently discovered passage tomb art
within the complex, and outline the prospects for future research there,
particularly with regard to human bone assemblage from the 1911 excavations.
Introduction On the very first day we discovered the hidden entrances to two of the
intact cairns, which proved to contain not simple cists as we had expected
but beautiful cruciform chambers that of Newgrange but
smaller ...I had the privilege of being first to crawl down the entrance-
passage and did so with no little awe. 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 had left it, three to four thousand years
before. A light brownish dust covered all (Praeger 1937, 1378).
* Author’s e-mail: The order of names is based on the authors’
doi: 10.3318/PRIAC.2014.114.04
Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy Vol. 114C, 131 #2013 Royal Irish Academy
Cairn G, Carrowkeel, Co. Sligo was first opened and entered in April 1911.
That year saw the excavation of eight passage tombs on the eastern side of the
Bricklieve Mountains, the only large-scale investigation of the passage tomb
complex there to date (Macalister et al. 1912). With the passing of over a
century, weaknesses in the original excavation techniques and interpretations
have become evident. For example, we now know that passage tombs are
Neolithic and not Bronze Age in date as Macalister and his team surmised.
A recent radiocarbon dating project by the present authors, discussed below,
has demonstrated deposition within one of the cairns and a possible horizon of
activity within the wider complex in the late fourth and early third millennia BC.
The history of investigation at Carrowkeel parallels, in microcosm, that
of Irish archaeology, from the birth of the discipline to the present; the
catalogue of work carried out at the site shows a transition from largely
destructive archaeological techniques to a variety of non-invasive methods.
Though we are still dependent on the 1911 excavation report for information
about the monuments and finds, a number of significant discoveries have
progressed research there in the last 20 years. That work is brought together for
the first time here. Discoveries include two pieces of passage tomb art recently
found within cairn B, which will be discussed together with megalithic art from
the wider complex at Heapstown cairn and from the Carrowmore complex to
the north.
It is suggested that a number of less recognised passage tombs away
from the main group should also be considered part of the complex, and
consequently that the name Lough Arrow passage tomb complex may be more
useful than current nomenclature. We discuss bones that were removed from the
monuments in 1911 and brought to the Duckworth Laboratory in Cambridge
after an initial examination by two of the authors (Hensey and Moore). The
research methods employed in the course of this project*vis a´ vis re-examining
older excavations; revisiting the artefacts and human bone assemblages from the
site; dating materials held in museums; and gathering diverse modern research
in the immediate landscape, such as modern survey and palaeoenvironmental
data*is a programme of activities that could, cost effectively, be applied to a
number of important but largely forgotten Irish sites and landscapes.
Like the other passage tomb clusters in Ireland, the Carrowkeel
complex has a distinctive atmosphere and environmental setting. The landscape
which the monuments appear to celebrate is not only unique in Ireland for
its geology, but for the outstanding drama of its cliffs and glacial valleys. The
complex is distinguished by its degree of preservation, which is remarkable in a
European context. Significantly, no modern reconstruction work has been
carried out there, as occurred at other megalithic complexes such as
Locmariaquer in Brittany, or in the Boyne Valley.
The 1911
The 1911 excavation party consisted of Robert Alexander Stewart Macalister
(Plate I), his father Alexander Macalister, Robert Lloyd Praeger and Edmund
Clarence Richard Armstrong. R.A.S. Macalister (41) had recently been
appointed Professor of Celtic Archaeology at University College Dublin. In
R. Hensey et al.
1911 he was elected a member of the Royal Irish Academy; fifteen years later he
would become president (192631). Macalister’s copious literary output
encompassed anthropology, history and epigraphy as well as archaeology.
Having trained as a surveyor and draftsman, his first real excavation experience
was a two-year post as assistant to the director of excavations for the Palestine
Excavation Fund. He was then appointed director and immediately undertook
the largest excavation up to that time in Palestine, excavating three-fifths of the
twelve-hectare site of Tel Gezer in just seven years (Dever 1967, 48; Thomas
1984, 34; Hallotte 2006, 13940). Carrowkeel was Macalister’s first major
excavation on his return from the Middle East in 1909. Professor Alexander
Macalister (father of R.A.S. Macalister) undertook the identification and
analysis of human and animal remains from Carrowkeel and penned the
osteological section of the excavation report. On arrival at Carrowkeel, aged 67,
he had an international reputation in his field.
At the age of 46, R.L. Praeger had overseen several historic research
projects as a botanist and naturalist, including the ground-breaking Lambay
Survey in 1905 (Praeger 1907). His book Irish topographical botany (1901) was
the fruit of country-wide fieldwork that in 1896 led him to Carrowkeel and
Kesh Corran and what could be considered the rediscovery of the cairns
(Lysaght 1998, 138). In 1901 he took part in a preliminary survey of the caves of
Kesh on the west side of Kesh Corran (Scharff et al. 1903). Praeger’s awards
and honours are too many to enumerate here (see McGuire and Quinn 2009),
but his positions included president of the Royal Irish Academy (193134),
president of the British Ecological Society and president of the Royal
Zoological Society of Ireland and the Geographical Society of Ireland. His
ambitious survey of Clare Island was on-going when he joined the Carrowkeel
excavation. The final member of the team was E.C.R. Armstrong. At 32 he was
assistant keeper of Antiquities for the Royal Irish Academy Collection in the
National Museum of Ireland; three years later he succeeded George Coffey as
Methods and
The excavations took place in three distinct phases in 1911. From 13 to 20
April the excavation party and two labourers excavated five cairns: G, K, H, O
and P; all, except cairn H, had previously been sealed. They also made an initial
assessment of cairns E and F and identified 47 possible hutsites in the townland
of Mullaghfarna. Fourteen cairns were ascribed letters running from A to P (the
letters I and J were excluded to avoid typographic confusion). On their second
visit between June 20 and 24, the team excavated cairn B and commenced the
excavation of cairn F. The final visit, 10 to 14 October, was spent investigating
cairns E and F (Plate II).
Much of the work entailed opening trenches around the circumference
of the cairns to locate entrances and removing stones to gain access to, or clear,
collapsed chambers (Macalister et al. 1912, 317). Cairn P appeared to have no
chamber. Six other cairns in the complex (A, C, D, L, M and N) were not
deemed worthy of excavation. Hence the primary foci were cairns B, E, F, G, H,
A century of archaeology at the Carrowkeel passage tombs, County Sligo
K, O and P. The recovery of bones and artefacts and the creation of plans and
sections of the monuments were the primary objectives of the team.
The finds from the investigated monuments are largely typical of those
from other passage tombs: beads and pendants, bone pins, stone balls, pottery
and human remains (Fig. 2) (Macalister et al. 1912; Herity 1974; Eogan 1986).
More unusually, a shale point, a boar’s tusk, burnt quartz, water rolled pebbles,
Pl. I*R.A.S. Macalister (Dublin 1916). Courtesy of the Palestine Excavation Fund.
R. Hensey et al.
a sea shell, pieces of calcite (some reported as c. 30cm in diameter), and twenty
flat stones were found in cairns G, K, E and O. The latter objects were referred
to as ‘trays’ by Macalister as he speculated they had been used to carry
cremated bones into the monuments (1912, 3345). The principal pottery type
recovered has been referred to as Carrowkeel ware since the 1950s (O
1953; Case 1961)*replacing the name Loughcrew ware (Piggott 1954, 2024).
During the 1911 excavation a ribbed bowl was also found in the chamber of
cairn K and a tripartite bowl came from cairn O, both of which contributed to
the team’s interpretation of the complex as Bronze Age in date.
In the osteological section of the excavation report, Alexander
Macalister estimated the presence of c. 31 individuals, including at least twelve
females and eighteen males. The majority of these, he suggested, were less than
25 years old at the time of death (Macalister et al. 1912, 3423). Juvenile
remains were recorded in all seven excavated monuments where bones occurred.
