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The huge central court cairn at Creevykeel
The huge central court cairn at Creevykeel near Cliffoney in County Sligo. This massive monument was built during the neolithic, probably by cattle farmers. In this photo the surrounding wall has been digitally removed.

Creevykeel court cairn

This well preserved site is said to be one of the largest court cairns in Ireland. It is one of the easiest sites to visit, as it is right by the Sligo - Donegal N16 road, 1 kilometer north of the village of Cliffoney. There is a parking space signposted, but it is easy to miss on this fast and dangerous road. Ten steps from the carpark is the cairn, which fills its own small field. The old name for Creevykeel is Caiseal an Bhaoisgin, the Fort of Bhaoisgin, Bhaoisgin being the well near the cairn. Bhaoisgin has become Wisken, in todays anglasized Gaelic. Creevykeel is the largest of a chain of five megalithic buildings along this ancient routeway.

Creevykeel from the air
Creevykeel from the air with the surrounding walls removed.

Creevykeel is a massive wedge shaped pile of stones arranged on a roughly east to west axis. The chamber and court open towards the east; the ground is falling away gently towards the sea, so the monument is facing up a gradual slope.

The cairn measures 55 x 25 meters, with the wider edge to the east and tapers away to a narrow tail on the west end. A narrow passage, which would probably have been roofed originally, leads into the massive inner court, which could easily hold 100 people. The court measures 15 x 9 meters.

Creevykeel with the entry lintel rotated upright in photoshop. It is a little too large, but gives a better idea of the original facade of the monument. Wakeman reports that the top of the lintel was 9 feet above the chamber floor.

The standing stones (orthostats) around the court are quite massive chunks of local sandstone studded with pieces of quartz. The stones get larger approaching the opening at the rear of the court, which gives access to an inner chamber, now roofless but which was originaly covered with massive corbels, making a massive artificial cave. A corbel stone on the left as you enter the chamber has a large cobble: a hemispherical boss protudes from the stone, which looks worked but seems natural. The choice of location of this stone is interesting.

A cobble protrudes from a corbel in the chamber of Creevykeel.
A cobble protrudes from a corbel in the chamber of Creevykeel.

At the end of the double chamber is a large slab similar in shape to the engraved equinox slab at Cairn T in Loughcrew, and several other megalithic backstones. There are three smaller chambers at the western end of the monument, two on the north side and one on the south side. These are quite different to the main chamber, and are considered by some archaeologists to be small passage graves.

The metal-working pit at Creevykeel.
The metal-working pit at Creevykeel.

Excavations at Creevykeel in 1935

Creeveykeel, 1880 by William Wakeman
Creeveykeel, 1880 by William Wakeman; © Sligo County Library.

Wakeman's 1880 illustration of Creevykeel, above, shows the entrance lintel standing upright over the doorway, creating a very imposing facade, similar in size and shape to Prince Conall's Grave near Kiltyclogher. By the time Hencken arrived the stone had fallen into the chamber, and he replaced the stone, but put it back in a horizontal position. Here is what he had to say about it:

The writer also heard the following stories from Mr. Edward Connelly, who was then a man of about 80, and who lived near the cairn. He said that the replaced lintel had originally stood erect on one edge upon its supporting uprights instead of lying flat, and that under it on the northern side there was another smaller stone between it and the jamb stone of the entrance. This was perhaps the broken stone that was moved during the excavation. Though the story that this stone over the entrance from the court into Chamber C1 once stood erect like a pediment sounds very improbable, it is generally believed in the district, and it was also told by Mr. John Hannon of Creevykeel.

Mr. Connelly said that "the prophecy of the stone," which he had heard since he was a boy long before it fell, was that it would be thrown down "by three brothers of the one name." About thirty years ago (around 1905) three brothers upset the stone. It is incidentally worth mentioning that, had the stone ever stood erect, it could have been pushed over by three men, but certainly not if it lay flat as we replaced it.

