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.

The Stone Circles of West Cork: Discussion

The Stone Circles of West Cork form a distinct group within all types of Irish stone circles – the axial or recumbent pattern is its defining characteristic and completely consistent across the geographical spread and different circle sizes. I have described the circles in three posts now: a general Introduction, a post on the Multiple-Stone Circles, and a post on the Five-Stone Circles. If you have not already done so, you might like to refresh your memory by reading or re-reading those posts before carrying on with this one. My objective in this post is to address the question that everyone asks about these circles – When were they built? By whom? And most of all – WHY? I also want to share my own response to the experience of visiting and observing stone circles over many years.

Looking back at Uragh Stone Circle on the skyline

But perhaps this post should come with a trigger warning. Back away now if you want me to talk about mystic energies or ley lines. Stop reading if you believe in vibratory signatures or that a pendulum will reveal some hidden secret to a circle’s purpose. Run, if you think it’s appropriate to light a fire in a stone circle or leave an offering to an ancient goddess. You’ll find lots of other places on the internet to engage with you on those approaches but you won’t find them here. Still with me? All right, let’s get started.

Not all stone circles look monumental – this one at Trawlebawn has been filled with field clearance, but all the features are still clearly visible

Let’s begin with the When? and By Whom? The idea of a circle as a way to create a dedicated space, of course, goes back to the earliest farming communities – John Waddell in his book The Prehistoric Archaeology of Ireland devotes a chapter to the arrival in Ireland of various traditions of monument building based on a circle, firstly earthen enclosures and on to the circular passage tombs of Brú na Bóinne and Loughcrew. New circular structures, some amazingly complex, have been discovered recently near Newgrange, thanks to dry summers and drone technology.

The Cashelkeelty Complex on the Beara – in this image you can see the remains of what was probably a Multiple-stone Circle on the right, while in the upper left is the Five-stone Circle and row of three Standing Stones

While the circles we are talking about – the axial circles of West Cork – share their basic shape with many of these earlier monuments they should be viewed as a unique and recognisable tradition of monument-building. Very few stone circles have been excavated, but those that have support a Mid- to Late-Bronze Age date, that is from about 1600BC to about 600BC.  It was a tradition that occupied a restricted geographic region (Cork and Kerry) and had their closest parallels to the similar stone circles of Scotland. In Scotland, few have been excavated but those that have been also support a Mid- to Late-Bronze Age date. Remember too that our stone circles are strongly associated with other monuments – boulder burials, standing stone outliers, stone pairs or rows. Where dates have been established, they place these monuments in the same era. Waddell sums up by saying These new monuments may be related to an expansion of settlement and an intensification of agriculture reflected in the pollen record and pre-bog field systems.

Cashelkeelty again, looking up towards the Five-stone Circle and stone row. In the foreground are the fence stones of an ancient field system. Waddell based his conclusion about agricultural expansion partly on the findings of excavations at this site 

And now to the Why? Archaeological theories fall into two broad categories – axial stone circles were built primarily for calendrical purposes and stone circles were built primarily as memorials or burial places. I emphasise primarily as it is likely that anything that takes this level of resources to construct would have been multi-functional. Our old friend Boyle Somerville was the pioneer of the calendrical approach – see Boyle Somerville, Ireland’s First Archaeoastronomer.

There’s a stone circle (large and sophisticated) under all that bracken!

There is no doubt that marking the turning of the year was of vital importance to an early farming culture. Two solstices, two equinoxes and the mid-way points between them, known as cross-quarter days, are the basis for many ancient calendars and festivals. Our own traditional festival days of Imbolc, Bealtaine, Lughnasa and Samhain correspond roughly to the cross-quarters and to the beginning of spring or the end of harvest. It makes sense to have some way to mark out those dates and building a stone circle to do so had the merit of being enduring in the landscape.

Each winter solstice people gather at Drombeg to watch the sun set over the recumbent – see our post, Drombeg Solstice Celebration for  more 

There is also the issue of the design of the circles – two portals across from a recumbent – a line has been observed and is being marked by the axis thus laid out. In West Cork, this axis line is NE (the portals) SW (the recumbent). However, there is a fairly broad spread on either side of the line so obviously it was not an immutable rule that the orientation was set to a certain point in the heavens but that it corresponded in a general way to that part of the sky in which both the sun and the moon rose and set – between the east for rising and the west for setting, moving across the southern sky.

This diagram is from Seán Ó Nualláin, The Stone Circle Complex of Cork and Kerry, in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquarees of Ireland, Vol 105, 1975

Within that general orientation, settings over the recumbent have been observed at many, although by no means all, the stone circles. The most well-known is Drombeg, where the sun sets over the recumbent at the winter solstice. We have observed an equinoctial orientation at Bohonagh with Ken Williams, Ireland’s foremost photographer of prehistoric subjects. That’s his photograph of that event below (used with permission). Lunar risings and settings have also been noted – see Mike Wilson’s observations at Drombeg, for example. The winter sky appears to be what is most important – perhaps understandably given the psychological effect of passing the darkest and coldest time of the year.

