Mizen Megaliths 2: Arderrawinny Portal Tomb

The Neolithic started in Ireland in or around 4,000BC. This was the age that ushered in agriculture – people growing their own crops and domesticating and herding animals. All of our evidence for Neolithic activity on the Mizen comes not from settlements, however, but from megalithic tombs. Arderrawinny (and its cousin Ahaglaslin) is likely the oldest of these.

In Iverni: A Prehistory of Cork, William O’Brien says: While numerous examples of Neolithic houses and tombs have been found in Ireland, there is only sparse evidence for settlement in Cork during this period. The adoption of the farming way of life may have been delayed in this region, particularly in coastal areas of the county where marine resources may have remained a more attractive subsistence option.

In Mizen Megaliths 1: The ‘Unclassified’ Gubbeen Tomb and Fionn’s Ridge, I wrote about the evidence for Passage Graves, and argued that they may be more numerous than hitherto recognised. In this post, I look at Portal Tombs – the iconic structures that used to be called dolmens. The word dolmen is still in use as a popular name for some of these tombs, but archaeologists prefer Portal Tomb as a more accurate descriptor.

What is a Portal Tomb? Let’s take the National Monuments definition as a starting point: A single, short chamber formed by two tall portal-stones, two sidestones and a backstone. Sometimes a stone between the portals closes the entry. The chamber is covered by a roofstone, often of enormous size, which slopes down from the front towards the rear. Cremation was the preferred burial rite and these date to the Neolithic from 3800 to 3200 BC.

Portal tombs have a more northerly distribution in Ireland – this map shows how isolated our two examples are in the south west.

There are many Portal Tombs in Ireland and we have visited some of them. Robert wrote about the largest, Brownshill (above), in his post Off the M8 – The Great Dolmen of Kernanstown. Speculating on how it was built leaves you awestruck at the ingenuity of our ancestors.

Perhaps the most iconic, though, is Poulnabrone in Co Clare (above and below). Situated in the stark landscape of the Burren, it is supremely photogenic and has become almost synonymous with an ancient Irish landscape. Poulnabrone is also one of the few Portal Tombs to be excavated, by Anne Lynch – a necessary step in conserving the monument, which receives over a hundred thousand visitors every year.

We visited another Portal Tomb earlier this year – take a look at Robert’s post on The Giant’s Ring in Co Antrim. An incredible site consisting of an enormous circular earthwork, with a Portal Tomb in its interior (below).

One last image of a Portal Tomb – this one in Co Louth at Proleek (below). It’s a fun one to visit, on a Golf course and with a nearby Bronze Age Wedge Tomb to ponder over as well. 

Now let’s get back to our own Mizen Portal Tomb, Arderrawinny. We visited it on a sunny day last year in the company of our favourite fellow archaeology enthusiast, David Myler (of the excellent Walking with Stones Facebook Page) who brought along his two able assistants, Owen and Aoife. We were guided across the fields by old friends Peter and Cathleen Mabey, who had secured permission from the landowner. The walk included a section of the Fastnet Trails, drooping with displays of Meadowsweet and Loosestrife. 

You will see immediately that Arderrawinny has all the attributes that make it instantly recognisable as a Portal Tomb – two tall upright stones mark the entrance (portal) and support the large front roofstone.

The portals are leaning quite perilously, but the whole edifice seems to be pretty well exactly as it was described by de Valera and O’Nualláín in their Survey of the Megalithic Tombs of Ireland conducted in the 70s, almost 50 years ago. (Vol IV, available here.)

Their observations was that The structure is incorporated into a low oval-shaped mound measuring 10.00m by 9.00m and rising to a maximum height of .7m. This ‘mound’ is faintly visible but the surrounding area has been heavily ‘improved’ over the years so that very little impression can be gained of what the context may have been in antiquity. 

Were Portal Tombs always covered by a cairn or mound? In his book The Prehistoric Archaeology of Ireland, John Waddell says they were, but many have been denuded. He adds, as far as can be judged from rather limited evidence, cairns are of elongated, perhaps subrectangular form, but short oval and round cairns also exist. The excavation at Poulnabrone revealed evidence of a low mound or cairn. Rather than covering the entire structure, this seemed to have functioned to provide lateral support to the orthostats, which sat directly on the bare limestone bedrock, kept in place by the sheer weight of the capstone. Interestingly, the reconstruction drawing for Proleek (below) illustrates an elongated mound/cairn covering the tomb, although no traces of such a mound have been found at that site.

Note that in this drawing, the capstone is still visible, above the cairn material. Others have postulated that Portal Tomb cairns were low, only reaching part way up the supporting orthostats. One scholar has also used lichen growth (lichens can be as 4,000 years old) to support this theory.