Macalister observed that the minimum number of individuals would probably
be doubled if the remains had been more suitable for analysis (much of the
material was cremated and he probably considered it less informative than the
unburnt remains). A provisional re-examination of the human bone from
Carrowkeel in the Duckworth Laboratory in Cambridge has revealed that a
significant bone assemblage is extant (see Plate VI below).
A brief evaluation
of the excavations
Writing in 1937, Adolf Mahr, the director of the National Museum of Ireland,
described the Carrowkeel project as ‘almost the only really successful
excavation’ in Ireland prior to 1930 (1937, 267). The 1911 investigators swiftly
reported their excavation results; they completed plans and descriptions for
seven monuments and catalogued and illustrated most of the artefacts. In their
Pl. II*Cairn E (with R.A.S. Macalister). Courtesy of the Ulster Folk and Transport
Museum, Green Collection.
A century of archaeology at the Carrowkeel passage tombs, County Sligo
report they attempted an interpretation of the discoveries by comparison with
sites and artefacts further afield. They recorded place names and completed a
superficial survey of the wider environs of Carrowkeel. As cairns H and F are
now in a collapsed state, the plans drawn during the 1911 excavation are
particularly important for understanding these monuments.
Even by the standards of the time, however, there can be little doubt
that the Carrowkeel excavations were rushed, possibly in part the result of
Macalister’s experience in Palestine and the methods employed for dealing with
the enormous scale of the archaeological remains encountered there. He may
have insufficiently amended his approach in tackling the relatively smaller
monuments at Carrowkeel. Effectively, the team excavated eight cairns in
approximately sixteen days. There must have been an incalculable and
irreversible loss of important contextual information. It is likely that working
at such a pace, many small artefacts and ecofacts were overlooked. A story that
has persistently circulated in the locality, and in the archaeological profession, is
that dynamite was used during the 1911 excavations. We have found no reliable
evidence for the use of explosives, though it was not an uncommon practice in
early twentieth-century excavations (e.g. Plunkett 1877, 76; Scharff et al. 1906,
8, 17). Macalister did order the sledging of an obstructive capstone of the
already partly collapsed cairn F to provide access to the interior (Macalister
et al. 1912, 316; Timoney and Heraughty 2002, 293).
Sean Lysaght has remarked on Praeger’s involvement in the rushed
Carrowkeel excavations as a ‘rather curious episode in a life of a man otherwise
scrupulous about scientific accuracy’ (1998, 139). Praeger had been involved in
the excavations at the Kesh caves on the western slopes of Kesh Corran led by
R.F. Scharff ten years before the work at Carrowkeel (Scharff et al. 1903). In the
course of these excavations various strata were identified and each stratum was
excavated in 0.6m grids. Barrows of earth were ‘sifted’ outside the caves.
Artefacts and bones were labelled according to the layer and grid in which they
were found. This information is preserved in detailed field notebooks that
survive from the time. Excavation codes were inked onto bones and artefacts
and the spatial locations of human bones at Plunkett Cave were plotted. The
completeness of the original recording means that it is still possible to establish
the distribution of archaeological and palaeontological material within all the
excavated caves (Dowd 2004), while this cannot be known at Carrowkeel.
Another difference between the Carrowkeel excavations and those at
Kesh is that the entire assemblage from the latter site survives and is housed in
the National Museum, whereas the skeletal material from Carrowkeel was never
returned to Ireland following A. Macalister’s analysis at the Duckworth
Laboratory in Cambridge. The lack of effort to collate the primary excavation
data (part of the record is probably lost or destroyed forever and no excavation
notebooks can be located) could be read as somewhat careless, given the long-
term integrity of the Carrowkeel assemblage.
Although the team documented their finds, they neglected, in many
instances, to record the precise spatial location of artefacts. More than a decade
after the Carrowkeel excavations, Macalister advocated that the archaeologist
R. Hensey et al.
must approach a site with an open mind, his one intention ‘to find out what it
contains’ (1925, 32). His philosophy and his modus operandi raises the question
of whether the team systematically excavated inside the monuments or simply
removed the contents without recourse to methodical digging. The information
in the report*or rather the lack of it*and the pace of the work suggests it was
the latter. Though the team appears to have examined beneath floor-slabs in
cairns H and G, it is not clear if they actually dug into the chamber floors. This
has important implications for any future excavation, as undisturbed strata
would greatly increase the chances of discovering significant finds and datable
material from secure contexts.
Macalister commented that: ‘The finds in the Carrowkeel carns [sic]
were interesting but scanty. No metal was deposited with the dead’ (1935, 63).
As the monuments were perceived to be of Bronze Age date, the absence of
‘golden torcs or lunulae or other contemporary treasure’ was disappointing; the
pins, stone artefacts and beads from the chambers were considered meagre and
referred to as ‘trinkets’ by Praeger (1937, 140). Macalister sought answers not
only in the material assemblage but in the eleventh century Lebor Gaba´ la Erenn
(the Book of Invasions), which he believed contained ‘grains of history’ (1935,
57; Waddell 2005, 193). He described Carrowkeel as indicative of a cultural
overlap between the Firbolg/Halberd Folk and the ‘widespread and centralised
tyranny’ of the Tuatha De Danann/Men of the Sword (Macalister 1935, 63).
Macalister would eventually re-evaluate his own work. He wrote
‘a pioneer piece of work like this must be subjected to revision ...this
excavation and the deductions founded upon it are already antiquated ...
(1949, 71). Towards the end of his career he conceded that the cairns were
‘protomegalithic’, from a time period ‘that would elsewhere (i.e., outside
Ireland) be called the Stone Age’ (Macalister 1949, 65). Yet he maintained that
the entire assemblage from inside the chambers were ‘later intrusions, taking the
place of the primary deposits for which the mounds had been primarily erected’
(Macalister 1949, 72).
Encompassing the
Since the eighteenth century the clustering of the Irish passage tombs has been
observed, leading to descriptions such as ‘graveyards’, ‘gravefields’ or ‘battle-
fields’, but more often, ‘cemeteries’ (e.g. Fergusson 1872, 199; Wilde 1880;
´Nualla´in 1968; Eogan 1986; Sheridan 1985/6; Cooney 1990; Bradley 2007;
Scarre 2007). The term ‘passage tomb complex’, introduced by Bergh (1995),
is now the primary designation. Additionally, Bergh noted an internal order
or patterning within the four main passage tomb complexes, focused
on a triadic arrangement around distinctive focal passage tombs (Bergh 1995,
The passage tombs that form part of the wider megalithic complex
around Lough Arrow could be described as having three primary landscape
foci; the eastern part of the Bricklieve Mountains which includes Carrowkeel
townland; Kesh Corran and notable hills immediately to its east; and Moytirra
to the north and east of Lough Arrow (Fig. 1). In the latter area the greatest
quantity of cairns are found (sixteen of 26). Given the density of monuments
A century of archaeology at the Carrowkeel passage tombs, County Sligo
R. Hensey et al.
FIG. 1—The Carrowkeel complex. Map by P. Meehan, S. Moore and R. Hensey.
A century of archaeology at the Carrowkeel passage tombs, County Sligo
present in this area its apparent omission from medieval texts and local folklore
is noteworthy (Moore 2008). It remains something of a mystery that the team*
given it included an experienced field researcher like Praeger*failed to draw
connections to the cluster of cairns on the Kesh Corran side of the complex,
particularly as cairn Q stands at the highest point on Kesh Corran (346m) only
900m from the 1901 excavations in the Kesh caves.
