The Passage Tomb Landscape of County Sligo

Photo by Solivagant.

The Passage Tomb Landscape of County Sligo is part of the Tentative list of Ireland in order to qualify for inclusion in the World Heritage List.

The Passage Tomb Landscape of County Sligo comprises two groups of Neolithic megalithic monuments. They were ritual sites placed consciously in the physical terrain. They date from 3750-2500 BC.

Map of The Passage Tomb Landscape of County Sligo

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The coordinates shown for all tentative sites were produced as a community effort. They are not official and may change on inscription.

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UK - 11-Feb-23 -

The Passage Tomb Landscape of County Sligo (T) by Solivagant

During a comprehensive tour around Ireland in June 2022 we gathered that the Eire T List review process might well result in the “Passage Tomb landscape of Co Sligo” being added. We hadn’t specifically included its locations in our plans but were passing through Sligo (County and town) anyway and were able to fit in a specific visit to 1 of the 2 stated “likely” sites at Carrowmore. We accept that this single site visit didn’t perhaps give us a full enough experience of what the complete entry would have to offer but are still not really convinced that the chosen elements justify a separate inscription from that of Bru na Boinne (BnB).

There are 4 clusters of Megalithic “Passage” tombs in Ireland (see this Wiki article). The already inscribed BnB, a cluster at Lochcrew in Co Meath  and 2 more close together in Co Sligo – on the Cúil Iorra Peninsula south and west of Sligo town (which includes “Carrowmore”) and another a bit further south on the Bricklieve Hills generally referred to as “Carrowkeel”. The  “Sligo Passage Tombs landscape” T List entry covers these last 2. I presume that Lochcrew has been left out as it doesn't fit in with the geographic concentration offered by the 2 Sligo groups?

There are 4 main types of megalithic tombs - Court, Portal, Passage and Wedge. This article describes their differences and periods, particularly in relation to the island of Ireland. The 3 “main” tombs in BnB (Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth) are all “Passage Tombs” - and this T List entry is also limited to such tombs, together with related nearby cultic remains such as stone circles. It is worth mentioning that, 28 kms north of Sligo, but excluded from this site, lies what is considered the best example of a “Court tomb” in Ireland – at CrevyKeel.   We visited it and found it to be very fine - but those who framed this T List entry were determined to limit it to Passage tombs, even though these are already well represented at BnB. Quite why they took this “absolutist” view regarding this sub-set of megalithic sites in the area isn’t clear to me. The “Court” and “Passage” designs might be different but the periods are generally similar or at least overlap (Court tombs are thought to have preceded Passage ones and I have read that the “Passage tomb” design persisted for longer in Ireland than elsewhere in megalithic Europe – but it also seems possible that they would have been used, at least originally, by different Neolithic cultures migrating to and settling in Ireland from elsewhere in Europe or even beyond). The Krevykeel Court tomb “dates back to the Neolithic Period, 4000-2500 BC,” whilst the 30 tombs at Carrowmore (and at Carrowkeel) “were built in the 4th millennium BCE,” The recent T List review documentation doesn’t address the issue.

Carrowmore has the only “Visitor Centre” (VC)  and this means coughing up 5 euro to get in to the site, but you do get an exhibition of information boards (!) describing both Carrowmore and the other sites in the area – including Carrowkeel. It is a rather old fashioned “minimal” building/exhibition compared with that at BnB (or even the Ceide Fields pyramid). You are also loaned a plasticised map (front and back) of the site to carry round (deposit required!) during the visit which consists of a walk around a grassy enclosed area. Note that some of the identified sites are on private land beyond its boundaries. Some elements are across the public road to the north of the VC and could, no doubt, be quickly visited without going to the VC and paying!!

A significant characteristic of the Sligo passage tombs lies in their enormous cairns of stones (which, it seems, were not earth covered). Carrowmore itself contains just 1 such mound – Listoghil (Tomb 51 on the map - used also to define the Northern group of tombs within the UNESCO T List description) . Another one, Queen Maeve’s Cairn, can be seen from Carrowmore on the top of the nearby mountain of Knocknarea around 5kms away - it can be visited separately (and for free via a walk which could be worthwhile on a nice day if one had the time - we didn’t!) and is clearly related to Carrowmore in the cultic landscape. This raises a question regarding the number of “locations” any nomination might have. The T List entry has bundled them into 2 "areas" (Northern and Southern - a.k.a "Carrowmore" and "Carrowkeel") but also refers to "26 units of varying size as a serial property, totalling an area of 16 km2". It would seem that elements, such as Queen Maeve's Cairn, situated away from the 2 main "centres" will be given separate locations. 

We found the Carrowmore site rather disappointing. The passage of the main cairn has been excavated and the central grave area is in place but has been left open, with the stones either side held in place by the sorts of steel cages one associates with sea defenses and motorway embankments (photo). A notice board at the site indicated that the passage tombs at Carrowmore predated those at BnB which are from 3400-2900BC.  The site however continued in use through to the Bronze and Iron ages.  The main cairn is surrounded by a mix of stone circles and dolmen. One view is that these were the forerunners of simple passage tombs and later of cruciform ones. This article suggests a chronology. But the significance of such remains isn’t really clear to a non expert and they don’t particularly “grab” the attention! One can see similar (and often "better") structures scattered around the British Isles - the main interest here is that so many are placed close together. 1 hour will probably be enough to walk around the site and the VC.

