Carrowmore, County Sligo (Irish: An Cheathrú Mhór, meaning Great Quarter) is one of the four major passage tomb cemeteries in Ireland. It is located at the centre of a prehistoric ritual landscape on the Cúil Irra Peninsula in County Sligo in Ireland.
Around 30 megalithic tombs can be seen in Carrowmore today. The tombs (in their original state) were almost universally ‘dolmen circles’; small dolmens each enclosed by a boulder ring of 12 to 15 meters. Each monument had a small levelling platform of earth and stone. One of the secrets of the dolmens longevity was the well executed stone packing set around the base of the upright stones. The combination of 5 of these orthostats and a capstone enclosed a pentagonal burial chamber. The boulder circles contain 30 – 40 boulders, usually of gneiss, the material of choice for the satellite tombs. Sometimes an inner boulder circle is present. Entrance stones, or passage stones, crude double rows of standing stones, emphasise the direction of the small monuments; they generally face towards the area of the central tomb. The ‘satellite tombs’ or dolmens are distributed in a roughly oval shape about 1 km x .6 km, with the largest monument at the highest point at the centre, a cairn (now restored) called Listoghil.
Radiocarbon dates from the survey and excavation project in the 1970s, 80s and 90s by Professor Göran Bürenhult has caused controversy amongst archaeologists, particularly dates from one of the tombs of 5,400 BC (before the perceived advent of agriculture in Ireland). But were the tombs we see today built here this early? Objections include ‘old wood’ theories, earlier depositions of material, and simply inadequate numbers of dates. The idea of Mesolithic tomb builders is still advocated by Burenhult, although this runs in the face of the prevailing view, which generally associates Neolithic farming societies with megalithic sites. Supporters of the early dates sometimes point to similarly ancient dates attributed to chamber tombs in Brittany where Mesolithic microliths have been found in association with at least one passage grave, and some other very early dates in the Sligo area.
Perhaps the key point is that Burenhults work and the work of later researchers places the bulk of the megalith building in Carrowmore at between 4300 and 3500 BC, more in keeping with Neolithic dating but still unusually early. It also upturned the idea that Irish prehistoric sites such as Knowth and Newgrange were the earliest in Ireland. Excavation of other tombs in the Cuil Irra area has indicated that although they employed different architectural styles, many co-existed contemporaneously with Carrowmore. Recent archaeology by the National Roads Authority for the Inner Relief Road route in Magheraboy near Sligo has shown that a huge causewayed enclosure existed at the same time as Carrowmore. Listoghil (The Central Tomb, aka. Tomb 51) has been dated to about 3600 BC.
Because of the assemblage of material found within the monuments, the clustering, and the layout of the structures, Carrowmore – like Newgrange and Lough Crew – is classified as being part of the Irish Passage Tomb Tradition. There has long been debate about how the different tomb types – ‘passage tombs’, ‘court tombs’, ‘portal dolmens,’ and ‘wedge tombs’ – all of which occur in County Sligo – should be interpreted. Are they indicative of different ‘cultures,’ or peoples? Of different functions for a single community? Perhaps research into DNA or other techniques of the future will finally resolve these questions.
Almost all the burials at Carrowmore were cremations with inhumations being only found at Listoghil. It is apparent that the dead underwent a complex sequence of treatments, including excarnation and reburial. Grave goods include antler pins with mushroom-shaped heads and stone or clay balls, a fairly typical assemblage of the Irish element of the passage tomb tradition. Some of the tombs and pits nearby contained shells from shellfish, echoing the finds of shell middens along the coast of Cuil Irra. The Carrowmore megaliths were sometimes re-used and re-shaped by the people of Bronze Age and Iron Age times. They remained focal points on the landscape for long after they were built. The role of megaliths as monuments and foci of ceremony and celebration, as well as markers on the landscape is emphasised by archaeologists such as Richard Bradley. Earlier commentators – who called the monuments ‘tombs’ – saw them simply as a repository for the dead, or as markers erected over fallen warriors.
Early unrecorded antiquarian digs disturbed the Carrowmore tombs. The sites were surveyed by George Petrie in 1837, who numbered them all. William Gregory Wood-Martin made the first recorded excavations in the 1880s. The small Carrowmore dolmens are unlikely to have ever been covered by stone cairns. Although such ideas were once popular among antiquarians, the discovery of ‘settings’ of stone and finds close to the chambers, of Viking, Roman and Bronze Age artefacts make it unlikely – according to Burenhult – that such cairns ever existed. One of the satellite tombs, Tomb 27, has a cruciform passage tomb shape, a feature seen in later tombs like Newgrange or Carrowkeel. The roof – now gone – may have been of stone slabs or corbelled.
The building of cairns such as Listoghil or Queen Maeves tomb (on Knocknarea) or Newgrange may represent a new phase of megalith-building of greater scale and ambition than the dolmen circles. They probably required the involvement of more workers and greater organisation. The area of the Cuil Irra peninsula and its hinterlands is dotted with such tombs, often on hilltops, which inspired Professor Stefan Bergh to style it ‘the Landscape of the Monuments’.