Since 1911 various scholars have approached different aspects of this
remarkable site but mostly only in a piecemeal fashion; one consequence of that
research has been a gradual expansion of the boundaries of the passage
tomb complex. For instance, though his inventory relied heavily on the 1912
excavation report, Herity observed that Carrowkeel was only ‘one focus of an
extended cemetery dominated by the cairn on the summit of Kesh Corran, and
which spreads its limits as far as Seelewey’ (1974, 272). Seelewey, or more
correctly Suigh Lughaidh, is a monument often overlooked in discussions of the
complex. This probable passage tomb is located on the highest point (226m) at
the north end of the Moytirra ridge and defines the eastern limit of the passage
tomb complex (Fig. 1). It consists of a grass-covered circular cairn with a
2m-wide trench running through it from the south-eastern edge to the centre
(Egan et al. 2005). The trench resulted from the endeavours of Lady Louisa
Tennison whose party ‘camped at the great cairn’ and dug into the mound
(Wood-Martin 1884, 462). Though there are no records of a chamber, it is
reported that bones were found in the course of her investigations (Wood-
Martin 1884). Suigh Lughaidh might be compared with cairn D at Loughcrew
FIG.2*Finds from the 1911 excavations. Composite image by P. Meehan after Herity
1974, figs 146 and 147.
R. Hensey et al.
and several other passage tomb tradition sites (including cairn P, Carrowkeel)
that appear to be chamberless (Conwell 1866).
Sheridan’s (1985/6, 1729) study of Irish passage tombs includes twelve
of the sites in the Carrowkeel complex, primarily monuments on the eastern
side of the Bricklieve Mountains. Significantly, she incorporated Heapstown
cairn, the huge unopened mound at the north end of Lough Arrow (see Fig. 1).
At c. 60m in diameter, it is by far the largest monument in the complex and the
fifth largest kerbed cairn in the country (only superseded by Newgrange,
Knowth and Dowth in the Boyne Valley and Miosga´ n Meadhbha on the
summit of Knocknarea, Co. Sligo). The presence of passage tomb art on one of
the Heapstown kerbstones and its proximity to so many other passage tombs
suggests that it is also a passage tomb (Hensey and Robin 2011). This largely
uninvestigated site may have been a focal point for the whole complex, perhaps
a late culmination of earlier construction activities on higher ground (Bergh
1995, 478; Hensey 2010, chapter 9). Like Suigh Lughaidh and Heapstown,
another monument that is rarely discussed is the passage tomb of Ardloy just
north of the central group. There the remains of a cruciform chamber lie within
a poorly-preserved kerbed cairn of approximately 13m diameter. It is situated in
a commanding position with views in all directions, dominated by views of
cairn Q on the top of Kesh Corran.
Bergh (1995, 22) introduced the name ‘Carrowkeel-Keashcorran com-
plex’, thereby highlighting that the cairns at Carrowkeel should be considered
as part of the same complex as those on Kesh Corran (as should the
monuments on less elevated hilltops between those two locations). He also
applied letters to the passage tombs on Kesh Corran*Q, R, S, T, U and V.
Moore (2004) has proposed adding the letters W to the cairn on Kelly’s Hill, X
for the possible monument north-west of cairn G on Carrowkeel, and Y for the
isolated cairn in Carricknahorna West (Fig. 1), creating a total of 26 potential
passage tomb tradition sites within the complex. An additional site on the
south-west spur of Kesh Corran Mountain (SL040-062), which has morpho-
logical affinities with cairn Y, has not been included in this total or in Fig. 1 or
Table A.1 as it is considerably disturbed and insufficiently studied.
Eleven of the cairns remain unopened. Those that have been excavated
exhibit a rich diversity in scale, in siting and in their basic morphology. Twelve
have identifiable chamber plans of which seven (C, E, G, K, M, N and Ardloy)
have a cruciform arrangement. Cairn F has a five recess arrangement. Four
monuments have a single undifferentiated chamber (B, H, O and R). Cairn E is
noteworthy for having a cruciform chamber at the northern end of a 40m long
cairn and a court-like arrangement at its southern end (De Valera 1960; Egan
et al. 2005). As noted, the 1911 team concluded that cairn P was a cenotaph.
Complex orbits In the arrangement of the Carrowmore and Carrowkeel passage tomb
complexes (and also Kilmonaster complex in Donegal), it is evident that an
immediate centre or node, formed of a tightly clustered group of passage tombs,
is present. In the foregoing examples this area could be encompassed by a circle
of c. 1km radius. But this nucleus has outliers, positioned in these cases within a
A century of archaeology at the Carrowkeel passage tombs, County Sligo
zone of approximately 6km from the centre (Fig. 3). The apparent outer circle
that delineates the zone of influence can be emphasised by outlier monuments
sited on high-profile hills, and/or by landscape features such as rivers or other
bodies of water. (This is evident from Bergh’s (1995) study of the connections
between the Carrowmore passage tombs and related monuments in the Cu
Irra peninsula.)
FIG.3*The wider Carrowmore and Carrowkeel complexes with zones of influence
highlighted. Map by P. Meehan, S. Moore and R. Hensey.
R. Hensey et al.
Additionally, the node or nucleus tends to attract further construction,
often monumental, within its zone of influence (see Fredengren 2002, 199200
for discussion of nodes). This appears to be particularly true of Lough Arrow,
where a remarkable megalithic complex has developed in which all the four
main megalithic traditions in Ireland are found in close proximity. The Lough
Arrow landscape is best characterised as a passage tomb node which is holding
in its orbit a range of other site types, especially megalithic monuments (see
Fig. 1 and Table A.2). One of the exceptional features of the complex is that it
provides an excellent platform for close consideration of the relationships
between the various categories of megalithic monument and natural features.
In summary, research conducted since the 1911 excavation has helped to
increase and refine the extent of this prehistoric complex. In this context it can
be argued that the most apt name for this cluster of monuments is the Lough
Arrow passage tomb complex. The Lough Arrow appellation might be
considered preferable because it succeeds in uniting (or reuniting) Suigh
Lughaidh, Ardloy and Heapstown with the passage tombs at Carrowkeel and
Kesh Corran; and thus better reflects the complex in its entirety.
Research in the
wider complex
In 1911 Macalister, Armstrong and Praeger identified 47 potential hutsites at
Mullaghfarna to the east of the Bricklieves (Plate III), which they suggested
may have been used by the people who constructed the passage tombs
(Macalister et al. 1912, 3312) (Fig. 1). Grogan’s (1980; 1996; 2002) survey
expanded that figure to 82 sites. More recently, through a digital photogram-
Pl. III*Mullaghfarna enclosures/hutsites from the air. Reproduced by kind permission
of Stefan Bergh after Corns and Shaw (2009, Pl. 74).
A century of archaeology at the Carrowkeel passage tombs, County Sligo
metry-based survey, Bergh has increased the total to 153 (Bergh 2004; 2006).
The enclosures vary in diameter from c. 6m to 20m. Test excavations of three
sites indicate Bronze Age and to a lesser extent Neolithic use (see below).
Mount’s (1996) analysis of the siting of early prehistoric monuments in
the Bricklieve Mountains and Moytirra uplands focused on the soils and
geomorphology of the complex and, like the present study, treated Carrowkeel,
Kesh Corran and Moytirra as a unified landscape. Further information was
provided by Mitchell (1951), McAulay and Watts (1961) and Go
¨ransson (1984;
2002) in palaeoenvironmental studies on raised bog at Treanscrabbagh at the
centre of the complex. More recently Susann Stolze has undertaken a
palaeoenvironmental study on cores from three lakes and a wetland site
surrounding the complex: Loughmeenaghan, Templevanny Lough, Lough
Arrow and Lough Availe (Stolze 2012; Stolze et al. 2012; Stolze et al. 2013a,
b). The results from Lough Arrow are yet to be published, but cumulative
palaeoenvironmental information from the other cores indicate ameliorated
climatic conditions, landscape openness and most pronounced human activity
during the Early Neolithic period.
The study of Loughmeenaghan is notable for providing direct evidence
of wheat cultivation for approximately 140 years, from c. 37703630 cal. BC,
followed by a phase dominated by pastoral farming (Stolze et al. 2012). The
agricultural activities evinced by the record from Loughmeenaghan took place
several hundred years before the earliest dates we have from the passage tomb
complex (see below). Stolze concludes that the climate in the region became
progressively wetter after 3600 cal. BC; the Lough Availe core reveals that this
downturn intensified sometime before 3260 cal. BC (Stolze et al. 2013b). It may
be significant that the Neolithic dates that have been returned from the complex
occur in that difficult period; characterised by Stolze as one of declining human
impact on the environment. Stolze’s data is corroborated by a palynological
study at Lough Dargan, c. 15 km north of Carrowkeel (near the Carrowmore
passage tomb complex). There, cereal-type pollen is recorded in the sample at c.
