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Issue 82

May/June

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Another early garden pot

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Leicester lion is rare import

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Gold rings still unexplained

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Bodies - who wants to rebury old skeletons?
New sensitivities change attitudes to ancient human remains

Carrowmore - Tombs for hunters
Göran Burenhult describes excavations at Irish neolithic tombs

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ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts

features

Carrowmaore - tombs for hunters

Göran Burenhult reports on controversial new evidence from the second Swedish excavation campaign at Carrowmore, Co Sligo

In the Knocknarea Peninsula, in County Sligo, north-west Ireland, some 40 stone monuments today overlook the Atlantic Ocean: dolmens and other stone-built chambers surrounded by stone circles. Clustered together in the interior of the peninsula, they are built of crude glacial boulders torn from the surrounding mountains during the last glaciation and spread over the area like meteors. The place is called Carrowmore (Ceathrú Mór), a Celtic name meaning "Great Quarter". Before quarrying and land clearance in recent centuries, there may have been as many as 200 tombs, by far the largest group of megaliths in Ireland.

This is an arranged ritual landscape, with tombs surrounding an oval space, empty but for the largest monument, known as Listoghil (tomb 51 according to the numbering in George Petrie's 1837 survey). Tomb entrances tend to face the centre of the cemetery, those on the west facing eastwards, those on the east facing west, though two of the northernmost tombs do not conform to this pattern.

The layout must have been deliberately planned from the start, reflecting deep symbolism in society. In fact, as has often been stated, megaliths are themselves symbols. You do not need to erect stone tombs just to dispose of your dead relatives – there are much easier ways of doing that. Symbolism is apparent not only in the monumentality of the tomb, but also the siting in the landscape, the physical relationship to other monuments, the construction materials, internal structural features, architecture, deposits and offerings and so on. It is widely accepted that this reflects contemporary society and its rituals: but when did it start – and why?

In the late 70s the department of archaeology at Stockholm University began a field project at Carrowmore that still continues. The first Swedish excavations (1977-1982) produced radiocarbon dates that placed the cemetery's origins in the late mesolithic, that is around 5000BC when people lived by hunting and fishing. Excavations of shell middens and temporary camps on the shore indicated mainly a hunter-gatherer subsistence. Even the youngest Carrowmore dates were older than those of the famous Boyne valley tombs such as Knowth or Newgrange. Megalithic tombs have long been thought to be distinctively neolithic, built by early farmers. Inevitably the Carrowmore dates led to intense debate and criticism; the results are still controversial. Many acknowledge the need to review traditional explanations of Irish megaliths, but several archaeologists still believe our earliest Carrowmore dates relate to activities long before the tombs were built.

In continental western Europe, several megalithic constructions also seem to have been built by mesolithic people. There are radiocarbon dates from the late 6th and early 5th millennia bc for tombs in Brittany (Barnenez and Île Guennoc), Poitiers (Bougon), and Galicia (Châ de Parada). In Brittany (Hoëdic and Téviec), stone structures with inhumations have been dated to about 5200bc, and in Loire-Atlantique (Dissignac), microliths (mesolithic flint tools) are associated with a passage grave, a characteristic stone tomb with a chamber in the centre of a mound reached by a long corridor.

The proposed construction dates all fall in the late mesolithic-early neolithic, with subsequent use of the tombs in the later neolithic, the bronze age and the iron age. Carrowmore mirrors the early development of new mortuary practices across Europe. No doubt future excavations along the Atlantic fringe will produce similar data, associated with late mesolithic and early neolithic societies forming complex social systems on a rich maritime economy.

A mesolithic date has also been suggested for the earliest tombs on the Isles of Scilly, with an economy based on sea-shore gathering, fishing, fowling, marine hunting and deer exploitation, and again for the coastal megaliths of Bohuslän, west Sweden. New dates from our second excavation campaign (1994-1998) strongly support the first results. The oldest so far comes from tomb 4, about 5400BC, with further dates for megalithic activity on to about 4000BC. No fewer than 26 radiocarbon dates from eight different tombs at Carrowmore and one at Primrose Grange firmly place the major primary megalithic activity between 4300 and 3500BC (see chart below).

