We may fairly claim that the investigation of the group of monuments described in the foregoing pages has given us a remarkably full picture of the life and customs of the Bronze Age in Ireland.
It is true that no object of metal or stone witnessing to the high technical skill to which the people of this period are known to have attained came to light. It is also true that none of the carns showed any marks of the artistic influences which radiated from the civilization of the eastern Mediterranean, and which are so strikingly evidenced by the incised decoration of the analogous monuments in Meath.
In the remains of the settlements we find at least a hint of the nature of the dwellings of the Bronze-age people; and of the considerations that led them to a choice of site. In the imposing series of carns on the mountain top and their contents, we find mirrored the physical character, social and architectural skill of their builders; and, thanks to the organization, happy circumstance that most of the were completely unrified, we have gained a fuller insight into the burial ritual of the Bronze Age in Ireland than ever before.
Even though the people did not indulged in incised ornament, the constructive skill displayed (notably in Carns F and G) shows that the ancient dwellers in county Sligo were on the same cultural level as their brethren in Meath; and the fact that their monuments remained undisturbed has enabled us, by their investigation, to fill in lacunae in our knowledge which were inevitable, owing to the plundered state of the typical monuments of Loughcrew and the Boyne.
When the Bronze Age settlement established itself on Carrowkeel Mountain, the physical aspect of the surrounding country was very different from what we see to-day. Much of the lower ground was covered by dense forests, in which ranged the Red Deer, the Wild Boar, and the Bear (as the bone deposits in the carns have shown), and no doubt such other species as are known to zoologists to have inhabited Ireland at that time.
Very likely the stone walls round the dwellings served the important purpose of keeping out Wolves. Interspersed among the forests were extensive areas of swamp. The hill itself is extensive and isolated. It commands wide views in every direction, so that timely warning could be given of the approach of marauders.
The spur on which the village is built could be converted into a fortress with but little of the fissures and that chimneys trouble; walls at the by building tops here and there break the continuity of its almost perpendicular walls of cliffs, it could be made almost impregnable. Thus defined, the spur strongly resembles the site of many of the promontory forts with which the labours of Mr. Westropp have made us familiar.
The tribe evidently belonged to the primitive dolichocephalic Neolithic stock which was spread over western and southern Europe, and now forms a leading element in the modern population of Ireland.
There is evidence in the two ox-bones in Carn E that this animal was domesticated. The fish of the lake and the game of the forest offered an abundant store of food to the inhabitants. There was no evidence as to whether they did or did not practise the arts of agriculture. The weak point of the village site is the scantiness of the water-supply. The springs of the hill are few and feeble; and there seems to be none within the immediate neighbourhood of the site.
The village consisted of some fifty circular hut-sites, more or less protected by the cliff-walls of the spur on which it stands. It may be as well to anticipate here an objection. We assume that this extensive colony is connected with the carns which surround it on three sides. The truth of this neighbourhood assumption cannot be demonstrated.
On the bare, wind-swept, rain-washed rock surfaces, so far as we could see, not so much as a splinter of bone remains to tell of its former occupants or their mode of life. On the other hand, the assumption seems capable of justification by a process of exclusion.
The buildings are not comparable with the Iron Age and Early Christian settlements of Fahan and elsewhere; nor are they of the same nature as the early medieval steadings whose remains are known as ring-forts. Though all these types of buildings are round, analogy ends there.
The Carrowkeel community was distinguished from the others by its position in a strongly fortified situation, remote from any place where agriculture is possible; and by its organisation, in that it is close and compact, not spread widely in single huts over a large area of land. It is difficult to see to what period other than the Bronze Age this very primitive settlement can be assigned.
When we turn to the carns, our attention is immediately arrested by the variety which they display, both in design and in execution. Two of them, A and P, are completely blind, being apparently cenotaphs like Carn D at Loughcrew. Others, like H or O, have in their heart small cists, with or without passages leading to them.
Others have elaborate and well-built chambers, comparable in excellence of structure with that in Brugh na Boinne, though of course on a less grandiose scale. The plan of the carns is more or less round in all, but E is a marked exception to this rule. Again, the rude architecture of some, such as H and O, contrasts strikingly with the constructive and artistic skill displayed by others, such as F and G.
