A Brief Guide To Irish Archaeological Sites

This page is intended as a brief intorduction to some of the many types of archaeological monuments which can be seen in Ireland. It is constantly updated so check back regularly.

Wedge Tombs

There are about 505 wedge tombs known in Ireland. These megalithic tombs are characterized as having a gallery constructed with side-stones which decrease in height from the western to the eastern end, and are either parallel or give it a wedge-shaped appearance. They usually have an outer revetment walling which is close set and emphasizes the wedge shape. They are roofed with large stones which sit directly on the walls of the gallery and are usually oriented north-east to south-west, and the entrance, placed at east, is often closed by a single stone. At Ballyedmonduff, Co. Dublin, there was a small ante-chamber placed at the east end. Some sites interpreted as wedge tombs are quite small, such as Reananiree, Co. Cork, which measures a little over 1m in length, and appear to overlap, morphologically, with Bronze Age cist graves.


Ceremonial Enclosures

Another type of public monument consisted of a circular to oval area defined by either a bank, ditch, standing stones or a combination of these. These sites are described in the literature as embanked enclosures, which appear to relate to the henges of Britain, and stone circles. The embanked enclosures of the Boyne Valley region in Co. Meath can be up to 110m in diameter with a flat-topped earthen bank enclosing a circular to oval domed or hollowed area with a single entrance. The site at Monknewtown, Co Meath, for example, enclosed a cemetery of cremations, mainly in pits, and a ring-ditch; associated with beaker pottery and dated to 1860±45 uncal bc. This activity post-dated the construction of the site but indicated that it continued in use well into the Bronze Age.


Bronze Age Burials

The Bronze Age period lasted in Ireland from about 2500 BC to about 500 BC and the burials of the period

show a wide degree of variety with both pits and stone cists used. The pits can be simple holes or can be stone lined and range from circular to oval. More substantial stone built rectangular and polygonal cist graves, like at Keenoge, Co. Meath, were also used. The cist were also buried in holes in the ground. In some instances the cists can assume the proporations of small underground megalithic tombs. The human remains were prepared for burial in a number of ways. Some were placed in extended position into large pits, or in contracted and flexed positions in smaller pit and cists. There is evidence that individuals were bound or tied before burial. On occasion the remains might be stored until the flesh had decayed enough for the bones to separate or disarticulate, and were then interred. Or the remains could be either partially or completely cremated on a funeral pyre. The remains were then collected, and sometimes after further crushing or cleaning placed into the grave, often in a pottery container. The remains were often accompanied by decorated pottery vessels, referred to as food vessels or cinerary urns and less often with objects of stone and bronze. The burials were frequently made in cemeteries which were in use for hundreds of years. These cemeteries might either be in stone built cairns or earthen barrows or were flat.


Barrows have been constructed in Ireland since the Middle Neolithic and were in use until the early centuries A.D. They may cover or contain megalithic Linkardstown type cists of the Neolithic, all of the burials type of the Bronze Age (see below) or cremations or inhumations of the Iron Age. In the east of Ireland the mounds of these these sites have been levelled in large numbers, leaving Ring-ditches, or have been remodelled into ceremonial enclosures, as at Tara, or Medieval Mottes as at Rathmore, Co. Kildare. In the east Ring-ditches have been dates as late as the seventh century AD. Bowl Barrows, often referred to as Tumuli or Moats, have a central dome-shaped mound, 2m or higher, usually enclosed by a fosse and one or more external banks. Where an enclosing fosse is not noted on the ground it is often found during excavation. Saucer barrows have low mounds, usually under 1m, and range from 5-20m in diameter with one or more enclosing fosses and banks. Bell barrows resemble bowls but have a berm between the mound and the fosse. Ring Barrows resemble Saucer barrows but have a flat interior rather than a mound. Another type of barrow has a bank and a hollow interior, these are pond barrows. Excavation has revealed that a significant number of barrows belong to the Iron Age (c. 300 BC-100 A.D), but many are of Bronze Age date as well. The barrows are often found in groups or cemeteries where a number of types can be found together. Sometimes they are found juxtaposed to megalithic cemeteries as at Carrowmore, Co. Sligo or associated with ceremonial enclosures.