Other orientations have been posited – towards a sacred peak, for example, or to an upland area where people would move their cattle at a certain time of the year (known as transhumance, or as booleying in Ireland) or to stars of first magnitude. Terence Meaden has encouraged us to look at shadow-casting as a way of building an 8-month calendar and has made many accurate observations at stone circles to support his thesis. While there is no doubt that fertility must have been important to early farmers, Meaden somewhat undermines his own research by his insistence on interpreting everything as sexual symbolism, to the point of seeing penises and vulvas in the the stones and in invoking the concept of celestial marriage to explain ‘union by shadow’ between phallic and female orthostats.

Some stone circles are more accessible than others – this one, at Derrynafinchin, is right by the road, which had to take a detour around it

Then there are the outliers – standing stones or stone rows that provide further and different orientations. Sometimes these are close by the circle, as at Uragh or Glanbrack (below) and sometimes at a distance, as at Dunbeacon. 

The late lamented Aubrey Burl, in his book Rings of Stone, reminds us that these are ceremonial spaces. Not keen on archaeoastronomy, he paid attention to the shape of the monument as creating a place for ritual, and especially for dancing, commonly done on special festival or feast days. Circle dancing is one of the oldest forms of dancing and innately human, providing contact between the dancers and capable of involving all, or specific (e.g. young women) members of the community. Multiple-stone Circles such as Cappanaboule (below) may have provided a platform for performances inside the circle, while dances at Five-stone Circles may have been outside the circle.

The second main theory revolves around the circle as a burial place. Once again, there is a paucity of excavation reports to rely on, but Fahy found cremated human bone at all three of his excavations, Drombeg, Bohonagh and Reanascreena, indicating that the primary purpose of the circle may have been sepulchral. Archaeologist also point to the strong association of stone circles with boulder burials. However, once again, there is actually little evidence of human remains at those boulder burials that have been excavated. Waddell, in fact prefers the more descriptive and less functional term boulder monuments for this reason.

At Breeny More there are four Boulder Burials set within the remains of a Multiple-stone Circle

The question arises whether, if individuals were buried in any monument, it conclusively proves that that the primary purpose was to receive and honour the body of this person, who may have been a high-status member of the community. In support of this contention we can look at the pyramids – enormous monuments erected through the commandeering of community-wide resources as tombs for pharaohs. While it may have had other, secondary purposes, the main reason for building a pyramid was to memorialise the dead and to affirm a believe in the afterlife.

The perfect Five-stone Circle at Cappaboy Beg

Megalithic monuments in Ireland, even if they displayed certain orientations, such as Newgrange to the winter solstice, or wedge tombs to the autumn or winter setting sun, are regarded primarily as burial places. Should the primary purpose of stone circles, then, also be considered to be sepulchral. Or should we perhaps, think in terms of churches and cathedrals with crypts underneath them? To be buried in a crypt under a church (as opposed to outside in the graveyard) was the prerogative only of those who had the power and prestige to exercise that privilege: however it does not mean that the only or even main purpose of the church was as a memorial to those buried within its walls or under its floor. Where the remains were those of the founding saint the claim is stronger and the church’s role as a centre for pilgrimage may take precedence over its other liturgical functions. Likewise, although churches are traditionally oriented east-west, it does not follow that their primary purpose is to celebrate the sunrise.

Whatever the ultimate answer, there is no doubt that for us in the present day, a visit to a stone circle is a very special experience. First of all, in West Cork, it is always an adventure, off the beaten track and in spectacular countryside. When you’re lucky, the circle will be right beside the road, or on the other side of a field of wildflowers, like the one above at Inchireagh. That happens once in a blue moon – normally we get to climb mountains, trudge through bogs, beat back gorse, get lost on tiny roads with nowhere to turn around and make friends with the local farmers who act as guardians of their monuments. Oh, yes, and face down cattle!

Can you see the ring in his nose? I had wandered by a field full of cattle in my quest for a particular stone circle, not noticing that the gate was open. On my return, I was confronted with this gigantic bull and his harem. I turned tail and fled, eventually finding my way back to the road by a circuitous route – scratched, drenched, exhausted, and badly in need of ice cream

Finally, and despite my insistence on logic and science, I have to admit that visiting a stone circle is a profoundly spiritual experience. By this I mean that it connects you somehow to all that went before and it raises all the deep existential questions about why our ancestors expended their precious resources to build these extravagant and arduous  structures. This sense of wonder has been marvellously expressed for me in a poem by one of our readers, Finbarr O’Driscoll of Skibbereen. Originally published in the 70s, when I was doing my own research into rock art, including that at Drombeg, it resonated with me as soon as I saw it and I thank Finbarr for permission to reproduce it in full. It’s a fitting way to conclude this series.

DROMBEG

In an urn under
the stone the centre of
the stone circle
they found the ashes of
a child’s concise shape.

On the local limbo
of this wet hill I
of this congruent blood
cannot deny I
hold the godlessness was

good. Turning this thought
inside out again then
inside in unearths
no more. Again my heart
is as the urn then.