The summit of Carrowkeel, Co Sligo. The view is towards Knocknarea in the northwest, 20 km away with the massive Queen Maeve's Cairn, on it's summit. In the foreground are cairns H and G at Carrowkeel.


Sacred Island
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
 

Who were the builders?

Neolithic way of life

Timber houses, large, different landscape

wolves and wild animals, hunting, eagles

cattle, grazing, woodlands and scrub. Fires

passage graves, totally backwards way of looking at monuments. Not tombs.

Fertility cult. Cairn builders tuatha De Danann. Churches and Temples.

Midwives, conception, childbirths, deaths, re-in-carn-ation

Use of timber in monuments. Statues. Totem poles

Ireland's megalithic monuments were built by the first farmers, tribes of cattle herders who made the change from hunting and gathering to farming around 4,000 BC. Ireland was heavily wooded in the neolithic. Some of the earliest dated megaliths are the dolmen circles at Carrowmore in County Sligo, a coastal location that would have provided plenty of food. Indeed, Sligo or Sligeach means 'Shelly', and is named for the many great shellfish middens found around the shoreline. It is likely that the first settlers in the Sligo region were attracted by the caves in Knocknarea, Carrowkeel and Kesh Corran: there are almost 40 caves around these three great megalithic complexes. The remains of 30 - 60 people were found within the chambers at Carrowkeel, 12 women and 18 men. It has been suggested that these were the priests and priestesses who looked after the monuments.

Timeline

Archaeologists now use C14 dating to find out the age of monuments. The current. Twenty years ago, these monuments were considered to date from 4,000 BC - 3,000 BC. At the turn of the century they were thought to date from the bronze age. Further back, antiquarians didn't believe the ancient Irish were capible of achievements such as Newgrange, and the construction of the cairns was credited to the Danes and the Romans - rude stone monuments.

Current research suggests that Newgrange was constructed around 3,200 BC, and that both Knowth and Dowth are probably slightly older, and that the smaller satellite mounds are older. Books from 20 - 30 years ago stated that Newgrange and the Boyne sites were the first monuments to be built, and that a sequence of devolution took place as the cairn culture moved to the north-west. So, Loughcrew, Carrowkeel and Carrowmore were all built after the Boyne sites, and the people forgot their 'trade' as the mounds became simpler and cruder.

However the devolution theory is now defunct as a series of contraversial C14 dates from Carrowmore have placed the Sligo sites firmly in the fifth millennium BC. One of the circles at Carrowmore may date from 5,400 BC, while a cairn on Croghaun Hill in the Ox Mountains turned up a date of 5,800 BC. These dates have not been accepted by Irish archaeologists yet, perhaps because they were discovered by Swedish archaeologists! 

Construction

The Irish used unhewn stone; most of the older cairns are constructed from river rolled stones or quarried limestone. While the type of stone used in construction of chambers is sometimes cut and trimmed and those used in the kerb are often one large stone split in two, they rarely exceed 4 tons in weight. The builders often went to great lengths to source the right materials. For example, the Boyne Valley and probably the Loughcrew builders travelled to the Wicklow Mountains to obtain quartz, then known as Sunstone, to cover their temples, while those at Carrowkeel and Carrowmore gathered theirs in the Ox Mountains.

The Boyne Valley builders took great care in the construction of their mounds. The Chambers and Kerbs would have been built first, but only after many years of painstaking observations of the cycles and motions of the heavens. When the chamber orthostats were in place, before the roofstones were added, the kerb would have been laid out and would have acted as a kind of symbolic or artificial horizon.

When the passage and chamber of Newgrange were covered over, the builders carved grooves on the upper surfaces of the stones to channel off water and keep the interior dry. Several of the slabs used in roofing were engraved before being set in place, most notably the marvellous ceiling of the right hand recess at Newgrange. The chamber is corbelled, which means that each layer of stones added by the roofing gang overlapped the last by several inches. The corbels were tilted, like our slate roofs, again to allow the water to run off, and they were packed with small stones known as spalls.

The building of the actual cairn was the last part of the process. The chamber of Newgrange was covered in a small cairn which reached to the capstone. This would have greatly stabilised the structure. Then the cairn proper was built - again a complex affair. Turves were stripped from the surrounding area and the cairn material was carefully built up in alternate layers of stone, rubble and organic material.

Why were they built?

