1. Introduction

1.1 Archaeological and cultural context

The megalithic chambered monuments of Ireland are categorised into four groups (De Valera and Ó Nualláin 1961) of which three types are Neolithic; court tombs, portal dolmens and passage tombs. Many writers have noted archaeological parallels between the Irish passage tombs and similar monuments occurring at various centres along the Atlantic façade of Europe; in Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Britain (in Scotland, Wales and Cornwall), France, Spain and Portugal (Scarre 2002, 39; Shee-Twohig 2004). The Irish passage tomb tradition is characterised by funerary rituals involving cremation and a particular assemblage of grave goods: stone balls, bone beads and pendants, bone or antler pins, quartz and Carrowkeel ware. A typical passage tomb comprises a chamber of crude boulders, a roof of corbelled slabs and a mound of earth or loose stones covering it. A stone-lined passage leading to the chamber was often constructed and covered. Generally the monuments are located at high points in the landscape; they are sometimes positioned at high-profile or spectacular vantage points. Unlike portal tombs or court tombs, passage tombs are often found in groups, sometimes with a focal monument occupying a central location. The four great clusters are:

The latter two complexes are located in County Sligo; the Boyne Valley and Loughcrew complexes are in County Meath. A Neolithic passage tomb, the Mound of the Hostages, occupies the central position in the Tara (Teamhair) archaeological complex in Co. Meath. Smaller passage tomb complexes include Kilmonaster in Donegal and Bremore/Gormanstown in County Dublin. The remnants of a largely ruined cluster exists in Finner, County Donegal (McDonald 2009). County Sligo is particularly rich in passage tombs; the Cúil Irra region (about 75km²) has been described as possessing one-quarter of the recorded Irish passage tombs (Bergh 1995, 158).

The Irish passage tombs are generally seen as a phenomenon of the Middle and Late Neolithic;

The existing termini post quos … seem more compatible with a currency for the passage tombs of Ireland falling in the second half of the fourth millennium cal BC (Cooney et al. 2011, 657).

Passage tombs often exhibit carved decoration on the kerb or chamber stones (e.g. Loughcrew and Newgrange). Astronomical alignments on 'significant solar declinations' have been attributed to approximately 16% of the 128 passage tombs (these represent 55% of the total) possessing extant passages (Prendergast 2006, 7). Carrowmore is something of an anomaly in this general picture; most of the monuments (the 'satellite tombs' encircling the central cairn, Listoghil (Carrowmore 51)), while sharing the same grave goods assemblage and clustered arrangement of the classic passage tombs, differ greatly in their morphology. This may be a consequence of their age. A recent project that dated bone/antler pin fragments from two monuments has placed the usage of these sites between circa 3700 and 3100 BC (Bergh and Hensey, forthcoming). The satellite tombs take the form of small dolmen circles, 10–26m in diameter. These appear never to have been covered by a stone mound or cairn (Bergh 1995, 81). No parietal art has been found on any of these small monuments. Most, if not all, contained cremated bones; 29kg are documented from one site, Carrowmore 3 (Bergh 1995, 182).

Listoghil, therefore, represents an innovation, if not a revolution, both symbolically and in actuality. Set at the centre of the complex, markedly different funerary rites were employed there including the treatment of the human remains (unburnt bones were present and a funerary ritual involving defleshing is reported (Burenhult 1998b)) and what appears to be (bearing in mind the disturbance of the chamber before excavation) the deposition of a somewhat different assemblage of grave goods. In contrast to the open pentagonal chambers of the dolmen-circles, this monument had a cairn of loose stones, covering a large rectangular cist or chamber (Burenhult 1998b, 11). Another departure is the use of limestone in the chamber as a capstone, and sandstone blocks as supports under the capstone (Burenhult 1998b, 12). This combination of technique and materials is employed in a more sophisticated manner at Carrowkeel (Macalister et al. 1912, 325), but is unknown among the Carrowmore satellite monuments. Another point of contrast is the sheer scale of the structure at Listoghil; its kerb is approximately 34m in diameter, whereas the smaller sites vary between 13 and 23m in diameter.

The central monument at Carrowmore could thus be said to straddle a transition between a tradition of building only small simple structures, surrounding a point of common interest, to building a large monument on that privileged location, and covering it with a stone mound, a monument type with more in common with the grandiose style of architecture seen in later 'focal' passage tombs. The building of small open structures in tandem with larger cairn-type sites may, however, have continued.