Barrows have been constructed in Ireland since the Neolithic, when they covered megalithic tombs and were in use until the fourth or fifth centuries A.D. Unlike barrows cairns are a by-product of agricultural clearance and in upland areas and on thin soils covering exposed geological formations would have been a readily available building material. Cairns are usually of three types. High cairns, resembling bowl barrows, which often covered passage tombs, much lower cairns of less than 2m in height with flat tops and ring cairns, which enclosed a central burial. A number of the cairns covering megalithic tombs had Bronze Age cists added to them or had the central chambers re-used for Bronze Age burial.

Stone Circles

These monuments consist of a ring of free-standing stones, uneven in number and symmetrically arranged so that one stone, the axial stone, is set directly opposite two stones, usually the tallest, marking the entrance to the circle. Characteristically, the stones reduce in height to the axial stone, which is set consistently in the south-western part of the circle. Though divided into two groups, five-stone and multiple-stone circles, they are essentially one type of monument with a common basic design. Though cremated burials in small unmarked pits were discovered at the three excavated

multiple-stone circles (Bohonagh, Co. Cork, Drombeg, Co. Cork and Reenascreena South, Co. Cork) these monuments are not primarily burial places but are generally regarded as ritual sites where ceremonies took place. Many stone

circles appear to have been deliberately orientated so that the main axis of the circle (a line extending from the middle of the gap between the entrance stones across to the centre of the axial stone) is aligned north-east/south-west - those sectors of the horizon in which the sun rises or sets at significant times during the year, an equinox or solstice. At Drombeg during the midwinter solstice, the sun appears to set at a point on the horizon in line with the axis of the stone circle. In Ireland stone circles are concentrated in mid-Ulster and in South Kerry/West Cork, as are the stone rows. Exact dating evidence is lacking, but they are likely to be Bronze Age in date.


Fulachta Fiadh

Fulachta fiadh were an integral component of the Bronze Age landscape and provide significant evidence of activity in areas with little evidence of artifact deposition. Usually they consist of horseshoe-shaped heaps of heat-fractured stone mixed with charcoal and dark soil, associated with lined rectangular water troughs and hearths. They are also called burnt mounds and are known from Scotland, Wales, England, Scandinavia and northern Germany.


Ringforts and Cashels

Ringforts are the most common site type in Ireland. They were primarily built and used during the Early Christian period, 500-1200 AD. They are differentiated from cashels in having enclosing banks composed of dumped earth and sometimes a mixture of earth and stone. However these distinctions are not clear cut and some sites had earthen banks faced with stone, or had sections of the enclosing element composed alternately of earth or stone. In some cases the enclosing element is so eroded or robbed out and sod covered that it can be difficult to determine if it had originally been a wall or bank. The distinctions between ringforts and cashels may be more apparent to archaeologist than the people who built and used the sites and the choice of enclosing a site with stone or earth, or a combination of the two may have been determined by the availability of material, the difficulty of digging a fosse as well as social concerns of status, manpower and legal restraints.

Cashels were constructed at the same period and fulfilled the same functions as ringforts. They differ in their construction technique, being assembled rather than quarried and piled up, and therefore usually lack an enclosing fosse. The usual technique was usually to construct two concentric drystone walls of medium-sized blocks and slabs, limestone was the preferred material, set on a foundation of large boulders. The are between was then infilled with rubble. The construction technique allowed for some elaboration and in some case chambers were built into the walls, sometimes linked to souterrains, and stone steps might lead to broad wall walks. The walls are often, when well preserved, 2m or higher. As they represent a ready source of stone may have been plundered to build field walls, roads and houses. The quarrying and or collection of suitable stone, its transport and the requirements for skilled wall builders made a cashel a more expensive alternative to a ringfort and they are much leass common. They are also restricted to areas where suitable stone was available. Individuals unable to construct a complete cashel may have added stone revetments to ringforts to make them resemble cashels. Stone enclosure at Carrigillihy, Co. Cork was found to date to the Early Bronze Age and some cashels appear to have been occupied into the medieval period so that the site type appears to have a long currency.



