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Wicklow Mountains National Park
Peregrine Falcon

Tombs and Cairns


There are dramatic remains from Ireland's early history to be found in the Park. These are the ancient stone tombs buried under giant mounds of loose rock. Here you will find a brief history of the tombs, descriptions of the two main types and their locations.

History of the Tombs

These tombs are ancient, up to 5,000 years old. They date back to a time when people began to give up hunting and gathering for food in the woodlands and coasts and settled down to live in farming communities. At this time people made their tools and weapons from stone; they also used stone to build tombs for their dead. These tombs were built with very large slabs of stone using manpower alone, and were often buried under giant mounds of loose rock known as cairns.

The widespread use of stone is the reason that this period is commonly known as the Stone Age. Historians use a Latin word for the late Stone Age - Neolithic - 'New Stone Age'. They also use Latin to describe the large stones used in the construction of tombs - Megalithic.

Despite their size it seems that not many people qualified for a tomb burial. Only a few remains have been found within them. Burial may have been reserved for community and spiritual leaders only. Other special events and rituals are likely to have taken place at the tombs. They would have been an important focal point for the community.

Types of Tomb

There are two types of ancient tomb found in the Park - passage and wedge. These tombs are often found buried beneath giant cairns.

Passage Tombs

Passage tombs are the most imposing prehistoric monuments on the landscape, often sited on hilltops, with extensive views of the countryside. We call them passage tombs because they have a passageway that leads to a burial chamber. The walls and roof of a tomb are built from large slabs of stone. The structure is buried within a cairn but a gap is left to allow entry into the passage. Large stones are often placed in circle around a tomb to form the base of the covering cairn. These stones are known as kerbstones. Many passage tombs are decorated with unique geometric patterns. This artwork can be found on stones both inside and outside tombs.

Wedge Tombs

The wedge tomb is more recent than the passage tomb. They date back to the time when people first began using metal - the Bronze Age - around 4,000 years ago. Wedge tombs are so called because of their wedge shape. They consist of a rectangular chamber often narrowing and declining in height towards the back and roofed with slabs. They normally contain cremations, but unburned burials have appeared in some. They occur singly in the landscape and are by far the most numerous tombs in Ireland.

In the early Bronze Age, both cremation and burial were practised, though cremation became more popular towards the later Bronze Ages. The burials were often accompanied by pottery and other grave goods such as jewellery, flint or bone. The pottery ranged from food vessels to vases and were often decorated quite elaborately.

Cairns

Cairns are loose stones piled into mounds. Many of the mountains in Wicklow have small cairns on the summit built by hillwalkers. However if you encounter a large cairn it is possible that it has a much more ancient origin - the cairn may be covering an ancient tomb. One tomb in the Park has a cairn that is 24 metres in diameter. Unfortunately not all cairns have survived intact over the millennia. Many have been plundered for their rocks which make for useful building material.

Locations

The north-west corner of the Park is where the tombs are concentrated. The tombs are clustered into two areas, one around Seefin Mountain and the other by Sorrel Hill.

Seefin Area

The adjacent mountains of Seefin, Seefingan and Seahan each contain prehistoric tombs and cairns. Probably the most dramatic archaeological site found in the Park is the passage tomb on the summit of Seefin Mountain (621m). The tomb is covered by a huge circular cairn which is 24 metres in diameter, 3 metres in height and has a kerb of large boulders. A narrow passage, 11 meters in length, opens into a rectangular chamber, in which there are five recesses. Only some of the recesses are visible because the roof of the chamber has collapsed allowing the loose rock of the cairn to pour in. There is some artwork on the kerbstones but it is very indistinct. The tomb was excavated in 1931/32 but dissapointingly produced no evidence of burials or other finds.

Situated on the summit of Seefingan Mt. (724m) on the Park boundary, 1.5 kilometres northeast of Seefin, is a large circular cairn. The cairn has a diameter of 20 metres and is 3 metres high. This cairn probably once covered a passage tomb that has since collapsed.

On the county border between Dublin and Wicklow, but outside the National Park boundary, sits Seahan Mt. (648m). Seahan lies 3.5 kilometres north of Seefin. Situated on the summit are a passage tomb, a cairn and a wedge tomb. On the north side of the 2 metre high cairn are the remains of the passage tomb. The chamber is exposed and visible, but broken. Most of the kerb stones are still present. To the south of the cairn, near the edge of the plateau is a wedge tomb, which is open and smashed. This is unusually high up for a wedge tomb, as most occur in the lowlands up to a height of about 300m.

Sorrel Hill Area

There is a circular cairn 20 metres in diameter situated on the summit of Sorrel Hill (599m). From here there are wonderful views of the Blessington Lakes and the Wicklow Mountains. There are large boulders around the perimeter, which may indicate the presence of a kerb at one stage.

Situated on the saddle between Sorrel Hill and Lugnagun, there is a small cairn about 10 metres in diameter. There are traces of an internal structure at the southeast side, possibly a small passage feature, . Close to here, there are also circular enclosures defined by low earth and stone banks. They are visible on aerial photographs but are hard to see on the ground. One of these enclosures is 60 metres in diameter, whereas the others are smaller, about 20 metres in diameter.

There is a passage tomb situated just south of the crest of the saddle between Lugnagun and Sorrel Hill. The tomb has a circular cairn surrounded by a kerb of small boulders. The chamber is rectangular and partly covered by a roofstone, with a possible recess opening off it. The remains of a short passage lead from the kerb to the chamber are on the south-west side.