Current Research: About the 2014 Excavation at Cromlech Tumulus
In May 2014 Achill Archaeological Field School is starting a major new excavation at the site of the ‘Cromlech Tumulus’ in Keel East Townland on the southern side of Slievemore (above). Three definite Megalithic Tombs are located in this part of the mountain, a Portal Dolmen at the foot of the slope (below left) and two Court Cairns a little higher up the mountain (below right). Several other possible Megalithic sites are known from this area but in their current condition it is difficult to assess their nature and to firmly establish if they are Megalithic Tombs or not.
The name ‘Cromlech Tumulus’ is an unusual combination of two separate and rather vague terms, ‘Cromlech’, which is typically used in reference to obviously Megalithic structures, and ‘Tumulus’ that normally refers to a circular burial mound. The identification of this site as a ‘Cromlech Tumulus’ dates back as far as the first edition Ordnance Survey Map, published in 1836, where the term is used and the site is intriguingly marked by a small circle. On the same map Court Tomb to the east is labelled as a ‘Cromlech’ and a drawing seems to indicate the presence of several megalithic stones. A linear feature that connects these two features is also shown, labelled as ‘Danish Ditch’ and this can now be confidently identified as a pre-bog field wall of considerable size. The Court Tomb to the west of the ‘Cromlech Tumulus’ and the Portal Tomb to the south east are both marked as ‘Giants Graves’ another common but indistinct label in use at that time, presumably culled from local folklore. The other Megalithic site shown on the first edition Ordnance Survey map is one of the unclassified sites that lie to the south east of the Portal Tomb. This is labelled as a ‘Pagan Cemetery’ and the accompanying drawing shows a rather enigmatic rectangular shape. The use of such terms as ‘Cromlech Tumulus, Danish Ditch and Pagan Cemetery may not provide a specific indication of the nature of these different sites but crucially they do suggest that the local population at the start of the 19th century identified the sites as being of considerable age and that they were definitely not part of the contemporary agricultural landscape.
The site of the ‘Cromlech Tumulus’ is currently heavily concealed by overlying peat and vegetation and it is difficult to see exactly what type of site it is. It consists of a large east to west orientated mound and several distinct stone built structures can be identified within and adjacent to this mound. At the western end is a large circular stone built structure that still stands to a considerable height. This is perhaps a corbelled stone building of some sort where the roof has been partially removed exposing the upper portions of neat internal wall faces. At the east of the mound is an elongated stone structure that has a small section of intact roofing still in place at the western end close to the entrance to the circular structure. It is not clear if this is the damaged remains of a second building or perhaps some sort of cist or chamber build within the mound itself. Immediately south of the mound there is a small C-shaped stone structure that has the appearance of a small burial cist that has lost its capstone, but which could be a more recent structure of some sort (above). Finally the western end of a pre-bog wall is attached to the eastern end of the mound which is almost certainly the western terminal of the ‘Danish Ditch’. These four structural elements rather obscure the mound itself and at present it is impossible to tell whether this is a genuine mound that has been variously built over or into, or whether it is simply a large pile of collapsed stone that has fallen from these adjacent structures.
The ‘Cromlech Tumulus’ site has been much discussed over the last 120 years and many notable names have examined it, each seeming to offer a different interpretation. In the 1880’s the famous Sligo Antiquarian W.G. Woodmartin visited and recorded the site but his account is confused and it is far from clear which of the elements he described relates to the remains that are now visible. Wood Martin refers to the site as a portion of a ‘sepulchral group’ and it seems clear he regarded it as part of the local Megalithic landscape. The site was visited in 1910 by the prolific early archaeologist Thomas J. Westropp, who thought it was best regarded as a multiple clochan (early medieval or later 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 an ancient structure of some sort, 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 (above) who felt that the site was probably a Neolithic chambered Tomb of some sort with a later burial mound built constructed over the western edge. They identify the eastern structure as a Megalithic gallery. 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 the site and of the work under taken by Wood Martin on Achill in general. However they were particularly critical of Piggott and Powell’s identification of the eastern structure as a Megalithic gallery, pouring scorn on their suggestion that corbelled stone work was present. The site is listed on the current Sites and Monuments Record for County Mayo simply as a ‘Megalithic Structure’.