Boulder Burials: a Misnamed Monument?

Rathruane Boulder Burial

The term boulder burial was coined in the 1970s by Sean O’Nualláin, an archaeologist with the Ordnance Survey, to describe a class of monument that was quite prevalent in the south west, consisting of a single large boulder sitting on three or four support stones. The support stones lift the boulder off the ground and provide a small chamber-like area under the stone. Previously, this type of monument was known as a dolmen, a boulder dolmen or a cromlech, but O’Nualláin was convinced that the main purpose of these boulders was to mark a burial.

Lisheen Cromlechs by Jack Roberts

Illustrations from Jack Robert’s book Exploring West Cork

He based this belief partly on his extensive experience with other megalithic monuments, but also on the findings of the excavation of the Bohonagh complex, where Fahy found fragments of cremated bone in a pit under the boulder.

Bohonagh Boulder Burial
The Bohonagh complex includes a multiple-stone circle, a boulder burial and a cup-marked stone. A standing stone stood close by but has disappeared. Note the quartz support stone

However, William O’Brien excavated three boulder burials in the late 1980s and found no evidence of burials. In his book, Iverni, he comments in an understated way, “The absence of human remains at Cooradarrigan and Ballycommane does pose some questions as to their use.” His findings dated the sites to the Middle Bronze Age, between 3000 and 3,500 years ago.

Lisheen Lower boulder Burial

A boulder burial from Lisheen Lower

What is unquestioned, though, is that they are predominantly found in the south west, especially in Cork, and that, while most occur alone, they are often found in groups, and/or in association with stone circles or standing stones.

rathruane boulder

This one is at Rathruane More, close to a significant rock art site and with views of Mount Gabriel and Mount Corrin

A boulder burial is a striking and unmistakable sight. Often situated on a high point or ridge it can be seen silhouetted against the sky – a large glacial erratic standing proud in the landscape. There are lots of examples around us here and most of them command extensive and often panoramic views. These are monuments that were built to be seen and to see from.

dunmanus boulder burial

An exception to the high ground location is found at Dunmanus on the north side of the Mizen Peninsula. This boulder-burial is so low-lying, in fact, that one can only reach it at low tide

Ballycommane Bouder Burial quartz

Ballycommane – the boulder is of white quartz

William O’Brien has pointed out that quartz is a feature of West Cork prehistoric sites and this is particularly evident in the case of boulder-burials. At Bohonagh, for example, some of the support stones are of gleaming white quartz, while at Ballycommane, Cooradarrigan and Cullomane the boulder itself is quartz. The sun was low in the sky when we visited Ballycommane and the sight of the quartz boulder gently gleaming was truly memorable.

Mill Little Complex 2

The Mill Little complex

Boulder burials often occur in groups and in association with other monuments. Mill Little is a good example of this: three boulder burials are in a line with a standing stone pair at one end and a five-stone circle at the other. See our post Family-Friendly Archaeology Day for more photos of the Mill Little Complex.

Cullomane boulder burial

This photograph shows the Cullomane boulder burial in the foreground, and a ‘penitential station’, in the background. This ‘station’ was part of a pilgrim round that involved prayer and penance – see Holy Wells of Cork for more detail on this site

At the Cullomane site, east of Bantry, the quartz boulder is surrounded by a variety of other monuments: a small stone circle, an ‘anomolous’ group of stone, a stone row, and standing stones all lie within a few fields of each other. Intriguingly, this site has seen continued ritual use through the millennia – there are also ring forts, burial grounds, a holy well and a ‘penitential station’ within the same small area.

Ballycommane boulder burial and standing stone pair

The Ballycommane boulder is in close proximity to a standing stone pair

Breeny More 4

At Breeny More, near Kealkill, four boulder burials in a square pattern lie inside what remains of a large multiple-stone circle. This is an awe-inspiring site – you feel you are on top of the world with mountains all around and stunning views out to the end of the Beara and Sheep’s Head Peninsulas. See Robert’s post Walking the Past for a sense of what this site offers.

Kenmare Stone Circle and boulder burial

The Kenmare stone circle, above, has a boulder burial in the middle of it, while the Gorteanish stone circle on the Sheep’s Head, below, has at least one and possibly two boulder burials

Gorteanish

So – if they weren’t tombs, or weren’t solely tombs – what was the purpose of these striking boulders? Their association with stone circles and rows provide evidence that they fit the calendrical pattern that we find in so many monuments of this era. Mike Wilson, the archeo-astronomer of the Mega-What site, has surveyed many of the West Cork boulder burials and has this to say: This survey shows that boulder-monuments were functional objects marking astronomically important places in the landscape. They cannot generally define an azimuth as accurately as a stone row or circle but capstone shape and orientation are usually significant, helping to indicate directions of interest.

