Banner: Knocknarea at Sunset.
The earthen platform under Circle 56, looking up the the cairn on Sliabh Dá Eán, six kilometers distant in the Ox Mountains.

Circle 56 at Carrowmore

Monument 56 at Carrowmore sits on the edge of the low ridge behind the Visitor Centre, right beside and paired with the much larger Circle 57. The monument is composed of a low circular earthen platform or tertre surrounded by a ring of small to medium sized boulders, slightly under ten meters in diameter. The twelve boulders which form the ring or kerb are much smaller than the massive boulders used to construct Circle 57.

The view west from Circle 56 at Carrowmore. The large triangular stone in the foreground is the capstone of the chamber, probably lifted from the chamber by Roger Walker in the 1830's.
The view west from Circle 56 at Carrowmore. The large triangular stone in the foreground is the capstone of the chamber, probably lifted from the chamber by Roger Walker in the 1830's. The platform and chamber can be seen to imitate the sacred mountain of Knocknarea four kilometers to the west.

One of the boulders on the southwest side of the ring has been displaced, a feature which occurs at several other Carrowmore circles, which is believed to indicate a bronze age reuse of the monuments. At Circles 26, 36, 56 and 57 a boulder was removed from the circle during the bronze age reuse of the complex.

The strange chamber at Cloverhill and the 'spaced boulder circles' to the north of Carrowmore may also date to this time. Perhaps the bronze age people were breaking the ring and removing chambers to release the spirits and souls of those interred there so the monument could be cleansed and used by the new owners.

The stone circle at Carrowmore 56.
Looking, east across Circle 56, with the much larger Circle 57 beyond. The boulder in the foreground has been pulled out from the ring of Carrowmore 56, probably during the bronze age.

Earthen mounds called tertres are a very early form of passage grave found in the Gulf of Morhiban region about 6,500 years ago. In the middle of the platform is a paved chamber composed of five stones—the most common form of chamber construction at Carrowmore—with a short passage pointing to the midwinter sunset, somewhat to the left of Listoghil about seventy meters away.

The view of Circle 56 at Carrowmore from Listoghil, the central monument.
View from the chamber of Circle 56 to Listoghil.

The platform of Circle 56 supports a chamber formed by nine stones. Some tend to describe this as a double or inner and outer chamber, but it appears to be a small five-sided chamber with the remains of a short symbolic passage attached on the southwest side. When Petrie saw the monument in 1837 the cromleac was perfect, but by 1888 when W. G. Wood-Martin excavated, the capstone had been lifted and moved to one side, undoubtedly by the local antiquarian, treasure hunter and good friend of Petrie, Roger Walker.

Circle 56 illustrated by William Wakeman in 1879.
Carrowmore circles 56 and 57 illustrated by William Wakeman in 1879. The view is to the west and the sycamore tree growing within the monument is very young. Another view of the two monuments from the same visit is reproduced below.

Excavations

From his description it is apparent that the dolmen or cromleac of Carrowmore 56 was in perfect condition when Petrie saw it in 1837. The restoration of the capstone to the chamber using logs and ropes would be a worthy project for the O.P.W. to undertake, and would greatly enhance the site with a perfect example of a tertre monument on the side and beside the central monument.

Circles 56 and 57 at Carrowmore illustrated by William Wakeman in 1879.
Circles 56 and 57 at Carrowmore illustrated by William Wakeman in 1879. Wakeman's work is important as it came just before photography became popular and widespread. It is fascinating to contrast his illustrations with the photographs taken bt Welch and Green a few decades later.

The following is Borlase's summary of Petrie's notes and Wood-Martin's excavations from his mammoth Dolmens of Ireland, published in 1895.

Circle No. 56. Situated immediately to the north of the cairn called Listoghil, and about 70 paces from it. "The diameter of this circle is about 36 feet, and it is nearly perfect. The cromleac is quite so." - Petrie.

