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Michael McDonagh, Head of National Monuments, inspecting the damage at Ballygawley, a famous Irish Neolithic site.          Source: Sligo Neolithic Landscapes

Irish Neolithic Sites At Risk From Vandals and Treasure Hunters

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Irish Neolithic sites , and Stone Age monuments are being destroyed by treasure hunters , vandals, and visitors. Some of the tombs date back 5000 years and are among the oldest of their kind in Europe. Now it is feared that Irish Neolithic sites and other ancient historic monuments that have endured for thousands of years may be wrecked by the curious and the misguided.

County Sligo , in western Ireland, is famous for its stone age monuments. There have been 75 identified and they make up ‘almost one-third of the estimated 240 in the State, according to the Sligo Neolithic Landscapes Group’ reports the Irish Times . The vast majority of them date to the Neolithic period .

Mysterious Irish Neolithic Sites and Monuments

Among the many remarkable monuments in County Sligo the Carrowkeel megalithic cemetery stands out. It consists of 15 passage tombs and cairns and was in use from the Neolithic period right through to the Bronze Age. It is believed that a roof-box found at the site may be an indication that it was used for astronomical purposes.

A megalithic passage tomb in Carrowkeel is one of several that has been damaged in recent weeks. (Shane Finan / CC BY-SA 4.0)

A megalithic passage tomb in Carrowkeel is one of several that has been damaged in recent weeks. (Shane Finan / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

In the Carrowmore megalithic cemetery , which also has many passage tombs, a mysterious underground circular structure encircling a raised platform was found. There are also many satellite tombs to be found at Carrowmore, which formed part of a ritual landscape.

Many of the Sligo monuments feature in Celtic mythology and they have become popular with visitors in recent years and this is causing a lot of problems.

Sligo Neolithic Landscapes Group is quoted by The Irish Times as warning that the area is “a very fragile landscape” which is under “grave existential threat” from tourism and development. This is because visitors and vandals are destroying many of the monuments. The Irish Times reports that experts are seeing damage ‘on a scale never seen before.’ So many people are walking on cairns and other stone structures that they are causing great damage.

Sleeping In Ancient Tombs, Graffiti, and Theft

Queen Maebdh’s cairn, one of the best-known known landmarks in the area, sits on top of a hill and has been damaged by people walking on it.  Dr Robert Hensey, an authority on the area, told The Irish Times that there are “walking scars left by ever-increasing footfall.”

Many of the tombs at Carrowkeel and elsewhere are very fragile. However, people are oblivious to this and they are not respecting the monuments. Dr Hensey is quoted by The Irish Times as saying that “A couple chose to stay in one of the tombs some years ago with straw bedding, and their tins of beans and washing line.”

Representative graffiti at a megalithic site in Malta, Spain (Ethan Doyle White / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Representative graffiti at a megalithic site in Malta, Spain (Ethan Doyle White / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Another problem is graffiti. People have been scratching their names on the stones of Carrowkeel in particular. This is damaging very rare megalithic art at a site that was only discovered in 2009.

And people are taking home stones as mementoes of their trip to the ancient sites. Irish Central quotes the Sligo Neolithic Landscapes Group as stating ‘that so much material had been taken from one passage tomb - Teach Cailleach a’ Bheara (the House of the Witch) - that there is now a hole large enough for an adult to lie in.’

Treasure Hunters Continue to Damage These Sites

Other visitors steal stones from the tombs that contain quartz. There is some evidence that this quartz is being sold online. The taking of stones, no matter their size, from a protected monument is an offence in Ireland but it has not stopped the culprits.

Then there is the problem of illegal treasure hunters, who have caused significant damage. Some misguided and ignorant people believe valuable gold or bronze objects are hidden inside ancient monuments. Dr Hensey is quoted by Archaeology News Network as saying “They may not be aware that stone age sites are over 5,000 years old and predate the use of metals in Ireland.’’ These misguided treasure hunters are wasting their time and damaging Ireland’s heritage.

Ancient beehive hut structures at Skellig Michael in County Kerry, Ireland, used as settings in two Star Wars movies, now attract way too many tourists. (Towel401 / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Ancient beehive hut structures at Skellig Michael in County Kerry, Ireland, used as settings in two Star Wars movies, now attract way too many tourists. (Towel401 / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Race Against Time to Stop The Damage

The vandalism and damage done to the Stone Age structures are a blow to the Sligo Neolithic Landscapes Group, who want to have Sligo’s Neolithic monuments listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Ireland already has two UNESCO listed sites at Brú na Bóinne and Skellig Michael, the latter appeared in two Star Wars movies. The government department stated that it is aware of the problem, but it points out that many of the monuments are not the responsibility of the government and are on private land. However, the Office of Public Works is taking action to preserve the monuments.

Sligo County Council, which supports the efforts to have the sites listed by UNESCO as World Heritage sites, admits that visitors are causing problems but that they have to maintain a ‘balancing act between encouraging tourists and protecting sites’ reports Archaeology News Network . While it is impossible to protect the monuments all the time more needs to be done. This is because without a coherent strategy to safeguard Sligo’s Neolithic heritage it will almost certainly disappear.

Top image: Michael McDonagh, Head of National Monuments, inspecting the damage at Ballygawley, a famous Irish Neolithic site.          Source: Sligo Neolithic Landscapes

By Ed Whelan

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