3730 cal. BC, and deteriorating climatic conditions are indicated from 3400 cal.
BC. This period culminates in the regeneration of forest to pre-elm decline levels
and a decline or even a cessation of farming after 3000 cal. BC (Ghilardi and
O’Connell 2012).
Dating the cairns As illustrated by the introductory quote from Praeger, upon entering cairn G
the 1911 team immediately drew comparisons with Newgrange. The similarities
must have played an important role in the team’s subsequent ruminations about
the date of the cairns. It should be remembered that at this time George Coffey
was in the process of reinterpreting Newgrange as a Bronze Age monument;
until this point he thought it dated to approximately 400 BC (Coffey 1912;
Macalister 1912).
The excavation team concluded that the passage tombs were Bronze
Age in date, and emphasised this in the title of their account of the excavations:
‘Report on the exploration of Bronze Age cairns on Carrowkeel Mountain,
County Sligo’ (Macalister et al. 1912). Their conclusions were primarily based
R. Hensey et al.
on the relative dating of the Bronze Age ribbed bowl and tripartite bowl found
in cairns K and O respectively, and comparisons with Bronze Age pottery found
in earlier passage tomb excavations such as at Belmore, Co. Fermanagh (Coffey
18968; Macalister et al. 1912, 399). Macalister wrote that ‘no Neolithic types
of pottery appear to be present, and the carns [sic] so far examined may all be
placed in the Bronze Age’ (1912, 340). Of interest in this regard is Macalister’s
reconstruction of a pottery vessel from the right recess of cairn G based on
fragments of Carrowkeel ware (Herity 1974, 275). The fragment is depicted in a
reconstruction sketch with a flat base in the style of a Bronze Age food vessel,
the (probably Neolithic) sherd apparently being coerced to fit a preconceived
Bronze Age form (see Fig. 4). A difficulty for the team was the sheer lack of
prehistoric pottery available in Ireland at the time, as this precluded one of the
main avenues of chronological assessment (Macalister 1928, 87; Mahr 1937,
338; O’Sullivan 2009, 524).
To their credit, however, there are hints in the 1912 report that the team
considered possible Neolithic origins for the monuments. Macalister concedes
his uncertainty regarding the chronology of several sites: ‘Had the monuments
been found rifled, we would have felt inevitably drawn to the conclusion that
they represented widely different culture-strata; and indeed we long laboured
under the impression that cairn F was Neolithic’ (Macalister et al. 1912, 345).
The elements of court tomb morphology present at cairn E were a further cause
of confusion. Macalister was aware that similar monuments on the Isle of
Arran, Scotland had recently ‘been shown’ to date to the Neolithic period
(Macalister et al. 1912, 333). That the excavation team debated a Neolithic
horizon at all was quite remarkable given that the ‘radiocarbon revolution’,
which finally resolved these chronological questions, did not take place until the
FIG.4*Carrowkeel ware from cairn G reconstructed in the fashion of a Bronze Age
vessel. Image by Padraig Meehan after illustrations by Macalister et al. 1912, Plate XXV.
A century of archaeology at the Carrowkeel passage tombs, County Sligo
Pilot dating
In more recent decades the Neolithic origins of the Carrowkeel passage tombs
have been assumed, but except for a single Neolithic radiocarbon date
recovered by Bergh from cairn M (Table 1), this was based on typological
comparison rather than scientific measurement. To redress this, the present
authors undertook a pilot project to obtain new radiocarbon dates. The
National Museum held a number of acquisitions of human bone that had been
found by visitors to Carrowkeel in the 1960s and 1970s. Two cremated human
skull fragments from cairn G were selected by osteoarchaeologist Jonny Geber
as suitable for dating: an adult occipital fragment, and the parietal bone of a
6- to 12-year old child (Table 1). These were part of an assemblage of c. 200
fragments of cremated bone that had been found on a ledge approximately
1.6m high in the back recess of cairn G (Lucas 1963, 124). A note in the
Antiquities Register (1961, 168) states that the bone had originally been
recovered from the floor of the chamber and then placed on the ledge,
presumably in the 1960s. Though the samples were from insecure contexts,
given the excavation methods and recording at the 1911 excavation outlined
above, there are no available samples in either the National Museum or the
Duckworth Laboratory in Cambridge that are with certainty from secure
The five dates from Carrowkeel below (and all other dates in this paper)
were calibrated using OxCal ver. 4.2 (Bronk Ramsey 2009; Bronk Ramsey et al.
2010) and the IntCal09 calibration curve (Reimer et al. 2009). Age ranges are
given at the 95 per cent confidence interval and reported in cal. BC. Though the
lack of secure contexts is problematic, it was encouraging that both samples
returned radiocarbon determinations equivalent to Neolithic calendrical dates
(Table 1). The period from which the dates range, 32002900 cal. BC, represents
a pivotal time in passage tomb construction and use, during which mega-
monuments such as Newgrange and Knowth Site 1 were built.
TABLE 1*Five Neolithic dates from the Carrowkeel complex. Dates processed using
OxCal ver. 4.2 (Bronk Ramsey 2009; Bronk Ramsey et al. 2010) with the IntCal 09
calibration curve (Reimer et al. 2009).
Sample Location Lab ID
age BP
age ranges
Adult occipital
Cairn G, Carrowkeel td UBA-
4494929 33463094
cal. BC
Parietal bone,
child c.612
Cairn G, Carrowkeel td UBA-
4342928 30232899
cal. BC
Cairn M, Carricknahorna
East td
Ua-511 45309100 35172924
cal. BC
Corulys Site 1,
Mullaghfarna td
4500945 33583030
cal. BC
Bos taurus
Site 1,
Mullaghfarna td
4280940 30182762
cal. BC
R. Hensey et al.
The Neolithic date from cairn M (45309100 BP) was returned from
charcoal recovered in the course of a trial excavation (Bergh 1995, Table 10,
1035). Notwithstanding the overly large standard deviation, when calibrated it
gives a range of 35172924 cal. BC (Table 1). The other two previously
unpublished Neolithic dates are from the Mullaghfarna hutsites (Table 1;
Stefan Bergh, pers. comm.). Significantly, all five dates fall within a similar time
span, from approximately 32002900 cal. BC, raising the possibility of a spike in
activity at Carrowkeel at that time. Moreover, the new dates compare well with
the Neolithic dates from the Mullaghfarna enclosures, thus strengthening the
argument for a direct association between the hutsites and the passage tombs.
Except for some of the chambered cairns of the Orkney Islands (see Richards
2005), a locational and chronological association of this type is relatively rare in
a European context.
The dates in
Since Sheridan’s (1985/6) analysis, passage tombs have typically been viewed as
a phenomenon that developed from small simple sites to larger more complex
ones, and generally from the west to the east of Ireland. The dating evidence
from the Carrowkeel passage tombs and Mullaghfarna hutsites raises the
question as to what extent these centres were in use conterminously rather than
succeeding each other progressively. Apparently, there was a period of activity
at Carrowkeel and the Mullaghfarna hutsites which occurred at the same time
that immense energies were being expended in the construction of the main sites
at Newgrange and Knowth in the east of the country. It is probable that all four
main complexes were simultaneously in use in certain periods.
The Carrowkeel dates are of additional interest in the context of 25
dates on bone/antler pin fragments from two passage tombs in the Carrowmore
complex located just 22km north of Lough Arrow (Bergh and Hensey 2013).
