derive from the simple 'boulder-circles' of Carrowmore, ancestors
of all the Stone
circles of Atlantic Europe, which enclosed simple small
boulder-built chambers. These structures - the earliest known buildings
in Europe - were built over seven thousand years ago
near what is now Sligo town: not quite the easternmost point of
the west coast of the Land of the Setting sun. Occupying the edge
of the little Carrowmore plateau, they mostly align towards a 'ritual
centre', and were 'intimate megaliths' not built to impress or be
seen from afar.
Nearby, in Primrose Grange on the slopes of the dominating hill
of Knocknarea, a carbon date of 7490 BC has been verified.
been interpreted as quiet sacred places - rather like modern parish
churches (which have far more burials than any prehistoric mound,
yet are not thought of as primarily sepulchral) - erected by a fairly
egalitarian society which lived close by, on especially-good land
with a climate favoured (rather than battered) by the sea, which
was also, of course, the main highway until late mediæval
times. This might have been a matriarchal, ancestor-worshipping
society which inevitably made the mistake of allowing boys to form
secret societies and play with big stones - and big clubs.
on, tombs with high visibility and prestige were built away from
Carrowmore on the Slieve Gamph or Ox Mountains to the south-west.
Some of them had more complex cruciform chambers and large cairns.
The dead were now distanced and elevated from a more stratified
society with a labouring class, and the shrine-houses of the dead
no longer fitted into the landscape, but dominated it.
third phase is represented by the huge cairns of Misgán
Méadbha on Knocknarea, and Listoghil
Carrowmore - perhaps built later than their burial-chambers. These
complex monuments required huge labour-resources, and must have
been built by a fairly totalitarian society. Later still, the highly
visible hilltop cairns on Carrowkeel, all supervised by the all-seeing
and probably baleful eye of Misgán Méadbha,
were built as a kind of new necropolitan annexe to the already venerable
sacred area of Carrowmore. At the same time, the passages tended
to get longer, and the chambers acquired recesses marked by sills.
these temple-tombs-built-to-impress was decorated with what has
come to be regarded as 'Passage-tomb Art'. It was when the highly
visible hilltop tombs of Loughcrew were constructed that significant
stones in the recesses or close to the chamber acquired the symbolic
designs so typical of passage-tomb 'art'.
click on the thumbnails for larger pictures
As well as moving eastwards,
the passage-tomb people also went north, erecting tombs with decorated
stones on heights...
on low ground.
As they moved farther north-eastwards,
however, they seem to have reverted to simpler, smaller and sometimes
hybrid forms, suggesting that the passage-tomb builders had distinctly
patchy cultural hegemony.
And as they
moved south-eastwards towards the Isles of Scilly off Cornwall,
the passage and the chamber became a single space, undivided by
stone though possibly by curtain or wattle screen.
evidently violent clashes between cultures and groups, as shown
by the complex site of Baltinglass Hill in Wicklow, where a passage-tomb
was overlaid and partly-destroyed by the kerb of another, which
was in turn succeeded by a simpler tomb than the previous two.
time the central, triumphalist passage-tomb-building societies had
extended their activities and influence from Sligo, via the skyline-necropolises
of Carrowkeel and Loughcrew, as far as the Bend of the Boyne - where
(apart from the absence of dominating heights) the land and landscape
resembled the 'Sacred Plateau' of Carrowmore and environs - they
had become obsessed, like the Babylonians whose systems we still
use, with astronomy and astrology, and obviously were a plutocratic,
admiringly been written about the alignments, azimuths, nadirs,
orientations and occidentations of the Bend of the Boyne monuments
(some of them more like totalitarian palaces of culture and science
than tombs), but this web-page will not attempt to enter such arcane
discussion, since it is more concerned with stone monuments in landscape
than astronomy and astrology. Suffice to say, light enters the passages
of very many tombs
significant stones at sunrise on solstice, equinox or quarter-days.
Lines of suns depicted on stones may follow the sun's
path through the ecliptic, while crescents and wavy lines seem to
record lunar trajectories.
(Martin Brennan's THE STARS AND THE STONES,
Thames & Hudson, London 1983, is recommended to those
who wish to pursue this line of enquiry.)
labour-costly, vainglorious monuments and their suburban satellites
were, like the Egyptian pyramids, built to impress and dominate
all who saw them, and were guarantees of hierarchical life after
death (no afterlife is egalitarian), as well as solar, lunar and
bright-star observatories. The impressive engravings related to
the cycle of life, death, the seasons and the after-death journey
to or in the Otherworld(s) - a journey which was certainly seen
as cosmic. Many of the engraved stones look like star-maps - or
dream-maps: the two are not mutually-exclusive. In any event, they
are certainly power-maps. (It is interesting to speculate,
however, on the influence of Lichens
on passage-tomb and boulder engraving.)
cartouches on them, not unlike those of the Egyptian tomb-paintings.
Others have anthropomorphic designs on them, whereas yet others
have simple symbolic decoration such as zig-zags, meanders and concentric
circles - or combinations of such motifs.
Some of these compositions are impressive - especially at Knowth,
and of course in the sheltered Morbihan peninsula of Brittany which
offered a good environment for powerful colonisers.
used for divination, astrology, astronomy, genealogy or story-telling
- or any combination - the carefully-pecked 'art' of the passage-tombs
is undoubtedly lithomantic. In recent times people have wished necromancy
and human sacrifice on to the passage-tomb builders. Who is to know
precisely what combination of necromantic practices, funeral ritual,
magic, prognostication and astronomical-meteorological record were
carried out in these remarkable edifices ?
a theory has been proposed that some are actual topographical maps
of monuments, though why they would be 'written in stone' rather
than on wood - or indeed at all - is not explained.
the (badly-written) PDF on Tara
and on the Bend
of the Boyne.
* * *
some of the engravings of passage-tombs are complicated, many have
more simple designs very similar to those on boulders and rock-outcrops
around the periphery of Ireland - and even as far away as the Canary
or rock-scribings (or rock-art), generally assigned
to the Bronze Age, may share at least some functions and concerns
with the art of the Neolithic passage-tombs. They may be purely
derivative, or they may represent an independent (though obviously
related) tradition of lithomancy. Their distribution near the coast
at different altitudes recalls the littoral origin of passage-tomb
construction, and their function is perhaps more mysterious, if
click to enlarge
Rug by Anthony Weir featuring various motifs from passage-tombs.