House of the Ancestors

Donegal Democrat

Archaeologists nowadays talk about the House Of The Ancestors, project manager Seamus McGinley explains while outlining the survey work being done at the complex of stone age dolmens in Málainn Mór in the parish of Gleann Cholm Cille.

Iconic: Turas Cholm Cille
Iconic: Turas Cholm Cille

‘Just like an altar stone in a church might made of be marble taken from a quarry in another county, the stone in Málainn Mór [Malinmore] comes from Sliabh Liag,’ he says.

‘There is plenty of stone in Málainn Mór to build those tombs with, and yet some of the stone was taken down from Sliabh Liag. They did a lot of things we still do today.’

The survey, funded by the Heritage Council and made possible with the cooperation of local landowners and farmers, and supervised by archaeological geophysicist Kevin Barton, is the second phase of a major programme which began last year with a survey of the lands near St Columba’s Church of Ireland a few miles away.

Two new enclosures were discovered at the east of the Church of Ireland, one D shaped and the other an intermittent double row of post pits, evidence of a pre-Stone Age wooden henge.

The survey also found traces of what may be iron age or early Christian huts, and a western extension to the souterrain in the church graveyard.

While no trace remained of ancient structures above the ground, sophisticated imaging techniques revealed distortions below the surface which provided vital evidence about the past in Gleann Cholm Cille.

This year, with higher resolution electromagnetic surveys at the church, and further scans of an extended area to the south and east, the survey hopes to get a bigger overall picture of ancient activity in the area.

First though, Kevin Barton plans a major survey of the six dolmens in Málainn Mór, which have been described as ‘unique in the Irish archaeological inventory.’

‘This is probably the first fairly comprehensive survey of this site,’ Kevin says.

‘We see here six tombs, there’s a gap between the fifth and sixth,’ Kevin says. ‘Was there a tomb there that has now been taken out, where the road is now? Maybe when the road was built they destroyed that tomb, and the rocks are either buried in the road or have been taken away somewhere else.’

‘These are megalithic tombs, portal tombs, there would have been cremations, and bodies would have been burned on funeral pyres. The likelihood is these funeral pyres would have been fairly close by.’

The heat from the pyres would affect the magnetic charge in the soil, leaving traces that can still be measured centuries later, using sensitive equipment to measure magnetic fields, soil density and electrical resistance..

‘You could go excavating here and you’d have a heck of a job, a lot of digging to do,’ Mr Barton explains. ‘It’s very expensive, and of course you would disturb and destroy the landscape in doing that. But geophysics is a non-destructive, non invasive technique, where we take measurements and see if we can find out what is beneath the soil without digging or destroying anything.’

The survey will also answer a long standing debate about whether the six dolmen tombs were originally part of a single larger structure, with the entire area covered in a large cairn of stones. The weight of those stones, long since removed to build the stone walls that dot the landscape, would have compressed the soil, again affecting its magnetic profile and electrical resistance.

‘They’re not just tombs. they’re ritual centres,’ Seamus McGinley adds. ‘Think about a modern church with a crypt in it. The church is more than the crypt.’

Kevin Barton
Kevin Barton

‘At Poulnabrone in the Burren, the only one that has been scientifically excavated, they know that the burials, although they stretch over 500 years, were all interred at th one time. Bodies were taken from burial sites and reburied at one time.’

Assisting Kevin Barton is Arne Anderson Stamnes, a post graduate student from the University of Frondheim in Norway, who is busy learning the techniques of archaeological geophysics to apply in his homeland.

Arne thinks Donegal looks more like Norway than anywhere else he has been in Ireland. ‘But it’s hard for me to understand the very local dialects,’ he explains.

‘We will be off to Norway again in September for an excavation of what could be a viking chieftain’s house,’ Kevin Barton adds. ‘He is learning the techniques with this instrument, they will buy one now in Norway, and he’ll be using it over there.’

The instruments used in the survey are so sensitive that Arne had to be ‘magnetically clean’, as the smallest piece of metal anywhere on his body, a ring or watch or coin in his pocket, can distort the readings.

The survey will reveal a lot about the extent of the original dolmens in Málainn Mór, but exactly why they were built and what happened here four thousand years ago will always be a mystery.

Dolmens throughout Ireland generally face eastwards, but the exact orientation can vary from northeast to southeast. the megaliths in Málainn Mór face just off true east, suggesting they may have had something to do with marking the Spring Equinox.

The results of the second phase of the multi-year survey will be presented at Oideas Gael at the climax of Heritage Week in August.

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