Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery, Sligo, County Sligo, Republic of Ireland

Dolmen on the north side of Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery.

Although less well-known than Brú na Bóinne and the tombs of Knowth or Newgrange, Carrowmore is home to one of the largest Stone Age cemeteries in Europe. It was once the greatest collection of passage tombs and dolmens in Ireland, but quarrying has destroyed much of the original site and many of the 40 or so remaining tombs are on private land. Even so, a walk through rolling fields punctuated with megalithic graves is impressive, particularly when the weather cooperates. And, because it is less popular, visitors have much more freedom to wander and explore at Carrowmore than at Brú na Bóinne.

The site is divided by a small road, but both sides are accessible with the same ticket from the visitors’ center. The north side also provides a clear view of the legendary tomb of Queen Maeve [Medbh or Medb], the enormous, unexcavated cairn which sits atop Knocknarea mountain about 2.5 miles west of Carrowmore.

Queen Maeve’s tomb, Knocknarea.

All photos by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 26, 2013.

Newgrange, Brú na Bóinne, County Meath, Republic of Ireland

After the tour of Knowth, our little group of eight-ish piled into the van and headed back to the rendezvous lot, where we would transfer to another vehicle bound for Newgrange. While the group to Knowth hardly filled a fourth of the van that carried us there, the group to Newgrange could barely fit into two of the same large buses. This disparity in popularity is emblematic of the sites’ relative fame. Between its gleaming wall of quartz and re-enactment of the winter solstice, Newgrange nearly sparkles with tourist readiness and appeal, but loses the intimacy and relative freedom offered by its older neighbor.

Reconstructed quartz and granite retaining wall, Newgrange

The site consists of a solitary great mound, although smaller satellite graves are visible in the fields across the road.

Small satellite mounds across the road from Newgrange

Unlike the primary mounds at both Knowth and Dowth, the tomb at Newgrange contains just one chambered passage, which visitors may enter as part of a guided group. Photography is not allowed inside the tomb, but professional images are readily available on the web, including World Heritage Ireland’s official website.

Newgrange’s interior provides a sense of what the similarly chambered “female” passage at Knowth must have looked like before later changes made it largely impassible. The long narrow tunnel is lined with decorated slate standing stones and opens into a wider room bordered by three niches which once contained cremated remains and burial offerings. The original corbelled ceiling stands intact at a height of about 20 feet.

Entrance to the Newgrange passage with decorated kerbstone and roof box

But perhaps Newgrange’s most impressive feature is the play of light that occurs on the winter solstice. From outside, a second, smaller opening is visible above the entrance. Due to the gradual upward slope of the interior passage, this same opening is actually parallel to the floor of the chambered room. Normally this relationship is imperceptible, and the chamber—at least when empty of tourists—remains pitch black. However, for a few days around the winter solstice a beam of light finds its way through the upper passage and falls across the northern niche, lighting the room for a few brief minutes at sunrise. The site offers a lottery each year to allow a small number of visitors the opportunity to experience this phenomenon in person. For those of us not lucky enough to be among the chosen, the tour recreates an abbreviated but still impressive version using artificial light.

Decorated kerbstones, Newgrange

Outside, Newgrange offers a small number of intricately decorated and well-preserved kerbstones. Chief among these is the impressive (and well photographed) entrance stone. Entrance stones are common features of passage tombs, and tend to be large enough to make entry difficult but not impossible. They were probably intended to demarcate the boundary of the tomb, signifying the divide between the dead and the living, the sacred and the profane.

View of Knowth

All photographs by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 24, 2013, unless otherwise stated.

Knowth, Brú na Bóinne, County Meath, Republic of Ireland

Knowth, Brú na Bóinne, County Meath, Ireland. Panorama by Joshua Albers, May 24, 2013.

At the end of May, Josh and I took an eight day trip to Ireland. We emerged, windswept and damp, with over 5,000 photographs, which I have since whittled down to more reasonable, post-sized selections.

The art and history of Ireland are outside my particular expertise, so the information included in these posts has been culled from guidebooks (DK and Lonely Planet), related websites, our many lovely guides, and a variety of materials provided at the sites themselves.

Passage tombs at Knowth

Our first day outside of Dublin began at Brú na Bóinne, one of the island’s three UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The valley of Brú na Bóinne contains three Neolithic centers—Knowth, Newgrange, and Dowth—each of which possesses a great mound (large passage tomb) and smaller satellite graves. Only Knowth and Newgrange are open to visitors, and these are only accessible through tours provided by the visitor center. Such stringent oversight is unusual in Ireland, but it allows for better preservation of these important, fragile monuments.

Decorated kerbstones at Knowth
Satellite tomb at Knowth

Knowth is the first stop for those who choose to visit both open sites. Of the three centers, Knowth is the oldest, was utilized for the longest period of time (up to about 1400), and is arguably the most complex.

Knowth’s great mound possesses two entrances (referred to as the “male”/western and “female”/eastern chambers due to their relative shapes), but visitors can only go into a contemporary passage and small exhibition space near the less impressive western passage. Chunks of white quartz and dark, rounded granite are scattered on the ground around both entrances of Knowth, while the same kinds of stones have been reconstructed into supporting walls at Newgrange. This discrepancy is probably more reflective of changes in archaeological practices and philosophy towards reconstruction than a difference in original use and placement at the two mounds.

Entrance to the recently built exhibition space by the western, “male” passage at Knowth
Inside the western passage at Knowth. Photo by Joshua Albers, May 24, 2013.
Entrance to the eastern, “female” passage at Knowth. Photo by Joshua Albers, May 24, 2013.

More importantly, Knowth boasts the largest collection of Megalithic art in Europe, most of which is still in-situ. A good sampling can be found on the slabs, or kerbstones, around the base of the central mound, although much of what exists is located in the primary but inaccessible “female” chamber.

Decorated kerbstones around the primary mound at Knowth

Knowth also differs from Newgrange in that the site includes a number of smaller satellite passage tombs clustered closely around the central mound.

Satellite and primary tombs, Knowth

Inside the entrance to one of several small passage tombs at Knowth (visible concrete added as part of reconstruction)
Satellite tomb overlooking the Boyne Valley, Knowth

Although all passage graves contain cremated human remains, it is likely that the great tombs also had additional, ritualistic functions, as suggested by the fact that their passages were tall enough for people to walk through, and each was lit at either a solstice or equinox.

Knowth and Newgrange were also once sites of woodhenges (reconstructed at Knowth), which post-date the mounds by several centuries. Like the large passages, these henges were arranged to correspond to significant dates in the year’s cycle.

Reconstruction of the woodhenge at Knowth

At both sites, archaeological reconstruction was aided by kerbstones which ring the bottom of most passage tombs; similar large stones line the interior passageways of the primary mounds. Abstract imagery—particularly spirals, circles, and undulating lines—has been engraved into the surfaces of over a hundred of the boulders. It is unclear what, if anything, these “symbols” represent, although they may depict aspects of the landscape, particularly the sun, rivers, hills, and even the mounds themselves.

Decorated kerbstones around the primary mound at Knowth

Stairs climbing the great mound, Knowth 
Wind-whipped Josh on Knowth’s great mound
View of the Boyne Valley from the top of Knowth’s great passage tomb

All photos by Renée DeVoe Mertz, May 24, 2013, unless otherwise noted.