NMI Burial Excavation Records

County: Sligo Site name: CARRIGEENS, CO. SLIGO

Sites and Monuments Record No.: SMR SL007-038— Licence number: E1154


Site type: Early Bronze Age graves

ITM: E 559548m, N 845413m

Latitude, Longitude (decimal degrees): 54.355784, -8.622306

In April 1992 a short cist containing a cremation and an urn was discovered during agricultural works near Lissadell, Co. Sligo. A large stone, the capstone of the cist, was obstructing the operations and was removed to reveal the cist underneath. The site was kept intact by the landowner, Mr Jack Walsh, and reported to the NMI through local archaeologist Ms Joyce Enright. A rescue excavation was carried out over three days by Mary Cahill, assisted by Joyce Enright. The human remains were examined by Barra Ó Donnabháin.

Location (Fig. 3.158)
The site was in the townland of Carrigeens, north Co. Sligo, on the north side of Drumcliff Bay.286 The area was low-lying, at an altitude of 20–30m above sea level, approximately 2km north of Lissadell Strand. No other early Bronze Age cists are known from this townland, but the SMR lists a cist from Ardtermon townland, some 2km to the south-west.287

Fig. 3.158—Location map, Carrigeens, Co. Sligo.

Fig. 3.159—Plans and sections of cist, Carrigeens, Co. Sligo.

Description of site
The cist was approximately rectangular in plan, with its long axis aligned north-west/south- east (Pl. 63). Internally, it measured 0.87m long by 0.4m wide by 0.45m high (Fig. 3.159). The chamber was formed of five edge-set sandstone slabs, one each at the short ends, one at the south-west side and two at the north-east. The maximum dimensions of the side stones were 0.83m long by 0.45m high by 0.1m thick. In many places a space was noticed between the slabs at the corners of the cist, and packing stones had been placed between them to seal the gap. Inside the cist, at a slightly lower level than the side stones and surrounding the urn, a number of flat shale slabs, thinner than the cist walls, were set on edge, forming a protective ‘housing’ for the vessel. These were placed across the corners of the cist, apparently to protect the urn and cremation, which had been placed within this area. The floor of the cist was partially lined with limestone slabs. A large, subrectangular shale capstone covered the cist. This measured 1.3m long by 1.2m wide by 0.1m thick. The pit containing the cist appears to have been lined with clay.
The cist contained a cremation of a 14–16-year-old subadult (1992:15.1) within an inverted collared urn. A bone toggle and some cowrie shells (Trivia sp.) were found within the cremation during post-excavation work.

Fig. 3.160—Ceramic vessel and bone artefact, Carrigeens, Co. Sligo.

Collared urn, 1992:13 (Fig. 3.160)
The vessel had been damaged on discovery but has been conserved and restored. It is a substantial vessel with a wide mouth and a very small base and is slightly lopsided. The divisions between collar, neck and shoulder are slight and the collar is undeveloped by comparison with other collared urns. The rim slopes inwards and is decorated with a row of shallow, slanted impressions. It is slightly bevelled and this area is also decorated by a series of short impressions. The neck profile is straight, while the collar profile is concave. The decoration on the body of the pot is confined to the upper part, i.e. the neck and collar, comprising the upper third of the vessel. It consists of two panels of shallow impressed lines, which are vertical on the neck and slanted on the collar. The width of the panel is quite variable. The ridges between and below the panels are decorated with short, slanting strokes.
Dimensions: H 35.5cm; ext. D rim 28.85cm; int. D rim 24.4cm; D base 10.4cm.

