History Files


Prehistoric Britain

Ancient Tomb Captured Both Sun and Moon

by Dr David Whitehouse, 8 April 1999. Updated 16 August 2017

An ancient Irish tomb may have been built with a light chamber aligned not only to the sun, but to the moon as well.

Building it would have required many years of observations of the motions of the moon by the tomb's architects. The tomb also offered the chance of explaining the moon-inspired names of local landmarks. The tomb's 'lightbox' was only the third ever to be discovered and was by far the most complex. It revealed the astonishingly-detailed astronomical knowledge of the ancient people.

This find ties in with that made by a team of archaeologists from Glasgow University when they discovered a lightbox in the roof of a prehistoric tomb on Orkney, Scotland.

It allowed the rays of the sun to reach the innermost part of the tomb at the start and end of the winter. At that time, only one other lightbox was known, at the Newgrange Neolithic complex in Ireland.

The latest, and most remarkable yet, was revealed by Martin Byrne, a researcher and artist in County Sligo, Ireland. His work on the Neolithic tombs at Carrowkeel suggests that they were positioned so that the light from the moon could peep into the inner chamber at midwinter.

Carrowkeel is in the Bricklieve mountains. Given the number of Neolithic tombs in the area this must have been one of the most sacred regions of ancient Ireland. Over a dozen mountain-top cairns can be seen looking across the misty hills of County Sligo.

Carefully set into the entrance of Cairn G is a hole which is positioned to let the sun's rays into the inner chamber for a month either side of midsummer. But according to Martin Byrne, it would also let in the light of the setting full moon on either side of the winter solstice.

Indeed, capturing the moon may have been the main purpose of the tomb - it is pointing at a hill called Knocknarea, which means 'Hill of the Moon'.

Knocknarea is said to be the burial place of 'wild' Queen Medb (Maeve), one of the major figures in the Irish saga, Tain Bo Cualnge, and a semi-mythical queen of Connacht in the first century BC.

The tomb points to the most northerly point reached by the setting moon on the horizon, an event which only happens every 18.6 years.

Positioning the Carrowkeel tomb would have required a sophisticated understanding of the cycles of the moon, as well as patient and careful observations over many years.

Further evidence that the moon was important is the fact that Knocknarea is located on a peninsula called Cuil Irra, 'the Remote Angle of the Moon'.

This part of Ireland also hosts the largest prehistoric stone village in the country and many ring forts, earthworks, and standing stones.

Since they were built the ancient tombs of County Sligo have lost none of their magic. As we find out more about them, we can only marvel and wonder at the people who moved stones to line up with the mountains and the moon over six thousand years ago.



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