Banner: Knocknarea at Sunset.
A photo of Cairn E from the 1911 excavation. Armstrong, left and Praegar, right, are about 25 meters apart.

First visit, Carrowkeel, April 1911.

We assembled at Tower Hill House on the afternoon of April 13th. Professor Alexander Macalister and R. A. S. Macalister had gone down a few days before that, and had surveyed some fifty of the ring-forts, of which a remarkable number occurs in the district. On the first afternoon we walked over the hill, examined the different carns, and decided upon our plan of operations.

We began work on the morning of April 14th, with two labourers, beginning with the nearest carn (Carn G). Like most of the others, it is a conical mound of angular limestone blocks, shattered by weather into material road-metal on the outside; but inside the blocks were intact, many of them being as large as a man could lift.

Some indications of an entrance were found about half-way up the slope on the west side, and an hour's work here revealed a deep fissure, caused by the upright slab which blocked the door resembling way having fallen a little outwards. On removing a cover-stone immediately adjoining a block measuring about 2 feet 6 inches long by 12 inches broad by 9 inches deep. we were able to enter.

Entrance to Cairn G.
Entrance to Cairn G.

To our delight, the chamber proved to be not a simple cist, but a large cruciform structure formed of tall slabs, high enough to stand upright in, and consisting of an entrance passage, a central chamber, and three side chambers resembling in general structure the type of monument which in the British Islands was not known previously to exist except in the County of Meath.

The chamber, which is described later, proved intact, and evidently had never been opened since the last sepulture in Bronze-age times. The floor was quite clean, save for a few stones apparently left there by chance. A careful examination of every corner of the passage and chamber was made before any of the bones or stones were removed. Then the materials, burnt bones, earth, and stones, from the three side chambers were brought out into the open air, sifted, and carefully examined. By the time the work was finished the light was fading.

Chamber of Cairn G.
The twin orthostats at the back of the chamber within Cairn G.

Meanwhile, two of us, with the two men, had begun work on the promising carn higher up the hill, marked Carn K. No indication of the probable position of the doorway could be detected, so, reasoning from analogy, an extensive excavation was made half way up the western slope, by pitching out the ragged lumps of limestone.

This proved fruitless, but an attempt on the northern side was more successful, and three hours after commencing work we had repeated the experience of Carn G, and had effected an entrance immediately behind and above the large upright slab which had closed the passage, and which had sagged outwards.

Cairns G, H and K at Carrowkeel in 1911.
A photograph of Armstrong contemplating Cairns G, H and K at Carrowkeel in 1911. Photograph by William A. Green © NMNI.

Within Cairn K

The chamber of this carn proved to be similar to that of Carn G, but larger, having a height of no less than 12 feet. But though no actual displacement had taken place, its condition was not satisfactory, the heavy lintels over all three side chambers being cracked across. The approach of darkness now compelled a cessation of work.

The view out through the passage of Cairn K.
The view out through the passage of Cairn K.

On the morning of the 15th, while Professor A. Macalister and Armstrong commenced the transfer and examination of the material from Carn K, R. A. S. Macalister and Praeger were engaged on the plans and sections of Carn G.

Our men were at first turned on the excavations of what looked like a dilapidated carn a little to the east of Carn H, but it proved to be a natural mound of limestone blocks. Accordingly, they were set to clear out Carn H from the entrance, which, unlike all the others, was open.

A large slab blocking the lower part of the mouth had to be broken up and removed, as also the first roof-stone. The passage was full of small stones, and when these were cleared out we were stopped by a fall some 12 feet in, which effectually barred further progress.

However, this carn had already given promise of good results, for when the loose stones in the passage were cleared out, indications of a rough floor of flat stones were seen, below which were obtained a skull and a large number of human bones, many of them burned unlike those from Carns G and K.

There was nothing for it but to work down from the top of the carn and so uncover the passage and chamber, a laborious process, involving the removal of many tons of loose limestone, most of which had to be pitched out by hand. Daylight was fading by the time that the line of cover stones was cleared ready for raising.

On Monday, 17th, we again divided our forces. Professor A. Macalister and Armstrong continued and concluded the transfer and examination of the large quantity of bones, earth, and stones from Carn K a task occupying the greater part of the day. The extreme inconvenience of the narrow entrance passage made this work more laborious than might be expected. The rest of the party were variously engaged in examining and mapping some of the minor monuments, and completing the plans and elevations of the larger chambers.

Next morning R. A. S. Macalister and the workmen finished the opening of Carn H (which proved to contain a square cist at the end of a curved passage), and Praeger did surveying work.

In the afternoon the material from the passage and chamber of H was removed and examined, a difficult task on account of the extreme narrowness of the passage, and one which engaged the whole party. An essay was made at the very fine Carn F on map, but to our great disappointment it became apparent that some structural fault had caused a collapse of the roof and possibly also of the walls of the chamber.

The remainder of the day was devoted to making plans and elevations of Carn K, and in mapping various outlying monuments. The flagstones forming the floor of Carns G and K were raised, but nothing was found underneath.

Entrance to Cairn H.
Entrance to Cairn H.

The 19th was ushered in by heavy rain, but it cleared partially, and we were at work on the mountain-top by 11.30. Some further surveying was done, and the examination of the material from Carn H was finished. The men were set at clearing out the south end of the interesting long Carn E.

In the afternoon the plans and elevations of Carn K were completed by R. A. S. Macalister and Praeger. The south end of Carn E proving barren, the half-exposed cists at its northern end were partially cleared out. Then, in heavy wind and rain, a cut was made across the middle of this monument, again without result, and work had to be abandoned at 6 p.m.

On the 20th, our last day, work was begun early on the lower of the two carns O and P, situated on the eastern spur of the mountain, on the Misses Ffolliott's property. On our way up to these structures the remarkable village site described below was discovered. There was no indication of an opening in either carn.

We had to work nearly all round Carn O, before we unearthed a cover-stone, and discovered a pentagonal chamber containing a complete urn and some bones; it was covered by a single slab, and had a small ante chamber.

Carn P, situated on the spur overlooking Carn O, was then attacked. It occupied us almost the whole afternoon, and the entire upper part of it was removed without anything being discovered; we continued work till it became clear that no chamber was present. The weather, especially in the latter part of the day, was miserably cold and wet, and added considerably to the difficulty of the work.

Praeger sitting on Cairn F before the excavations began in 1911.
Praeger sitting on Cairn F before the excavations began in 1911. Photograph by William Green © NMNI.