Breeny More

At Breeny More the square layout of the four boulder burials within the stone circle provide many possible alignments

In several of the boulder burials we have observed, capstone shape and direction certainly seem to be a deliberate feature of the monument.

Rathruane boulder Burial Orientation

Robert checks the orientation of the long axis of the capstone at Rathruane More

But perhaps the best example we have of how a boulder burial can have an orientation was drawn to our attention by local historian Brigid O’Brien – and she even sent us the evidence! If you stand at Bawngare, your attention is immediately drawn to the spectacular views to the west and north west – views that include Mount Gabriel, Mount Corrin and between them, faraway Hungry Hill on the Beara Peninsula, as well as the Sea in Roaringwater Bay. Interestingly, one of the support stones has several small shallow cupmarks (cupmarks are found on the capstones of several boulder burials).

Barngare Boulder Burial and view

The view west from Bawngare boulder burial

However the capstone with its distinctive long furrow holds the real secret, and Brigid’s persistence in braving the cold to visit at exactly the right time has unlocked that secret for us now.

Bawngare boulder burial general

From the other side the long furrow can be seen running the length of the capstone

Brigid visited it last year at the winter solstice and took this photograph of the setting sun. It seems the capstone was deliberately positioned to mark this alignment.

Bawngare boulder burial winter solstice sunset

Brigid’s photograph, taken on December 21st, 2015

Perhaps it’s time to go back to calling them something other than burials – I rather fancy the old term boulder dolmens. What do you think?

Shadows and Stone in Action

Ken Williams - capturing the moment

Ken Williams – capturing the moment

Shadows and Stone is the undisputed champion of prehistoric photography sites in Ireland. The work of photographer Ken Williams, it contains an enormous number of high-quality images from Ireland, England and Wales, and Portugal. Within Ireland, the site is organised by the various types of monuments (passage graves, stone circles, rock art, etc) and there are also galleries devoted to solar phenomena such as the Equinox at Loughcrew.

Ken and Robert: getting ready for sunset at Bohonagh

Ken and Robert: getting ready for sunset at Bohonagh

Ken’s work on rock art is astounding. We know first hand how difficult it is to get good photographs of the carvings. Many of them are covered in lichen, obscuring all the detail, and can really only be discerned in long slanting light, such as at sunrise or sunset. Ken uses artificial lighting to capture his excellent images and when we first met him a couple of years ago we asked him how he packed all those lights up to the remote locations in which a lot of rock art is found. He grinned and opened his backpack. “This is my equipment,” he said, “It’s all I use.” Essentially his gear consists of a camera, flashes, and tripods.

flashes strategically deployed

flashes strategically deployed

If you want to see the difference between what Ken captures and what us ordinary mortals manage to do, take a look at our photograph below of the highly carved panels at Derrynablaha in Kerry. Hard to see anything on them, right? Now click here for Ken’s version!

Derrynablaha Panels 5 and 6. Probably most highly carved pieces of rock art in Ireland. Can you see it?

Derrynablaha Panels 5 and 6. Probably the most highly decorated pieces of rock art in Ireland. Can you see the carvings?

We met Ken this week at the Bohonagh Stone Circle: he was there to photograph the equinoctial sunset. It was a beautiful evening – perfect conditions to see the sun sink behind the recumbent stone, as it does in these axial stone circles at either the equinox or solstice.

Looking over the recumbent

Looking over the recumbent

It was a treat to see a master photographer at work and to have Ken explain how he gets those amazing shots. Since we had already had the opportunity to shoot the sunset last March, I knew how difficult it was to portray a scene when you’re aiming directly into the glare of the setting sun. It took a lot of processing afterwards before I could see both the sun and the stones in my shot, and by that time the sky was competely washed out. This time I concentrated on capturing the photographer at work. Ken, meanwhile, worked his usual magic – and here’s the result, included with his permission. Not only can you see everything, including the still blue sky, but his picture captures the mysterious ambiance of the setting and the occasion.

BohonaghEquinox15-12

We hope to tag along with Ken again in the future. Meanwhile – our thanks to him for an inspirational day and the great rock art chat.

Thanks, Ken!

Thanks, Ken!

By the way, it’s been a week of sky photography here in West Cork – first the equinox and then an eclipse! My neck hurts now.

Solar eclipse, West Cork, March 20, 2015

Solar eclipse, West Cork, March 20, 2015

Wedge Tombs: Last of the Megaliths

Altar Wedge Tomb on The Mizen Peninsula

Altar Wedge Tomb on The Mizen Peninsula

In Ireland, the tradition of building megalithic (mega=large, lithos=stone) structures that included chambers to house the dead (such as the Boyne Valley Passage Grave complex, or the Court Tomb of Creevykeel) belongs to the Neolithic period, which ended around 2500 BC. About this time, a new style emerged of stone ‘galleries’, oriented towards the setting sun. Their distinctive shape – narrower and shorter at the eastern end – gives them their common name, wedge tombs. This tradition appears to have flourished for about 500 years.

