Cairn T with an adjacent smaller mound
For thousands of years they have stood, high on the windswept hills, with views of a gentle green landscape rolling away on all sides. Before the first pyramids were even built in Egypt, this wild and rugged land was home to Neolithic people who carved strange patterns into the stones. And yet it is the mystery that enshrouds this tomb site in Loughcrew, in Ireland’s County Meath, that is the real secret to its appeal.
A ring of stones marking an ancient cairn
There are more than 30 cairns (or stone monuments) and mounds scattered around the two hills of Carnbane West and Carnbane East at Loughcrew – known locally as “Slieve na Calliagh”, or Hill of the Witch. Legends say the cairns were created by a giant hag who strode the hills holding stones in her apron, with the stones she dropped becoming the rock monuments of today.
The remains of a stone cairn overlooking the rolling hills of Loughcrew
Unlike other British and Irish megaliths such as Stonehenge and Newgrange, the cairns at Loughcrew are relatively unknown – and this despite the fact that it has been described as one of the best examples of a Stone Age landscape in Ireland today.
Visitors atop the largest cairn, Cairn T
The central passage tomb of Loughcrew (with the rather unromantic name of Cairn T) may be one of the oldest freestanding buildings on earth. It's certainly one of the most intriguing! Built between 3,500 BC and 3,200 BC, the impressive cairn stands on top of the highest hill in the area, with a view that extends for miles.
Sunlight hitting the decorated back wall slab in Cairn T
Unlike many other megalithic ruins, Cairn T is relatively intact, with only a capstone and quartz mantle missing. The monument stands around 120 feet in diameter, and is surrounded by around 40 large kerbstones marking its perimeter.
Circular markings in the stone
One of these kerbstones is especially significant. This is the so-called “Hag’s Chair”, where the witch who dropped the giant stones supposedly sat and stargazed. You can see why it was named as such: this large rock does, in fact, look a lot like a chair with arms on each side! Of particular interest are the ancient engravings carved into the stone, which are yet to be fully understood.
In more recent times, Catholics worshipped at a 'mass rock' at Loughcrew – in order to escape the penal laws which outlawed their faith.
There are many engraved drawings in the rocks of Loughcrew, though their original function remains hotly debated. Speculation about the purpose of the designs ranges from maps to astronomical symbols – or even simply the doodles of a bored Stone Age person.
An etched stone slab at Cairn U
One pattern that features repeatedly at Loughcrew is circles. These sometimes appear in the form of depressions in the rock known as “cupmarkings”, or as larger concentric circles that sometimes encircle cupmarkings.
A tuft of wool: Sheep, which were not naturally found in Ireland during the Neolithic period, were imported to the country around 3,700 BC
These carved rings are used in part to substantiate the astronomical images theory, with some researchers claiming they represent planetary bodies. Although this is, of course, possible, the idea is discounted by those who point out that it would be hard to differentiate between a planet and a moon (for example) if they are both simply circles. Also, some of the circles have openings or lines that, it is said, disprove the claim.
The view from the top of the Loughcrew hills is stunning.
Another hypothesis is that the engraved circles and dots are meant to form a map, with the round symbols standing for nearby forts. Indeed, the pattern made by the markings has been found to correspond with the way Neolithic strongholds were built, in groups of three, which certainly lends some credence to this theory.
It looks like Nature, too, has made her mark on this solitary, speckled rock.
Whatever their meaning, the 26 stones scored with these enigmatic markings inside Cairn T had an amazing and beautiful surprise in store. In the 1980s, a researcher named Martin Brennan discovered that one of these decorated slabs – the backstone – was lit up during sunrises around the Spring and Autumn equinoxes.
The Neolithic people who built the cairns chose a beautiful location for their monument.
At these two times of the year, when the day and night are of equal length, witnesses are treated to a prehistoric lightshow. As the sun gradually rises in the morning sky, its rays, shaped by the stones at the entrance, infiltrate the mound’s dark interior to slowly slide across and illuminate the ancient rock art.
More beautiful views!
Those who have been lucky enough to see this biannual event describe it as magical and spellbinding. However, there is a practical purpose for this play of sunlight (and most probably moonlight) as well. What the builders of Cairn T have created is a functioning astronomical calendar, which may even be able to predict leap years.
Access to the West Hill of Loughcrew is limited by a private landowner.
Although megalithic sites such as those at Loughcrew are often referred to as tombs, some researchers say that this may not have been the main reason for their construction. They note that when these monuments have been used as graves, it is almost always shown to be a secondary purpose.
These days the megalithic ruins are surrounded by flocks of sheep.
These passage-mound analysts claim that the true function of these stone constructions was to serve as seasonal markers, as illustrated by the equinox light displays already described. Perhaps they are right, or perhaps the megalithic structures served both as graves and calendars to an equal degree, in a way that made sense to the local inhabitants at the time. It's unlikely we'll ever know for sure, but it definitely adds to the intrigue!
It is said that it's possible to look out over 18 counties from Loughcrew.
Adjacent to Cairn T there are other smaller cairns, which from above look like little more than circles of rock. These minor cairns are also of interest, though. One of them, Cairn U, has a ring of 16 kerbstones and a passage and chamber (now no longer covered) that measure roughly 23 feet. This site also includes 13 elaborately engraved slabs.
The site has few visitors, but those who come seem to be impressed.
There are other megalithic sites in Ireland, and elsewhere, similar to that at Loughcrew. What makes this one special, however, is its abundant and zigzagging rock art, its spectacular surroundings and its relative anonymity.
The magnificent Irish countryside surrounds the site in every direction.
If you're interested in Irish prehistory or megaliths – or you simply have a taste for the mysterious – Loughcrew is definitely a place worth exploring.