Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery: Where Prehistoric Ireland went for Ritual Burials in a Big Way
Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery is a prehistoric site located on the Cúil Irra Peninsula, not far from the county town of Sligo in Ireland. With up to 60 megalithic monuments recorded by archaeologists, Carrowmore (meaning ‘Great Quarter’) Megalithic Cemetery is the largest of its kind in Ireland and regarded to be amongst the oldest in Europe. The tombs at this site have provided archaeologists with information about the burial practices of the prehistoric inhabitants of the area.
One out of dozens of satellite tombs found at Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery (Image: Ioannis Syrigos)
The Expansive Carrowmore Cemetery
It has been estimated that there were originally over 100 monuments at Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery. Others have claimed that there had been as many as 200 monuments at the site. During the early part of the 19 th century, however, land clearance by farmers, meddling by amateur archaeologists, and quarrying have caused much damage to the site. About 60 of these monuments have been identified, though only around half of them are visible to visitors today. Various types of tombs are found at the Carrowmore Cemetery, including chamber tombs, cairns, and even ring forts.
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An illustration in the Carrowmore visitor center showing the layout of the site with the main cairn surrounded by dozens of satellite tombs. (Image: Ioannis Syrigos)
The two main types of monuments at the site, however, are passage tombs and dolmens. Passage tombs consist of a burial chamber (either single or multiple) covered with earth or stone and attached to a narrow passage made of large stones.
An Important Burial Site
Carrowmore is one of the four major passage tomb cemeteries in Ireland, the other three being Newgrange, Loughcrew, and Carrowkeel.
The passageway in the largest passage tomb at Carrowmore, known as the Listoghil. (Image: Ioannis Syrigos)
As for the dolmens, these are tombs formed by laying a large flat stone on top of upright stones. At Carrowmore the dolmens are normally surrounded by a circle of standing stones.
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One of the dolmens at Carrowmore. (Image: Ioannis Syrigos)
The results of radiocarbon dating from the 1970s suggest that the oldest monuments at Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery were built around 4600 BC, and more tombs were added over the centuries. Folklore, on the other hand, date these tombs to Ireland’s mythological past, asserting that they date to the Battle of Magh Tuireadh, where the Firbolgs were defeated by the Tuatha De Danann. There is evidence that during the subsequent Bronze and Iron Ages, some of the tombs were re-used and re-shaped, an indication that these monuments continued to make their presence on the landscape felt long after the cultures that built them had disappeared.
A satellite tomb with central dolmen at Carrowmore. This particular tomb is on private land and not accessible to the public. (Image: Ioannis Syrigos)
The Significant Central Monument
Archaeologists have recognised a ‘pattern’ to the burial ground. The largest monument at the site is a cairn known as Listoghil. Apart from that, Listoghil is also notable for being the only one at the site that is known to have been decorated with megalithic art. Moreover, this is the only tomb at the cemetery where both cremations and inhumations have been found. It may be added that cremation was the norm at the site. In any case, archaeologists have found that the rest of the tombs were arranged in a roughly oval shape around Listoghil, suggesting that this may have been the focal point of the cemetery.
The central burial chamber inside the Listoghil. (Image: Ioannis Syrigos)
The Humans Within
The human remains found in the tombs suggest that the prehistoric inhabitants of the region had a complex set of funerary practices, and included such processes as excarnation (the removal of the flesh and organs of a dead person before burial), and reburial. Additionally, the grave goods that have been found in the tombs serve to provide further information about the people who lived in the area during that period. These grave goods include antler pins with mushroom-shaped heads, and stone / clay balls, which are the usual objects found in the passage tombs of Ireland.
An illustration reconstructing one of the human burials and grave goods found in one of the tombs at Carrowmore. (Image: Ioannis Syrigos)
Finally, it may be said that there are various questions about the tombs at Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery that have yet to be answered. One of these, for instance, relates to how the presence of these different types of tombs in one area ought to be interpreted. Are these tombs indicative of different cultural groups, or perhaps a reflection of the social hierarchy of the community, or maybe something totally different?
Ancient Origins visited Carrowmore Cemetery in 2017. April Holloway, who now writes with her real name Joanna Gillan, reports from inside the Listoghil.
Top image: Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery Photo source: Ioannis Syrigos
All images courtesy of Ioannis Syrigos.
By Wu Mingren
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