1998:567 - CARROWMORE, Sligo

NMI Burial Excavation Records

County: Sligo Site name: CARROWMORE

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

Author: Goran Burenhult, Department of Archaeology, Stockhlom University

Site type: Megalithic tomb - passage tomb

Period/Dating: Prehistoric (12700 BC-AD 400)

ITM: E 565949m, N 833890m

Latitude, Longitude (decimal degrees): 54.252719, -8.522516

The Swedish archaeological excavations at Carrowmore, 1977–1982, revealed a series of data that made alternative explanations of the appearance of the megalithic tradition in Ireland and Europe possible, as well as of the underlying settlement-subsistence systems. The importance of the rich marine resources to the megalith-building population in the Knocknarea area was strongly emphasised. The investigation highlighted the complicated, and artificial, boundary between the Mesolithic and the Neolithic periods, suggesting a slow, local, successive transformation rather than a migration of farmers. The archaeological results were strongly supported by the palaeoecological studies in the area. The remarkably early dates from the three tombs that produced datable material, Tomb Nos 4, 7 and 27, placed Carrowmore among the earliest megalithic cemeteries in Europe, and thereby in the world, and stressed the necessity of a rethinking of the Irish megalithic tradition.

The results from the Carrowmore excavations have since gained strong support from excavations in other areas in Europe, notably Brittany in France, where a series of dates now shows that the megalithic tradition in western France had commenced before 5000 BC, and that the underlying economy was heavily oriented towards marine resources.

An overall pattern concerning the Mesolithic–Neolithic transition and the appearance of megalithic traditions along the Atlantic coasts of Europe is emerging from recent excavations, and a series of new questions has arisen. The Carrowmore megalithic cemetery forms a central part in this important process.

Primary aims of the 1994–2000 excavation campaign
Since the first campaign of the Swedish archaeological excavations at Carrowmore was published a series of new interdisciplinary methods has developed. Several of them added considerable data to the interpretation of both internal and external chronology of the cemetery, as well as kinship analysis and sex determination of the cremated individuals buried in the tombs. Furthermore, these data will, used in a wider perspective, add considerable knowledge to the development of the Irish megalithic traditions as a whole, for example questions concerning internal chronological and ethnic relationship, or the arrival of possible migrants versus native developments.

Three of the four tombs excavated at Carrowmore in the 1970s provided samples from construction layers for radiocarbon dating. With traditional radiocarbon dating techniques the lack of rich deposits of charcoal limited the dates to five samples. Although all five did belong to the earliest in the Irish megalithic period, the inner time-span is still considerable, and little was known of the inner chronology of the Carrowmore cemetery. Were most tombs built around the earliest dates, or are these unique, leaving most of the tombs to have been built at the end of the local tradition? These are also essential questions in the relationship to other megalithic areas and tomb types in Ireland and to the megalithic traditions in Western Europe as a whole.

Radiocarbon dating advanced greatly when the accelerator mass spectrometric (AMS) method was introduced, in terms of both exactness and applicability. With the rarity of charcoal in the Carrowmore tombs, this new dating technique gives us the possibility to obtain a long series of additional, statistically valid dates for the construction of the tombs and use of the cemetery.

The ability to do kinship analyses and sex determinations based on ancient DNA has been known for some time. Recently a method to determine this from burnt bones has been developed, and analyses on ancient DNA applied to the Carrowmore material could give valuable results. DNA from burnt bones could complement the osteological analysis and might also be used for a kinship analysis within the megalithic cemetery, as well as within the megalithic traditions in Ireland and Western Europe as a whole. Also, in a longer perspective, the kinship relations between Mesolithic and Neolithic populations, as revealed from other excavations in Ireland, would provide data of immense importance to our understanding of the relations between the Stone Age populations of Ireland.

Details on the 1994–2000 excavation campaign

Tomb No. 4, 94E0032
Only one date from construction layers was obtained during the 1977–1982 campaign. As this date (c. 4800 BC) was the earliest then obtained from the Carrowmore cemetery, it was of great importance that additional data from the AMS dating technique would be available for the interpretation. In 1979 half of the monument was left unexcavated. One additional quadrant was excavated in 1994. A series of charcoal samples was taken for dating, and an even earlier date of c. 5400 BC has been processed from the cist.

Tombs Nos 1 (95E0022), 13 (see below), 52A (see below), 55 (see below) and 56 (94E0032)
Tombs Nos 7 and 27 revealed important information on some of the larger monument types at Carrowmore, a dolmen and a cruciform chamber. The dates and function of a series of smaller dolmens, as well as cist-like tombs, were unknown, and Nos 1, 13, 52A, 55 and 56 are tombs that could provide vital knowledge on the chronological position of these types. The fact that these tombs are situated in close vicinity to the Visitor Centre, as are Nos 4 and 51, means that these excavations provide public access possibilities during the tourist season. The excavation of Tomb No. 56 started in 1994 and was completed in 1995. The excavation of Tomb No. 1 was started in 1995 and completed in 1996.

