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The tombs are spread out over 3.8 sq km over a number of fields and town lands, most of them situated near the road.
Carrowmore’s placement on a low-lying gravel ridge contrasts to the hilltop situation of other cemeteries; each monument stands on its own little eminence.
Carrowmore, or Great Quarter, is the site of a prehistoric ritual landscape on the Knocknarea Peninsula in County Sligo.
It is one of the four major pasaage tomb cemeteries in Ireland.
Around 30 megalitic tombs can be seen in Carrowmore today, and the traces of more (ruined) tombs have been detected.
The tombs (in their original state) were almost universally ‘dolmen circles'; small dolmens with boulder circles of 12 to 15 meters around them.
The tombs are distributed in a roughly oval shape surrounding the largest monument, a cairn called Listoghil.
The dolmen ‘entrances’ – crude double rows of standing stones – usually face the area of the central tomb.
Carrowmore is a difficult place to find even with satellite navaigation! Approaching from the south (N4) after Colooney roundabout, exit at the Ballina/Strandhill junction.
Follow route Strandhill (R292). Take the right exit at Ransboro roundabout, centre is 1km further on, on the right. Approaching from the north (N15), cross Hughes Bridge in Sligo Town, and at the 5th set of traffic lights after the bridge turn right onto Church Hill. After 2km, take a left fork, signed Carrowmore, the centre is 1k further, on left.
Radiocarbon dates from the survey and excavation project in the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s by Professor Gran Brenhult has caused controversy amongst archaeologists, particularly dates from one of the tombs of 5,400 BC (before the perceived advent of agriculture in Ireland).
But were the tombs we see today built here this early? Objections include ‘old wood’ theories, earlier depositions of material, and simply inadequate numbers of dates.
The idea of Mesolithic tomb builders is still advocated by Brenhult, although this runs in the face of the prevailing view, which generally associates Neolithic farming societies with megalithic sites.
Supporters of the early dates sometimes point to similarly ancient dates attributed to chamber tombs in Brittany where Mesolithic microliths have been found in association with at least one passage grave, and some other very early dates in the Sligo area.
Perhaps the key point is that Brenhults work and the work of later researchers places the bulk of the megalith building in Carrowmore at between 4300 and 3500 BC, more in keeping with Neolithic dating but still unusually early.
It also upturned the idea that Irish prehistoric sites such as Knowth and Newgrange were the earliest in Ireland.
Excavation of other tombs in the Cuil Irra area has indicated that although they employed different architectural styles, many co-existed contemporaneously with Carrowmore.
Recent archaeology by the National Roads Authority for the Inner Relief Road route in Magheraboy near Sligo has shown that a huge causewayed enclosure existed at the same time as Carrowmore.
Listoghil (The Central Tomb, aka.
Tomb 51) has been dated to about 3600 BC.
Because of the assemblage of material found within the monuments, the clustering, and the layout of the structures, Carrowmore – like Newgrange and Lough Crew – is classified as being part of the Irish Passage Tomb Tradition.
There has long been debate about how the different tomb types – ‘passage tombs’, ‘court tombs’, ‘portal dolmens,’ and ‘wedge tombs’ – all of which occur in County Sligo – should be interpreted.
Are they indicative of different ‘cultures,’ or peoples? Of different functions for a single community? Perhaps research into DNA or other techniques of the future will finally resolve these questions.
Almost all the burials at Carrowmore were cremations with inhumations being only found at Listoghil. It is apparent that the dead underwent a complex sequence of treatments, including excarnation and reburial.
Grave goods include antler pins with mushroom-shaped heads and stone or clay balls, a fairly typical assemblage of the Irish element of the passage tomb tradition.
Some of the tombs and pits nearby contained shells from shellfish, echoing the finds of shell middens along the coast of Cuil Irra.
The Carrowmore megaliths were sometimes re-used and re-shaped by the people of Bronze Age and Iron Age times.
They remained focal points on the landscape for long after they were built.
The role of megaliths as monuments and foci of ceremony and celebration, as well as markers on the landscape is emphasised by archaeologists such as Richard Bradley.
Earlier commentaters – who called the monuments ‘tombs’ – saw them simply as a repository for the dead, or as markers erected over fallen warriors.
Among the antiquarians associated with Carrowmore are Beranger and Wood-Martin.
The sites were surveyed by George Petrie in 1837, who numbered them all.
View from Carrowmore of Ballygawley Hills to S/E, with a megalithic tomb on top of each.
The small Carrowmore dolmens are unlikely to have ever been covered with stone cairns.
Although such ideas were once popular among antiquarians, the discovery of ‘settings’ of stone and finds close to the chambers, of Viking, Roman and Bronze Age artefacts make it seem unlikely that such cairns ever existed.
One tomb, Tomb 27, has a cruciform passage tomb shape, a feature seen in later tombs like Newgrange or Carrowkeel.
The roof – now gone – may have been of stone slabs or corbelled.
One notable feature of cairns are kerbs.
A boulder circle surrounds the tomb, determines its girth, and contains the mound of stones.
In the instance of Newgrange, the kerb stones are elaborately decorated with petroglyphs.
Listoghil has a kerb of wonderfully twisted and tortured gneiss boulders, which glitter because of their high quartz content.
These are punctuated by occasional ‘marker’ stones.
Such a large limestone ‘marker’ to the west had deposits of cremated human and animal bone placed behind it.
The building of cairns such as Listoghil or Queen Maeves tomb (on Knocknarea) or Newgrange may represent a new phase of megalith-building of greater scale and ambition than the dolmen circles.
They probably required the involvement of more workers and greater organisation.
The area of the Cuil Irra peninsula and its hinterlands is dotted with such tombs, often on hilltops, which inspired Professor Stefan Bergh to style it ‘the Landscape of the Monuments’.
Since 1990 a small farmhouse close to the R292, 2k east of Ransboro crossroads, has been used as a Visitors Centre by the Office of Public Works.
It houses an exhibition, and between the months of March to October (inclusive) provides guided tours and multi-lingual self guide options for the Carrowmore megaliths.
Sources: Tombs for Hunters, Brenhult, G, British Archaeology 82, 2005, pp22-27Landscape of the Monuments, Bergh, S.
University of Stockholm, 1995.
Altering the Earth.
The Origins of Monuments in Britain and Continental Europe, Bradley, R. Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. 1993.