The type of monuments found at Carrowmore are
the earliest type of passage-grave to be found in Ireland. The Carrowmore passage-graves are open air constructions where a ring of stone surrounds a raised platform or tertre. The raised area supports a central burial chamber constructed of glacial erratics which is usually connected to the boundry circle by a symbolic passage-way.
We believe the Carrowmore monuments to have been built by a colony of very early farmers who arrive in Ireland, most likely from the Carnac region in west France, arriving here by about 4,150 BC, when the causewayed enclosure at Magheraby was constructed. These farmers brought a new kind of burial practice to Ireland: cremations, but where the human remains were placed in a communal burial chamber at the centre of the circle of stones.
The Irish hunter-gatherers already practiced cremation, but from what we can tell, placed a single body in a pit in the ground, sometimes with an artifact such as an axe head. The new form of burial was communal and involved raising the reusable chamber above the surrounding ground level.
The stones that were used to construct the Carrowmore monuments are a very hard form of glacial erratic
called gneiss, which originated in the nearby Ox Mountains where several more neolithic monuments still mark an ancient tribal boundary.
The stones were already present in Carrowmore when the farmers arrived - glacial debris littering the landscape. The newcomers may have chosen this location for several reasons, but a large attraction was the availability of materials.
A local tradition—which is also found in Loughcrew—recounts how the monuments were built by a Cailleach named Garavogue who had a house high up on the Ballygawley mountains. She gathered the rocks in her white apron and cast them across the landscape to form the Carrowmore circles. In the 1880's these monuments were known as the Hag's Beds.
An Exact Circle of about thirty feet in Diameter is described. This is set about with large Flat Stones, each Stone about three or four feet high, standing on their end sunk in the Ground. It takes about fifty of these Stones to form this Circle. In the Centre of this large Circle are Erected in the Form of a Coffin, other Stones of the same kind, and standing up in the same manner, but somewhat larger. Four of these Stones generally forming each side of the Coffin—for so I will call it—and one on each End. The Space within is the Grave. On the Top of these Ten Stones standing on their Edge, is erected a Tombstone, a Monsterous Rock, the underside of which is flat, and Rest on the upper Edges of the Stones which form the Coffin. It is Difficult to imagine how these Ancient Rude People, who knew not the Powers of Levers, could raise and fix, so exactly, such Huge Rocks, many of which weigh above twenty Tons. It probably was done by raising a Slope of Earth about the Coffin, to mount the Tombstone Rock by, which Earth, after its being fixed, was carried away. Of this kind of Monument there are a great many—I believe one hundred—in the large Field of Carrowmore which is a Mile to the South West of Sligoe Town on the Road to Clover Hill.
Reverend William Henry, 1739
There are an
average of thirty to thirty-five stones in each remaining circle, the boulders set side by side in a continious ring. Some of the stones
are placed on a stone packing, the function of which was to keep the tops of the stones level.
The average diameter of a Carrowmore circle is ten to twelve meters, though a few such as Circles 19,
22, 27 and 51 are larger.
The Kissing Stone is the best example of a complete monument remaining today remaining in Carrowmore today. The monument is on private land and public access to this fine monument is not currently permitted.
Carrowmore 7 consists of a complete circle
of boulders about eleven meters in diameter, surrounding a platform which suppurts a beautifully graceful
dolmen, or floating stone table. The sockets of missing stones were
found during the excavations, which show that there was once a short passage
leading into the chamber.
Art and Astronomy
According to official sources, only one monument—the Kissing Stone— has an astronomical alignment. In reality it is probably better to view these early monuments as free-standing sundials rather than precisely focussed later instruments like Cairn T or Newgrange.
The photograph of the Kissing Stone by Ken William's, above illustrates the idea that these monuments can function quite well as sundials. The monument with the most obvious astronomical alignment is Listoghil, the largest and most impressive dolmen, and the only Carrowmore monument to be covered by a cairn.
The largest monument at Carrowmore is the great chamber at Listoghil which was constructed around 5,600 BC. The chamber is supported by a massive platform which may date to beyond 4,000 BC.
Listoghil has the largest capstone found in Carrowmore, a massive slab of limestone which is believed to have been quarried in the Glen close to the court-cairn at Primrose Grange.
The great chamber at Listoghil would have functioned as a sophisticated sundial, sitting within concentric rings of circles upon its great platform, commanding a total panorama of the surrounding mountains. The limestone slab covering the chamber is inclined towards the mountains at an angle that captures the sunbeam on the underside of the chamber roof. The triangular blocking stone in the doorway casts a dramatic shadow like a witch's hat. A piece of engraved neolithic art on the edge of the stone seems to illustrate the alignment and event.
A Great Wheel
Though the circles at Carrowmore are quite ruined, fourteen of the monuments have the remains of passages. A few of these symbolic entrances point back to Listoghil at the heart of Carrowmore, but several point to other monuments or indeed to sites on the nearby mountains.
However, Carrowmore ultimately seems to be a model of an older monument or sacred place, possibly back in Brittany or even Anatolia. Carrowmore was a great wheel of some forty stone circles or passage-graves with one large monument representing the chamber close to the heart of the complex.
of the larger boulders were split in half, a feature that can be seen
in the chamber of Circle 27. The rock is rich with
veins of quartz, and was brought to the site not by hand, but by retreating
glaciers during the ice age. Several fields of gneiss boulders lying as
they were dropped by the galciers can be seen from the path up Knocknarea
on the left (west) side, and gives an impression of what Carrowmore looked
like before the circles were built.
The Cuil Iorra peninsula
where Carrowmore is located is limestone covered with a mantle of glacial
gravel. The complex is located on a plateau at the centre of the peninsula,
with the circles built around the edge. Some limestone slabs were used
in the monuments, but not many compared to the gneiss boulders. A good
example if the massive capstone on the chamber at site
51, which is thought to have been quarried at the
Glen on the south slope of Knocknarea.
Some loose limestone slabs may have been used as roofing for the passages
(again there is a good example at Site 27).
Quartz at Carrowmore
Fragments of quartz
were found in most of the circles, and these would have come from the
Ox Mountains to the south, specifically from the area around Croughan. Most of Wood-Martin's excavation reports mention fragments or chunks of quartz.
One small piece of clear rock crystal, discovered in Circle 3, had a hole drilled through the end and
was used as a pendant or pendelum. Reverend Henry mentions abundant rock crystals around Knocknarea and Queen Maeve's cairn.
Quartz was also found in the ditches of the causewayed enclosure at Magheraboy close-by. Here some thirty chunks of quartz were buried in a ring around a deposited axe head, almost mimicking a Carrowmore monument.
is no evidence of cairns or mounds ever having covered the chambers of the Carrowmore
monuments, with the exception of Listoghil. The satellite monuments were all free-standing, constructed on a raised platform or tertres which can be up to
a meter above the surrounding ground level.