1989:008 - The Altar, Altar, Cork

County: Cork Site name: The Altar, Altar

Sites and Monuments Record No.: N/A Licence number:

Author: Billy O'Brien, Dept. of Archaeology, University College, Cork.

Site type: Wedge tomb

ITM: E 485874m, N 530271m

Latitude, Longitude (decimal degrees): 51.513511, -9.644335

The excavation of this wedge tomb was undertaken as part of a wider investigation of prehistoric settlement in the Mizen Peninsula of Co. Cork and was completed over a 14-week period, June to September 1989. The site is located on the southern side of the peninsula, on a roadside platform 4m above the rocky shoreline of Toormore Bay. The surviving structure consists of a simple slab-built chamber 3.4m in length, narrowing from 1.9m wide at the western entrance to 1m near the east end. This gallery, formed by two orthostat rows of three slabs each, was roofed by two large slabs, one of which was inclined against the western end of the tomb, having been displaced at some period prior to the mid 19th century.An area of 159 sq. m was excavated around the tomb and revealed intensive post-medieval cultivation, which had virtually destroyed the prehistoric land surface in this area. this lazy-bed cultivation and early 19th-century road construction may account for the total absence of cairn material at the monument. Three small boulders discovered near the tomb may possibly represent the remains of a revetment kerb; no other structural features were identified outside the chamber.Excavation of the chamber revealed turf-ash sediments beneath a thin deposit of field stones, suggesting that fires were lit inside the tomb in more recent times. These may date to the cultivation of this area during the early 19th century, when the displaced western capstone provided some degree of shelter in this exposed location. The ash deposits were confined to the upper levels of the chamber, with further excavation revealing a number of pit features and sediments dating to the prehistoric use of the tomb. The most important of these was a central pit at the eastern end of the chamber which had a complex infill sequence with evidence of fire purification, as well as votive deposits of limpet, periwinkle shells, and fishbone. A number of other shell deposits were found, coeval with this central pit. The human remains were present as a small spread of cremated bone inside the entrance area of the tomb, the apparently casual nature of which stands in contrast to the careful deposition of seashells.Various construction details were also revealed, such as the use of opposing trenches rather than individual sockets for the orthostats. Evidence of a closing slab at the eastern end of the chamber was found, but there were no indications as to how the tomb was sealed and it is possible that a movable slab may have been employed. This western end was delimited by a low stone kerb, which contained three fragments of cetacean (whale?) bone deliberately deposited in this construction context. The kerb overlay two pits on either side of the entrance which contained a quantity of shattered slaty stone, considered to represent tooling debris gathered after deliberate shaping of the orthostats and capstones. Two cobble-hammers used in this activity were recovered.Prehistoric finds from outside the burial chamber consisted of a small quantity of struck pebble flint, including two end-scrapers and a broken hollow scraper, recovered in cultivation-disturbed contexts. No artefacts were recovered from the chamber apart from a solitary fragment of struck flint. The primary objective of this excavation was to provide a detailed radiocarbon chronology for the construction and prehistoric use of this tomb and accordingly a series of charcoal, shell and bone samples have been submitted to Groningen. The Office of Public Works are negotiating the purchase of this site and it is proposed to carry out conservation and public presentation, thus establishing the first National Monument in the Mizen Peninsula.