Altar, side view

Altar, side view

In other areas of Ireland wedge tombs were often covered by a mound, but there is little evidence for this in West Cork. The closest parallel to wedge tombs outside of Ireland are in Brittany where allées couvertes date from this period. They are associated in some parts of Ireland (although once again not in West Cork) with Beaker pottery, a distinctive kind of vessel widely distributed across Western Europe. This was a time in which the population was expanding, farming practices were intensifying and a brand new technology was being introduced – it was the dawn of the Copper Age. Thus, we can speculate that wedge tombs mark the confluence of two forces: the new continental technologies of pottery and metalworking and the indigenous tradition of erecting megalithic chambered tombs.

Wedge tombs occur mostly in the western half of Ireland, including many in County Clare such as the Parknabinnia tomb pictured below.

 The largest wedge tomb in Ireland is near Fermoy, north of Cork City. It is typical of many Irish wedge tombs in featuring double walling, evidence of a surrounding cairn, and a sealed end chamber. Interestingly its name, Labbacallee, means the Hag’s Bed – the hag, or wise woman crops up frequently in Irish mythology.

In contrast to Labbacallee, wedge tombs in West Cork are generally smaller and simpler, comprising only one chamber and lacking a covering cairn. However, the distinctive wedge shape is preserved along with one other defining feature: wedge tombs are invariably oriented towards the setting sun. The funerary rite was that of cremation. Votive offerings of white quartz pebbles and small deposits of metal have been found in excavations.

Toormore wedge tomb,  now in someone's garden

Toormore wedge tomb, now in someone’s garden

Prof William O’Brien has excavated wedge tombs in West Cork and studied them, and the culture in which they were built, extensively. Here’s what he has to say, in his book, Iverni, about the society that produced them:

Whereas monuments like Newgrange could only have been built with a large organised input of labour over a long period, the building of wedge tombs was undertaken by small kin groups…This was a small scale society, comprised of local, clan-like groupings…The tomb was a type of shrine, sanctified by an association with ancestors and used for periodic offering and sacrifice to supernatural powers.

A striking aspect of Neolithic, Chalcolithic (Copper Age) and Bronze Age monuments in West Cork is their consistent orientation towards solar events such as sunrise and sunsets on the equinoxes, solstices and cross-quarter days (see our post on Bohonagh stone circle, for example). In this regard, wedge tombs are remarkably consistent in being oriented towards the West. Here’s O’Brien again:

Wedge tombs served as funnel-shaped openings to the Otherworld, facing the descending or setting sun to emphasise the symbolic dualism of light/life and darkness/death.

Toormore, side view

Toormore, side view

Looking for a wedge tomb closer to home, we set out yesterday to find the nearby Kilbronogue site, using the information from the National Monuments Service as a guide. We have found in the past that the mapping of sites is not always accurate and after an hour or two of tramping through a large and very muddy area with a helpful neighbour and his son we had to admit defeat – either the map was wrong, or the monument had disappeared in the recent fieldwork by a digger. Desperately hoping it was the former and not the latter, we found out who owned the land and went to call on him today. Stephen Lynch turned out to be a friendly, cheerful and very knowledgeable organic farmer – he assured us that the tomb would never be damaged in any way and not to worry, he would take us to it. Whew! Half an hour later we were trudging up a path that Stephen had had cut through his ash plantation – on we went and suddenly there it was in front of us – a classic wedge tomb, oriented to the west, built with large slabs that may have been cut from the rock face behind it.

Kilbronogue wedge tomb with its guardian, Stephen Lynch

Kilbronogue wedge tomb with its guardian, Stephen Lynch

Stephen told us the tomb had been used as a mass rock in penal times and that the Protestant farmers who owned all the farms that bordered on the rock had cooperated in allowing the masses to take place – an indication, Stephen said, of the long tradition of friendship between Catholic and Protestant farming families in this area. As with the Altar wedge tomb, also used as a mass rock, we marvelled at how a sacred site, built at least four thousand years ago, would retain its aura of veneration over the millennia, to be used again for religious purposes in the historic period.

Kilbronogue, side view

Kilbronogue, side view

Perhaps the most spectacularly situated wedge tomb we have been to is high on a hill overlooking Bantry. This one is known as Queen Medb’s Tomb and from it there are expansive views of the Beara, Sheep’s Head and Mizen Peninsulas. Climb up to it on a clear day, as the sun is sinking into the sea: in the presence of such awe-inspiring scenery you will find yourself contemplating how the mysteries and the wonders of Irish history and prehistory are written on its landscape.

