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Cairn L in 1895
A rare image of Cairn L without a roof, from Wood-Martin's Archaeology of Pagan Ireland, 1895.

Cairn L - Conwell's excavation

Eugene Conwell describes his excavations at Cairn L which took place in 1865 and were published in 1873.

Carn L is forty-five yards in diameter, surrounded by 42 large stones, laid length-wise on their edges, and varying from six to twelve feet in length, and from four to five feet high. Great quantities of the loose stones which formed the apex of this carn have been removed, of which there are very visible evidences.

A curve inwards in the circumference of ten yards in length, on each side of a point having a bearing of East 20° South, indicates the direction of the entrance or passage which commences at a distance of eighteen feet inward from the circumference.

The entrance to Cairn L at Loughcrew.
The entrance to Cairn L at Loughcrew; photo by William Armstrong Green.

Finding a large flag on the top of the mutilated carn, we removed it and two others before we observed that we were actually taking to pieces what remained of the original construction of the roof.

The principal portion of the overlapping flags which formed the roof over the chambers had disappeared, leaving them filled up with the loose stones which had fallen in.

When the chambers were carefully cleared of these small stones, they exhibited in situ about forty of the large plinths which formed the matchless, dry, cyclopean masonry of the roof.

This dome was constructed of large slabs overlapping one another, and bevelled slightly upwards, having most ingeniously inserted between them thinner slabs, which, on receiving the superincumbent weight, became crushed, and formed a bond for the whole.

Wherever this precaution of placing thinner slabs or smaller stones between the larger ones was omitted, the larger slabs themselves are now found cracked across. What at present remains of this unique roofing rises twelve feet above the level of the floor, which is even with the ordinary surface of the ground. The breadth of the passage at the commencement is one foot ten inches, which increases to upwards of three feet about the middle, and contracts again to one foot nine inches where it terminates.

Corbels within Cairn L.
Corbels within Cairn L.

The passage itself is twelve feet long; and the entire length, from the commencement of the passage to the extremity of the western chamber, is twenty-nine feet. The greatest breadth across the chambers is thirteen feet two inches, measured from nearly north and south points, diminishing to ten feet four inches where the passage terminates.

The seven chambers composing the interior of this great tomb are quadrangular and nearly square; the first on the left-hand side, at the termination of the passage, is four feet eight inches in breadth; the second three feet six inches; the third two feet two inches; the fourth four feet three inches; the fifth five feet ten inches; the sixth three feet five inches; and the seventh two feet six inches.

From among the loose stones wliich filled up the chamber we collected 1010 portions of bones; two bone flakes similar to those found in Carn H; 154 fragments of very rude pottery, varying in size from one to thirty square inches. Some fragments retain their original brown colour, but the generality of them are much blackened by fire on the inside surface, and for a distance round the exterior of the lip, or upper rim of the urns, of which they were parts.

One piece, a portion of the upper edge of an urn, about three inches long and three broad, is very rudely ornamented with three slight ridges; and about an inch from the top is perforated by a single hole. Another larger piece, ornamented with four slightly raised ridges, is perforated by two holes, one an inch and a half below the other.

Cairn L at Loughcrew photographed by William Armstrong Green.
Cairn L at Loughcrew photographed by William Armstrong Green.

Incense Burners

Mr. Bateman mentions urns with similar perforations, which he supposes were for suspension, and which he classes as incense urns. On this subject Canon Greenwell writes to us on 28th March, 1868:

"The so-called incense cups have generally holes in the sides, sometimes near the top, at other times near the bottom. Most frequently they have two holes, but these increase in number until I have seen as many as twenty-seven, and I know of three or four 'incense cups' with open-work sides, which is only an extension of the holes.

These 'incense cups' are small, like ordinary pot salt-cellars, while the fragments you found are of larger vessels. I have a cinerary urn sixteen inches high, which has two holes, and I have fragments of domestic vessels of large size pierced. The large urn (sixteen inches) could never be suspended by means of the holes, nor can it be for suspension that incense cups have twenty-seven holes. Some other use must be found for them."

We believe the specimens now found are new in this country—at least we have not seen, nor have we heard of any such having been found in Ireland before this date.

Extending along the floor of the passage, completely covering it, and inclining a little way into the space surrounded by the interior chambers, seven in number, lies a flag eight feet nine inches long, three feet six inches broad, and about six inches thick.

Close around the western end of this stone the earth on the floor, to a depth of about two inches, was perfectly black, arising, it appeared to us, from the presence of blackened ashes; from which it may probably be inferred that the process of cremation was performed on this stone.

