The Swedish Archaeological Excavations at Carrowmore, Co. Sligo, Ireland



Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery, Co. Sligo, Ireland.


The history of thought on the western European megalithic tradition is closely linked to that of the spread of agriculture and animal husbandry. Migrating neolithic farming communities, bringing with them new religious beliefs and new ceremonial and ritual practices as part of a more sedentary settlement system, as opposed to the mobile hunter-gatherers' way of life that preceded the newcomers, have long been the favoured candidates as inventors of monumental traditions. Rarely, local transformations of existing mesolithic societies have been put forward as the major explanation for the cultural changes that took place along the Atlantic coasts during the mesolithic-neolithic transition in the late 6th and the 5th millennia BC. However, a number of radiocarbon dates from megalithic tombs in western Europe suggest that the latter explanation is the more likely one in many areas. But although the migrationist hegemony has collapsed in the face of arguments based on radiocarbon and other evidence, new ideas about local developments of megalithic practices have not been widely accepted.

The main aims of the Carrowmore Project is to establish an inner chronology for the cemetery through the excavation of a series of tombs of various morphology, and to try to establish the socio-economic background of the monument builders by performing extensive surveys, among them aerial photography with infrared film materials, as well as phosphate surveys, in order to locate and excavate settlements from various periods in the territory. The excavations have taken place during an eleven-year period in two campaigns, 1977-1982 and 1994-1998. So far, ten tombs have been fully or partially excavated.

Carrowmore megalithic cemetery

In the Knocknarea Peninsula, in County Sligo, northwestern Ireland, some 45 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, these monuments are all built of crude glacial boulders torn loose from the surrounding mountains during the last glaciation and spread all over the area like meteors. This place is called Carrowmore (Ceathrú Mór), a Gaelic name meaning "Great Quarter". Originally, there may have been as many as 200 tombs, but during the past 300 years quarrying and land clearance have destroyed many of them. Several have been ruined also since George Petrie made a survey of the tombs in 1837, and applied the numbering system that is still in use, and today 30 monuments in varying degrees of preservation can be visited in the central area of Carrowmore. The area is now protected against further destruction.


Tomb No. 51, "Listoghil", during the excavation in 1996. The tomb was erected c. 3500 BC.

The Carrowmore megalithic cemetery covers an area of about one square kilometre, and the central part of the cemetery stretches in a north-south direction. It is about one kilometre long and 600 meters wide. Most of the tombs have been arranged in an oval-shaped lay-out, forming a well defined ritual landscape. The tombs avoid the highest and lowest positions of the topography, instead the intermediate ridges have been used by the tomb builders. There is also a tendency that the tomb entrances seem to face the central part of the cemetery, rather than any point of the compass.

Outside the central part of the cemetery, various other monuments occur, mainly to the north, and altogether 45 sites are still situated in the area. The low altitude of the cemetery (between 36.5 and 50 meters above sea level) and its position near the sea are unusual features in the Irish passage tomb tradition. With the exception of Tomb 27, none of the tombs at Carrowmore displays the kind of passage that normally features in Irish passage tombs, and only one site (Tomb 51, Listoghil) shows remains of a cairn. The only reason Carrowmore has been linked to the Irish passage tomb tradition, apart from the concentration of monuments, lies in the finds of passage tomb artefacts in some tombs during the nineteenth-century excavations.

The Swedisch arcaeological excavations at Carrowmore

Between 1977 and 1982, the Carrowmore Project carried out a series of large-scale excavations at four of the undestroyed tombs at Carrowmore, and at a number of Stone Age settlements along the coast and on nearby Knocknarea Mountain. Many of these were so-called kitchen midden settlements containing large amounts of shells, predominantly of oysters. The radiocarbon dates of the grave field revealed that Carrowmore is one of the world's oldest known megalithic grave fields, the earliest monument possibly being erected by about 5000 BC. The excavated settlements, as well as depositions of large quantities of sacrificed, unopened mussels and oysters, on the cemetary, the magnificent bone needles made from deer antler, and the ornaments made from spermwhale teeth that were found in the graves, suggest that the earliest monuments were built by people who were mainly hunter-gatherers but were increasingly turning to cattle breeding.

The grave types found at Carrowmore were formerly regarded as belonging to settled farmers, so the excavations were concentrated on the economy and social organisation of the early tomb-builders. Proper farming traditions are not known at this early date in Ireland and Britain, and the results of the excavations were to give a totally different picture of the society behind the tombs. Owing to the rich marine resources, people could settle down on the peninsula and develop a relatively stable settlement pattern even as hunter-gatherers, probably as early as 8.000-9.000 years ago. Fishing, hunting for seal and other mammals, and the gathering of shellfish contributed to the development of a social structure normally found among farmers. The abundant resources could be reached in a morning's walk across the peninsula, and there are many indications that the base camps of these coastal hunter-gatherers were marked by the shell middens which were located and excavated by the Swedish team at Culleenamore, on the northern shore of Ballysadare Bay.

Up to a hundred meters long, twenty meters wide, and five meters deep, these heaps of food debris consist almost exclusively of shells of oysters and mussels and bear witness to a long-term exploitation of the abundant coastal resources. The high degree of permanent settlement and, presumably, an increasing population density also created the need for monumental graves. Perhaps the tombs were signs of prestige in a stratified community, or maybe they marked the tribe's common ceremonial and burial place — a sacred area in the centre of the tribal territory. Most probably, each tomb belonged to a separate clan, lineage or extended family, reflecting kinship affinities.

The interpretation of the early monumental tombs of the Carrowmore people corresponds very well with the results of recent investigations of other food-gathering peoples in northwestern Europe, for instance the contemporary Ertebølle tradition of Denmark and Sweden, and thus contributes decisively to our knowledge of how and why farming gradually developed in these regions. As time went on, the settled life pattern, combined with a growing population, made a more active food production necessary.

A second excavation campaign was carried out by the Swedish team between 1994 and 1998, and another six tombs were partially investigated. The excavations included Tomb No. 51, which can be regarded as the central monument at Carrowmore. A reconstruction of the tomb and its cairn was commenced in 2000. The results from the second campaign confirm the data collected in the 70´s and 80´s, and, thanks to new radiocarbon dating techniques, a long series of dates now clearly delimits the period of megalithic activities at Carrowmore.

The earliest dates from the excavated Carrowmore tombs center around 5000 BC, the youngest about 3000 BC, but a majority of the dates are evenly spread over the final fifth and the fourth millenium BC. The find contexts of the radiocarbon samples suggest that most of the monuments were erected and used between 4300 and 3500 BC. However, all of the tombs excavated so far have been used for secondary burials a long time after the initial construction, both during the Late Neolithic and the Bronze and Iron Ages.


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