Creevykeel was excavated between July 25 and September 4 1935 by the fourth Harvard archaeological mission, as part of the first scientific excavations in Ireland, and led by Hugh Hencken O'Neill. Twenty seven workers were involved in the dig, and the cairn material was removed entirely (see photo below) and then replaced. They found that the large structural chunks of sandstone are resting on the old ground surface, rather than placed in sockets.

 Hencken's plan of the main chamber at Creevykeel.
Hencken's plan of the main chamber at Creevykeel.

Large areas of the court were paved with small flat slabs and in places, cobble stones. Sea sand from the nearby shore was also found. Evidence of large fires - cremated bone and charcoal were found in the court. It was also discovered that the monument was expanded several times. It began as a smaller monument with an open court, which was eventually enlarged and lengthened into a full enclosed court. Revetments were found in the sides of the cairn, where there were probably drystone walls originally holding up the sides of the monument. This can also be seen in the alignment of the chamber and the passageway: they are not in line. The later entrance to the court is skewed more to the south. The actual passage is oriented to Arroo mountain. The two axis are marked on Hencken's plan, below.

A photo from Hencken's excavation at Creevykeel,
A photo from Hencken's excavation at Creevykeel, showing all the cairn material removed.

The round feature in the court proved to be an early Christian smelting pit, where metal was worked. This addition would have been added perhaps 4,000 years after the original construction of the monument. The Iron age and early Christian metalworkers appear to have liked working in ancient sites and unusual places such as megaliths and crannogs, and megalithic sites seem to have perhaps held magical properties in relation to metalwork.

early Christian metalworking pit.
Looking south through the gap in the kerb and along the flue of the early Christian metalworking pit.

One of the stones on the north side of the court was pushed over to make way for the smelting pit, and another had holes cut into it, probably to secure some kind of covering over the metalworking area. Two hearths were discovered outside the circular structure.

Hencken's plan of the great cairn at Creevykeel
Hencken's plan of the great cairn at Creevykeel from the excavation in 1935. This, the fourth Harvard Archaeological mission, was one of the first scientific excavations to take place in Ireland.
Creevykeel at sunset.
Creevykeel looking from the center of the court into the entrance of the megalithic chamber at sunset.

Finds from Creevykeel

There were plenty of finds from the excavations at Creevykeel, dating to the original neolithic use and the early Christian period. Within the main chambers were four pits which had some token deposits of cremated bone - too few and fragmentary to say if they were a burial. They may well have been animal bone remains from feasting. A piece of worked flint was found in one of the pits.

Between the dividing stones that seperate the large chamber the excavators found a polished stone axe. Other finds from the inner chamber included a large flint knife, about 13 cm long, arrowheads, pot sherds, some quartz crystals, and more flint scrapers.

Two polished neolithic axeheads
Two polished neolithic axeheads, one from the chamber, the other from the entry passageway at the east end of the cairn.

Of the three smaller chambers at the west end of the cairn, the badly damaged chamber B on the north side had many fragments of neolithic pottery, the remains of at least eight pots. Chamber C contained only modern rubbish. Chamber D yielded some flakes of flint and some quartz chips.

Some of the pottery from Creevykeel.
Some of the pottery from Creevykeel.

There were plenty of finds from the early Christian period too. The chamber seems to have been unroofed at the time, and there was evidence it had been used: a layer of soil 40 cm deep with bones of ox and sheep and periwinkle shells. Lumps of iron slag and some bronze were found outside the entrance and some 70 pounds of slag were found in the bottom of the smelting pit. Three iron knives and a blue glass bead, and three fragments of pottery were also found.

Finding Creevykeel

Creevykeel is one of the easiest and most accessible of Irish megalithic monuments to visit. It is located by the main Sligo - Donegal N15 main route, with a large car park. There is no entry fee.

The courtyard at Creevykeel.
The courtyard at and smelting pit at Creevykeel.