Bayesian modelling of the dates indicates that the most probable primary age of
the pins*and assumed deposition*was c. 36503100 cal. BC. The new dates
suggest that the Carrowmore passage tombs saw continual deposition over
approximately half a millennium. It would appear that the rituals associated
with passage tombs, in particular the tradition of depositing cremated bones
with antler/bone pins, were already well established when the dated human
bones from cairn G were deposited. For instance, the child’s bone may have
been deposited some 650 years after the earliest known dated pin fragment
from Carrowmore.
The long term use of passage tomb complexes for rituals involving the
deposition of human bone and pins, such as exhibited in the north-west of
Ireland, could suggest a surprising conservatism in ritual practice. This
apparent conservatism stands in dramatic contrast to the evolution of passage
tomb design that was taking place towards the end of the fourth millennium
BC, especially in the Boyne Valley (Stout 2010; Bayliss and O’Sullivan
forthcoming; Schulting et al. forthcoming). There appears to be a tension
between the dynamism of monument design and embellishment and the con-
servatism or standardisation of rituals around human bone and its placement in
the monuments. The evidence may point to a certain independence of the
A century of archaeology at the Carrowkeel passage tombs, County Sligo
passage tomb complexes. It might also reflect divisions within passage tomb
society, for instance changes amongst the upper tiers of Neolithic society taking
place against the backdrop of a continuance of traditional practices by the
wider population.
Late Neolithic
and Bronze Age
use of the passage
It is clear from both radiocarbon and typological evidence that there was
significant activity in the complex throughout the Late Neolithic and Bronze
Age, subsequent to the monuments’ primary use-period. The younger date from
cairn G (Table 1) hints at Late Neolithic deposition. Activity at this time at
Carrowkeel can also be inferred from the new Carrowmore pin dates, and from
the copious evidence of re-use of passage tombs in Co. Meath (e.g., O’Sullivan
2006). The cist-like structure found in the chamber of cairn B at Carrowkeel is
also of interest as sub-megalithic cists tend to be Early Bronze Age in date (Neil
Carlin, pers. comm.; Cooney and Grogan 1994, 847; Hensey and Robin 2012).
Additionally, two smaller cists were found by Macalister in the body of cairn B
on its southern side (Macalister et al. 1912, 322).
Treanmacmurtagh cairn (cairn V) contained a probable secondary
burial in the form of a cist located inside the western edge of the kerb with a
couched inhumation of a 1012-year old boy along with a small bowl beside the
skull. Beneath this were the cremated remains of an adult and two sherds of a
possible bowl vessel (Rynne 1969, 14550). The crouched burial was dated to
366535 BP, 21871941 cal. BC (Brindley 2007, 65). Notably, the second date
from the trial excavation of cairn M (from a human tooth), though again of
wide standard deviation, was also of Early Bronze Age date: 37709100 BP/
24731935 cal. BC (Bergh 1995, Table 10).
Based on Brindley’s analysis of the bowl tradition, the tripartite bowl
from cairn O is from stage 2 in her sequence, suggesting it was made within a
100-year period centred on a median date of 2030 BC (Brindley 2007, 247). The
ribbed bowl from cairn K could be from stages 1 or 2. Further possible Bronze
Age evidence includes the secondary deposit of cremated remains of one adult
at the south edge of the kerb of cairn R at Carnaweelan (Buckley and Mount
1994, 71). Notably, the majority of dates from the Mullaghfarna hutsites are
also Bronze Age (Stefan Bergh, pers. comm.). From this brief review, it is
apparent there has been substantial and continued activity at Carrowkeel from
the Middle Neolithic through to the Middle Bronze Age.
First discoveries
of passage tomb
Though Macalister and his team made a point of looking for megalithic
carvings at Carrowkeel prompted by the discoveries of art on passage tombs in
the east of the island, their searches did not prove fruitful: ‘Once and for all we
may here state that although we searched for sculptured ornament, such as is to
be seen at Brugh na Bo´inne, with the most scrupulous care, not a single
decorated stone came to light anywhere, either outside or inside the carns [sic]’
(1912, 321). The search for art entered a new phase in 2009 when one of the
authors (Hensey) discovered carvings in cairn B on an orthostat at the end of
the undifferentiated chamber (Hensey and Robin 2011) (Fig. 5). A second piece
R. Hensey et al.
of art was subsequently found within the same monument on orthostat 4
(Hensey and Robin 2012).
A novel recording technique was used to record the carvings (Cassen
and Vaquero Lastres 2003). The motifs on orthostat 5*two spirals over a
chevron*are grouped at the top of the stone, between its left edge and a
diagonal ridge on its upper right corner (see Fig. 5). The form and location of
the motifs make them highly typical examples of passage tomb art. They belong
to an older style of megalithic carving comparable with the earliest phase of
passage tomb art in the Boyne Valley (Hensey and Robin 2011).
The same recording technique was used to identify a piece of art on the
southern kerb of Heapstown cairn (Plate V), revealing it to be a core passage
FIG.5*Plan of cairn B with location of recently discovered art highlighted (Hensey and
Robin 2012).
A century of archaeology at the Carrowkeel passage tombs, County Sligo
tomb motif (known as an ‘offset’ or ‘scalariform’ design) found on approxi-
mately eight per cent of decorated passage tomb stones (Robin 2009; Hensey
and Robin 2011). The form of the motif and the use of typical passage tomb art
picking technique demonstrate it to be Neolithic (rather than made in a
subsequent prehistoric period or in modern times). As noted earlier, the
identification of this art goes some way to confirming the pedigree of
Heapstown, affirming its ties with the passage tomb tradition and with cairn
B and the other passage tombs in the complex.
On a wider scale, the motifs found at Carrowkeel cairn B and at
Heapstown, taken together with those from Listoghil in Carrowmore (Hensey
and Robin 2011), suggest that megalithic art can no longer be seen as an
exclusively Irish Sea phenomenon. Whether we can say that the earliest Irish
passage tomb art is found in the north-west is a moot point, although the
earliest recorded passage tomb use in Ireland is at Carrowmore (Bergh and
Hensey 2013). It should be noted that targeted searches for art in the rest of the
complex have thus far proved unfruitful.
Future research
The research that has been carried out over the past century at Carrowkeel and
in the wider complex around Lough Arrow has expanded and enriched the
discoveries made in 1911, particularly in terms of understanding the wider
landscape and archaeological context. What has become increasingly apparent is
the need to return to the assemblages recovered from the tombs 100 years ago.
Because of shortcomings in the 1911 recording strategy and in the
subsequent report of the excavation, there is at present no clear documentation
of the quantity and nature of human bones that were recovered from the tombs.
The surviving remains are divided between the Duckworth Laboratory at
Cambridge and the National Museum. Eighteen boxes of bone are extant in the
Pl. IV*Cairn G on the summer solstice 2010. Photo by S. Moore.
R. Hensey et al.
Duckworth Laboratory and many of these contain handwritten notes by A.
Macalister. The notes are invaluable as in a number of instances the bone is tied
not only to a specific cairn within the complex, but also to a particular recess
within that cairn (Plate VI). Of the eighteen boxes in Duckworth, two contain
reconstructed skulls; four have cremated bone (comprising 25 wrapped
bundles); five have unburnt remains; six contain mixed cremated and unburnt
bone and one box of cremated and unburnt animal bone. Much of the material
is unburnt bone. It is likely that A. Macalister and/or the excavation team
placed greater emphasis on the recovery of larger fragments of bone from the
chambers, believing there would be a greater retrieval of information. The
material is very well preserved, contains a considerable amount of cremated and
unburnt human bone, and is eminently suitable for further research (in
comparison, the Carrowmore and the Boyne Valley tombs have inferior quality
assemblages of human bone from much more disturbed contexts).
Pl. V*Passage tomb art at Heapstown cairn. Photo by R. Hensey.
Pl. VI*A portion of the Duckworth/Carrowkeel bone assemblage. Photo by R. Hensey.