Had the monuments been found rifled, we would have felt inevitably drawn to the conclusion that they represented widely different culture-strata; and indeed we long laboured under the impression that Carn F was Neolithic. But the absolute uniformity of the deposits shows clearly that all the carns were in use at one and the same period: the contents even of E were in all respects similar to those in its neighbours.
It has been pointed out in the foregoing pages that in the days of the carn-builders the hill was not covered with peat to the same extent as at present. Sub-aerial denudation, extending over a long period of time, must have resulted in the presence of a large number of blocks of limestone, lying loose on the surface. These were available for the builders.
But in those carns which show a superiority of construction, it is evident that no mere haphazard choice of material was made. The symmetry of corresponding blocks, the absolute identity of appearance in groups of blocks, notably in the slabs facing the chambers in Carn F, proving that they came from the same bed, show clearly that the architect who superintended the construction selected his materials carefully, if, indeed, he did not cause them to be specially quarried. The use of sandstone in places where a heavy weight had to be sustained is also an indication of architectural forethought and design.
That no metal objects were found may be accounted for on the ground of economy, bronze being too valuable to waste on tomb-deposits. The implements found with greatest frequency were pointed tools of bone or stone, sometimes perforated at the butt, and pegs or pins of bone with expanding heads. Similar objects are characteristic of the contemporaneous interments at Loughcrew. Possibly these pins had been used to fasten the bag of cloth into which the ashes from the funeral pyre were collected.
With regard to the religious ideas of the people, the first point to indicate is the great importance attached by them to sepulture. This is evidenced first by the extraordinary pains taken in the construction of the monuments; and, secondly, by the commanding sites chosen for them.
The latter point is capable of two explanations, between which it is impossible to choose. It was intended either that the deceased tribesmen should overlook as wide an area of the clan territory as possible, or that the monuments themselves should be a centre upon which eyes could be turned from the remotest limits of the lands of the tribe.
The well-established fact that cremation and inhumation co-existed in the Bronze Age once more receives an illustration. For, while certain isolated unburnt bones might have escaped the fire accidentally, this cannot be said of the nearly complete skeletons found in the narrow passage of H, and in the cist of O. Burning evidently took place outside the carn, and the ashes were then placed either in an urn or (more frequently) on a flat stone in the matter case possibly wrapped in a cloth, and then laid inside the chamber: as a rule, in the side cellae.
Once again we find evidence of the well-known, though inexplicable, custom of burying white stones with the deceased. Not only inside the carns but even inside the piles of stones covering the chamber were found numerous lumps of calcite, much rolled, which there is every reason to believe had been from a considerable distance. One remarkable collection of about a dozen of these stones lay just outside the doorway of K.
Pebbles of white quartz, also foreign to the district, were likewise found. One of the rounded brought stones found in F was bored by the mollusk Saxicava rugosa. This and the shell of Natica catena from Carn H show that the people of the. community penetrated as far as the sea-shore in their search for objects of religions or aesthetic value.
There seems every reason to assign a ritual purpose to the two ox vertebrae deposited in specific places in Carn F, especially when we bear in mind the sanctity attached to the ox in early religions, and when we consider that in the same chamber was a remarkable menhir, beside which, evidently a of set selected water-worn stones.
This menhir is the central point of interest in the whole series of structures. That it is constructional is absolutely out of the question. Its central position in the sanctum sanctorum of the most imposing of all the carns indicates that it had a peculiar importance. That it is a religious symbol is scarcely questionable; and here we have, therefore, some light on the general question of the age and use of the standing-stones that are so conspicuous among the pre historic monuments of Ireland.
The growth of peat over the whole surface of the hill has greatly changed the appearance of the land since the carns were erected; the determination of the period of this growth is a not unimportant collateral result of the excavation. We have no means of knowing when this settlement came to an end, or what was its ultimate fate.
But Irish archaeologists are to be congratulated on the fact that, save for some structural failures, and the minor depredations of boys, the chief monuments of the series have kept their main secrets intact during the centuries that have elapsed since the last interment was made within them.