6 March, 2015

Boulder Burials Below Benbulben

During the pre-recession halcyon summer of 2008 Faith Bailey identified a group of possible boulder burials in the shadow of Benbulben.

The coastal margin between Sligo town and the Leitrim county border, scattered with recorded archaeological sites, is dominated by the outline of Benbulben Mountain to the east. Drumcliff, a small village 5.5km NNW of Sligo Town, is situated in a rich archaeological landscape. Perhaps better known for its association with the poet Yeats, a large early ecclesiastical monastery was founded here in AD 575 by St. Columba; although today only the remains of a round tower and two high crosses mark these origins.

To the west of the village the Drumcliff River discharges into the large inlet of Drumcliff Bay. The bay was formerly larger and included an estuarine area to the south within the townlands of Kintogher and Drumcliff South. A small watercourse discharges into the bay through this area, which was partially reclaimed during the post medieval period. A large number of recorded archaeological sites are sited either side of the reclaimed area, including three holy wells, ringforts, and to the north of the water course a large embanked enclosure.

On the north-facing slopes of the reclaimed estuarine area, in the townland of Kintogher, a group of enigmatic monuments were identified by the author in amongst the trees and overgrowth. Initially I dismissed the features as rock outcropping, however upon closer inspection a potential archaeological origin became apparent. The rock features seemed to form a group of four boulder burials arranged in a south-west–north-east alignment down the slope.

Boulder burials, which have been dated to the middle and late Bronze Age, consist of a large boulder or cover stones of megalithic proportions, resting on three or four supporting stones. It is not thought that these monuments were covered by a cairn, but stood above the ground in groups of up to four (Egan et. al. 2005, 29). One salient feature is the absence of a clearly defined burial chamber within a boulder burial, as burials often exist as cremated remains found within a pit below the boulder (Farrelly & Keane 2005, 39). Despite the proliferation of known prehistoric burial sites in Sligo, boulder burials are rare, with only two recorded within the Archaeological Inventory in the very south of the county (Egan et. al., 2005). A further possible burial of this type has been identified at Ballymote, also in the south (Farrelly & Keane 2005, 37).

The four possible boulder burials at Kintogher are relatively small in size compared with known sites, with the capstones ranging in measurement from 0.65m x 0.45m x 0.45m and 1.3m x 0.8m x 0.7m. However, a recent discovery of a row of four boulder burials in County Tipperary has shown that the cover stones can be smaller in size, with the smallest here measuring 0.95m x 0.7m x 0.4m (ibid.).

Three of the possible boulder burials at Kintogher consist of a cover stone resting on at least three smaller stones. The fourth, which possesses the largest cover stone and is the most southerly in the alignment, appears to have been subject to some displacement, possibly from its position on a slope. The stones have generally been placed to give the impression of small opening on the northern side and as such they face north towards the estuarine area. This may be to emphasise one side of the monument and is a characteristic that has been found with other boulder burials (Farrelly & Keane 2005, 39). To date there has been no evidence of cairn material found in association with boulder burials. However, at this site there were a significant amount of smaller stones located to the rear (south) of all four features; this was more evident during another inspection of the site in the winter of 2009. These stones may also be the result of field clearance on the bank and their presence merely coincidental.

In addition to the four boulder burials, two standing stones were identified at the base of the slope, c. 30m to the north-east. The two stones are unusual in appearance, with the largest possessing a long axis aligned NNE-SSW with the smaller located c. 4m to the east and aligned roughly east-west. The largest stone stands to a height of c. 2.2m, possesses a triangular profile and has a width at base of c. 1.8m. The stone appears to be standing within a small mound of stones. The smaller stone stands to a height of 1.2m with a width of 0.8m. No stones were noted around the base of this feature.

It is likely that this group of relatively discreet monuments survived within the landscape due to their marginal location. It is tempting to assert a landscape association with the estuarine area to the north or even the tip of Benbulben, which is located 5km directly north of the burials. That is beyond the scope of this article, although the presence of the features within the landscape certainly contributes to our knowledge of Bronze Age activity in northern County Sligo.

Faith Bailey, Senior Archaeologist, fbailey@iac.ie 



Egan, U. et al. 2005 Archaeological Inventory of County Sligo Vol. 1South Sligo. The Stationary Office: Dublin

Farrelly, J. & Keane, M. 2005 Continuity of Megalithic Tradition in County Sligo. In T. Condit & C. Corlett (eds), Above and Beyond: Essays in Memory of Leo Swan. Wordwell: Bray.