A century of archaeology at the Carrowkeel passage tombs, County Sligo
Ideally the material in Cambridge should be returned to the National
Museum of Ireland and the complete human bone assemblage should receive
osteological analysis to modern standards. Notwithstanding A. Macalister’s
considerable reputation, it is important to bear in mind that his analysis is of its
time and re-analysis to modern scientific standards would result in more
accurate and informative results. For example, more detailed information on the
age, sex, pathologies and diet of the deceased may be established, as well as
insights into the nature of funerary rituals. Not only is a catalogue of surviving
human remains essential, a thorough documentation is also likely to reveal new
information, for instance the presence of animal bones. Preliminary analysis has
already revealed hitherto unrecorded lithics and soil samples. Notably, cutmarks
were present on some of the bones, indicating the possibility of defleshing and/or
disarticulation of bodies as part of the funerary rite.
Future analysis would also facilitate further radiocarbon dating
projects, expanding on the pilot dating project presented here. New dates on
material from Carrowkeel would help clarify its relationship with the
Carrowmore passage tomb complex and fill gaps in our knowledge of Irish
passage tomb chronology. This chronological revaluation might include a
detailed analysis of the Late Neolithic and Bronze Age re-use of the complex
and what the Mullaghfarna hutsites mean in that context. A limited excavation
of one of the passage tomb chamber floors would be immensely valuable and
would facilitate the retrieval of material for dating from more reliable contexts.
A number of small-scale excavations at other monuments in the complex would
also resolve chronological questions concerning the evolution of the monuments.
Pl. VII*Interior of cairn K. Photo by P. Meehan.
R. Hensey et al.
None of the cairns on the Kesh Corran side of the complex have been excavated
or dated. The 170m enclosure on the summit of Kesh Corran Mountain
(Kytmannow 2005), surrounding the probable passage tomb (cairn Q) in its
northern end, is also worthy of investigation. A more detailed survey of the
monuments, for example using the latest LiDAR capabilities, would be
particularly helpful in light of conservation issues. This could be combined
with GIS modelling of the internal spatial configuration of the open chambers.
A geological analysis of visible cairn make-up, such as was carried out in the
Boyne Valley (Meighan et al. 2002; Meighan et al. 2003), might also be valuable.
Necessary too are comprehensive recordings of the artefacts recovered in
the 1911 excavation. Archaeological assemblages recovered during antiquarian
investigations have much to reveal, and can provide fresh information if new
questions are asked and modern techniques applied. Some of the artefacts also
deserve specialist analysis, in particular the bone and stone objects; for example
there has been no geological identification of the beads and pendants from
Carrowkeel. Additionally, a dedicated reanalysis of the pottery would be useful
and perhaps add to the information gleaned in previous studies (e.g. Herity 1982).
It is hoped this paper will encourage a greater appreciation of the extent and
importance of this complex and serve as a stepping stone to future work there.
Discussion The passage tombs and related megalithic monuments of Lough Arrow, taken
together, represent one of the most spectacular, best preserved and yet most
under-researched megalithic complexes in north-west Europe. Our investigations
reinforce the position of Carrowkeel as one of the four great passage tomb
complexes of Ireland; the potential for internationally important discoveries is
manifest. In attempting to gain a better understanding of the Irish passage tomb
clusters, the metaphor of a central node acting as a nucleus surrounded by more
distant passage tombs (and ‘holding’ later monumental construction) may
provide some fresh insight into the ordering of these complexes. That the bone
assemblage has recently been discovered, in storage in Cambridge, opens up new
challenges and opportunities in the recovery, analysis and interpretation of
primary data. Our pilot dating project*combined with the work of others*
begins the process of clarifying the chronology of Carrowkeel. In a wider sense,
the realisation that all the principal Irish passage tomb centres may be in use
simultaneously, and the discovery that (some amount of) art is found at all
four principal centres, provides new perspectives on the interpretation of the
Irish passage tomb tradition. The great number of prehistoric enclosures at
Mullaghfarna, where all are spatially associated with a passage tomb cluster and
some are now shown to have been in use contemporaneously, is uncommon in
Our research, involving regular visits to Carrowkeel over the last
decade, has brought into sharp focus the many pressing problems and threats to
the site. Currently, access to the monuments is not controlled and the passage
tombs are visited on an ad hoc basis. The putative summer solstice sunset
orientation at cairn G (Plate IV) draws many visitors every year*even though
the orientation is technically imperfect (Hensey 2008). Visitor generated stress
A century of archaeology at the Carrowkeel passage tombs, County Sligo
and the absence of any formal visitor management strategy are major issues
facing the complex. No work has been done to date to quantify visitor numbers
and no report has been published on the health and governance of the complex.
No signage, interpretative or educational material, or efforts to control the flow
of visitor traffic is in place. We have noted increased levels of graffiti and litter,
and the evidence of regular walking on the cairns (throughout the year, but
especially at the peak of the tourist season) presents an immediate danger to
the structural integrity of monuments (especially at cairns K, H, G, E and F).
One hundred years on from the 1911 excavations this landscape and its
monuments still have much to tell us. In many senses, the most critical phase of
research (and management and conservation) at Carrowkeel still lies in the
Acknowledgements This project was developed by the North-West Archaeology Group (N-Wag), of
which the four authors were founding members. Among events organised by the
group, we presented a series of lectures at the Institute of Technology, Sligo in
October 2011 to commemorate 100 years since the 1911 excavations at
We would like to gratefully acknowledge Chrono, Queens University
Belfast for funding the two dates from cairn G, and the RIA National
Monuments Committee for drawing our attention to the funding. Thanks are
due also to the National Museum of Ireland for granting permission to date
material from their collection, especially Mary Cahill for the support and
assistance she gave to the project. Credit is due to Alison Sheridan for first
identifying the material in the Duckworth Laboratory. Osteoarchaeologist
Jonny Geber was very generous in selecting samples from cairn G for dating.
We are grateful to Stefan Bergh, School of Geography and Archaeology, NUIG
for sharing unpublished information on dates and research from the Mullagh-
farna hutsites. We are most appreciative of the Palestine Excavation Fund,
especially Felicity Cobbing, for supplying the image of R.A.S. Macalister.
Martin Byrne first suggested the Lough Arrow complex name.
It should be noted that the RIA has been a friend of research in the
complex for many years. Not only did it finance the 1911 excavations and
subsequently publish the report of the work in its Proceedings, latterly it
provided funds to Bergh for dating material from site M (1995), and sponsored
Hensey and Robin’s (2012) search for further passage tomb art in the complex.
Finally, thanks are due to Stefan Bergh, Mary Cahill, Guillaume Robin
and Elizabeth Shee Twohig for comments on an earlier version of this paper,
and to Susann Stolze and Jonny Geber for comments and corrections prior to
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A century of archaeology at the Carrowkeel passage tombs, County Sligo
TABLE A.1*Passage tombs and probable passage tomb tradition sites within the Carrowkeel complex.
classification Townland
Cairn A Cairn Tully 574213/810667 SL040-103 12 2.5
Cairn B Passage tomb Treansrabbagh 574437/811610 SL040-097001 27 5
Cairn C Passage tomb Carrowkeel 574787/812108 SL040-086 18 1.5
Cairn D Probable passage
Carrowkeel 574794/812082 SL040-087 18 1
Cairn E Passage tomb Carrowkeel 574897/811610 SL040-095 37 11* 2
Cairn F Passage tomb Carrowkeel 574897/811402 SL040-096 29 5.5
Cairn G Passage tomb Carrowkeel 575276/811950 SL040-089 20 3
Cairn H Passage tomb Carrowkeel 575276/811880 SL040-090001 20 2.5
Cairn K Passage tomb Carrowkeel 575295/811745 SL040-093 22 3.5
Cairn L Cairn Carrowkeel 575267/811726 SL040-094 18 1.5
Cairn M Passage tomb Carricknahorna
575514/811378 SL040-101 10 1
Cairn N Passage tomb Carricknahorna
575545/811294 SL040-102 7 0.5
Cairn O Passage tomb Doonaveragh 575899/811775 SL040-099 20 2.5
Cairn P Cairn Doonaveragh 576011/811603 SL040-100 11.5 2
Cairn Q Probable passage
571243/512636 SL040-008 26 5
Cairn R Passage tomb Carnaweelan 571656/813239 SL040-006001 19 0.5
Cairn S Cairn Treanmore 572083/812413 SL040-010 14 1.5
Cairn T Cairn Treanmore 572468/812141 SL040-013 13 1
Cairn U Cairn Treanmacmurtagh 572810/812190 SL040-015 9 1
Cairn V Probable passage
Treanmacmurtagh 573051/812195 SL040-016001 23 2.5
Cairn W Cairn Treanmore 572290/811723 SL040-066 10 1
Cairn X Cairn Carrowkeel 575202/811976 SL040-088 11.5 1.5
Cairn Y Cairn Carricknahorna
575506/809181 SL040-105 9.5 1
Ardloy Passage tomb Ardloy 573700/816614 SL034-109 13 1
Probable passage
Heapstown 577216/816278 SL034-128 62 6
passage tomb
580262/815515 SL034-155 25 3
*Eisc. 37m long (32.5m long without court area) and 11m maximum width.