Having read more about the locations included within the T List site I think we should have chosen to visit the Carrowkeel area - even, in our case, “instead” of Carrowmore. It contains a number of cairns in much wilder country. Entry is free..…but a walk will be required from the nearest road-head for which we didn't really have the time. See this drone video. Other Web sources indicate that, despite not having been fully renovated with anastylosis etc as per Newgrange, the passages and even a “light box” (which is such an important, albeit controversial, feature at Newgrange) are clearly traceable and visible. One interesting aspect of all these tombs which relates back to BnB is the role of white quartz stones…..They have been found at both Carrowmore and Carrowkeel and can only have got there from a source some distance away with “intent of purpose”. But what? This article raises the issue for Carrowkeel without considering the need for any particular placement of the stones. However, at BnB, there are 2 contending archaeological theories about the significance of quartz. Newgrange has been “restored” to possess a near-vertical wall faced with white quartz stones …whilst the (different) archaeologist at Knowth laid them flat at the entrance, Web searches will find learned articles on the reasons for the former – I can't say that reading them has increased my belief regarding the “authenticity” of the Newgrange reconstruction - rather the opposite! See here.

And how does Ireland intend to differentiate the Sligo “Passage tombs” from the BnB “passage tombs” in any future nomination? By

a. claiming it to be a “Cultural Landscape”  - “In contrast to Brú na Bóinne, The Passage tomb landscape of County Sligo is nominated in the category of ‘Cultural Landscapes’, to encompass the multi-layered values of the landscape that these monuments represent” and “The monument’s explicit and active integration with the terrain through the choice of conspicuous locations in dramatic landscapes, and a high degree of  intervisibility between monuments
b. identifying/claiming differences between the tombs at the 2 sites – i.e that Sligo has a wider range of designs, a longer period of use (especially earlier) and a larger number of tombs and other monuments. The Wiki article certainly refers to the Carrowmore passage tombs as being "atypical passage tombs. For example, none of the tombs have lintel-covered, tunnel-like, passages that are a feature of most Irish passage tombs, and only one site.....possesses a cairn."

BnB was inscribed in 1993 as a “site” on Crits i, iii and iv. (Note that Sligo is NOT attempting to claim Crit i as a “masterpiece of human creative genius”. Presumably because of the lack of the artistic elements described as “megalithic plastic art” in the BnB description). But, although it is often thought of as consisting just of 3 tombs (Knowth, Newgrange and Dowth) it is, to all intents and purposes, if not in “inscribed name”, a “Cultural Landscape” as the UNESCO description makes clear - “Surrounded by about forty satellite passage graves, they constitute a funerary landscape recognised as having great ritual significance….. In addition to the large passage tombs of Knowth, Newgrange and Dowth, 90 recorded monuments – as well as an unknown quantity of as yet unrecorded sites – remain scattered across the ridge”.  Thus its single inscribed area extends to 770ha - about half that of the proposed Sligo CL but still larger than many other CLs. When we visited BnB on the same trip its VC was showing a rather fine video of the entire site beyond its most famous 2 tombs (Newgrange and Knowth) highlighting the extent to which aerial study and periods of drought etc had identified a rich and complex landscape of prehistoric remains. But Ireland hasn't gone down the road of re-categorising BnB as a CL and it thereby leaves a "differentiating factor" for the Sligo groups to claim! None of the Sligo tombs by themselves would seem to approach the significance of Newgrange and Knowth (Cairn E at Carrowkeel seems to be the most significant?). Whether as a "group" it justifies a separate inscription the "experts" will have to decide! As a "non-expert" I don't feel that I would have missed out on much by not having seen Carrowmore (other than that T List "tick" of course!) - though I am less relaxed about having missed Carrowkeel! Could it really not be handled as a "Passage Tomb" extension to BnB? No doubt the "experts" would point out that they are as different from each other as 2 separately inscribed Gothic Cathedrals! And of course - such an approach wouldn't add to Ireland's WHS count! 

On which subject.....Ireland seems to be (in danger of?) badging itself as a “Tomb Country” when it comes to World Heritage!!! First BnB, and now the Tombs of Sligo. The T List “Royal Sites of Ireland” entry has yet more such remains, including a passage tomb called “Mound of the Hostages” at Tara. And there is still The Burren (which the 2022 T List review has removed from Ireland’s T List at least pro tem for “further work by the applicants in defining the Outstanding Universal Value of the landscape in line with UNESCO requirements”) which is particularly known for its Wedge tombs.    (Though its most famous one is Poulnabrone Portal Tomb ). At least Ceide Fields (which had yet more - e.g Behy Court Tomb) has been dropped - though I personally found it of more “unique interest” than the Sligo tombs. Unfortunately the “Gold standard” for destination recognition Worldwide nowadays is “WHS count”. Countries everywhere feel it necessary to provide a conveyor belt of new sites to feed this demand and, to do so, Ireland has either to grind smaller and smaller on its many prehistoric remains  -  or explore potential “out of left field” creations like the Transatlantic Cable Station. For the moment at least it doesn’t seem to want to put together something on Celtic Christianity, which surely it could do, and has dropped all such sites from its new T List. Perhaps the reality is that Ireland’s undoubted merits as a country and tourist destination are not best demonstrated by adding to its WHS list.

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Full Name
The Passage Tomb Landscape of County Sligo
Archaeological site - Prehistoric
2023 Added to Tentative List

The site has 2 locations

The Passage Tomb Landscape of County Sligo: Southern area, Carrowkeel, Cairn F (T)
The Passage Tomb Landscape of County Sligo: Northern area, Carrowmore 51 (T)


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