Banner: Knocknarea at Sunset.
Martin Brennan at Carrowmore.
American researcher of ancient art and astronomy, Martin Brennan investigating the central chamber of Listoghil in 2009. Brennan wrote the highly influential Stars and the Stones, making a link between neolithic art and astronomical events, discovering several alignments in Loughcrew in the process. The engraving, highlighted here using Photoshop, is oriented to the sunrises in early Novermer, when the sun appears to rise from the magical lake, Lough Da Ge, in the Ballygawley Mountains six kilometers to the southwest.

Dating the Carrowmore monuments.

The earliest antiquarian visitors to write about Carrowmore quite plausibly believed the site to be the cemetery of the warriors who were killed during the mythical First Battle of Moytura, which historian Henry Morris has argued took place on the strand at Tanrego a short distance south of Carrowmore. Many early researchers visited the complex and commented on the antiquity of the dolmens or cromleacs as they were named. The term dolmen seems to have come into use some 200 years old when it was used to describe the Table de Marchand in Brittany, the homeland of the Carrowmore people.

Watercolor of Carrowmore 7 by George Elcock.
Watercolor of the Kissing Stone, dolmen 7 at Carrowmore by Charles Elcock dated 29 August 1882. Elcock has made the person appear child or hobbit sized to make the dolmen seem larger, a trick often used by Victorian illustrators of monuments.

Reverend William Henry speculated on the origins of the builders in 1739:

What Ancient Nation inhabiting Ireland contrived the last described Supulchral Monument, it is not easy to ascertain, probably these Aborigonals were the same with the Gauls and Druids, the first inhabitants of Great Britain. These kind of Monuments being found in some parts of Great Britain, and nearly resembling that stupendous one of Stone Henge in Salisbury Plains which is supposed to be the Work of the Ancient Gauls and Druids.

By the 1970's the Carrowmore monuments were considered to be a degenerate form of passage-grave (a term coined by Michael Herity) built by the jaded descendants of the brilliant people who had constructed Newgrange and the huge mounds in the Boyne Valley. That scenario, which was still being taught when I was in college in the late 1980's, saw the passage-grave people arriving on the east coast of Ireland where the huge and sophisticated mega-monuments are found. As the builders migrated west their monuments were imagined to devolve into simpler and simpler forms until you arrive at the simple form of boulder-built monuments found in such profusion at Carrowmore.

Erratic gneiss boulders to the south of Carrowmore.
Erratic gneiss boulders to the south of Carrowmore.

Before the advent of radiocarbon dating, passage-graves were believed to date to the Bronze age, which began in Ireland about 2,500 BC. We now know that several of the very early neolithic circles in Carrowmore were taken over and reused for ritual, ceremony and burial during the Bronze age, while a great number of barrows were built around the great complex.

Excavations at Primrose Grange.
Photo of an early phase of the excavations at the court tomb at Primrose Grange, about three kilometers west of Carrowmore, in 1994. Photo © GÖRAN BURENHULT.

Göran Burenhult

The first modern researcher to attempt dating Carrowmore was Göran Burenhult, who conducted a series of excavations between 1977 - 1982 and again from 1994 - 1998. Burenhult's conclusions, based on early dates from charcoal samples, was that Carrowmore was a primal site where mesolithic hunter-gatherers were transforming into neolithic farmers independent of continental influences. The Carrowmore passage-graves were an extremely early homegrown, indeginous expression of the native mesolithic people.

Carrowmore 27, Photo  © Göran Burenhult.
Swedish excavation at Carrowmore 27. This is a verticle photo of one of the three recesses of the chamber, the only cruciform chamber found at Carrowmore. Photo © Göran Burenhult.

Burenhult's most remote date from Carrowmore, 5,400 B.C., was extremely early and most Irish archeologists have long dismissed as being far too old, and more likely to be a possible indication of mesolithic activity. It has long been postulated that colonising neolithic farmers tend to take over sites and territories held sacred by their mesolithic predecessors.

However, these exciting and contraversial dates made world headlines, helped by Burenhult's media-friendly approach, and it is still quite common to find the Carrowmore dolmens listed as the oldest free-standing buildings in the world.

Excavations at Carrowmore 56, photo by Goran Burenhult, 1994.
Excavations at Carrowmore 56, photo by Goran Burenhult, 1994.

Stones and Bones

In 2002 an archaeology seminar called Stones and Bones was held in Sligo in honour of Michael O'Kelly, the excavator of Newgrange. Göran Burenhult (who was invited to dig at Carrowmore by Professor O'Kelly), who hosted the seminar, defended his dates and introduced his latest research from Primrosegrange an unusual neolithic monument close to Carrowmore and the Glen at Knocknarea.

The remains at Primrose Grange consist of the chamber of some kind of a court-tomb, one of three found on the Cuil Iorra peninsula. The monument was excavated by Dr. Göran Burenhult and his team in the late 1990's while they were also working on the sites at Carrowmore, two kilometers to the east of Primrose Grange.