The number three and the cross-shape were important symbols to the cairn builders. The symbolic importance of the trinity can be traced back to the origins of Irish megalithic culture at Carrowmore in Co. Sligo. The central chamber of Listoghil, which is oriented to the south east is at the centre of a trinity of sites which includes Knocknarea and Cairns Hill. In addition there are three arcs engraved on the roof-slab of Listoghil, and a tri-engraving, discovered recently inside the chamber which greatly resembles the Indian OM symbol. There are several early monuments in the region with the classic cruciform chamber plan - Barnarashy 63, Knocknarea 1 and Carrowmore 27.

At Carrowkeel the triune of sites is more difficult to spot with the layout of the monuments, but could be Kesh Corran , Treanmacmurtagh Cairn and either Cairn F or K. However there are several monuments with cruciform chambers - Cairns C, E, F (double cruciform), G, K and M. Sheemor in Leitrim has three cairns sitting on its flat summit, the central mound capped by a modern Christian cross which is lit by floodlights at night. Loughcrew has three distinct peaks and many cruciform chambers. And at the Boyne Valley, the triple spiral as mentioned above is the key signature.

The use of the cross symbol needs to be examined in relation to Irish sites. Not many academic researchers have ever taken this subject on and given it the thorough investigation it deserves. The cruciform plan was in use from the earliest building phases on the west coast of Ireland. I believe the real purpose of these buildings can be understood by examining their symbolic attributes. As shown above, the symbol of the cross is as old as this type of monument, as is the repetition of the number three and the alignment or orientation to the movement to a heavenly aspect. In addition Cairn G at Carrowkeel and Newgrange have stone covering slabs still in situ, though many other mounds must have had them.

In a situation such as Newgrange, we are faced with a parallel set of symbols as the resurrection scenes in the gospels. An initiate is placed within a stone tomb for three days, which in this case correspond to the winter solstice festival of rebirth and the supposed birth date of Jesus, The interior of the tomb is laid out in the shape of a cross - as are modern churches and cathedrals. On the third day the stone door is moved aside and the initiate, newly reborn in the sun, emerges into the light. The symbolism of the sunbeam within the chamber is very potent - penetrating light illuminating the mind of the initiate. A further confirmation of this practice is engraved on the Entrance stone at Newgrange and beautifully illustrated in the Books of Kells and Durrow. The Chi Rho symbol which represents the birth of Christ is engraved within the Triple Spiral, where the top two loops meet at the centre.

Loaction

Megalithic monuments are found throughout Ireland. Reports written over the last two hundred years show that probably as many have been destroyed as remain. These monuments are found in most Irish counties, though many are in poor states of repair and many have no obvious chamber. A large number have totally disappeared because their stones were robbed for convenient building materials. Ireland has several large sites where large numbers of cairns are clustered together - Carrowmore, Carrowkeel, Loughcrew, The Boyne Valley, Lough Corrib and the Wicklow Mountains. There are also many other individual sites spread out on mountain tops, the greater portion across the northern half of the island.

In general chambered cairns are found in commanding locations which usually have superb views of the surrounding horizon and are often positioned in view of other cairns. However, several of the largest Irish sites are located in lowland locations - Carrowmore; Heapstown; Ballymacgibbon and Echoy's Cairns at Cong and Ballinrobe; and the mega cairns in the Boyne Valley. Water often plays an important part in their location - the Boyne at Newgrange and the Uinshin at Heapstown, while Knocknarea is surrounded by sea on three sides. Alignments are often found with prominent mountains or hills, which are often the location of another site.

Mythology of the mounds

Ireland's ancient manuscripts record the names of several tribes who were said to have invaded the island in the mythological past. In order of arrival, the Formorians, the Parthalonians, the Nemedians, the Firbolg, the Túatha Dé Danann and lastly the Celts or Milesians are the tribes said to have settled here. Ireland was considered a magical homeland by the tribes who came here.

The best known group were the Túatha Dé Danann, The Tribe of the Goddess Danu. They are said to have arrived from the North and West in flying ships, bearing four great treasures - The Sword of Núada; The Dagda's Cauldron; The Stone of Destiny; and The Spear of Lugh. They landed at Lough Corrib in Co. Galway and on the mountain of Sliabh an Iarann in Co. Leitrim. The First Battle of Maigh Tuireadh, which took place on the plain of Cong by the north shores of Lough Corrib, was fought between the Firbolg and the Túatha Dé Danann.