On the floor of the second chamber, and shut in by an upright stone of a foot high and four inches thick, rests a quadrangular stone basin, hollowed out from the sides towards the centre, to a depth of three and a quarter inches, and having a piece taken out of one of its sides. It measures two feet eleven inches in length by two feet broad, and is about six inches in thickness. Mixed with the earth under this sepulchral basin were found many fragments of charred bones and several human teeth.

Above we present a view of the fifth or opposite chamber.
Above we present a view of the fifth or opposite chamber.

The broader end of the oval-shaped stone dish or basin points to the east, the narrower to the west. Its greatest length is five feet nine inches; at a distance of eighteen inches from the narrower extremity it is three feet one inch broad, and at eighteen inches from the other extremity it is seven inches broader, where, on the side facing the chambers, a curve of about four inches broad has been scooped out of the side of the stone.

A raised rim, running all round it, varies from two to four inches in breadth, rising about an inch above the otherwise perfectly level surface of the stone, which has been tooled or picked.

After the interior chambers had been cleared of all the loose stones, which had tilled them up, on Tuesday evening, 19th September, 1865, in presence of Mr. Naper, Mr. Hamilton, Archbishop Errington, and a number of ladies, we turned up this remarkable stone basin, and beneath it were revealed to view several splinters of charred and blackened bones, with about a dozen small pieces of charcoal lying in various directions.

Cairn L exterior, photo by William Alfred Green.
Cairn L exterior, photo by William Armstrong Green.

Conwell's Finds from Cairn L

On carefully picking the damp stiff earth underneath it, we found imbedded in it upwards of 900 pieces of charred bones; forty-eight human teeth in a very perfect state of preservation; the pointed end of a bone pin, five and a quarter inches long, and a quarter of an inch thick; a fragment, about an inch in length, of a similar bone pin; a most perfectly rounded syenite ball, still preserving its original polish two and three-quarter inches in diameter; another perfectly round stone ball, streaked with white and purple layers, and about an inch in diameter; another stone ball, upwards of three-quarters of an inch in diameter, of a brown colour, dashed with dark spots; a finely-polished jet-like object, oval in shape, an inch and a quarter in length, and three-quarters of an inch broad; eight white balls (carbonate of lime), which had become quite soft; but which gradually dried, on exposure, to a suflicient degree of hardness to enable us to take them away in a tolerable state of preservation.

These latter, as well as the five similar ones found in Carn H, we consider were "brain balls," won and worn as trophies during life by the champion laid here to his rest, and finally, after death, deposited with his ashes. We here present engravings of two of them (b and c) in their present actual size.

Illustrations from Conwell's report on Loughcrew.
Illustrations from Conwell's report on Loughcrew.

The ball has been previously referred to, and is here given simply to show the coralline character of its structure. Of the soft white balls the best preserved specimen (b) is here accurately represented; and most of the others have become rubbed down very much to the size and appearance of (c).

The chief part of the very remarkable sculpturings on the large upright stone in the rear of the basin have been executed in punched work, but the six triangular figures, which of necessity are here given a little in excess of their relative dimensions, in order to show how the lines impinge, have been regularly grooved or cut into the stone, but not so deeply sunk as the other figures.

On the lower surface of the second large roofing flag, above the upright, and directly over the great sepulchral basin, is a reticulated pattern, finely cut, nine inches long, and varying from three to four inches in breadth, formed by twelve short lines crossing in a slanting direction eight other nearly parallel lines, and so forming about forty quadrilateral figures, varying from half an inch to an inch in breadth, and from an inch to an inch and a half in length.

We should perhaps have previously observed that the large flagstones constituting the chambers in this as well as in the other earns are, as to material, of a uniform character, consisting of compact sandy grit, the natural rock of the locality.

The upright stone, however, on the western side of the basin in this carn is an exception, being a good specimen of a water- washed column of blue limestone, probably from some of the adjoining lakes; and the second stone in Carn W is a similar rock.

In the rear of the sixth or adjoining chamber there is placed a stone the necessity for which in the construction does not appear, as there is an upright behind it forming the back of the compartment. It is a diamond-shaped slab, one corner of which comes into view in the foregoing illustration, placed erect on one of its angles; and it is not a little remarkable that the stone abutting on it is elaborately carved on both sides with diamond-shaped figures.

A Celtic drinking cup, with handle, was discovered by Mr. Bateman in 1850, in a carn about a mile north of Pickering, which was found to be decorated with this same diamond-shaped pattern. Of it he says:—

"'The ornamentation of the vessel is peculiar, consisting chiefly of angularly-pointed cartouches, filled with a reticulated pattern, and having a band of the same encircling the upper part."

Eighteen of the stones in this carn are inscribed.

Sunbeam illuminates megalthic art.
Solar illumination within the right hand recess of the chamber of Cairn L early November 1997.