Bone toggle, 1992:14 (Fig. 3.160; Pl. 64)
This bone bead or toggle is complete but has fractured lengthways into three pieces that can be fitted together, although not perfectly owing to some distortion caused by the heat of the cremation pyre. When complete the object would have been barrel-shaped. It is hollowed lengthways. There are two perforations in the bead—one is directly through the side of the bead, while the second is a transverse perforation through the wall of the bead, forming a loop. The rim of the bead is slightly rounded at one extremity while the other is flat.
The dimensions are approximate owing to the condition of the fragments. L 2.6cm; ext. D 0.85cm; int. D of open end 0.62cm; max. D of bead 1.63cm; ext. D of perforation in side 0.58cm; D of transverse perforation 0.27cm.
A number of similar bone beads or toggles have been found in urn burial contexts in Scotland and these provide the best comparanda for this object, in particular the beads or toggles from Seggiecrook,288 Kennethmont, Aberdeenshire, and Carnousie,289 Turiff, Aberdeenshire, which were found amongst cremated human remains in a cordoned urn (Callander 1907–8, 212–17) and a collared urn respectively.290 Two other comparable objects were also found in the north-east of Scotland, one in an encrusted urn in grave 8 at Dalmore, Alness, Ross, and another at Over Migvie, Kirriemuir, Angus (Callander 1929–30). The toggle from Over Migie is the closest parallel for the Carrigeens object in that it is of similar size and shape, and the position of the loop and hole is also similar.
Bone beads/toggles are, relatively speaking, common in Scottish urn burials. In discussing finds from a pit burial at Moncreiffe, Perthshire, Close-Brooks (in Stewart et al. 1985, 142–3) notes two bone toggles from a cordoned urn291 and remarks that there were at that point eleven toggles of different types known from urn burials in Scotland: five from four cordoned urn burials and six from five collared urns. There is considerable variation in form between the various types of toggle. Another quite similar example was found within a cremation in a collared urn at Allithwaite, Cumbria (Wild 2003, 38–9). In a discussion on a cremation cemetery at Ewanrigg, Maryport, Cumbria, Longworth (in Bewley et al. 1992, 343) draws particular attention to the numbers of bone beads and toggles of various types found with collared urns and emphasises the links to Scottish burials of similar type.

Cowrie shells, 1992:15.2
A number of cowrie shells were found mixed through the cremation and are likely to have been on the body at the time of cremation. The condition of the shells is such that it is not possible to say whether they might have been part of a necklace or other object of personal adornment. The presence of cowrie shells may be significant, however. They have long been considered in many cultures to have an amuletic function because of their form, which is seen to resemble female genitalia, and consequently they are worn to ensure fecundity. They have also been valued as a form of currency in some early societies. As it was not possible to sex the individual represented by the cremation deposit, the presence of the cowrie shells may be an indicator of a female rather than a male burial. The site is within 4.5km of the sea, which perhaps suggests that the local community was availing itself of the marine resources available to them. Grinsell (1953, 275–6) lists a number of instances of the discovery of cowrie shells in early Bronze Age burials, including one with a female burial at Langton in Yorkshire

This burial is of special interest for a number of reasons. The protective slabs surrounding the vessel are unusual in themselves. A somewhat similar construction can be seen in burial 34 at the Mound of the Hostages, Tara, Co. Meath (O’Sullivan 2005, 185–7), where the burial of an encrusted urn containing a cremation was placed within a polygonal cist formed of small, overlapping shale slabs. The presence of the bone toggle with its north-eastern Scottish parallels is very unusual and must suggest some form of contact between the two areas. The occurrence of cowrie shells also marks this burial as one with an atypical assemblage of grave-goods.
A sample of the cremation was submitted for AMS dating and yielded a date of 2890±40 BP,292 which calibrates to 1260–930 BC. A date from charcoal had previously produced a date of 3510±35 BP,293 which calibrates to 1947–1751 BC at 95% probability. Brindley (2007, 137) notes that the date from carbonate is ‘clearly anomalous’ and further notes that the vessel belongs to stage 2 of the development of collared urns, which is dated to the period 1800–c. 1700 BC (ibid., 284).


A collection of fragments of calcined bone (1992:15.1) weighing 1,572.08g was submitted for analysis. The cremation has a volume of 2,750cc. The remains were passed through a series of sieves (9.5mm, 4.75mm, 3.35mm and 1mm mesh sizes) and the collection within each size category was weighed. Each fragment was then examined, and identifiable portions of bone were sorted according to the body part to which they belong. It was possible to identify nearly 75% of the total by weight. Table 3.95 shows the widths of identifiable bone fragments by body part and their percentage of the identified total. The cremation did not contain any animal bones. Some charcoal was mixed in with the deposit, as were some small shells, which had also been calcined. Small fragments of the cordoned urn were also found.

Age and sex
The remains are those of one individual—an adolescent who was 14–16 years old at the time of death. It is not generally possible to determine the sex of non-adult skeletal remains. The age estimate is based on the degree of eruption of the teeth and on the state of epiphyseal fusion observed. The second molars had erupted and their roots were practically complete. The crowns of the third molars were complete but these teeth had not erupted at the time of death. Many of the long bone epiphyses were recovered. The distal epiphysis of the humerus had fused but most others had not. The ilium, ischium and pubis had not yet fused together.

No pathological changes were noted in the remains.

Technique of cremation
The remains from Carrigeens were very efficiently burned and this was clearly done by people experienced in cremation. The warped and checked nature of the burned fragments indicates that the body was still fleshed when it was incinerated. Almost all of the fragments were fully calcined. This indicates that high temperatures were maintained in the pyre for several hours.