1.2 A focal point

Most of the satellite 'dolmen circles' of Carrowmore are constructed on an axially symmetrical plan. The combination of backstone, two opposing 'side stones' and symmetrically positioned twin stones framing the entrance, results in a five-sided chamber. A sense of directionality is emphasised in a number of instances (C7, C17, C52) by the addition of a double row of stones leading from the front of the chamber towards the edge of the circle (Bergh 1995, 67). No parietal art has been found on any of these small monuments. No astronomical orientation has been demonstrated at any of these sites, although they have been surveyed by Bergh, Prendergast and others. They are not looking outward towards the sky, but inward; twelve of the Carrowmore cluster (of 14 whose directionality can be established) point towards the central ridge, and the approximate position of Listoghil (Bergh 1995, 124).

Bergh (1995) makes comparison with Knowth, where the 'internal orientation pattern' of several monuments in a cluster converges on one point. They could, Bergh concluded, have been directed towards a structure which was important to the ritual or burials, but later abandoned or moved.

Even if an orientation can only be established at 1/6 of the supposed original monuments at Carrowmore, it would appear as if the area around C51 (Listoghil) was of importance to the orientation of the satellite monuments (Bergh 1995, 124).

This interest in the position occupied by Listoghil, at the centre of the Cúil Irra peninsula, also seems to be maintained in monument clusters (also passage tombs) in the region, such as Carrowkeel (Bergh 1995, 127). Bergh writes of Knocknarea that the satellite tombs which surround Queen Meadbh's tomb on the hilltop might have been expected to focus on the central area dominated by the massive cairn, as occurs at Carrowmore. But rather,

'viewed within the geographical space of the Cúil Irra region, the (Knocknarea) monuments are orientated towards Carrowmore and the Slieve Deane group (the Ballygawley Mountains) east of the Collooney Gap' (Bergh 1995, 125).

So what is special about Carrowmore, and in particular, the position of Listoghil? Why does the relationship with the Ballygawley Mountains appear to be the focus when viewed from Knocknarea? Bergh characterises Carrowmore as the physical and symbolic heart of the region, with the monuments on the Ballygawley Mountains forming a symbolic boundary between Cúil Irra and the world outside.

1.3 A voice from the crypt?

As the central monument at the Carrowmore passage tomb complex, Listoghil was partly excavated in the late 1990s. No suggestion was made of an astronomical orientation at the site in the course of excavations. But in 2004 a colleague suggested that the chamber appears to be directed towards a saddle-like feature on the horizon, in which position a neatly framed sunrise might occur on days lying on or close to the traditional seasonal festivals of Samhain and Imbolc (these are celebrated on the first days of November and of February, marking winter-start and winter-end). Although not generally accepted as viable alignments for passage tombs, the four 'Celtic cross-quarter days' are recurrent themes in early Irish literature, such as Tochmarc Emire (The Wooing of Emer), Cath Mag Tuired (The Second Battle of Moytura) and the Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley, involving Queen Meadbh of Connaught). If a deliberate orientation of Listoghil could be inferred from the evidence and supported with parallels from other sites, a number of questions arose. Not least among these was the question of whether myths recorded in the Early Christian era might contain 5000 year old information. At the very least, a deliberate orientation towards a seasonal transition could lead to a re-appraisal of the intentions of the architects of passage tombs.

1.4 Methodology

A glance through the rich variety of star stories and the different pictures fashioned by different cultures out of the common building blocks of the stars demonstrate to us that pattern seekers rarely fail (see Stanbridge 1857); humans seem to be hard-wired to identify design involuntarily. The discovery that the orientation of Listoghil appeared to mark the exact date of modern-day Halloween, therefore, triggered a certain unease. During the course of the project, I endeavoured to retain a robust scepticism, and an alertness to the temptation of over-interpreting the evidence.

My fieldwork included a number of visits to, and examination of maps of, the saddle towards which the Listoghil chamber points. I gathered and collated data in the course of a survey of Listoghil conducted in 2007. I measured and mapped the chamber and kerb. I made observations, visiting the site on numerous occasions over three years, beginning in 2007. Follow-up work concentrated on efforts to filter out the 'noise' of modern reconstruction. I employed a computer-rendered 3D model to remove the cairn digitally and view the chamber in various lighting conditions through the course of a year. Data regarding seasonal and climatic histories are available to us, as are charts of ancient skies. In the case of the latter, I made use of programmes and formulae created by Reijs and Patat (2011). Both researchers were kind enough to remodel my data and check over it for errors. But was the effect observed created deliberately or by chance? Filtering out the reconstruction might be a less challenging task than filtering out the possibility of coincidental alignment.

Locked in the present, is it possible to read the signs of the past? Encouragingly, Shove et al. (2009, 18) have contemplated the mutually constitutive relationship between time and practice. Artefacts, Jones asserts, are integral components of the past, which were shaped by, and in turn helped to shape, human behaviour (Jones 2004, 330). Less reassuringly, the cracks and contradictions between time, material and culture have been well aired, by such commentators as Hodder and Gosden (see DeMarrais 2004 for discussion).

