6. Sunstruck in Unison: Two interesting parallels

6.1 Like with like

We cannot rule out the existence of individual sightlines of remarkable precision, if not quite at the level envisaged by Thom, but the problem is to find a secure theoretical and methodological basis for distinguishing intentional, meaningful configurations of monuments and natural topographic features in any particular instance from what are often a great many possibilities (Barclay and Ruggles 2002, 668).
It is not unreasonable to look systematically for instances where a single, particularly prominent feature, such as a 'clear-cut notch', stands out in a target range of horizon…However, one should be cautious of 'one-offs'…they may have arisen fortuitously (Barclay and Ruggles 2002, 669).

An obvious approach to find support for an intentional seasonal orientation would be to establish further examples of such orientations at similar archaeological sites. Various statistical approaches, including Bayesian modelling, have been deployed in order to distil broader patterns of relationship with the sun or moon among local groups of monuments (Ruggles 1999, 160). The work done on recumbent stone circles in Munster by O'Brien illustrates how statistical survey can applied to clusters of similar monuments within a region (2002). Could this approach be applied to the Sligo passage tombs? Ruggles (1999, 157) has alluded to the difficulties, including data selection, in basing interpretations on simple typological classifications, even among monuments sharing similar forms. We must, he says, 'be highly cautious about assuming that similarity of form implies similarity of function similarity and use' (1999, 157). These issues are compounded when a classification embraces a set of sites displaying marked morphological diversity.

Prendergast (2006) charted 16% of measurably directed Irish passage tombs as having astronomical orientations, none of which lay in the direction marking a seasonal cusp. This brings us to what might be characterised as the passage tomb problem. Carrowmore 3 (a small uncovered 'dolmen circle,' 10m diameter, a 'satellite tomb') and the central mound at Knowth (cairned and containing two passages, 95m diameter at its widest point) are classified as passage tombs. Both are circular, both have kerbs; there are parallels in the grave goods assemblage. But even a desultory comparison between these two monuments, in morphology and scale alone, starkly illustrates some of the problems of the traditional classification. Other difficulties include; the large number of monuments that fall outside the classification, or have elements of two or more categories; and the variations in Neolithic monument classifications between, for example, Scotland and Ireland.

Bearing in mind these issues, it must be acknowledged that statistical statements about 'the orientation of passage tombs' need to be highly qualified. Sheridan (1985) and Hensey (2010) have attempted to refine the existing categories. Hensey has argued for three sub-groups within the passage tomb designation; group A are simple open monuments like the Carrowmore satellite tombs. These lack astronomical ambitions. Group B are intermediate-sized monuments, often at the centre of complexes, often on hillside sites, often covered by cairns. These are, according to Hensey, the first monuments to have possessed astronomical orientations. In my view, Listoghil should be placed in this category. The third type, C, are the super-monuments, like Newgrange and Knowth. Hensey proposes different ritual functions for each of the different monument sub-classes.

…the largest examples of their respective classes—may be atypical, perhaps incorporating a weight of symbolism not found elsewhere (including more careful alignments); and if we consider them only as part of a larger group we may miss something vital (Ruggles 1999, 157, citing R. Bradley pers. comm. 1997).

It would be, in my view, a worthwhile exercise to construct a statistical model of the orientation of Hensey categories B and C. Within these classes I would make special pleading for 'focal' or central monuments in a given complex or region. Going over the published alignments of various sites in this category, it came to my attention that the Mound of the Hostages, the Neolithic monument at the centre of the multi-period Tara/Teamhair complex in county Meath, was reputed to have a Samhain/Imbolc alignment. The photographer and writer Ken Williams showed me photographs he took in 2005 of this event. If another Irish Neolithic 'focal' site, such as the Mound of the Hostages (also falling in Hensey's category C), could be shown to have a similar alignment, it would constitute significant support for the intentional alignment of Listoghil.

