Equinox Sun setting over Knocknarea Mountain in County Sligo.
Creevykeel looking west across the fully-excavated monument in 1935.
Sunrise at Creevykeel looking west across the court on the 2019 Autumn Equinox.
Photograph © Eamon Murphy.

The Equinox Alignment at Creevykeel

An exciting new discovery was made at Creevykeel at the Autumn Equinox in 2019, when Cliffoney resident Eamon Murphy visited the monument to watch the sunrise.

A closeup of the top photograph showing the beam of sunlight on the back stone at Creevykeel. Photograph © Eamon Murphy.
A closeup of the top photograph showing the beam of sunlight on the back stone at Creevykeel. Photograph © Eamon Murphy.

In general it is assumed that court-cairns demonstrate a complete lack of interest in astronomical alignments and cosmic phenomenon, especially when compared to passage-graves, where there are many known equinox alignments, the best known being at Cairn T in Loughcrew.

Some of the pottery from Creevykeel.
A beam of sunlight hits the back stone at Creevykeel. Photograph © Eamon Murphy.

Creevykeel faces slightly south of east, towards the northern edge of Arroo Mountain. At the equinoxes, the midway points between the summer and winter solstices, day and night are of equal length, equinox meaning 'equal-night' in Latin. At the latitude of 54°, where Creevykeel and many of the Sligo megaliths are found, the sun rises at 6.40 am on the equinox.

Hencken's plan of the main chamber at Creevykeel.
Hencken's plan of the main chamber at Creevykeel from the excavation report published by the Harvard Archaeological Mission.

At Creevykeel, when the sun peeps over the rim of the horizon, it lights up the megalithic facade, making the flecks of quartz and mica sparkle.

The axis of the chamber is oriented to 111°, while the sun rises at 90° or due east. The rising sun flashes obliquely into the left side of the chamber on the equinox, and as the sun rises in the sky the beam of light floods into the second chamber, to touch the back-stone.

A beam of sunlight flashed into the chamber of Creevykeel. Photograph © Eamon Murphy.
A beam of sunlight flashed into the chamber of Creevykeel. Photograph © Eamon Murphy.

The sun flashes into the chamber, creating a golden panel of light, bordered by shadow on each side. The modern 'sill' between the front and rear chamber stops the beam from fully striking the backs-stone ( see photo, above ).

Strangely enough, the backs-stone at Creevykeel is about the same size and shape as the back-stone of Cairn T.

The beam of light on the backstone.
The beam of light on the back-stone of Creevykeel. Photograph © Eamon Murphy.

The discovery that Creevykeel, one of the finest examples of a neolithic court-cairn in Ireland, has an astronomical orientation presents a chance to broaden the range of focus in Irish neolithic archaeology and astro-archaeology. Modern aDNA techniques are providing fascinating opportunities to reconstruct the migration patterns of neolithic farmers.

An 1880 watercolor of Creevykeel by William Wakeman.
This watercolour of Creeveykeel from August 1880 by William Wakeman gives an idea of the original form of the monument. Wakeman reports that the top of the lintol was 9 feet above the chamber floor.
Image © Sligo County Library.

We can say with confidence that Creevykeel was built by descendent's of the European long-house or bandkeramik linear pottery culture, who would have ultimately originated in Anatolia, the home of neolithic agriculture. While the passage-grave people were a maritime people, the bandkeramik followed rivers, and migrated through central Europe along the course of the Danube.

An 1880 watercolor of Creevykeel by William Wakeman.
Creeveykeel from the air.
Image © www.heritagemaps.ie.

Eventually they arrive in Normandy and Brittany, where, doubtless in competition with the well established passage-grave people and the original mesolithic inhabitants of the region, many take to the seas to colonize the large and sparsely populated islands to the north.

A mysterious path at Creevykeel
A dramatic image of the sunlight under the capstone of Creevykeel. The capstone originally stood upright, until in 1895 three local brothers pushed it over out of boredom. When Hencken had it replaced, it was incorrectly positioned lying flat. Wakeman's illustration shows that it was still standing upright in 1880. Photograph © Eamon Murphy.