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Carrowkeel Tombs
Tuamaí na Ceathrún Caoile
Two of the tombs at Carrowkeel.
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Location County Sligo, Ireland
Type passage tomb complex
Area 2km2
Founded c. 3500 BC - 2900 BC
Periods Neolithic
National Monument of Ireland
Official name Carrowkeel Passage Tomb Cemetery
Reference no. 518

Carrowkeel is a cluster of passage tombs in south County Sligo, Ireland. They were built in the 4th millennium BC, during the Neolithic era. The monuments are on the Bricklieve Hills (An Bricshliabh, 'the speckled hills'), overlooking Lough Arrow, and are sometimes called the Bricklieve tombs. They are named after the townland of Carrowkeel in which most of them are located. Nearby are the Caves of Kesh and Heapstown Cairn. The Carrowkeel tombs are protected National Monuments and are considered one of the "big four" passage tomb cemeteries in Ireland, along with Carrowmore, Brú na Bóinne and Loughcrew.

History and research

The monuments at Carrowkeel were originally excavated in 1911 by a team led by R.A.S. Macalister, accompanied by Robert Lloyd Praeger and Edmund Clarence Richard Armstrong. These excavations led to an array of findings including animal bones, cremated human remains, human bones, and tools and pottery from the Neolithic Age. The particular type of crude pottery found in the Irish passage tombs is called Carrowkeel Ware, having first been recorded in the Carrowkeel Monuments. Some pottery has also been identified from the Bronze Age. Some of the artefacts recovered are stored in the National Museum of Ireland, but most of the bone assemblage was transported to Cambridge University, where Macalister's father, Alexander, was a Professor.

Praeger recorded an eerie account of the first entry into one of the Carrowkeel monuments.

"I lit three candles and stood awhile, to let my eyes accustom themselves to the dim light. There was everything, just as the last Bronze Age man (sic) had left it, three to four thousand years before. A light brownish dust covered all... There beads of stone, bone implements made from Red Deer antlers, and many fragments of much decayed pottery. On little raised recesses in the wall were flat stones, on which reposed the calcinated bones of young children.",

The bones curated in Cambridge at the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies were researched by the Human Population Dynamics at Carrowkeel Project. The original excavation mistakenly dated the monuments as Bronze Age structures, but the new study has shown that the sites were in use between c. 3,500 and 2,500 Cal. BC. Of 22 stable isotope samples, the majority indicated that the dead had grown up in a carboniferous limestone region, probably close to Carrowkeel. The DNA genomes assembled from six individuals indicated ancestral origins in Anatolia, and greater affinity with the Mediterranean than the Danubian expansion of early farming in Europe.

Carrowkeel is set on high ground above Lough Arrow in the Bricklieve Mountains. There are fourteen passage tombs in the central core of the complex at Carrowkeel; some can be entered by crawling through a narrow passage. The entrances and passages of the monuments are often oriented North West, towards the area of Cúil Irra, Knocknarea and Carrowmore. Twelve more passage tombs are located within a radius of 6km, sometimes at elevated locations such as the Keshcorran group, or Suigh Lughaidh. One of these outliers is situated at the north end of Lough Arrow and NW Carrowkeel; the giant passage tomb, Heapstown Cairn. This is part of the legendary Moytura, a site of battles between the Tuatha Dé Danann, the ancient gods of Ireland, and the demonic Fomorians.


Visitors to the site are asked not to climb on or damage the monuments in any way, and not to take anything in or out of the tombs. Irish folklore holds that it is bad luck to damage or disrespect such tombs and that doing so could bring a curse. Some parts of the site contain deep crevices, holes and cliff faces.


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