6.2 Duma na nGiall

The Mound of the Hostages (Duma na nGiall) [292010/259732] [ME031-033007-] is a Neolithic passage tomb. It is located at the focal point of the multi-period Tara complex, near the summit of the Hill of Tara, Co. Meath. The Mound of the Hostages is circular in plan, approximately 15m in diameter and 3m high. The entrance and chamber are skewed off-centre to the circular mound (contributing a less symmetrical, less axial, form to the whole monument). One of the orthostats on the left of the entrance passage is decorated with a large spiral and cupmarks. The monument was used for repeated and copious human burials, mostly of cremated remains, in the Neolithic period. Burials continued into the Bronze Age (O'Sullivan 2005). Patrick published the passage bearing as 110° (1975, 12).

The Mound of the Hostages enjoys a 360° view of the plains of County Meath. I visited on 1 November 2011. In the diffuse light before sunrise I used a crude method to determine the chamber orientation, estimating the centre of the backstone through the chamber and entrance and walking backwards along that line to a point about 9m away, where I positioned a stick as a backsight. I positioned myself at the entrance. The first glimpse of the sun, weakened by a low bank of cloud or haze, occurred at about 7.28am, about half a degree to the right of my stick. Direct alignment with this would occur, as in Listoghil, on October 30 or 31. Therefore two monuments, Listoghil and the Mound of the Hostages, situated 150km apart, on opposite sides of the country, are synchronous in terms of their interplay with the sun.

Immediately after first light the effect of the sun in the chamber was so weak as to be almost indiscernible. The outline of the entrance gradually materialised, ghostlike and pinkish, on the backstone. It lay slightly to the right of centre on the backstone, and the patterned shadow thrown by the Office of Public Works' gate served to emphasise its positioning; a quadrilateral of sunlight tapered to the bottom (Figure 19).

Figure 19

Figure 19: The Mound of The Hostages, Tara, 1 November 2011, 7.31am

The experience of sunrise at the Mound of the Hostages was quite different from Listoghil. The more distant horizon at Tara makes the sun seem smaller, less immediate than at Listoghil. The roof of the chamber remained in darkness throughout. The sun's rays did not strike the artwork directly; it was illuminated by reflection. By 8am the trapezoid of light was distorted by having moved onto the side stones of the chamber. The light entering the chamber had increased considerably. The Mound of the Hostages differs from Listoghil in that it lacks a discernible backsight (The original position of the Lia Fáil, the standing stone set nearby, is uncertain; Waddell writes that the pillar stone was originally located near Dumha na Giall, to the north (1998, 330)). It also lacks a distinctive landscape feature marking the alignment. The horizon which the chamber faces is relatively featureless. And it must be noted that the front section of the passage of the Mound of the Hostages is yet another reconstruction.

6.2.1 Battle ground

'The historico-religious depth of the Tara landscape is one of its most potent attributes, and was carefully maintained and mined over many generations to legitimate succession, accession and rule' (Newman 2011, 22). Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age, medieval and modern histories are all layered, both in the archaeology and in the literature of Tara. The 'Celtic cross-quarter days' form the temporal structure of the Irish legendary cycles; they reside at the core of many of the narratives.

Samhain [was]…the principal time of year for the ancestors to intervene and to guarantee good fortune…it was there and in its vicinity in the Boyne Valley that they locate the most crucial decisions governing the culture, as well as many of the most important mythical events (Ó hÓgáin 1999, 130-31).

According to the literature, the Festival of Tara was celebrated at Samhain. The shining hero of legend, Lugh, comes to Tara at Samhain before the Battle of Moytirra (Lugh bears the name of the opposite cross-quarter festival, Lunasa). Tara has associations with the cailleach, too, as inauguration place of the Irish High Kings. For example, Niall of the nine hostages is made King of Tara by kissing and making love to the cailleach (Ó hÓgáin 1999, 165). Its mythic power has made Tara a perpetual battle ground; of United Irishmen, of Daniel O'Connell, of the M3 motorway, of Conn O'Neill in 1539, of Saint Patrick. Like the fog of our modern myths of astronomy and archaeology, the dense fog of story appears to both illustrate and simultaneously obscure the subject at hand.

