Irish Megaliths
"The best of Man is his Ruins..."

Go to Gazetteer

 

 

IRISH PREHISTORIC ARCHITECTURE
part five

Passage-tombs
and Petroglyphs:


Carrowmore, county Sligo



Life, Death and the Cosmos


text and photographs
by Anthony Weir



A typical tree-grown tumulus
containing a small, lowland passage-tomb.

Passage-tombs 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.

Carrowmore, county Sligo

They have 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.

Carrowkeel, county Sligo

Later 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.

Carrowkeel, county Sligo

The third phase is represented by the huge cairns of Misgán Méadbha on Knocknarea, and Listoghil in 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.

None of 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'.

Loughcrew, county Meath Loughcrew, county Meath

click on the thumbnails for larger pictures

Loughcrew, county Meath Loughcrew, county Meath


As well as moving eastwards, the passage-tomb people also went north, erecting tombs with decorated stones on heights...

Knockmany, county Tyrone

...and occasionally on low ground.

Sess Kilgreen, county TyroneSess Kilgreen, county Tyrone


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.

Slievenagriddle. county DownBallynahatty, county Down

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.

Harristown, county Waterford

There were 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.

Baltinglass, county Wicklow

By the 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, totalitarian hierocracy.

Much has 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

Newgrange, county Meath

and strikes 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.)

Newgrange, county Meath

These huge, 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.)

Some have 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.

Fourknocks, county Meath

Fourknocks, county Meath


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.

Whether 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 ?

Recently 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.

Read the (badly-written) PDF on Tara and on the Bend of the Boyne.

* * *

Cloverhill, Carrowmore, county Sligo

Although 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 Islands.

Churchtown, county Down

These petroglyphs 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 less varied.


continued on

 

click to enlarge

'Sampler' Rug by Anthony Weir featuring various motifs from passage-tombs.

 


go back



This page is also on the

developed from this website, with many more photographs.




Would you like to take an IRISH VACATION that includes tours of the famous megaliths of Ireland ? 

AUTHENTIC IRELAND TOURS
AuthenticIreland.com

offers a large number of guided and unguided Ireland tours
that include impressive landmarks such as the megalithic cemeteries of County Sligo or the standing-stone of Ballycrovane.

 


go back

 

 

 


 

 

Click on the thumbnails
for high-resolution pictures.

 

"The best of Man is his Ruins..."