Wood-Martin - 1888

By the time Wood-Martin and Wakeman excavated the monument fifty years later, the capstone had been lifted and moved a few meters to the east edge of the platform. This was most likely the work of Roger Walker of Rathcarrick who dug in many of the Carrowmore circles. Wood-Martin found large areas of burnt soil under the platform, which he believed were evidence of large cremation fires. He found 873 fragments of cremated human remains, amounting to 1.3 kilograms, some unburnt remains of an adult and a child.

"The capstones of the original kistvaen are gone. The general form of the tomb is that of the figure of eight, with a narrow opening between the compartments. The longer axis is north-north-east and south-south-west. The interment had been greatly disturbed.""

There was evidence of uncalcined as well as calcined human interment. At the north-north-east end of the cist there was a calcined interment, and above it an unburnt interment. Of this the atlas and lower jaw of an adult were nearly perfect, with four back teeth and three incisors. There were also portions of a cranium. Besides these there were six bones of a young child, and a few bones of a small rodent.

Cremated human remains from Carrowmore 4.
Cremated human remains from Carrowmore 4. Wood-Martin would have discovered something similar in the chamber of Carrowmore 56.

As the excavation proceeded, that is, went deeper, fragments of calcined human remains were turned up. They consisted of eight hundred and seventy-three small bones had been imperfectly burned. Several fire-marked and partially carbonized bones were observable (as well as others in a fragmentary condition), such as the anterior half of the axis (second cervical vertebra).

Pieces of the right and left halves of the body of the lower jaw, the right half containing a sound, firmly implanted first molar tooth the left half containing the roots (all sound) of the first molar, two bicuspids (premolars), and the canine teeth; four pieces of the flat bones of the skull (parietal or frontal); human teeth, i.e. four fragments of, and four complete incisors, two bicuspids, and four lower molars, the crowns of each molar sound.

Amongst the fragments which formed the bulk of this collection there were many which showed the crack-like marks noticed in the contents of other graves. In fact, some of the bones appear as if they had been subjected to greater heat than others.

Excavations at Carrowmore 56, photo by Goran Burenhult, 1994.
Excavations at Carrowmore 56, photo by Goran Burenhult, 1994.

At the lowest level of the side-stones of the cist—which were of the average height of 4 feet—a floor or flagging of calpy limestone flags was found. On this the bodies seemed to have been originally cremated, portions of the floor showing marks. Semi-burnt wood was also found intact in places, with a layer of calcined bones above."

It was also plainly evident, according to Mr. James Graves, from the fact that the flooring and the burnt bones extended under the side-stones of the cist, that these side-stones and their cover, which formed the dolmen, had been set up over the funeral pyre, that the calcined remains formed the primary interment, and that they had not been placed within an already completed chamber, but that that chamber had been built on and around them, the flagging which formed its flooring having served as the original hearth. "No implements, ornaments, or traces of fictilia were discovered."

- Wood-Martin.

Excavations at Carrowmore 56, photo by Goran Burenhult, 1995.
Excavations at Carrowmore 56, photo by Goran Burenhult, 1995.

Burenhult's Dig - 1994 - 1995

In 1994 and again in 1995 Swedish archaeologist Goran Burenhult and his team excavated at Carrowmore 56. Burenhult has published the results of his dig in 2020, and they can be downloaded here. Burenhult discovered that the monumet was built as a platform on a site that had been levelled prior to construction. The boulder circle surrounding the platform had been badly robbed out on the northside of the monument. Burenhult excavated a large number of artefacts including a fine flint arrowhead and a pair of high quality flint scrapers. He found lots of evidence of burning, scattered charcoal, fragments of quartz, pieces of flint and chert, and sea shells.

Burenhult dated the monument to around 3,500 BC, making it approximately contemporary with the chamber of Listoghil.

Looking west across Circle 56. The large displaced capstone can be seen in the foreground. Beyond is the majestic Knocknarea and Queen Maeve's cairn.