martes, 4 de febrero de 2014

The Cromlech Tumulus at Keel East townland (Ireland)


On the sun-drenched southern slopes of Slievemore Mountain on Achill Island there is an expanse of uneven ground that rises above the level of the surrounding bog.  At first glance this may not seem like anything of much interest, particularly as attention is typically distracted by a nearby and highly visible Court Tomb.
Most people who walk this part of the mountain probably pay little heed to it, if they even notice it at all. However, concealed beneath the heather, reeds and bog growth there is a very intriguing archaeological site, and one that has been the subject of considerable controversy and confusion for over one hundred years.
The site is marked “Cromlech Tumulus” on the 1837 Ordnance Survey map, an unusual term possibly used to refer to the sites combination of megalithic and round mound features, and the site is shown as a small unelaborated circle.
The distracting Court Tomb is located 110m to the east and is marked on the 1837 OS Map as a “Cromlech”. The two sites are joined by a curious linear feature marked “Danish Ditch” which to modern eyes can clearly be identified as a substantial pre-bog field wall.
Three other megalithic sites are all located within a distance of less than a kilometre from the ‘Cromlech Tumulus’. To the south west there is a large Court Tomb and to the south east there is a damaged but still impressive Portal Tomb. A little further the south east there is a sizeable arrangement of orthostats that are probably the fragmented remains of a very large Court Tomb.
But what of the ‘Cromlech Tumulus’? What type of site is it and how old is it likely to be? The famous Sligo antiquarian William Wood Martin surveyed the monuments around Slievemore in the late 19th century and refers to a site marked on the Ordnance Survey sheet as “Tumulus, Cromleac, Danish Ditch”. He first describes a small arrangement of orthostats, the largest of which bears a row of cup marks. This site is described as being adjoined by a double cist known as “the Labby” (Bed) which was clearly a substantial feature in its own right. “Near” this cist was a stone circle fifteen feet across that contained a smaller internal circular stone setting. “Close” to the stone circle there was a denuded cairn that is described as measuring twenty five feet by seventeen feet by which, as illustrated, looks for all the world like the base of a small corbelled hut. He says this fourth site “forms portion of the sepulchral group of cromlecs, circles and cists situated close to it” and the implication seems to be that his ‘sepulchral group’ relates specifically to the location shown on the OS Map as the ‘Cromlech Tumulus’. Unfortunately the presentation of locations in this part of the book is uncharacteristically inept which makes it impossible to be certain about many of the descriptions.
Figure 4. Wood Martin’s illustrations of the sites on Slievemore. Clockwise from top left; the orthostatic setting with the cup marked stone; ‘the Labby’; the stone circle; the denuded cairn. Figure 5. The ‘Cromlech Tumulus’ as recorded by Piggott and Powell in 1946 showing the circular mound at the west and the possible gallery at the east. South of the gallery the mass of stone can now be identified as the end of a pre-bog wall, but is not clear if further structures are concealed to the north of the gallery or if it is simply cairn material or collapsed building stone.
The site was visited in 1910 by the prolific early archaeologist Thomas J. Westropp, who thought it was best regarded as a multiple clochan (hut site). Michael J. O’Kelly surveyed the site in 1942, two decades before beginning his famous excavations at the Newgrange Passage Tomb. He thought that the western part of the site could be identified as the location of the orthostats with the cup marked stone, but that the eastern part was a recent sheep fold. During the summer of 1946 the site was visited and surveyed by Stuart Piggott and Thomas G.E. Powell who again identified the site with Wood Martin’s orthostats with the cup marked stone but clearly mis-identified Wood Martin’s double cist, ‘the Labby’, as the Court Tomb further to the east. They interpreted the site as a cairn with a long rectangular gallery built of horizontal dry stone walling at the eastern end and a circular cairn, presumed to be a secondary feature, overlying the western end.
The site was examined again in 1949 by Ruaidhrí de Valéra and Seán Ó Nualláin as part of their preparation for the nationwide Survey of the Megalithic Tombs of Ireland. They were highly dismissive of Wood Martin’s original account, suggesting that both the orthostatic setting with the cup marked stone and ‘the Labby’ could probably be identified as natural features. Continuing in this vein Wood Martin’s stone circle is presumed to be an un-located hut circle and the oval cairn was disregarded as a sub-rectangular building of relatively recent origin.  In their original 1950 account they claim to have been unable to locate any of Wood Martin’s four sites, admitting only the slight possibility that the oval cairn was located at the ‘Cromlech Tumulus’, and going on to say that the site was best explained as “one or more houses with lamb shelters built into the eastern end” with a possible hut or kiln at the west.  By the time the County Mayo volume of the Survey of the Megalithic Tombs of Ireland was published in 1964 they had mellowed a little and decided that all four of Wood Martin’s sepulchral group probably formed elements of the ‘Cromlech Tumulus’ site, although their general interpretation of the site itself was unchanged. The site is listed on the Sites and Monument Record simply as a Megalithic Structure.