R. Hensey et al.
TABLE A.2*Other megalithic structures within the wider Carrowkeel/Lough Arrow
RMP no. ITM Ref (E/N) Townland Classification L (m)* W (m)*
SL040-127 578426/810291 Aghanagh Court tomb 25.2 9
SL034-206 579033/815194 Ballindoon Unclassified 13 10
SL041-004 581311/313331 Ballinlig Court tomb 14 9
SL034-224 579875/814423 Barroe Upper Wedge tomb 6 1.9
SL034-099 572307/816259 Cams Court tomb 19 12
SL034-152 579550/815763 Carrickglass Portal tomb 2.1 1.5
SL035-106 583791/813638 Carricknagrip Unclassified
SL040-106 576334/810249 Carricknahorna
Court tomb 23.5 17.5
SL040184 576776/808811 Carricknahorna
Unclassified 22.5 16
SL040-229 575676/813050 Carrowkeel Unclassified 8.5 8
582851/812939 Cloghmine Unclassified 4.5 2.2
SL035-061 583378/815553 Coolmurly Unclassified
SL035-062 583386/815525 Coolmurly Court tomb 33 10
SL035-063 583313/815427 Coolmurly Wedge tomb 3 1.2
SL035-078 581441/814130 Moytirra East Unclassified
SL035-079 581441/814130 Moytirra East Court tomb 13 2.9
580611/815192 Moytirra West Wedge tomb 20 17
SL035-075 581233/814526 Moytirra West Portal tomb
SL040-098 576110/812176 Mullaghfarna/
Court tomb 6.3 2
SL040-234 571489/811846 Murhy Wedge tomb 6 1.5
SL034-088 573909/817190 Springfield Portal tomb 9 7
583210/813614 Treanmore Court tomb 19.5 12.5
SL040-091 575300/811849 Carrowkeel Megalithic
1.7 1.2
SL034-254 577299/816197 Heapstown Megalithic
2.7 2.7
A century of archaeology at the Carrowkeel passage tombs, County Sligo
... engaged in the Human Population Dynamics at Carrowkeel research programme (Hensey et al. 2014;Kador et al. 2015;Geber et al. 2016;Kador et al. forthcoming). It will continue to be of value to future researchers. ...
... Along that band, in the south-east of County Sligo, the second of the western pair is found; Carrowkeel, the focus of this paper. The Carrowkeel complex is centred on the north-eastern quadrant of the Bricklieve Mountains (Hensey et al. 2014, fig. 1), with outlying cairns extending west to Kesh Corran Mountain and northeast beyond Lough Arrow. ...
... 1), with outlying cairns extending west to Kesh Corran Mountain and northeast beyond Lough Arrow. The greatest quantity of cairns (sixteen) is located at the centre of the complex (see Hensey et al. 2014, table A1 for details). Like many Irish passage tombs, a number of the Carrowkeel monuments have cruciform floor plans, although undifferentiated chambers and more complex layouts are also recorded. ...
... Over 18 days, between April and October, they investigated 14 stone cairns (referred to as 'carns'). They excavated eight of these, with seven revealing internal chambers, containing a combination of cremated and unburnt human and animal bone as well as a range of objects, including bone pins, beads, and pottery (Macalister et al. 1912;Hensey et al. 2014). The team published their findings in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy the following year (Macalister et al. 1912). ...
... The team published their findings in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy the following year (Macalister et al. 1912). This publication included a brief report on the human remains by Alexander Macalister (1844Macalister ( -1919, Professor of Anatomy at the University of Cambridge and father of R.A.S. Macalister (Hensey et al. 2014;Meehan & Hensey in press). After the 1912 publication, the remains saw no further study until their chance rediscovery in 2001-02 at the Duckworth Laboratorynow the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies (LCHES)in Cambridge by Alison Sheridan, Principal Curator at the National Museum of Scotland (Hensey et al. 2014;Meehan & Hensey in press). ...
... This publication included a brief report on the human remains by Alexander Macalister (1844Macalister ( -1919, Professor of Anatomy at the University of Cambridge and father of R.A.S. Macalister (Hensey et al. 2014;Meehan & Hensey in press). After the 1912 publication, the remains saw no further study until their chance rediscovery in 2001-02 at the Duckworth Laboratorynow the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies (LCHES)in Cambridge by Alison Sheridan, Principal Curator at the National Museum of Scotland (Hensey et al. 2014;Meehan & Hensey in press). Even thereafter, the collection was not subjected to modern investigative techniques for another decade until the present study was established in 2013 (see Kador et al. 2015b). ...
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The first detailed investigation of the human remains from the Carrowkeel passage tomb complex since their excavation in 1911 has revealed several new and important insights about life, death, and mortuary practice in Neolithic Ireland. Osteological analysis provides the first conclusive proof for the occurrence of dismemberment of the dead at Irish passage tombs, practised contemporarily with cremation as one of a suite of funerary treatments. The research also highlights changes in burial tradition at the complex over the course of the Neolithic. Providing a chronology for these changes allows them to be linked to wider trends in monument construction, which may relate to changes in both land use and climate during the period. Multi-isotope analysis hints at the presence of non-local individuals among the interred and the possible existence of different food sourcing areas at the onset of the later Neolithic period. Preliminary results from ancient DNA sequencing of six individuals from Carrowkeel provide evidence for the genetic ancestry of Irish Neolithic populations, demonstrating their Anatolian origins and links along the Atlantic façade.
... This study discusses new evidence of bodyprocessing and secondary funerary rites undertaken in the Irish Neolithic as revealed from an osteological and taphonomic reanalysis of human bones excavated at the Carrowkeel passage tomb complex in County Sligo more than a century ago. The complex at Carrowkeel includes 26 passage tombs and probable passage tomb tradition sites (Hensey et al. 2014), as well as over 150 enclosures/hut sites within an area of about 25 km 2 (Bergh 2015) (Fig. 1). The tombs/ monuments are prominently situated in the Bricklieve Mountains with panoramic views of the surrounding landscape. ...
... During a total of only 18 days, and with the help of local laborers, the team investigated and described 14 cairns (Fig. 2). They also recorded two megalithic structures and a large group of enclosures/hut sites (Hensey et al. 2014;Macalister et al. 1912). A substantial amount of human and animal bone, together with a small collection of pottery, bone, and stone artifacts, was recovered. ...
... Alexander Macalister's analysis of the remains was published as a summary in the excavation report in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy in early 1912, only a few months after the excavation was concluded (Macalister et al. 1912). Radiocarbon dates obtained from human and animal bones recovered from within the passage tombs in later studies have consistently returned Middle to Late Neolithic dates (3600-2500 cal B.C.) (Bergh 1995;Hensey et al. 2014;Kador et al. 2015), although the area continued to be used for funerary purposes well into the Bronze Age, as indicated by cist burials and Bronze Age pottery vessels associated with some of the monuments (Hensey et al. 2014). könnten in diesem Zusammenhang als Orte der Kuration, Transformation und Regeneration der Vorfahren, betrachtet werden, die sowohl körperliche, als auch spirituelle Verbindung mit den Verstorbenen und ihre Allgegenwart unter den Lebendigen ermöglicht haben. ...
