Carns, Dumas, Cromlechs and Kistvaens in Ancient Ireland

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER XXVII....continued

5. Sepulchral Monuments.

The monuments constructed round and over the dead in Ireland were of various kinds, very much depending on the rank of the person buried: and they were known by several names. Some were in cemeteries, some—belonging to pagan times—detached. Many of the forms of monuments used by the pagan Irish were continued in Christian times.

Carn and Duma.—In our ancient literature, both lay and ecclesiastical, there are many notices of the erection of carns over graves. The Irish word carn simply means 'a heap.' We have records of the building of cams in documents of the seventh century; but they were also erected in times long before the Christian era. In or near the centre of almost every carn, a beehive-shaped chamber of dry masonry was formed, communicating with the exterior by a long narrow passage. The body or urn was placed in the chamber: in some chambers, rude shallow stone coffins shaped like a saucer have been found. In old pagan times people had a fancy to bury on the tops of hills; and the summits of very many hills in Ireland are crowned with carns, under every one of which—in a stone coffin—reposes some person renowned in the olden time. They are sometimes very large, and form conspicuous objects when viewed from the neighbouring plains.

Duma, beside the Boyne, near CLonard

FIG. 204. Duma or burial mound beside the Boyne near Clonard: very conspicuous from the railway, on the left as you go westward. Circumference, 433 feet, height 50 feet (From Wilde's Boyne and Blackwater).

A monumental heap or carn is often called a lecht or leacht. Sometimes entire skeletons have been found under carns and lechts, sometimes cinerary urns, and sometimes both together, showing that these monuments were used with both modes of burial (see pp. 535, 536, supra).

The duma or mound—often called tuaim—was made of clay, or of a mixture of clay and small pebbles, having usually, at the present time, a smooth carpet of grass growing on it. While carns were often placed on hills, the dumas were always in the lowlands.

Sepulchral chamber in Loughcrew carns

FIG. 205. Sepulchral chamber with shallow sarcophagus: in the interior of one of the Loughcrew carns. Observe the characteristic pagan carvings. (From Colonel Wood-Martin's Pagan Ireland.)

The duma, like the carn, has a cist or chamber in the centre, in which the urn or body was placed: sometimes there is a passage to the outside, sometimes not. Numerous mounds of this class still remain all over the country: they may be generally distinguished from the mounds of duns by the absence of circumvallations. Very often round a duma there was a circle of pillar-stones, some of which remain in position to the present day. But stone circles simply, or stone enclosures of other shapes, with a level space within, are often found. These always mark a place of interment, being placed round a grave. One is represented here (fig. 206).

Sepulchral stone enclosure

FIG. 206. Bird's-eye view of sepulchral stone enclosure. Between 90 and 100 feet long, by about 30 feet wide. (From Wilde's Catalogue.)

Comrar, Kistvaen, Cromlech.—The stone coffin, chest, or cist in which a body was interred, or in which one or more urns were placed, was called in Irish a comrar, a word which means 'a protecting cover, shrine, or box of any kind.' It corresponds with the modern Irish comhra [cora], which is now the usual word for a coffin: and also with English coffer and coffin.

When a comrar is over ground and formed of very large stones, it is now commonly called a cromlech or dolmen, both words of late introduction, and neither of Irish origin: when underground and formed of smaller flagstones, it is generally called a kistvaen, meaning 'stonechest,' a Welsh word.

Great Cromlech at Kilternan

FIG. 207. Great Cromlech at Kilternan. (From Wakeman's Handbook of Irish Antiquities).

Many of the kistvaens, and also some of the cromlechs, were made much larger than was needed for the reception of a single body: in these were interred several persons, probably all members of the same family. The bodies of those who fell in battle were often interred in kistvaens and cromlechs, of which numbers are now found on ancient battlefields.

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