In order to achieve this, the fire must have been raked periodically and new fuel must have been added at regular intervals. Body parts not fully burned may have been pushed to the centre of the conflagration, and wood ash may have been removed to prevent it from smothering the flames. The pronounced degree of warping observed in the remains may indicate that the body was placed under the pyre and that the weight of the latter contributed to this distortion.

Table 3.95—Weights of identified bones and percentages of the identified total, 1992:15.1.

The retrieval of cremated remains was also carried out in a very efficient manner. Many small skeletal elements, such as sesamoid bones, the epiphyses of phalanges, the hyoid and both nasal bones, were recovered. The weight of bone recoverable from a modern adult cremation varies between 1,600g and 3,600g, depending on the stature and robusticity of the individual. The total weight of the Carrigeens remains—1,572.08g—is at the lower end of this range. Bearing in mind that this was an adolescent and not an adult, it seems likely that the remains represent most of the skeleton. This impression of the efficiency of skeletal retrieval is reinforced when the retrieved body parts are viewed as percentages of the identified total as listed in Table 3.95. In an average adult dry skeleton, the skull contributes 18.2% of the total weight, whereas the limbs and thorax make up 58.7% and 23.1% respectively (McKinley 1989).

Pl. 49—Sketch of cist at Kinard, Co. Mayo, by Patrick Caulfield, November 1934.

Pl. 50—Sketch of cist at Doon, Co. Meath, by Thomas Barron, March 1947.

Pl. 51—Excavation of grave 4, Martinstown, Co. Meath, June 1953.

Pl. 52—View of grave 5, Martinstown, Co. Meath, June 1953.

Pl. 53—Crinoids, flint and chert found in cremation deposit, Nevinstown, Co. Meath.

Pl. 54—Early Bronze Age cist (grave 6), Lehinch, Co. Offaly, July 1978.

Pl. 55—General view of site from south, Lug, Co. Offaly, 1935.

Pl. 56—Excavation of the cemetery cairn, Lug, Co. Offaly, 1935. Michael Duignan, director of the excavation, is pictured on the left.

Pl. 57—Post-hole at north-eastern side of the cemetery cairn, Lug, Co. Offaly, 1935.

Pl. 58—Grave 2, Lug, Co. Offaly, 1935.

Pl. 59—Grave 3, Lug, Co. Offaly, 1935.

Pl. 60—Grave 5, Lug, Co. Offaly, 1935.

Pl. 61—Grave 6 before excavation, Lug, Co. Offaly, 1935.

Pl. 62—Grave 6 during excavation, Lug, Co. Offaly, 1935.

Pl. 63—Cist burial, Carrigeens, Co. Sligo.

Pl. 64—Urn (restored) and bone toggle, Carrigeens, Co. Sligo.

The figures for this collection from Carrigeens (skull 23.52%; limbs 52.47%; thorax 24.01%) closely approximate these values. This suggests that the retrieval of skeletal parts was comprehensive and virtually complete and that there was no bias favouring the collection of any particular body part or parts.
In many early Bronze Age cremations the average fragment size is very small, and the impression gained is that the burnt bones were deliberately crushed to facilitate their deposition in the urn. This does not seem to have been the case in this instance. Many large portions of bone survived, and 63% of the fragments by weight are over 10mm in length. The total fragment count was about 2,700.

The cordoned urn from Carrigeens contained the cremated remains of one individual who was 14–16 years of age at the time of death. The body was burned soon after death and some small shells were either on the body at the time of its incineration or were thrown on the fire during the event. The body may have been placed under the funerary pyre. The latter was carefully tended for several hours to ensure that the remains were totally consumed by fire. Complete incineration and a complete gathering of the burnt remains seem to have been important factors in the cremation ritual. This was clearly not just a token collection of burnt remains, as the retrieval of bone fragments was very comprehensive. It seems likely that the cremated remains were not deliberately crushed prior to being placed in the urn.

286. Parish of Drumcliff, barony of Carbury. SMR SL007-038——. IGR 159588 345410.
287. SMR SL007-039——.
288. ABDUA 19729 urn; 14830 bone toggle.
289. ABDUA 19742 urn; 14787 bone toggle.
290. See http://www.abdn.ac.uk/virtualmuseum/pictures. The LEMUR project database of the University of
Aberdeen contains details and images of the material referred to above. Accessed 18/03/2009.
291. These are of a different type to the Carrigeens toggle.
292. GrA-24167.
293. GrN-19691.