My topic for today being All Saints Day, is not about a monumental cemetery or some legendary tombs. It is about the ancient burial site which we saw by pure coincidence during our first week in Ireland.
Located just outside the town of Oldcastle in County Meath, 83 kms northwest of Dublin, the Megalithic Complex of Loughcrew comprised of a cluster of tombs spread over three hils, one of them is privately owned so cannot be accessed easily, the other one features a few, but the third one where we went is where most of the burial grounds (called cairns) are concentrated. It is on this hill – colloquially called Hill of the Witch – where you can find the finest example of a burial place of the elite of the Neolithic period which dates back 3200BC – making it 500 years older than the Pyramids of Giza and 1,000 years older than the Stonehenge of England.
What makes this burial site highly impressive is the placement. Put together with absolute precision by the tribes of those days using only the most primitive tools, managed to move uphill, large blocks of stones, carved them on site, then assembled into chambers, in a way where the rising sun at the Spring and Autumnal equinoxes shines through the passageways illuminating the elaborate engravings on the stones inside. They say that they were designed to tell time, or the coming of the new season where they can base their hunting or food gathering.
Like the many megalithic structures scattered in Ireland, these tombs in Loughcrew have been here for over 5,000 years, but were discovered only by accident, in the 19th century, by Eugene Conwell while picnicking in one of those hills with his wife. He named each mound or cairn with the letters of the alphabet exactly the same labels being used today.
When we were there late August staying in a nearby campsite, we saw tourist buses parked each day at the camp grounds. They came to the area specifically to visit the burial complex, probably one of the stopovers of their Dublin-and-beyond day tours. The site is just a ten-minute climb up hill and when we got there, we couldn’t believe what we saw. This is definitely one of the most incredible places I, personally, have ever seen, after the Pyramids of Egypt, but that was in the early 1990s and I was too young to appreciate history then.
Anyway, we queued up to enter the best-kept tomb of them all, the Cairn T passage tomb, where a guide graciously explained the important bits – and the entrance is free, mind you. We feel so lucky to have seen this amazing feat of Neolithic engineering and the physical evidence of the rituals of those tribes 3200BC and I’d like to share them with you!
(Some of the captions are excerpts from the signboard on site)
Sited on the highest hilltops in County Meath, these tombs were built by Neolithic (new Stone Age) societies, Ireland’s first farmers. (from signboard on site)
The term passage tomb derives from the passage which leads from the entrance to the burial chamber. (from signboard on site)
Although called tombs, these monuments are unlikely to have been built primarily for burial and must also have acted as focal point for a group or tribe – perhaps as territorial markers. (from signboard on site)
The abstract, symbolic carvings on many of the stones and the orientation of some of the tombs to the sun or to other heavenly bodies reinforces the ritual nature of the monuments. (from signboard on site)
Traces of about 25 tombs survive at Loughcrew. (from signboard on site)
On the summit of Carnbane East, the main tomb, Cairn T, (the big mound in the background) is a classic example with a cross-shaped chamber covered by a mound of stones, 35 meter in diameter. (from signboard on site)
On the Equinox days, March 21st and September 21st, sunlight enters the tomb at dawn and illuminates a series of radial line patterns (like the stone on the left ) which are carved on various stones inside the tomb. (from signboard on site)
This burial chamber is labeled as Cairn T, it has the Irish cruciform layout with a large central chamber and side chambers.
The inner chamber where more stone art can be seen..
The passage of Cairn T is constructed in a such a way that the sun’s rays form a narrow shaft of light that illuminates the stone carvings.
Stone art depicting the sun and its movements
Another passage tomb (in the center, but smaller) surrounded by stones that form the kerb.
The view from the tombs where our campsite can be seen at the far right, bottom
Tourists walking down after visiting the site.