Two large monuments, Ballymacgibbon Cairn and Eochy's Cairn, remain here and several others are said to have been destroyed. Connaught's four stone circles are to be found here, as well as several cashels, ringforts, caves, standing stones, and a strange modern stepped pyramid and inscribed stone known as The Gods of Neale.

The Second Battle of Moytura took place on the hill above the eastern shore of Lough Arrow, near the Bricklieve Mountains. The Second Battle was fought between the Túatha Dé Danann and the Formorans, and was a complex affair which deserves a lengthy page of its own. Lugh of the Long Arm led the Túatha Dé Dannan to victory over their opponents and oppressors, and killed his grandfather Balor of the Evil Eye who was in charge of the Formorian army.

The place where he put out Balor's Eye is today marked by the eerie lake of Lough na Suil, The Lake of the Eye (see top picture). Balor's destructive Eye burned a great hole in the ground and disappeared, and a lake was formed on the spot. In a regular cycle, the length of which I am not sure, the water vanishes for a few days leaving a crater with a large, deep hole at the bottom.

Stone basin from Knowth. The Dagda's Cauldron? One of the four treasures brought to Ireland by the Túatha Dé Danann. Picture by Conall, 1997.

In general they are associated with many ancient sites, and the Dagda in particular was known as a builder of monuments. He resided at Newgrange for a long time until his son Aongus won the mound from him. 

Circle number 7 at Carrowmore in County Sligo

Sacred Island
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
 

Megalithic art

One of the best known aspects of the passage cairns are their art, an un-interperetated symbolic language that and ornamentation. These engravings are the earliest writings in Ireland and among the oldest in Europe. They are documents in stone written in a symbolic language which seems to incorporate the light and motion of the heavens.

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.

Carrowkeel ware and stone basins

There are several types of artifacts which are associated with chambered cairns. Of the few items that are found in these monuments which can be said to date to the builders, the most common are fragments of ancient pottery. On a few occasions complete pots were recovered, and since these were first found in the Bricklieves, these are known as Carrowkeel Ware. The example illustrated above is the Barnarashy Vessel from near Carrowmore, and is found on the old Irish 4p and 5p stamps. The vessels were made from coarse, gritty clay sometimes mixed with broken shells and always decorated with grooved and pitted designs which complement the engraved artwork of the cairns.

This Carrowkeel Ware is associated with cremation and burial as great quantities of ashes are found buried under the passages, chambers and recesses of these monuments. In Celtic folklore and mythology cairns were sometimes raised over the bodies of slain warriors, but never mention cremation, which is obviously a very early form of burial. The cairns are called Passage Tombs because so many cremated remains were excavated within them.

However given detailed study it is clear that these monuments were in fact the oldest churches and cathedrals in Europe, and were probably used much as modern temples are today. Rituals such as birth ceremonies; communions; marriages; ordinations; prayer, meditation and contemplation; initiations and finally death would have taken place within the chamber. The Carrowkeel pots may have been funerary urns or prehistoric chalices. The Essenes of Quamram had a ritual of passing the cup which was adopted by the early Christian Church; it is quite likely that this was descended, as so many other Christian symbols are, from prehistoric Ireland.

As the culture developed the cairns got bigger in size. At Carrowkeel stone trays were described in the recesses of Cairns G and K. Several stone basins were found at Loughcrew, including the large example in Cairn L.

The Boyne Valley chambers all have large basins, one smashed in Dowth South, four in Newgrange and two at the main site of Knowth, the finest of them all being the beautiful engraved basin in the Eastern chamber illustrated here. The whole massive cairn was constructed around this basin, which may well be the Dagda's Cauldron, one of the four treasures brought to Ireland by the Túatha Dé Danann. This spot was an important setting out position for many of the monuments in the Boyne Valley, as 10 minutes experimenting with a drawing compass and plan of the monuments will prove.

Quartz and other finds

All the monuments have shown traces of quartz, and many had names such as Find Cairn and Cairn Bán, which mean White Cairn. Quartz is regarded as a sacred stone by cultures all around the world and is a key component of our modern technological society today. It 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. As for my own use of quartz, the background of all the pages on the Sacred Island website is made from a section of the quartz facing from Newgrange.

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 pendulums 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 which was found buried beside the basin in the right recess of the East chamber. This beautiful artifact is made from extremely hard flint 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.

The massive henge near Dowth. This enormous circular monument has no defensive features and was a gathering place for huge crowds of people. Participants may have attended religious ceremonies, astronomical or seasonal festivals, or sporting competitions.