6.3 Mound of Hostages, Fort of Rye

The best termini ante quos estimates for both Listoghil and the Mound of the Hostages place the time of their primary usage perhaps 200-300 years apart. Carrowmore provides the oldest dates for an Irish passage tomb complex (Bergh and Hensey forthcoming). If—and it is a considerable if—the AMS results from unidentified charcoal in the chamber area and from an unstratified human skull fragment found under the modern turf just west of the chamber (Burenhult 1998b) are accepted as indicative of the date of the site, Listoghil could make a pitch for Ireland's oldest astronomically orientated passage tomb yet documented, around 3550 cal BC. Tara is assigned later dates. The covering cairn was constructed in 3255-3120 cal BC (95% probability); probably in 3210-3145 cal BC (68% probability). (Cooney et al. 2011, 654) (O'Sullivan 2005, 285).

Despite the difference in likely construction dates, the Neolithic artefacts from Tara and the Carrowmore complex bear strong similarities; both assemblages include stone balls, beads, quartz, Carrowkeel Ware and bone/antler pins. Both sites were re-used over long time periods in the Neolithic and saw re-use in the Bronze and Iron Ages. No mythic or folklore connection between the sites has been identified. O'Sullivan et al. have observed 'a strong association between solar alignments and the location of megalithic art in passage tombs' (2010, 21). The presence of Neolithic art at both Listoghil and the Mound of the Hostages is interesting in this regard. In the case of the former the edge of the capstone facing the seasonal sunrise event is carved with a series of nested arcs; in the latter, a spiral design is engraved on the face of one of the passage orthostats.

The cairn of The Mound of the Hostages was covered by an intermittent layer of sod and above that, a mound of redeposited natural soil. Interestingly, the tops of the capstones stood slightly proud of the cairn, though sealed by the mound (O'Sullivan 2005 163). The passage was deliberately sealed, at some point, by a ramp, sloping upwards to the portals. The ramp was composed of 'rather fine clay and sods', and there was evidence that the ramp had been dug into at least once, presumably to regain entry to the tomb (O'Sullivan 2005, 85).

A major point of contrast between the sites is the evidence of the numbers of bodies deposited. Large number of burials took place over an extended period at the Mound of the Hostages. Notwithstanding disturbance however, it seems likely that only a small number of human remains, a mixture of cremated and unburnt, were deposited at Listoghil.

6.3.1 Pre-cairn activity

The places where large tombs were eventually built may already have been important, for it seems that smaller tombs had already been built before the construction of the large tombs at Newgrange and Knowth (Cooney 1997, 8).

A particular aspect of the work done by O'Sullivan in reviewing and re-evaluating the evidence from Tara worthy of mention here is the evidence provided of pre-cairn activity on the site of the Mound of the Hostages. Features identified include a ditch, remains of fires, a spread of charcoal and bone and a small number of lithics. The dates for two samples (samples 8 and 11) of charcoal fell between 3800-3700 cal BC (O'Sullivan 2005). Here is solid evidence of a site comparable in many respects with Listoghil, which does not receive a chamber and a cairn until 300-400 years after the first recorded ritual activity there.

With advances in remote sensing techniques in archaeology, more information may become available in the future regarding the orientation and the chronological sequence involved in the construction of Irish passage tombs. Many sites still remain unopened and unmapped, including, in County Sligo, a number of 'focal' sites such as Miosgán Meadbha, Heapstown Cairn and the probable passage tomb called The Pinnacle on Keash hill.

6.4 Carrowmore 26

During the course of this project I became sensitised to monument plans that appeared aligned ESE. While browsing the 1980a report from Burenhult's excavations in Carrowmore I noticed such an alignment. But this was not a Neolithic alignment.