Figure 6. Looking along the site today from the eastern end, with the field wall in the foreground, the circular mound at the rear and the gallery and the possible portal or jamb stones in between.
Today the site is quite overgrown and it certainly is not immediately obvious what its precise nature is (Figure 6). The most prominent feature is the large round mound at the western end that has quite a prominent central hollow (Figure 7). There are traces of an entrance gap at the north east suggesting that the mound is indeed a building rather than a round cairn. The entrance gap leads out into a depression in which the tops of two prominent orthostats protrude. These have the appearance of a pair of portal or jamb stones but if they relate to the entrance of the mound then the entrance must have an L-shaped form. To the east of this lies the feature identified by Piggott and Powell as a megalithic type gallery feature, by O’Kelly as a sheep fold and by de Valera and Ó Nualláin as a lamb house. If the two jamb stones could be confidently identified as part of Wood Martin’s orthostatic setting with the cup marked stone, then this feature would surely have to be the remains of ‘the Labby’ that has by now had its two capstones removed.
South of the eastern end of this feature the pre-bog field wall, ‘the Danish Ditch’, seems to abut the site. This feature is clearly visible in Piggott and Powell’s plan but it is not identified as anything other than being part of the supposed cairn material, but that’s not too surprising as pre-bog field walls hadn’t really entered the archaeological consciousness at the time when they visited. To the south there is a small three-sided stone foundation that is somewhat separated from the main body of the site. This could be one of the more recent additions mentioned in some of the early reports that discuss the re-use of the site to house animals but it might be an original feature, or a secondary feature that is still of some antiquity. It is not clear at the moment whether there really is a genuine cairn here, or if the collapse from several separate stone buildings is simply combining to give the false impression of a mound. There certainly is a substantial build-up of stone, particularly along the northern side of the site, and this might prove to be cairn material or to contain more structural evidence, as hinted at by Piggott and Powell’s plan.
Figure 7. A GPS survey of the site undertaken by Achill Field School earlier this year. The survey is largely in agreement with the plan drawn by Piggott and Powell, but the alignment of the gallery feature is slightly different and the line of the field wall is shown continuing to the east. Figure 8. The small stone setting immediately south of the main group of features. This may be a relatively recent feature but it could be something more interesting all together.
Only excavation will untangle the true nature of this complex site. It may prove to be some form of megalithic tomb overlain by a later circular structure or it might turn out to be the series of stone clochans suggested by Westropp. Previous work by Achill Field School on the pre bog landscape of Slievemore has revealed two massive stone built roundhouses of Middle Bronze Age date, two smaller circular buildings of Early Medieval date, and a complex network of pre-bog field walls. Given that a pre-bog wall connects this site to the Court Tomb to the east, and that other Mayo Court Tombs such as Behy and Rathlackan have also been found to have Neolithic field or enclosure walls built up against them, there has to be a distinct possibility that at least part of the site belongs to that early period.
Achill Field School will begin a multi-season investigation of this fascinating site in April of this year. Work in 2014 will focus on the circular mound at the western end, which is clearly going to be a spectacular structure whatever its age. The goal for this year is to determine the nature and date of this mound and to establish the relationship between it, the two portal or jamb stones and the underlying or adjacent cairn material if present. Future seasons will extend the excavation to the east to examine the possible gallery, the small foundation to the south, the pre-bog field wall and the promising looking mass of cairn material or collapsed building stone to the north. With so much still to learn about the site it surely has to rate as one of the most exciting excavations taking place in Ireland at the present time.
AFSAchill Field School is located at Dooagh on Achill Island, County Mayo, and specialises in high quality accredited training courses which vary between 1 week and 10 weeks in duration, and offer a range of content suitable for University students seeking to really get to understand the processes of excavation and site surveying, young professionals looking to expand and develop their skill sets, school groups looking for really unusual and entertaining outdoor activities and interested members of the public looking to get their first taste of the thrills of excavation.

Source: Past Horizons: http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/02/2014/cromlech-tumulus-keel-east-townland

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