Queen Medb's Tomb

Queen Medb’s Tomb

Equinox at Bohonagh

Sunset over the recumbent, Spring Equinox 2014

Sunset over the recumbent, Spring Equinox 2014

We don’t normally post midweek, so this is a special edition, coming to you courtesy of the spring equinox. In my post Ancient Calendars, I explained about the orientation of the stone circles of West Cork. Bohonagh, just outside Rosscarbery, is oriented east-west. On the spring equinox, if you stand behind the recumbent, you will see the sun rise between the portal stones. If you stand behind the portal stones you will see the sun set behind the recumbent.

Around here, there is no guarantee that sunrise or sunset will be visible, due to the variable weather conditions, so you have to watch the forecast carefully. This week, sunshine was forecast only for Tuesday the 18th, so that is the day these photographs were taken. Curiously, this is also the day, according to my calendar, when sunset and sunrise divide the day into two equal halves. The official equinox, however, happens today: March 20th 2014.

Equinoctial sky

Equinoctial sky

The top photograph shows the moment when the sun set across the valley, sinking down directly above the recumbent as seen from between the portal stones. The second photo is taken from further down the hill, after the sun had disappeared. Silhouetted are the stone circle, especially the tall portal stones, and to the left, the boulder burial. Finally, I have included an image showing the east-west oriention.

east-west orientation

east-west orientation

We felt very privileged to be witnessing this event, thousands of years after the builders had planned it. With us earler in the day were Amanda and Peter, and you can see Amanda’s description of the site here.

Ancient Calendars

One of West Cork's ancient calendars

One of West Cork’s ancient calendars

We’ve been catching up on our rock art project this week and it’s brought us out into the field. On Saturday the weather was spectacular – crisp, but with a totally blue sky and vibrant colours. See Amanda’s photo of the day here. We spent most of the day just east of Rosscarbery, a picturesque settlement above the water at Rosscarbery Bay, where the birdlife viewing is always a delight.

One of the sites we visited was Bohonagh. Not only does it boast cupmarked stones, but a very fine boulder burial and a stone circle.

Bohonagh Stone Circle

Bohonagh Stone Circle

West Cork is particularly rich in 3000 year old Bronze Age stone circles and most of them are of the ‘axial’ or ‘recumbent’ type. This means that the circle is laid out on an axis that is oriented in a particular direction. On one side of the circle is a stone laid longways – the recumbent stone. Across from the recumbent are the portals: two tall stones that appear to create a doorway into the circle. Sometimes the stones rise in height from the recumbent to the portals, and the portal stones may be set ‘end-on’ to the circle. There are always, therefore, an uneven number of stones – up to 17 have been recorded, although many circles are incomplete, with fallen or missing stones. The purpose of the axis was to provide a line of sight on a sunrise or sunset (and perhaps even moonrise and moonset) at important calendrical points such as solstices and equinoxes.

The portal stones at Bohonagh

The portal stones at Bohonagh

Bohonagh quartz

Quartz at Bohonagh

A feature of these circles is that many of them include quartz rocks: sometimes as one of the circle stones, sometimes as an additional rock in the interior or exterior of the circle, and sometimes on a nearby monument such as a boulder burial. At Bohonagh there were several quartz rocks, including one lying outside the circle and two supporting the boulder burial. In one case, at Ballycommane, we have seen an enormous quartz rock function as the capstone of a boulder burial – quite awe-inspiring in its visual impact. Interestingly, this same phenomenon occurs in a stone circle in Cornwall – Boscawen-Un in the West Penwith Peninsula, not that far from West Cork! As we watched the quartz under the boulder burial glisten in the sun (impossible to capture on a photograph) we knew it had to be seen as a very special stone to the builders of these circles.

Brooding stones at Dunbeacon

Brooding stones at Dunbeacon

Stone circles often command sweeping views of the surrounding countryside. This makes them well worth visiting, even if a goodly hike is involved. Because they are invariably located on private land, it is good practice to try to track down the landowner and request permission, and of course to always close gates and observe good field etiquette on a visit. Don’t be surprised to find that many are no longer intact: the centuries have taken their toll and many of the stones have fallen or disappeared over time. On the upside, this adds to the romantic wildness of the scene.

Gorteanish Stone Circle, re-discovered in the laying out of  the Sheep's Head Way

Gorteanish Stone Circle, re-discovered in the laying out of the Sheep’s Head Way

One of the most famous of the West Cork stone circles is Drombeg, near Glandore. Here, people gather on the winter and summer solstices to witness sunrise and sunset.

Drombeg on a wet day

Drombeg on a wet day

At Bohonagh, the alignment is to the spring equinox sunrise and sunset, due east and west. We plan to be there!