2003:1665 - MULLAGHFARNA, Sligo

NMI Burial Excavation Records

County: Sligo Site name: MULLAGHFARNA

Sites and Monuments Record No.: SL040-108---- Licence number: 03E0940

Author: Stefan Bergh, Department of Archaeology, National University of Ireland, Galway

Site type: Settlement cluster

Period/Dating: Neolithic (4000BC-2501 BC)

ITM: E 575756m, N 812000m

Latitude, Longitude (decimal degrees): 54.056579, -8.370279

The exposed limestone plateau of Mullaghfarna in the Bricklieve Mountains, Co. Sligo, with its large cluster of circular enclosures/hut sites, has been one of the most enigmatic sites in Irish prehistoric archaeology ever since it was first recorded by Macalister, Armstrong and Praeger in 1911 (Macalister et al. 1912). The rather inaccessible plateau forms part of the easternmost ridge with passage tombs in the Carrowkeel complex. The proximity to the tombs has often been seen as indicating a cultural link between the enclosures on Mullaghfarna and the tombs. This link has, however, never been proven, as the plateau mainly consists of karstic limestone, where the prospect of retrieving dating evidence has been considered to be very limited. No finds have ever been made on the plateau. The plateau is bounded by cliffs on three sides, while it is overlooked by a higher ridge to the south.

Macalister recorded some 47 circular enclosures during his survey. The site was later surveyed by Eoin Grogan as part of an MA thesis (Grogan 1980; 1996). Grogan recorded a total of 82 sites, but some of these were only noted on aerial photographs and were not identified on the ground.

Aims and methods
The main aim of the preliminary survey was to establish the number of sites present on the plateau and also to get a preliminary record of the size and construction range present. This was based on the fact that the number of sites differed considerably between the two previous surveys, and no assessment of the size range or mode of construction had previously been made.

The survey was based on vertical photographs taken at low level from a helicopter. A selection of photographs were then merged into one photographic plan covering the entire plateau. This plan was used as the basis for a field-walking survey, where each site on the photo plan was identified on the ground and briefly described.

The main aim with the trial excavations was to establish the cultural and chronological context for the enclosures on Mullaghfarna. A second aim was to assess the potential of recording primary deposits in situ within the enclosures. The background to the second aim was that some sites literally have no soil cover, except for the soil in the deep fissures in the karstic bedrock. Others have some soil remaining above the bedrock, while some seemed to be covered by a relatively thick layer of soil.

The excavations were made as 1m-wide cuttings with lengths of 2–8m in three different enclosures chosen for their location, construction and soil cover.

Enclosure 1, located in the northern extreme of the cluster, consisted of a grass-covered bank with an external diameter of c. 10m and an internal diameter of c. 6m. A cutting of 1m by 6m was excavated from the centre and over the bank. Enclosure 65, in the eastern part of the plateau, consisted of a wall of standing slabs set parallel at a distance of c. 0.9m. The external diameter of this enclosure was c. 15m. The interior had no soil cover but for the soil in the fissured bedrock. A cutting of 1m by 7m was excavated. The third enclosure to be excavated, Enclosure 88, was located on the western edge of the plateau. This enclosure was covered in a rich growth of ferns and had a seemingly substantial soil cover. The site had an external diameter of c. 10m and was defined by a single line of slabs. A cutting of 1m by 9m was excavated. The excavations were made during two weeks of good weather in July 2003 with a staff of six archaeologists.

During the survey, a total of 153 enclosures of varying size and construction were recorded on the plateau. Considering that the ground mainly consists of bare bedrock, this number will not increase by any large extent, even after a more detailed survey has been completed. During the survey, at least five main types of construction were noted, ranging from complex double walling with standing slabs to simple circular areas quarried into the bedrock without any additional structural features. The diameters range from 8 to 18m, with the majority of the sites having a diameter of c. 10m. A number of fragments of linear field walls were also noted on the plateau.

One important result arising from this preliminary survey was that there does not seem to be any major overlap between different enclosures and no obvious rebuilding phases seem to be present. This is an important factor with regard to understanding the time span and actual purpose of this large cluster of enclosures.

The finds from the excavations consisted of a number of chert concave scrapers, a chert convex scraper, a flint plano-convex knife, debitage from chert working, a few fragments of coarseware, decorated pottery, bones (mainly from cattle), charcoal and hazelnut shells. Enclosure 1 was by far the richest in finds, and most were retrieved from in and under the collapsed wall. The plano-convex flint knife together with some concave scrapers and chert debris were found in Enclosure 88 in the thin layer of gravel just underneath the topsoil. At Enclosure 65, where the deep grykes were excavated, a concave scraper together with chert debris, a few cremated bones and charcoal constituted the finds. A number of samples for 14C dating were collected, but the results are not yet available.

The coherent assemblage of finds from the three different sites is nearly identical to the finds recovered in the Neolithic hut sites on Knocknarea (Bergh 2000). As no later finds have been recorded in the enclosures, it is reasonable to suggest that the enclosures on Mullaghfarna date from the Neolithic period. If the cultural context and date indicated by the finds is supported by 14C dating, the large cluster of enclosures at Mullaghfarna will raise several issues of paramount importance to our understanding of ritual/domestic behaviour in the Neolithic period.

Work on Mullaghfarna will continue in 2004 with a detailed survey of the entire plateau, including all constructed sites.

Bergh, S. 2000 Transforming Knocknarea: the archaeology of a mountain. Archaeology Ireland 14, 14–18.
Grogan, E. 1980 Houses of the Neolithic period in Ireland and comparative sites in Britain and on the Continent. Unpublished MA thesis, Department of Archaeology, UCD.
Grogan, E. 1996 Neolithic houses in Ireland. In T.C. Darvill and J. Thomas, Neolithic houses in Northern Europe and beyond, 41–60.
Macalister, R.A.S., Armstrong, E.C.R. and Praeger, R.L. 1912 Report on the exploration of Bronze-Age carns on Carrowkeel Mountain, Co. Sligo. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, Vol 29C, 311–47. Dublin.