Tomb No. 13, 98E0168
The rescue excavation of Tomb No. 13 took place during 1998. The monument, situated directly beside the Sligo road, was in danger of total collapse after a car accident some years ago, and there was also a risk that the roof-slab would slide off the supporting orthostats. Seven orthostats remained in the chamber, six standing and three supporting the roof-slab, while one had been knocked down by the car. All stones in the boulder circle are missing.

Before excavation the roof-slab was lifted off for safety. The central chamber and the surrounding area were completely excavated, 18m2 altogether. No intact layers were found. The socket of another orthostat, a stone visible on a drawing by George Petrie from 1837 but long since removed, was found in the north-west part of the chamber. The reconstruction of Tomb No. 13 followed photographs taken during the 1977–1982 campaign, as they show the status of the monument before the accident. During the restoration work the fallen stone was re-erected and all orthostats were safely secured in concrete sockets. The roof-slab has been placed in its original position, gravel and topsoil have been put back, and grass seeds have been sown on the surface.

Tomb No. 51, 96E0020
In the archaeological survey of Carrowmore, Tomb No. 51, Listoghil, holds a central position for several reasons. The monument differs considerably from other tombs within the cemetery in both size and construction. Its location in the middle of the oval cluster of the other tombs makes it crucial to our understanding of the function and symbolism of the ritual landscape of the whole cemetery, and its chronological position is important in this context. It is the only monument in the cemetery from which can be seen both Ballisadare Bay, to the south, and Sligo Bay, to the north, as well as most of the other Carrowmore tombs.

The chamber, the area around the chamber and a large segment of the mound were excavated in order to fulfil three main aims: to provide valid dates for the construction and use of the monument; to provide a clear picture of the construction of chamber and mound that can be used for a reconstruction of the destroyed, once gigantic mound; and to provide evidence of the rituals and ceremonies of this monument. For the same reasons the burial traditions in this tomb have to be compared with those performed at the other tombs. Megalithic art has been discovered on the front of the roof-slab of the central chamber and also inside the chamber itself. The almost intact boulder circle, consisting of about one hundred large stones, has been completely exposed and thereby allows an exact calculation of the monument's original diameter and size. After the 1999 excavation season Tomb No. 51 will be completely reconstructed. A concrete vault and passage will be built, permitting public access to the central chamber, and the cairn will be restored to its original size.

There is no doubt that the actual position of Tomb No. 51 must have been of major interest in the original layout of the cemetery. This does not mean that the dominant chamber with its cairn is the first structure to have been built on this focal spot, as the ongoing excavation also has shown. Radiocarbon dates from the central chamber have shown that this was built in around 3600 BC. On the east side of the central chamber, below the intact cairn, three large gneiss boulders were found. The boulders form no part of the chamber. They seem to have been pushed aside during the chamber construction and may well be the remains of an earlier megalithic structure that pre-dates the preserved one.

The remains of burials in Tomb No. 51 are unburned human bones. A piece of skull, showing clear cut-marks probably resulting from defleshing, has been dated to the tomb's original period of use. As the common burial practice at Carrowmore is cremation, this highlights the fact that inhumation and cremation were practised at the same time within the Carrowmore tradition. From a social, ritual and maybe ethnic point of view this is an important contextual fact.

The excavation of Tomb No. 51 started in 1996 and was completed during 1998. The excavation of the main trench, including the central chamber area, was completed, as were two test-trenches towards the west and the east. A human cremation was found inside and in direct contact with a gneiss boulder in the boulder circle in the western test-trench. Inside the boulder circle an area of 250m2 has been completely excavated. Thus, the planned reconstruction work at Tomb No. 51 can now proceed according to the time schedule suggested in 1997. A large series of radiocarbon samples allows for good possibilities to date both primary construction and successive stages of use of the monument. Deep test-trenches have been dug into the glacial deposits underneath the monument along the sections in order to control possible pre-site activity.

Outside and inside the boulder circle, on the south side of the monument, an area of 10m2 around a limestone slab in the circle was excavated in 1998. An intact human cremation was found close to and behind the north corner of the limestone slab. Outside the slab a massive stone packing was unearthed, possibly the remains of a satellite tomb.

Tomb No. 55, 98E0169
Tomb No. 55 at Carrowmore, according to Wood-Martin's Rude stone monuments of Ireland, was, in the 19th century, completely covered with field stones. 'This circle, with its cromleac, which Petrie states was, in 1837, tolerably perfect, is now so covered with stones-the clearing of fields-which had been thrown on it, that a description is impossible' (Wood–Martin 1888, 52). In order to determine whether a megalithic tomb was hidden under the heap of stones, removal of the covering material with the help of light machinery took place during the 1998 season.

It was found that the covering material consisted of field stones, thrown up in recent times. Modern glass, fragments of clay pipes and porcelain were found down to the very bottom level of the cairn. On ground level three gneiss boulders were found, placed close together in a slightly rounded shape, but there were no visible remains of any chamber. To determine whether the boulders were also thrown into the heap from the surrounding fields or were the remains of a boulder circle of a destroyed megalithic tomb a 6m-long test-trench was laid out from the boulders towards the north. In the first layer more modern material was found, but in the second layer large amounts of cremated human bones were found, together with fragments of mushroom-headed antler pins and bone and stone beads. Radiocarbon samples were taken from among the cremations. One dated sample reveals that the tomb was in use in around 3800 BC. An area of 8m2 was opened, and a full excavation is planned for the 1999 season.

