Carrowmore

Coordinates: 54°15′03.08″N 8°31′09.00″W Carrowmore, County Sligo (Irish: An Cheathrú Mhór,
meaning Great Quarter) is one of the four major passage tomb cemeteries in Ireland. It is located at the
centre of a prehistoric ritual landscape on the Cúil Irra Peninsula in County Sligo in Ireland.
Around 30 megalithic tombs can be seen in Carrowmore today. The tombs (in their original state) were
almost universally 'dolmen circles'; small dolmens each enclosed by a boulder ring of 12 to 15 metres. Each
monument had a small levelling platform of earth and stone. One of the secrets of the dolmens longevity
was the well executed stone packing set around the base of the upright stones. The combination of 5 of these
orthostats and a capstone enclosed a pentagonal burial chamber. The boulder circles contain 30 - 40
boulders, usually of gneiss, the material of choice for the satellite tombs. Sometimes an inner boulder circle
is present. Entrance stones, or passage stones, crude double rows of standing stones, emphasise the direction
of the small monuments; they generally face towards the area of the central tomb. The 'satellite tombs' or
dolmens are distributed in a roughly oval shape about 1 km x .6 km, with the largest monument at the
highest point at the centre, a cairn (now restored) called Listoghil.

Tomb 7 at Carrowmore, a burial chamber within a stone circle

Reconstruction of the central tomb (Listoghil or Tomb 51) at Carrowmore in progress, June 2006

View from Carrowmore of Ballygawley Hills to S/E, with a megalithic tomb on top of each.


Finding Carrowmore: Approaching from the south (N4) after Collooney roundabout, exit Strandhill/Airport.
Follow route Strandhill (R292). Take the right exit at Ransboro roundabout, centre is 1 km further on, on the
right. Approaching from the north (N15), cross Hughes Bridge in Sligo town, and at the 5th set of traffic
lights after the bridge turn right onto Church Hill. After 2 km take a left fork, signed Carrowmore. The
centre is located 1 km from here, on the left.
Radiocarbon dates from the survey and excavation project in the 1970s, 80s and 90s by Professor Göran
Bürenhult has caused controversy amongst archaeologists, particularly dates from one of the tombs of 5,400
BC. Similar ancient dates have been attributed to chamber tombs in Brittany where Mesolithic microliths
have been found in association with at least one passage grave, and to those in the Sligo area of Ireland.
Perhaps the key point is that Burenhults work and the work of later researchers places the bulk of the
megalith building in Carrowmore at between 4000 and 3500 BC, more in keeping with Neolithic dating but
still unusually early. It also upturned the idea that Irish prehistoric sites such as Knowth and Newgrange
were the earliest in Ireland. Excavation of other tombs in the Cuil Irra area has indicated that although they
employed different architectural styles, many co-existed contemporaneously with Carrowmore. Recent
archaeology by the National Roads Authority for the Inner Relief Road route in Magheraboy near Sligo has
shown that a huge causewayed enclosure existed at the same time as Carrowmore. Listoghil (The Central
Tomb, aka. Tomb 51) has been dated to about 3600 BC.
Because of the assemblage of material found within the monuments, the clustering, and the layout of the
structures, Carrowmore - like Newgrange and Lough Crew - is classified as being part of the Irish Passage
Tomb Tradition. There has long been debate about how the different tomb types - 'passage tombs', 'court
tombs', 'portal dolmens,' and 'wedge tombs' - all of which occur in County Sligo - should be interpreted. Are
they indicative of different 'cultures,' or peoples? Of different functions for a single community? Perhaps
research into DNA or other techniques of the future will finally resolve these questions.
Houses of the dead - or something more?
Almost all the Neolithic burials at Carrowmore appear to have been cremations with inhumations being only
found at Listoghil. It is apparent that the dead underwent a complex sequence of treatments, including
excarnation and reburial. Grave goods include antler pins with mushroom-shaped heads and stone or clay
balls, a fairly typical assemblage of the Irish element of the passage tomb tradition. Some of the tombs and
pits nearby contained shells from shellfish, echoing the finds of shell middens along the coast of Cuil Irra.
The Carrowmore megaliths were sometimes re-used and re-shaped by the people of Bronze Age and Iron
Age times. They remained focal points on the landscape for long after they were built. The role of megaliths
as monuments and foci of ceremony and celebration, as well as markers on the landscape is emphasised by
archaeologists such as Richard Bradley. Earlier commentators - who called the monuments 'tombs' - saw
them simply as a repository for the dead, or as markers erected over fallen warriors. The tombs have various
different forms of burial involved in them.
Early unrecorded antiquarian digs disturbed the Carrowmore tombs. The sites were surveyed by George
Petrie in 1837, who numbered them all. William Gregory Wood-Martin made the first recorded excavations
in the 1880s. The small Carrowmore dolmens are unlikely to have ever been covered by stone cairns.
Although such ideas were once popular among antiquarians, the discovery of 'settings' of stone and finds
close to the chambers, of Viking, Roman and Bronze Age artefacts make it unlikely - according to Burenhult
- that such cairns ever existed. One of the satellite tombs, Tomb 27, has a cruciform passage tomb shape, a
feature seen in later tombs like Newgrange or Carrowkeel. The roof - now gone - may have been of stone
slabs or corbelled.
The building of cairns such as Listoghil or Queen Maeves tomb (on Knocknarea) or Newgrange may
represent a new phase of megalith-building of greater scale and ambition than the dolmen circles. They
probably required the involvement of more workers and greater organisation. The area of the Cuil Irra
peninsula and its hinterlands is dotted with such tombs, often on hilltops, which inspired Professor Stefan
Bergh to style it 'the Landscape of the Monuments'.
Visitor Centre
Since 1990 a small farmhouse close to the R292, 2k east of Ransboro crossroads, has been used as a Visitor
Centre by the Office of Public Works. It houses an exhibition, and between the months of March to October
(inclusive) provides guided tours and multi-lingual self guide options for the Carrowmore megaliths.
Admission is €3.00 for adults, there are discounts for seniors, groups, students and families. Most of the
tombs can be accessed from there. The centre opens from 10.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m.