The position of tomb 51 (Listoghil) in the centre of the cemetery and its unusual features give it a significant, focal role. The huge cairn, still partially present (diameter 32m), is in sharp contrast to all other monuments at Carrowmore, which had no covering mounds. The burial chamber, a rectangular cist under a flat, limestone roof slab, is unique. Circular carvings on the front side of the roof slab are the first examples of megalithic art found in this cemetery.

Listoghil was partially excavated by the Swedish team in 1996-98. The entire central chamber area and three test trenches through the cairn were investigated. The well-preserved stone circle was exposed, built of more than 100 boulders. Radiocarbon dates from pits and burnt areas around the central chamber (nine dated samples) confirm that the building of the tomb took place around 3550bc.Apiece of human skull dated to c3500bc shows that inhumations took place at the beginning. Thus the major monument at Carrowmore was built and used towards the very end of the megalithic sequence.

However, the site of Listoghil had a focal significance long before that, as an earlier monument seems to have been on the site before tomb 51. Three large boulders, apparently not part of the tomb, were found beside the central chamber. These may be the remains of a destroyed megalithic construction. Furthermore, massive stone packing was found on the south side, just outside the boulder circle, possibly the remains of a destroyed satellite monument. A radiocarbon sample from this area, dated to c4100BC, may support this idea. During the second excavation campaign, we excavated another megalithic monument in the Knocknarea Peninsula: a court tomb at Primrose Grange, some 2km southwest of Carrowmore. Our aim was to study the chronological relationship between different tomb types in the region. Any differences in burial practices and artefacts could be of vital importance to understanding society and ritual in the peninsula's stone age societies.

The excavation revealed that the Primrose Grange tomb was in use during the same period as the Carrowmore tombs, despite fundamental differences in tomb morphology, burial practices and gravegoods. Radiocarbon samples from the central chamber date between c4300 and 3000bc. Burials in the tomb are almost all inhumations, and very few cremated bones have been found: at Carrowmore, inhumations have been found only in tomb 51. The artefacts with the burials are also very different. The typical Carrowmore assemblage contains antler pins with mushroomshaped heads and stone or clay balls, artefacts not found at Primrose Grange. Instead, there were extraordinary chert artefacts, mainly leaf-shaped or pointed arrowheads.

There are more than 1,500 registered tombs in Ireland, traditionally classified into four main groups: court tombs (long mounds with an oval courtyard at one end), passage tombs, portal tombs (fronted with three stone slabs) and wedge tombs (with a long narrow burial chamber but no passage).

Earlier theories suggested the different tomb types succeeded each other over time, and even represented invasions of different groups of farmers. New data have produced strong evidence that at least three of the tomb types (court tombs, passage tombs and portal dolmens) were more or less contemporary in the same regions. The Carrowmore excavations support this interpretation.

Rather than successive stages, we must consider if the distinct tomb types can be interpreted as symbols of status, group affiliation or hereditary rank in the local society, posing questions about social structure, clan affiliation or even elitism.

Most Irish court, passage and portal tombs are in the north and east. However, while court tombs and portal tombs show a more or less equal distribution, apart from those at Carrowmore they tend to avoid the major passage tomb cemeteries. This is most apparent with the Boyne valley monuments and the Loughcrew cemetery (Co Meath). It is possibly no coincidence that only passage tombs are represented around the Boyne valley. A more sophisticated topographical analysis of all tomb types is needed if we are to detect the finer details of this pattern. If court tombs and portal dolmens are present at Carrowmore because it is substantially older than the other passage tomb cemeteries, it is possible that hierarchical polarisation was less developed at that early stage.

Many scholars have discussed the exceptional design and settings of the Irish passage tombs in detail. Recently they have highlighted aspects of the monuments' role as symbols.