The clearing of field walls at Carrowmore and the exposed Tomb No. 52A
In 1997 the OPW in Sligo decided that the recent field walls, cutting up the area of the Carrowmore megalithic cemetery, should be removed. At the same time the stones could be used in the ongoing reconstruction work of the cairn at Tomb No. 51, the site from where the stones most probably originally came. During surveillance the walls were removed by machinery in November 1997. In one area, close to Tomb Nos 52 and 53, several gneiss boulders were visible in the field wall. They had not been mentioned by Petrie or Wood-Martin in the 19th century. In the Archaeological Survey the site is marked as a 'megalithic structure, possible'. This particular area was left to be hand-cleaned of bushes and field-wall stones during the 1998 season.

Modern material, glass and porcelain were found all through the wall. On reaching the level of the large boulders it could be determined that they were all, with the exception of the roof-slab, standing in their original position. All but one orthostat in a polygonal chamber are preserved, as are the stones along the entrance in the east. The roof-slab was found placed in the bottom of the field wall a few metres east of the chamber. Modern material has been found on the level exposed, and no excavation has taken place. A large stone slab is covering the inner area of the chamber. An excavation of the chamber is planned for the 1999 season.

The total station-based survey and mapping of Carrowmore
A detailed, total station-based mapping and landscape reconstruction work of the central area of the Carrowmore megalithic cemetery started in 1996 and was completed during the 1998 season. As well as for the scientific aims of this digital survey, the mapping can, together with aerial photography of the area, be used for reconstruction work, scale models and/or digital presentations in the planned new Visitors' Centre Exhibition.

The geophysical prospecting at Carrowmore
The geophysical prospecting of the Carrowmore megalithic cemetery started in 1997 and continued during the 1998 season. The aim is to determine the exact position of destroyed monuments that were recorded as megalithic tombs in the 19th century. Indications of possible destroyed megalithic structures have been found. The geophysical prospecting will continue during the 1999 excavation season.

The Primrose Grange hut site, field systems and megalithic tombs, 95E0021
Detailed survey of this vast archaeological landscape, 3km south-west of Carrowmore, started in 1995. It included total station mapping, human geographical analysis, phosphate survey and interpretation of aerial, infrared photography. The hut site is very similar to the Neolithic hut sites at Lough Gur in terms of both size and visible construction, and it is also possible that the Primrose Grange hut site is of Neolithic date and therefore extremely important in the cultural-historical context of Carrowmore. Furthermore, the existence of megalithic tombs, one of which has been recorded as a court tomb, in close proximity to the hut site and the field systems, may provide vital information about the cultural and chronological relationship between the two megalithic traditions in question: the passage tombs and the court tombs. Also, the excavation of this complex of sites would again add vital information to the important question of the economic background to the different stages of the megalithic traditions on the Knocknarea peninsula and in Ireland as a whole. Rich deposits of unburned human bones, as well as artefacts made of flint, chert and bone, were found in PrimTomb 1. Several chert arrowheads of outstanding quality belong to the find material.

Morphologically, Primrose Grange Tomb 1 lacks all features that characterise the Carrowmore tombs, yet the ongoing excavation has shown that the tomb was in use at the same time as the Carrowmore cemetery. An intact deposition layer inside the chamber, excavated during 1997, has produced a date of around 4000 BC; the date of the tomb construction can be expected to pre-date that sample. All the burials found in PrimTomb 1 are inhumations.

The excavation of Primrose Grange Tomb 1 started in 1996 and was completed during 1998. An area of 52m2 has been excavated, and the tomb has produced large quantities of unburned human bones, as well as stone and bone artefacts. A large series of radiocarbon samples will provide good possibilities to date both primary construction and successive stages of use of the monument. A charcoal sample from the 1998 excavation season, from the foundation to one of the stones in the chamber, has given a date of around 6000 BC. Future control areas have been left unexcavated after the documentation of the first layer of stone packing. The site has been refilled with stones, clay and topsoil and returfed into its original status.

The artefacts associated with the burials from the Carrowmore tombs and the Primrose Grange tomb differ. The typical Carrowmore grave assemblage consists of mushroom-headed antler pins and stone/clay balls, artefacts that have not yet been found in the Primrose Grange context. Instead extraordinary pieces of chert artefacts are found in PrimTomb 1, mainly leaf-shaped or pointed arrow-heads.

Questions concerning the relation between the Carrowmore and Primrose Grange tombs are of utmost importance to our understanding of the demographic, social, ethnic and ritual situation in the Irish megalithic.

The complete 1998 excavation report (text) is available on the Internet on the Carrowmore home-page: www.hgo.se/carrowmore (Note added in 2016 - unfortunately this link is now broken.)

S-106 91 Stockhlom, Sweden