Souterrains are artificial, subterranean (or semi-subterranean) structures built to allow access and usually associated with habitation. They are common in ringforts and cashels of the Early Christian period c.A.D. 500-1200 A.D and appear to have been used as an underground bolt-hole if a ringfort was attacked and the simpler examples, without complex chambers and defensive arrangements such as creeps, were probably also a secure place to store valuables and perishable foods such as meat, butter or grain. In a sense the souterrains could represent the most defensive aspect of a ringfort and it has been suggested that their uneven distribution may indicate that they were constructed by tribal groupings engaged in struggles with neighbouring groups. The clustered distribution of souterrains has been further emphasized by the ongoing work of the Archaeological Survey. For example no souterrains were noted in any of the 261 enclosures and ringforts recently published in the inventory of county Carlow.


Medieval Moated Sites

These rectangular sites, enclosed by water-filled moats and earthen banks, probably topped by palisades where constructed by the Anglo-Normans to protect their manor houses. To date the majority of these sites are known from the south-east of the country, especially Tipperary and Wexford, and appear to have been constructed along the marches or border lands of the Anglo-Norman colony and the Gaelic lands. Excavations have indicated that these sites were constructed and used from the late thirteenth to the mid fourteenth centuries.



Mottes are flat-topped earthen mounds with a fosse at the base. Some, but not all sites

The Motte at Greenmount, Co. Louth. Photo OPW

have a sub-rectangular area enclosed by a bank and fosse, known as a bailey, contiguous to the fosse. They were usually constructed at strategic locations, river crossings or on important routeways. Sometimes the builders used pre-existing ringforts and even burial mounds as the bases of these sites. The sites were constructed by Anglo-Norman lords at an early stage of the Norman conquest in the thirteenth century. Today they appear as earthworks but they would originally have been topped woth timber pallisades and are sometimes referred to

as timber castles. Most of the examples are found in the east of Ireland, but there are also examples in the west.



Further Reading

Brindley, A. L. and Kilfeather, A. 1993 Archaeological Inventory of County Carlow. Dublin, The Stationery Office.

Buckley, V. 1990 Burnt Offerings. Dublin, Wordwell.

Cooney, G. 1983 Megalithic Tombs in their environmental setting: a settlement perspective, in T. Reeves Smith and F. Hammond (eds) Landscape Archaeology in Ireland, 179-191. Oxford, British Archaeological Reports, British Series 116.

Cooney, G. and Grogan, E. 1994 Irish Prehistory: a Social Perspective. Dublin, Wordwell.

de Valera, R. 1960 The Court Cairns of Ireland, Proc. Roy. Irish Acad. 60c, 9-140.

Herity, M. 1974. Irish Passage Graves. Dublin.

Herity, M. and Eogan, G. 1977 Ireland in Prehistory. London, Routledge.

Moore, M. 1996 Archaeological Inventory of County Wexford. Dublin, The Stationery Office.

Ó Nualláin, S. 1975 "The stone circle complex of Cork and Kerry", . Roy. Soc. Antiq. Ireland 105, 83-131.

Ó Nualláin, S. 1983, Irish Portal Tombs, topography, siting and distribution, J. Roy. Soc. Antiq. Ireland 113, 49-57.

Ó Nualláin, S. 1989 Survey of the Megalithic Tombs of Ireland. Volume V, Sligo. Dublin, The Stationery Office.

O'Kelly, M.J. 1982 Newgrange, Archaeology, Art and Legend. London, Thames and Hudson.

O'Kelly, M.J. 1989 Early Ireland, an Introduction. Cambridge, University Press.

Raftery B. 1990 Trackways Through Time. Dublin, Headline Publishing.

Raftery B. 1990 Pagan Celtic Ireland. London, Thames and Hudson.

Walsh, P. 1995 Structure and deposition in Irish wedge tombs: an open and shut case, in J. Waddell and E. Shee Twohig (eds) Ireland in the Bronze Age. Dublin, Stationery Office, 113-27.

Stout, G. 1991 Embanked enclosures of the Boyne region, Proc. Roy. Irish Acad. 91c, 245-84.

Sweetman, P.D., Alcock, O. and Moran, B. 1995 Archaeological Inventory of County Laois. Dublin, The Stationery Office.

Waddell, J. 1990 The Bronze Age Burials of Ireland. Galway, Officina Typographica, Galway University Press.