Megalithic Complex at Carrowkeel
June 30-July 1, 1999:
At Carrowmore we caught sight of a picture showing the inside of a passage grave looking out. Found out it was at Carrowkeel in the Bricklieves mountains nearby. Straight away we bought ourselves a booklet with maps and information and off we went.
Turns out most passage tombs share certain structural elements. The tomb is built of large limestone slabs to make the passageway and chambers. Then the whole thing is covered with stones to make a giant heap. The passageway has three symbolic barriers on the way to the burial chamber.
In many passage graves, the burial chamber is 'cruciform' in shape. This has nothing to do with Christianity as the tombs pre-date the Romans with their nasty methods of discipline by over a thousand years. One theory is that the shape is symbolic of the mother earth god, and the chambers to the left and right are the ovaries and the one in the back is the uterine chamber.
To the left you see the exposed bones of Cairn E (they all have letters for names) laid bare to the sky. The uterine chamber is marked 'A,' the left and right ovaries are marked 'B' and 'C.' The first barrier isn't in the picture (it's under our feet) but the second and third are marked 'D' and 'E' (they're 'sill stones' about a foot tall).
We shouldn't have been able to take this picture. But the stones were unearthed in 1911 by one R. A. S. Macalister who attacked fourteen cairns in ten days. He and his compatriots employed sledgehammers and high powered explosives in a treasure-hunting endeavor that passed for archaeology in those days.
Cairn H to the right here also shows the scars. It should be rounded on the top, but instead it's totally collapsed.
To the left is the rubble-filled passage way inside Cairn H. Barely two feet high.
We'll never be certain how old these cairns are because their methods left no clean samples for radiocarbon dating.
As we were absorbing these sobering facts, feeling as if we'd missed our chance to protect the tombs by a mere ninety years, we met up with Dominick.
He's the owner of the land almost as far as we could see. The bleak land supported a meager flock of sheep, and Dominick was using his trusty sheep dog to move the herd higher up the slopes so they didn't munch too long on the same patch of ground.
Dominick was the gracious host, letting us know that any other country would make us pay to see these monuments. We reckon he's right, and someday soon the government will probably not only charge to see 'em but put up fences to keep people out of them altogether. (Like at Stonehenge).
The real reward for our trip to the Bricklieves was Cairn G. We squeezed ourselves down the entrance hole...
...and suddenly realized how much of the mound was empty inside.
The ceiling was nine feet tall. The walls were smooth and the air was dry. We figured a wood floor and cable and we'd be about set.
Turns out people two generations ago actually moved into tombs like these because they're such well constructed air & water tight spaces.
To the left you see the attention to detail the builders had. These are stone shims which help hold the ceiling up at the proper angle to shed water and focus the earth's energy.
No one knows of anyone living in the tombs at Carrowkeel, but there is one really cool thing we do know about Cairn G.
On summer solstice day, the light of the setting sun shines over the doorway in the picture to the right.
Then it used to bounce off a mica finish on the stones at the back of the tomb (before tourists scraped it all off and replaced it with graffiti).
Reflecting back to the front of the tomb, it would pass through this cutout in the portal stone.
Who knows why? Maybe it was the equivalent of Prehistoric Groundhog day. You know, if you see the sunbeam, then it's six more months of summer...
But seriously, they must have had intense ceremonies surrounding the removal of stones from the cairn entrance, then waiting to see if the sun would come out from behind the clouds for this magic event. Just One chance every year.
The second day we looked out over the valley to the mountain to our east. On the limestone surface we knew we would find the remains of the cairn builders homes.
At times it seemed like an impossible climb up the cliffy landscape to the hut sites.
But in the end, we found them.
We found it ironic comparing the state of their homes and their ceremonial cairns. The cairns could be lived in today; they're dry, have a great view and can be seen for miles. But their homes are gone and the only traces left look so much like a pile of rubble it took us a half hour before we could pick them out from the natural eroded limestone.
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