The Killacloghane Portal Tomb

The historic portal tomb at Killcloghane on the outskirts of Milltown is 6,000 years old and is now known to be one of the oldest manmade structures in Ireland and probably the site of the first human settlement in the southwest of Ireland. The tomb is the inspiration for Fleadh Cheoil Chiarraí 2018 and has been adopted by Milltown-Listry CCÉ as its logo in keeping with the theme for the Fleadh: ‘Reconnecting with Our Past.’ A special Summer Solstice Celebration takes place at the tomb as part of the Fleadh Cheoil on 21st June. Here, County Archaeologist, Dr Michael Connolly describes the importance of the site and what was discovered during excavations.

In 2015, Kerry County Council funded the excavation and conservation of the portal tomb in Killacloghane townland, east of the village of Milltown, in mid-Kerry. The tomb was in danger of imminent collapse with cracking of one portal and significant movement of the 13.5 tonne capstone.

The project was very successful with the tomb now conserved and stabilised in its original position while the excavation of the chamber and part of the surrounding cairn provided a wealth of information on how the monument was built, why it had started to collapse and how the builders and subsequent users of the site had tried to correct flaws in its design that were causing the capstone to move.

The Tomb

The tomb is unusual in the context of portal stones in that it does not have a rear stone with the capstone resting on two portals at the front and the ground at the rear. The excavation showed that the shape of the rear of the capstone had caused stability problems as the stone shifted to one side. The rear of the tomb had been dug into on at least one occasion in an effort to stabilise the capstone and a large

stone had been placed as a stop at the rear to arrest the backwards slipping of the capstone.

The capstone is of green sandstone, the nearest source of which would be in the foothills of the Sliabh Mis mountains to the north. Geological analysis suggests the stone is a glacial erratic and that it was likely dug out of the ground at its current location. The excavation uncovered a large pit within which the tomb is constructed which would support such a hypothesis.

The Excavation

The soils at Killacloghane are extremely acidic and as such unburnt bone was always unlikely to survive. The earliest burials in the tomb were likely to have been disarticulated and unburnt. The only bone recovered from the tomb was cremated (burnt) and analysis showed that it dated to the Early Bronze Age and represented the remains of a female. However, the excavation did produce a range of exceptionally fine flint artefacts (knife, arrowheads and scrapers) as well as a range of prehistoric pottery.

The flint artefacts all date to the Early Neolithic era and analysis indicated that the flint knife had been used to cut plant stems and displayed evidence of having had a handle while one of the arrowheads was unused and probably made for inclusion with a burial. The other two arrowheads had been used and one exhibited an impact fracture. The carinated bowls are the earliest pottery type known from Ireland while the Middle Neolithic bi-partite bowl and Middle/Late Bronze Age cordoned urn are the only examples of these pottery types recorded in County Kerry.

Radiocarbon dates from charcoal and bone (19 dates in total) illustrate the use of the tomb as a place of burial in the very earliest Neolithic (c.4,000 BC), the Middle Neolithic (c.3,600 BC), the Early Bronze Age (c.2,200 BC) and into the Middle Bronze Age (cordoned urn c.1,700 BC) as well as evidence of significant disturbance in later periods.

The multi-period nature of the radiocarbon dates illustrates the importance of the monument throughout early prehistory as a link to the past through ancestral spirits and a constant reaffirmation, through reuse, of these linkages to the site and the surrounding lands. Clearly the monument retained a significant place both in the landscape and culture of the area from its first use right thorough prehistory and into the historic period; indeed the latest find from the excavation was a silver groat (coin) of Henry VIII lost by a visitor or deliberately deposited for luck!