... This study provides new evidence for Neolithic farming activities and woodland dynamics from Loughbrick Bay in Lough Arrow in southeast County Sligo (Fig. 2). The Carrowkeel-Keshcorran passage tomb complex and other megalithic structures form a large aggregation of monuments located mainly in the uplands to the east and west of Lough Arrow (Hensey et al. 2014). The presence of these monuments suggests intense Neolithic settlement and ritual activities in the Lough Arrow region. ...
Full-text available
A high-resolution multi-proxy study of lake sediments from Loughbrick Bay in Lough Arrow, County Sligo, Ireland provides a detailed record of Neolithic vegetation history and land-use change. The high concentration of megalithic monuments around Lough Arrow suggests that the region was a centre of settlement and ritual activity during the Irish Neolithic. The pollen record indicates that human activities, including farming, intensified ca. 100 years after the mid-Holocene elm decline, which is dated to 3820 BC. Pastoral and arable farming formed part of the Neolithic subsistence economy, in particular during the first half of the Neolithic. Although levels of human impact were low during most of the later Neolithic, allowing woodland recovery, short periods of arable farming recurred during that time. Human pressure on the landscape increased again at the end of the Neolithic and during the Chalcolithic period. Interruption of farming and settlement activities often coincided with wetter climate. Comparison of this study with records from nearby lakes shows that the type of farming varied at a local scale. While pastoral farming was widespread, cereal cultivation was spatially and temporally restricted. The pollen evidence suggests that wheat was the predominant crop during the earlier Neolithic, whereas barley became more important during the later Neolithic.
... When seen in the context of other prehistoric houses in Ireland, Turlough Hill is nearly without parallel, since most circular houses from the Neolithic and Bronze Age occur in small groups of two-four, and normally in proximity to the farmed land (Smyth, 2014;Waddell, 2011) There are however two other large cluster of prehistoric house foundations recorded in Ireland. One is on the exposed plateau at Mullaghfarna, Co. Sligo where circa 150 circular house foundations/ enclosures dating the Neolithic/Bronze Age are present (Bergh, 2004;2015;Hensey et al, 2013;Macalister, Armstrong & Praeger, 1912). The other instance is at Corrstown, Co. Derry where 74 tightly clustered houses in a lowland setting have been dated to the Bronze Age (Ginn, 2011;Ginn & Rathbone, 2012;Rathbone, 2013). ...
Conference Paper
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Mountains and high ground are often venerated as special places. It is their enigmatic quality as elevated ground, their prominence and permanence in both the mental and physical landscapes that draws us to them. In this paper the role of mountains in current landscape archaeology is discussed based on their role as places of significance in both “visible” and “invisible” landscapes. The conspicuous mountain of Turlough Hill, in the Burren, Co. Clare has on its summit a unique group of prehistoric remains consisting of some 140 circular houses, a large burial cairn, a multi-vallate enclosure as well as an extraordinary hexagonal stone enclosure. Why did people choose this particular mountaintop as the focus for this extraordinary activity in prehistory? To answer this question, and to elucidate the wider question of the significance of high ground, as well as aspects of place-making, the role of Turlough Hill in prehistory is discussed based on the character of the archaeological remains, but also on the character of the mountain itself and its location in the wider landscape.
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This baseline study was convened in association with a bid for 'The Passage Tomb Landscape of County Sligo' to be placed on Ireland’s World Heritage Tentative List. It was primarily funded by the Heritage Council together with Sligo County Council and NUI Galway. The WHS proposal is focused on the outstanding universal value of a prehistoric cultural landscape punctuated by a rich accumulation of monuments of the Irish Passage Tomb Tradition. This heritage—still conspicuous in varying landscapes across County Sligo—flourished in Ireland between five and six thousand years ago. Today, the remains of this tradition are primarily represented by close to one hundred ritual monuments, which by their location and construction reveal intricate inter-connectivity as well as a strong connection with the natural landscape. The study consists of a field-based survey of the current state of conservation of these monuments to create a baseline assessment of their level of preservation and identify threats to their continued existence. It is hoped that this resource will be a vital tool to inform future management and conservation policies.
Holocene vegetation dynamics of mid-western Ireland are discussed with particular reference to the Galway and Mayo uplands, the development of upland blanket bog and the history of pine and yew. A detailed pollen profile from Mám Éan (Maumeen), a corrie lake, provides insights into environmental change in upland Connemara where, in recent decades, overgrazing and peat erosion have given rise to serious environmental concerns. Vegetation dynamics are broadly comparable to those in lowland Connemara and also upland sites in the Nephin Begs, Co. Mayo. The available evidence suggests corrie glaciation in the Younger Dryas. The oldest sediments show the usual early Holocene progression from open herbaceous communities to woody vegetation dominated by juniper, tree birch, and finally hazel. Tall canopy trees then spread, including pine, and elm and oak, and later alder (at ca. 7.7 ka). In the interval 10.2–4.8 ka, pine was dominant and for much of this time fires were frequent. There is a distinct mid-Holocene Elm Decline and a short Neolithic Landnam phase that is followed by woodland regeneration involving, at first, mainly pine and later yew. ¹⁴C dating of bog-pine from upland sites sheds new light on pine and upland blanket bog development in the mid-Holocene. It is shown that while blanket bog was initiated at Mám Éan by ca. 10.8 ka, the present-day treeless landscape has come about within the last 1000 years as a result of sustained human impact, that has also resulted in severe erosion of minerogenic and, more recently, peaty soils.
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This study provides the first decadally resolved chironomid and organic geochemistry record of the Irish Neolithic from a small lake adjacent to the Carrowkeel-Keshcorran complex in County Sligo, Ireland. Chironomid (non-biting midge fly) sub-fossils and lake sediment geochemistry (δ¹³C, δ¹⁵N and C:N) from the Templevanny Lough core were used to assess the timing and magnitude of within-lake responses to Neolithic farming activity. When compared with decadally resolved pollen and macroscopic charcoal records from the same core, the limnological data show a direct influence of prehistoric farming on a freshwater lake system through nutrient loading and lake eutrophication. Elevated nutrient levels, suggesting a more productive lake system, and a subsequent turnover in the chironomid community indicate a period of intensive farming activity from c. 3790–3620 BC in the early Neolithic. This was followed by a decline in farming with short periods of small-scale human activity, exemplified through nutrient loading and short-lived increases in eutrophic chironomid taxa during the middle to late Neolithic. A return of farming activity can be seen in all proxy data in the late Neolithic (c. 2720–2480 BC). The chironomid community composition typically lagged land-use change by c. 10–20 years and exhibited predictable and proportional responses to agricultural activity. The timing and magnitude of limnological changes show that land-use, rather than climate, is the main control on chironomids at Templevanny Lough, thus showing the potential prominence of the anthropogenic signal during the Neolithic.
A C 14 -dating installation was operated in the Physics Department, Trinity College, Dublin, from early 1958 until early 1960, by I. R. McAulay. Construction and testing of the apparatus had occupied 15 months previous to this. Material for dating was selected and pretreated by W. A. Watts, who also collected and submitted the samples and carried out pollen analyses except where the contrary is stated in the text. The project was a short-term one with two main aims; to obtain a few key archaeologic dates, particularly in the Neolithic, to help orientate chronologic discussion; and to test the validity of the pollen zonation for the post-Atlantic of Mitchell (1956).
The megalithic chamber tombs that are the most striking monuments of the Irish Neolithic have long been divided by the shape of the plans. With the shapes there goes a characteristic pattern of distribution and of spacing in the landscape, and from this arise some puzzling questions of sequence as to how "cemeteries' grew up. A fresh view is taken of this old problem. -Author