The stunning landscape at Loughcrew, the Mountains of the Witch, in County Meath. In the distance is Cairn T, the central monument within this complex and sacred landscape. Also visible, from left, are Cairn G, Cairn L, Cairn H, Cairn I and Carrick Breac. The photo is taken from Cairn F on Carnbane West. Copyright Padraig Conway.


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Chambered cairns or passage graves

In Ireland this world and the world we go to after death are not far apart.'

W. B. YEATS.

Chambered cairns or Passage Graves, as they are oficially known are the most intrieuging of the Irish megalith, being by far the most complex kind of monument. These monuments are cairns of stone with internal chambers, artificial caves varying in size from the tiny spaces at Carrowmore to the massive arched vaults of Newgrange and Knowth. Aside from the well known sites at Carrowmore, Carrowkeel, Loughcrew and the Boyne Valley there are probably another 200 unopened mounds and cairns, such as the sites around Cong, Knockma and on the northern summits of the Burren, and all through the Dublin and Wicklow mountains. The oldest monument on the celebrated Hill of Tara is the chambered cairn known as the Mound of the Hostages, below, under excavation in 1950.

Excavations underway at the Mound of the Hostages at Tara in the late 1950's.

'Passage graves' are generally round mounds or cairns of stone with a passage constructed of megalithic slabs, leading into an internal chamber or artificial cave. They are often found in clusters or complexes such as Kilmonaster in County Donegal, Carrowmore and Carrowkeel in County Sligo, and Loughcrew and the Boyne Valley in County Meath. The bigger examples tend to be the largest and most complex monuments in Ireland, and they are the megaliths with engraved art.

Site S at Loughcrew. There are about 40 monuments spread across four hills in County Meath. Many of the slabs are engraved with megalithic art.

The most famous passage mounds are Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth in the Boyne Valley in County Meath where up to forty smaller mounds or satellites are clustered around the three massive mounds. They date from about 3,500 - 2,900 BC. The mounds are surrounded at the base by kerbstones, a retaining feature to hold the mound in place. These monuments also have proven astronomical alignments to the solstices, equinoxes and different phases of the moon, as well as other monuments.

Plan and section of Newgrange, 1959.

 

Excavating Cairn B at Carrowkeel in 1911.

 

 

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Megalithic art

One of the best known aspects of these monuments is their wonderful engraved art, a mysterious symbolic language that can seem strikingly modern. These engravings are the earliest writings in Ireland and among the oldest in Europe, dating from about 3,200 BC. They are documents in stone written in a language which seems to incorporate astronomical events such as eclipses and conjunctions, illuminated by the light and motion of the heavens at key sun rises and sunsets. Seeing the engraved symbols illuminated by brilliant sunlight.

A pair of spirals recently found in Cairn B at Carrowkeel by archaeologists Robert Hensey and Guilluame Robert. This is the first piece of neolithic art to be discovered at Carrowkeel.

That these engravings deal with astronomical themes is demonstrated in several sites, where the artwork is illuminated by the light of the sun or moon at a chosen time in the cycle of the body in question. This is demonstrated at Cairn G , Carrowkeel (no artwork), Cairns L and T, Loughcrew and Boyne Valley sites in these pages. Knowth alone has 50% of the engraved stones in Ireland.

When the equinox sunrise first enters the chamber at Cairn T in Loughcrew, the whole top panel of the keystone is illuminated.

Early engravings have been discovered in recent years on the chamber of Listohil monument at Carrowmore in Co Sligo. Heapstown Cairn, also in Sligo is known to have had several engraved stones, with perhaps an ogham stone standing at the top of the mound. Only one stone remains visible today, as many were robbed from the site in the last century.

A similar effect in the right hand recess of Cairn L at Loughcrew.

Of the other types of megalithic monument, art has only been found at one site: Cloghanmore near Glencolumbkille in County Donegal. Ring and cup marks are found at some monuments, but these are thought to date from the bronze age, generally up to a thousand years after the monuments were built.

Quartz

Almost all Irish neolithic monuments have quartz used in them somewhere, either in the orthostats and building stones or as facing on the facade of the monument as at Newgrange. Many monuments had names such as Find Cairn and Cairn Ban, both of which mean White Cairn. Quartz is regarded as a sacred stone by many cultures around the world and is a key component of our modern computer driven technological society today. Quartz was known as Grian Cloch, meaning Sun Stone to the ancient Irish. The traditions which still survive in Ireland today of dashing house fronts and covering graves with quartz chippings go back a long, long way.

Site K, the cruciform chambered cairn at Kilmonaster in County Donegal The chamber sits on a platform about 22 meters in diameter and is oriented to the summer solstice sunset. The kerbstones of this monument are large chunks of white quartz.

Other items recovered in chambered cairns are chalk and stone spheres, stone pendants and bone or antler pins. There are examples of the spheres from several sites on display in the National Museum, including two mysterious artifacts found under the basin in Cairn L, Loughcrew. The chalk balls are smaller and were probably used to teach positions of the sun and moon on the horizon when held out at arms length during an astronomical ritual. I think this idea makes sense as several chalk balls were found in the chamber of Cairn G at Carrowkeel, where the roofbox demonstrates great interest in the movements of the moon along the horizon from major to minor standstill. This concept can also introduce a unit of measurement as the sun and moon both measure 0.5 degrees as they rise and set.

Pendants are considered to have been hung around the neck, and Michael Herity's Irish Passage Graves has a photograph of a model wearing a selection of pendants from the Mound of the Hostages at Tara. Another suggestion is that the pendants were used as pendelums for dowsing, much as they are in modern healing. In a few cases larger pendants which look more like ritual axe heads have been found. The outstanding example of a small carved stone is the Knowth Macehead (right) which was found buried beside the basin in the right recess of the East chamber. This beautiful artifact is made from extremely hard flint, thought to come from Orkney, and is engraved with swirls and spirals which rival the Newgrange Entrance Stone in their excellence.

Carved antler pins, sometimes with mushroom-shaped heads are found, with a particularly fine engraved example coming from Fourknocks. These may have been used as clothing fasteners, or as a drawing stylus for ground diagrams and Carrowkeel Ware decoration. Many of the finds discussed here were found among the cremations and bear burn marks from the fires.

 

Home Page
Guided Tours
Carrowkeel
Summer solstice
Doonaveeragh Village
Caves of Kesh
Kesh Cairn
Knocknarea
Carrowmore
Moytura
Newgrange
Winter Solstice
Knowth
Dowth
Loughcrew
Equinox sunrise
Samhain sunrise
Tara
Fourknocks
Croagh Patrick
Cong
Knockma
The Burren
Uisneach
Rathcroghan
 


 

Astronomy

In Ireland this world and the world we go to after death are not far apart.'

W. B. YEATS.

That these engravings deal with astronomical themes is demonstrated in several sites, where the artwork is illuminated by the light of the sun or moon at a chosen time in the cycle of the body in question. This is demonstrated at Cairn G , Carrowkeel (no artwork), Cairns L and T, Loughcrew and Boyne Valley sites in these pages. Knowth alone has 50% of the engraved stones in Ireland.

Early engravings have been discovered in recent years on the chamber of Listohil monument at Carrowmore in Co Sligo. Heapstown Cairn, also in Sligo is known to have had several engraved stones, with perhaps an ogham stone standing at the top of the mound. Only one stone remains visible today, as many were robbed from the site in the last century.

 

Circle 7 at Carrowmore in County Sligo, looking west to Knocknarea and á on the summit.