The passage tombs are often prominently located, sometimes in a spectacular hilltop position. In several cases the tombs cluster together in cemeteries, especially in the Boyne valley and at Loughcrew, Carrowkeel (Co Sligo) and Carrowmore. With, again, the exception of all but one tomb at Carrowmore (51, Listoghil), they are covered with cairns, where passages from the boulder circles allow access to the chambers. These chambers often have three apses or cells, forming a cruciform plan with the passage. Corbelled or slabbed roofs form part of the advanced architectural creations.

There are clear signs that the right hand side (facing the entrance), both inside and outside the monuments, had special significance to the tomb builders. Very often carefully selected building materials were chosen, which in several cases involved long transport. Quartz and quartzite clearly had ritual significance in the passage tomb tradition.

Irish passage tomb burials are as a rule cremations, although unburned bones have been recorded in several cases. There is evidence for complicated treatment and handling of the bones, as seen at many megalithic sites elsewhere in Europe. We recorded excarnation and reburial at Carrowmore and Primrose Grange. Grave goods in Irish passage tombs follow distinct, formal patterns, unique to this tradition: antler pins, often with mushroom-shaped heads, bone and stone pendants, stone and clay balls and maceheads.

Newgrange and Knowth in the Boyne valley represent remarkable technological skill and architectural standards. The construction and labour input surely indicate a complex social organisation. Afew individuals in such a society must have had access to all knowledge, or control of the circulation of prestige items and long distance contacts.

This becomes even clearer when we look at the astronomical features that guided the whole construction of these tombs 5,500 years ago: the Newgrange chamber built to receive the first sun rays of the winter solstice through the roof box on December 21, and the two chambers at Knowth orientated towards the rising sun of the spring and autumn equinoxes on March 21 and September 21. It has been suggested that the unexcavated chamber in the third major Boyne valley monument, Dowth, could have received the summer solstice, an event well known to be of major importance in megalithic Europe, as at Stonehenge.

The radiocarbon dates for the construction and use of Newgrange and Knowth span nearly half a millennium: advanced knowledge and long term planning over many generations must lie behind the layout of this ritual centre, most probably dating back long before the construction of the three major tombs. Such knowledge most probably was restricted to a very limited number of individuals of high rank. Mesoamerican ceremonial centres and Maya priests may be good examples for comparison with regard to social complexity and astronomical knowledge.

Finally, elaborate megalithic art in Ireland is found only at passage tombs. The close similarities in the megalithic symbolic world in western Europe at an advanced stage of the tradition is likely to be the result of intense contacts between leading groups between 3500 and 3000BC.

There is reason to believe that the builders of court tombs and portal tombs in Ireland had close and formally organised links with those building the passage tombs, maybe as hereditary or lineage-linked chieftains or village chiefs, powerful leaders possibly forming sub-groups in the megalithic society.

The excavation of Primrose Grange Tomb 1 within the Carrowmore project has revealed important data to suggest such an organisation. It is likely that the passage tomb builders were very special people, using special knowledge and skills in building very special monuments in very special places. The passage tomb people, possibly representing the elite, had the rights to build and use these monuments and their carved motifs, and a specific set of artefacts, while other groups, or segments, or classes, or castes, or whatever we choose to call them, used other symbols, other grave-goods and other burial traditions.

The very early radiocarbon dates for the Carrowmore tombs are controversial. They are written here following standard practice as calibrated ranges
Carrowmore before 4300BC
Tomb 4
 
5620 – 5310BC
4800 – 4360BC

Carrowmore 4300 – 4000BC
Tomb 1
Tomb 4
 
Tomb 7
Tomb 51
4340 – 3960BC
4320 – 3800BC
4230 – 3770BC
4320 – 3810BC
4320 – 3950BC

Carrowmore 4000 – 3500BC
Tomb 4
Tomb 19
 
Tomb 27
 
 
Tomb 51
 
Tomb 55
Tomb 56
3970 – 3520BC
3940 – 3530BC
3640 – 3030BC
3970 – 3660BC
3960 – 3640BC
3960 – 3530BC
nine dates averaging
3640 – 3380BC
4040 – 3520BC
3630 – 3100BC

Primrose Grange
Tomb 1
 
 
 
4250 – 3810BC
4220 – 3770BC
4220 – 3780BC
3640 – 3100BC

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