The short history of archaeoastronomy has hinged on a debate around methodology; the core issue being that of establishing intentionality. Ruggles has written extensively on this subject, not least in his seminal book Astronomy in Prehistoric Britain and Ireland (1999). Sims (2010, 2162) advocated five approaches, all data driven; (a) traditional statistical analysis, (b) Monte Carlo modelling (which randomly generates alternative architectural structures), (c) a quantified landscape phenomenonology (in terms of alternatives within the landscape context for putative builders), (d) the isolation of detailed features of a monument that is unexplainedby other hypothesis and finally (e) virtual modelling of monuments using accurate computer models of landscape and skyscape. To complement and support my phenomenological, experiential approach I would apply the latter two of these.

In order to make comparison with other possible orientations, and in an attempt to read the 'palette' confronting prospective Neolithic planners or builders, I undertook a 360° survey of the horizon from Listoghil, building a distance and elevation profile of features of possible significance such as hills and depressions. To assist this I used a panorama of images taken from Listoghil, as well as data compiled in panorama creating software. These were then compared to an expanded list of significant solar and lunar declinations, merging evidence from various fields (after Newman 2011, 23).

1.5 Article structure

The core of this article is a personal account of observing the sunrise on site on mornings preceding, during, and following the alignment as well as a brief account of the life history of Listoghil. I go on to address, from different perspectives, the question of intentionality, starting with experiments with 3D computer models.

I sought parallels to the Listoghil phenomenon elsewhere in the passage tomb tradition. This approach fell far short of a statistical survey. A number of interesting parallels in Europe came to light, such as the Ile Carn near Ploudalmézeau, France 'built to cover three passage graves that faced sunrise in the late autumn and early spring' (Hoskin 2003, 411) and the dolmens of Alentejo, Portugal, the majority of which face the sun at the end of winter or the beginning of autumn (Hoskin 2003). In the Irish context, out of a number of potential candidates, one emerged; the passage tomb called the Mound of the Hostages at Tara, which I visited on a number of occasions.

I also investigated one of the satellite tombs of Listoghil (Tomb 26 Carrowmore) that appeared to have been orientated on the saddle, albeit by a re-working of a Neolithic monument some 3000 years after the building of Listoghil. The latter coincidence, of course, cannot prove the survival and continuation of a cosmology across vast tracts of time, but it is interesting and noteworthy. The persuasive and provocative power of the Gaelic literature was such, that at the time of translation into English of some of these documents, many scholars (e.g. Vallancey (1721-1812), De Jubainville (1827-1910)) jumped to these kinds of conclusions.

'we…frequently find subterraneous buildings in Ireland, such as that of New Grange near Drogheda, which may probably have been the place of sacrificing to Samman…the ceremony of sacrificing to Saman, is thus described in an ancient MSS. entitled, Dun-seancas, or the topography of Ireland…' (Vallancey 1796, 456-57)

I considered whether the apparent presence of certain markers of archaic kingly symbolism seen at Listoghil might be explained by the appropriation of the site in the medieval period by one of the Gaelic septs of the region.

Pre-dawn in the fields of Cúil Irra is a suggestive place, but no legend survives today in which we can recognise Listoghil, or even Carrowmore, in the same way that, say, the Ulster Cycle legends appear to tie Newgrange to Brú na Bóinne. Many passage tombs are clearly not astronomically orientated and perhaps the interplay observed between the Ballygawley Mountains and Listoghil is no more than an admittedly odd set of coincidences. This led to another challenging question. Could a cultural archaeoastronomy be brought to bear on the problem? Can information regarding the intentionality of the alignment of Listoghil be found in the folklore of Sligo? I also examine the apparent resonances between the events described here and the story told locally of the Cailleach Bhérra, the winter 'crone' who is said to reside in the hills where the sun rises when viewed from Listoghil (Michael Quirke and Michael Roberts, local storytellers). In an origin myth paralleled in Asturias, Galicia, and the Basque Country (Carrín 2008, 82), she is said to have created Carrowmore.

The final part of the article is concerned with a re-examination of the view that only solstice events may be accepted as legitimate targets for the builders of passage tombs. Why has no-one remarked on the direction of Listoghil before now? Should we be more receptive towards seasonal cusps or approximate dates of cross-quarter days? I sought parallels for transitional festivals at different locations among different cultures at the same general latitude as Listoghil. A wider look at traditional festivals, some very distant in time and space from Listoghil, indicates a tendency among peoples sharing the same climate to mark times of seasonal turning points.


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