De Valera and O’Nualláín describe two overlapping roofstones at Arderrawinny, with the rear stones resting on a small sill which forms the backstone of the chamber. This rear capstone is now almost resting on the ground (above), although it is hard to see inside as stones, possibly from field clearance, have been tossed into the chamber. On our visit, only our junior archaeologists were able to worm their way inside.

What was the burial rite? Here’s what the Poulnabrone excavation revealed: 

The commingled unburnt remains of at least 35 individuals were recovered from the chamber, ranging in date from c. 3800 cal BC to c. 3200 cal BC. The earliest burials are likely to date to the time of the construction of the tomb which would place it at the very beginning of the Irish Neolithic. Successive interment of complete bodies appears to have been the burial rite practised, with subsequent displacement, removal and manipulation of the bones accounting for the disarticulation and jumbled state of the remains. Both male and female and all age groups are represented in the assemblage. A foetus of middle Bronze Age date was recovered from the portico. Analysis of the remains suggested a wholly terrestrial diet with limited consumption of animal protein and, with one exception, all individuals appear to have originated in the carboniferous limestone region of the Burren. A number of animal bones (including cattle, sheep, goat and pig) were intermingled with the human remains.

However, in other Portal Tombs the preference appears to have been for cremation. Waddell cites several examples of burnt bone from excavated Portal Tombs.

Arderrawinny, then, is probably the oldest archaeological monument on the Mizen. In West Cork there is one other Portal Tomb – at Ahaglaslin. If you have driven east along the N71 from Rosscarbery, you will have seen it – a distinct capstone on the side of the hill. 

This one was visited by Borlase as  far back as the 1890 and he described it in his book The Dolmens of Ireland. His illustration, and that of his another antiquarian, Windele, is given below.

Jack Roberts also illustrated it (below) for his marvellous series of books on West Cork antiquities. Jack always manages to capture the essence of these ancient monuments, clearing away distracting foliage, while still conveying the landscape.

Finally, although I haven’t visited it myself, the redoubtable David Myler has, and allowed me to use his photographs. As you can see, Ahaglaslin is similar to Arderrawinny, with the characteristics of the Portal Tomb clearly to be seen.

Curious features of both Arderawinny and Ahaglaslin are their location and orientation. While Arderawinny has a distant view of the sea to the south west, it is actually oriented – that is, the portals face towards – the cliff directly in front of it. To the north, in fact, with no possibility of any sunset/sunrise (unlike wedge tombs, in which entrances invariably point towards the setting sun). Similarly, although Ahaglaslin is  located only a kilometre to the sea, which is directly south, it is oriented up the slope of the hill, to the east. with no commanding view in that direction. 

We know that Neolithic people were masters of building to take advantage of sunrises and sunsets, and we assume this to be an important part of whatever belief-set they had. Given that, the non-orientation of these two West Cork Portal Tombs is a bit of a head-scratcher.

I will leave the last word on Portal Tombs to Waddell, since he sums it up beautifully. Although the portal tomb is invariably a structure of simple plan, he says, some of these monuments are remarkable examples of megalithic engineering.

Off the M8 – The Great Dolmen of Kernanstown

Our ‘Off the M8‘ series is intended to make your journeys across Ireland far more interesting! We travel between Cork and Dublin fairly regularly and, each time, we determine to search out something new. It may be an aspect of medieval history, architecture, stained glass or – as in today’s example – archaeology.

How far you want to stray from the ease and directness of the motorway in your explorations is entirely up to you. This diversion will add about forty minutes to your journey: you will leave the M8 at Junction 3, head across to Carlow on the R430, and then, after Carlow, meet the M9 at Junction 4 and continue up to Dublin. You’ll have to take a little diversion east out of Carlow on to the Hacketstown Road (R726) to find today’s destination: the largest prehistoric portal tomb in Europe, and perhaps in the world!

Robert stands at the east face of the megalithic structure: the orientation suggests a relationship to the rising sun, possibly at significant calendrical events

It’s known variously as the Brownshill Portal Tomb, or the Kernanstown Dolmen (Kernanstown is the name of the Townland, and the word ‘Dolmen’ was formerly used to describe megalithic structures which consist of a large stone slab resting on smaller boulders). The Irish National Monuments Service, in its listing of the Archaeological Survey of Ireland, has set out to regularise the names given to various structures. It does not recognise the once widely-used terms ‘Dolmen’ or ‘Cromlech’, but defines a variety of ‘Megalithic Tomb’ structures, of which the Portal Tomb is one:

. . . A single, short chamber formed by two tall portal-stones, two sidestones and a backstone. Sometimes a stone between the portals closes the entry. The chamber is covered by a roofstone, often of enormous size, which slopes down from the front towards the rear. Cremation was the preferred burial rite and these date to the Neolithic from 3800 to 3200 BC . . .