This tomb was excavated between 1996 and 1998 as part of the Swedish Archaeological Excavations campaign at Carrowmore. The excavations have shown that '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 tomb has produced large quantities of unburned human bones, as well as stone and bone artefacts. All the burials found in tomb were inhumations. The finds included extraordinary pieces of chert artefacts, mainly leaf-shaped or pointed arrow-heads. (Burenhult 1998)

The flint spear head found in Listoghil at Carrowmore in County Sligo.
The flint spear head found in Listoghil at Carrowmore in County Sligo.

Recent genetic archaeological research using Ancient DNA has discovered a link between individuals buried in Primrose Grange and a man buried in the central chamber of Listoghil at Carrowmore. The huge flat slab which was used as a capstone for the Listoghil dolmen is though to have come from the Glen of Knocknarea, the eastern end of which is just north of the Primrose Grange monument.

Carrowmore 26
Circle 26 at Carrowmore was constructed and used during its primary phase during the early neolithic. It was altered and reused during the Bronze age, when the central chamber was dismantled and removed, and an entrance added to the ring. Burials were also discovered dating from around the beginning of the Iron age, around 550 BC.

Mesolithic dates at Croughan!

Archaeologist Stefan Bergh discovered another even earlier date of 5,800 BC was taken from a piece of charcoal found under the chamber on the summit of Croghaun, a distcintive peak a few kilometers south of Carrowmore. Since the charcoal deposit was found in a chamber socket on the small bald summit of a hill, it is hard to plausibally explain this date away. It may be that in mesolithic times this hilltop was used for a bonfire or beacon.

The view to Croughan from Eochy's cairn on the strand at Tanrego.
The view to the pyramid-shaped hill of Croughan, where there is a small Carrowmore style chamber on the peak, from the monument known as Eochy's cairn on the strand at Tanrego near Beltra.

Burenhult has continued to maintain that his dates, taken from samples of charcoal, are accurate, and represent the construction or foundation of the monuments. Others argued have that these charcoal samples may have been from earlier mesolithic or even forest fires; passage-graves are frequently built on sites taken over from the earlier mesolithic people.

Burenhult's dates for Carrowmore circles:

A bronze age barrow to the north of Carrowmore.
A bronze age ring-barrow to the north of Carrowmore.
Burenhult, G. 2003 'Megalithic Chronologies'. In G. Burenhult (ed.) Stones and Bones: formal deposition of the dead in Atlantic Europe during the Mesolithic-Neolithic interface 6000-3000 BC.
The chamber at Listoghil..
The platform, cairn and chamber at Listoghil, the focal monument at Carrowmore. The burial chamber, built around 3,600 BC contained the remains of at least seven uncremated individuals, whose remains were scattered when Roger Walker cleared out the dolmen. Ancient DNA has linked the individuals buried here with those in Carrowkeel and Newgrange.

Unpicking the Chronology of Carrowmore

However, not everyone is convinced by Burenhult's ideas and interpretations, and his dates have remained contraversial. In 2012 Stefan Bergh and Robert Hensey published a paper titled Unpicking the Chronology of Carrowmore which examined Burenhult's dates and went on to establish a range of dates for the use of Carrowmore using samples of red deer antler pins found in the cremations. The antler pins, excavated in Circle 3 and Circle 55, gave a range of dates, assuming they were included with the internments, for burial use spanning 800 years, from 3,800 to 3,000 BC.

The Causewayed Enclosure at Magheraboy in County Sligo
The early neolithic causewayed enclosure at Magheraboy in County Sligo, which has been dated to 4,150 BC. Illustration by James Murphy.

These dates fit well with the earliest known causewayed enclosure in either Ireland or England, located at Maghernaboy close to Carrowmore and Carns Hill, where construction had began around 4,150 BC.This little known monument may was discovered by accident during the construction of a new road in 2003. It is also fascinating to think that red deer were extcinct in Ireland at the time, having died out at the end of the ice age. Either the live animals or their antlers were imported into Ireland from the continent.

The chamber at Listoghil..
The chamber at Listoghil, which contained the remains of at least seven uncremated individuals, whose remains were scattered when Roger Walker cleared out the chamber. Ancient DNA has linked the individuals buried here with those in Carrowkeel and Newgrange.

So to put Carrowmore in its correct chronological context, the causewayed enclosure at Magheraboy dates from 4,150 BC and the great tertre or platform of Listoghil to about 6,100 BC. The free-standing chamber at Listoghil was constructed around 5,550 BC, that date coming from dates obtained from the skull of a male individual buried there. The cairn seems to have been added to Listoghil around 3,200 BC, around the time the huge cairns on Carns Hill and Knocknarea are thought to have been raised.

The chamber at Listoghil..
The chamber at Listoghil, which contained the remains of at least seven uncremated individuals, whose remains were scattered when Roger Walker cleared out the chamber. Ancient DNA has linked the individuals buried here with those in Carrowkeel and Newgrange.

Both the Great Pyramid and the stone phase at Stonehenge date to about 2,500 BC contemporary with the arrival of the Bronze age in Ireland.

Carrowmore 32.
The unexcavated Circle 32 to the south of Carrowmore, with a fine view to Knocknarea.