Carrowmore 26 [166574/333292] [SL014-209048-], one of the Carrowmore 'satellites', is positioned 360m east-southeast of Listoghil. It consists of a closely set boulder circle, outside diameter 17m. No chamber is present. Modern quarrying has eaten away the land around the monument, leaving C26 perched precariously. The two largest stones, nos 1 and 35, stand either side of a break in the stone circle described by Burenhult as an entrance. A displaced stone, stone 36, lies to the east-southeast, 2m outside the circle. A line from the centre of Listoghil through the Ballygawley saddle unequally bisects the circle, thus the site lies approximately on the 'seasonal cusp'.

Figure 18

Figure 18: Carrowmore 26 (after Burenhult 1980a, 42-3.)

Burenhult's excavation revealed a shallow ditch just inside the stone circle. It breaks opposite the gap between kerbs 1 and 35. During the excavation four post-holes, set in a square of approximately 1.3m x 1.3m, were discovered in the area of the break (Figure 18).

…some kind of wooden construction had been erected to form an entrance during the Early Iron Age, between 680 and 490 BC (Burenhult 2009, 22).

Part of a burned post was found in one hole, set about 0.5m in the ground. Charcoal and burnt stones were found in the others. Seven dates from charcoal, including some from the post-holes, came from the Bronze Age/Iron Age transition, about 600-500 BC. Although no Neolithic dates were returned, Burenhult argued for a Neolithic provenance for Carrowmore 26 (1980a, 47). Among other evidence that this site was originally one of the satellite tombs is a fine example of a mushroom-headed antler pin found close to the centre of the circle, in the presence of cremated bones. Bergh (1995, 190) advances an argument for several features that support the presence of a former central chamber at C26, including a displaced capstone. Thus it appears that what exists today is a remodelling of a Neolithic monument that was already c. 3000 years old.

A central point was taken in the stone circle (internal diameter 13.7m east-west by 14.7m north-south). An angle to establish south was taken from a map bearing to a prominent peak in the Ox Mountains to the south. Based on Burenhult's plan of the excavation the location of the Bronze Age timber structure was established and marked with ranging rods 1.3m apart. The centre point between them was also marked. The compass bearing from the centre point of the circle through the centre of the timber structure is 116° (altitude 56.4m).

The line from the centre of Carrowmore 26 between the Bronze Age posts runs east-southeast and directly through the saddle in the Ballygawley Mountains. The directionality of Listoghil (and the axis of seasonality) appears to have been re-emphasised 3000 years after the original construction. The original orientation of 26, if any, is unknown. That the centre of the boulder ring at Carrowmore 26 was used for what appears to be the ceremonial seasonal planting (in parallel cultivation furrows) of cereals, at the same time as the wooden structure was constructed (Burenhult 2009) points to Carrowmore 26 as the site of a seasonal celebration; that of springtime.

Having constructed an argument for not comparing monuments that were different in form and of different time periods, the discovery of the C26 alignment was unexpected, and presented a challenge regarding interpretation. Could this be the 'smoking gun' of incredibly long memories in Carrowmore? Or just another in a burgeoning list of seemingly random Listoghil coincidences? The possibility of the smoking gun ought not to be, in my view, dismissed out of hand. Ruggles has written that some form of seasonal calender, if not the single Celtic calendar, is to be expected in the Iron Age.

…hitherto unsuspected patterns of continuity of material tradition from earlier times through the Iron Age, as have been suggested recently in the case of timber circles…imply that one should not retain an entirely closed mind about the possibility of some sort of continuity from even older sacred or calendrical traditions. (Ruggles 1999, 159)

Alternatively, this alignment may have arisen independently, in light of the possibility of parallel seasonal cusp celebrations developing at widely varying locations and time frames across similar latitudes. Section 8 discusses the possibility of the rediscovery and re-use of Listoghil in later eras. It is also possible, of course, that the direction of the wooden construction is a chance event.


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