Finola is giving scale to the portal tomb in the header picture, where the two ‘portal stones’ and central ‘gate stone’ support the east side of the capstone: these features are common to these structures across Ireland, Britain and Europe. Above – the back (west face) of the capstone: Finola is standing at the southern tip

Historically, ‘Dolmen’ was the most common term for these archaeological structures. William Copeland Borlase (1848 – 1899) wrote a lengthy treatise in three volumes on The Dolmens of Ireland, their Distribution, Structural Characteristics, and Affinities in Other Countries; together with the folk-lore attaching to them and traditions of the Irish people published in 1897. In it, he describes the Brownshill / Kernanstown structure thus:

In the Barony of Carlow, in the Townland of Kernanstown, and Parish of Urghin, two miles E. of Carlow, to the N. of Browne’s Hill, or Browneshill House, also called Mount Browne, are three dolmens. The largest of the three is marked Cromlech in Ord. Surv. Map No. 7.

There are three dolmens on this hill. One is of enormous proportions, the two others are smaller. The former has been described by Ryan, Ledwich, and G. Du Noyer. Of one of the latter there is a drawing and plan in Miss Stokes’s collection of drawings of dolmens. The remaining one is situated a distance of 50 yards to the N. of the latter.

The great dolmen stands in the centre of a large flat field in permanent pasture, and has no trace of a bank or cairn near it. It consists of a splendid block of granite, the longer axis of which is N. and S., raised at an angle of 35 degrees to the horizon, upon four blocks, three of which, pillar-like, support the E. side, at a height of 6 feet above the floor, while one sustains its lower and W. side, at a height of only about 2 feet above ground.

The following are my measurements of the block thus elevated into position: Superficial measurement from N.E. to S.W., 23½ feet; ditto from N.W. to S.E., 22 feet; girth 65 feet; thickness at W. side, 6 feet; at S. side, 5 feet; at E. side, 6 feet; and at N. side, 4 feet.

. . . it is, I believe, the largest block raised from the ground by the dolmen-builders which is known, not only in the British isles, but on the continent of Europe

Two picture postcards of the ‘Brown’s Hill Dolmen’ probably dating from the late 19th or early 20th century

Today, there is only one portal tomb visible at Brownshill, although the National Monuments listing confirms that there were three in the area at one time. I was intrigued to find this engraving:

There is no ‘Brownstown’ in County Carlow, so it is likely that this engraving (above) is another version of ‘Brownshill’. It’s hard to see in this the portal tomb we have been describing, so it is possible it is an image of one of the other ‘lost’ dolmens. There is no further information attached to this illustration.

The two illustrations above show how the portal tomb is today enclosed and made accessible by means of a fenced pathway leading from the road to the east of the structure. This setting is not ideal: the impressive nature of the huge capstone is visually diminished by the fencing – although the provision of good disabled access to the monument is highly commendable. The massive granite stone has been estimated to weigh up to 160 tons, and we can only wonder at the methods used to lift it some 5,000 years ago. Here is an imaginative view (dating from the nineteenth century) of a megalithic tomb being built:

Celtomania is an expression which has been used by some antiquarians to describe the use of megalithic structures by ‘Druids’ and ancient races for ritual purposes. This fanciful scene by Edward King (above) shows ancient warriors, sickle-wielding and harp-playing druids, oak trees and standing stones – and a ‘dolmen’. It is taken from a 1969 book on megalithic structures in Brittany which I purchased in my travels there in the 1970s: Carnac ou les mésaventures de la narration by Denis Roche.

The ‘chamber’ of the Brownshill monument is visible when viewed from the south (top photo, above). This structure has never been excavated so we cannot say for sure that it was used to deposit human remains or cremations; in tombs elsewhere, excavations have revealed such a use in some, but not all. It has been suggested that all such structures were fully or partly covered in earth or stone, as implied in the example from Brittany below:

The structure at Brownshill, County Carlow must surely be one of the wonders of the megalithic world. It’s hard not to think that the sheer immensity of the raised capstone would require it to be seen so that the labour involved in its construction is appreciated. These stone edifices were the earliest architecture in the world of our settled ancestors, and the first examples of engineering prowess: one of the reasons for their existence must have been the demonstration of power and knowledge.

Above – a dolmen in Brittany (where they are still known by that name!) demonstrating a reversal of the principles of construction at Brownshill. In the Irish example, the huge capstone is supported by comparatively slender uprights; in France the capstone, although also substantial and heavy, sits on very large portal stones. The result is visually impressive in a different way.

Here in Ireland there are many more examples of portal tombs waiting to be visited and reported on: they are on our list.