Remains of “lost” Bronze Age wedge tomb, Altóir na Gréine, rediscovered on Dingle Peninsula

Remains of “lost” Bronze Age wedge tomb, Altóir na Gréine, rediscovered on Dingle Peninsula, Co. Kerry.
Remains of “lost” Bronze Age wedge tomb, Altóir na Gréine, rediscovered on Dingle Peninsula, Co. Kerry (pic taken from Rambles in the South of Ireland During the Year 1838 by Lady Chatterton, published 1839; edited IHN).

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Local folklorist Billy Mag Fhloinn recently found the remains of a megalithic tomb near Ballyferriter in Co. Kerry, previously thought to have been destroyed in the mid-19th century.

A 4,000-year-old megalithic tomb in Co. Kerry on the Dingle Peninsula, which was presumed lost for over 170 years, has been rediscovered. Known locally as “Altóir na Gréine” (meaning the sun altar), it was believed to have been entirely destroyed, probably in the 1840s, with its stones carried away and repurposed as building material elsewhere.

Although early 19th-century sources documented the presence of a tomb near the village of Ballyferriter (Baile an Fheirtéaraigh), they did not record the precise location of this prehistoric monument.

Local man Dr Billy Mag Fhloinn, a folklorist with the Sacred Heart University, recently rediscovered the site of the tomb on the crest of a hill, Cruach Mhárthain, overlooking the nearby village of Ballyferriter to the north. Some of its orthostats (large upright stones) have survived in situ, while its large capstone lies nearby. Approximately a quarter of the original tomb is discernible, with additional stones possibly being concealed beneath dense overgrowth as indicated by differential vegetation growth patterns in the area.

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The monument is believed to be a wedge tomb, which typically dates to the Early Bronze Age between about 2,500 BC and 2,000 BC.

>>> READ MORE: Excavations at Moylisha wedge tomb in Wicklow

First to announce the find, RTÉ News reported that an archaeologist from the National Monument Service, Caimin O’Brien, had recently surveyed the site and confirmed the nature and significance of the discovery. The wedge tomb will soon be added to the Archaeological Survey of Ireland.

For the first time in over 170 years, archaeologists can study this ancient wedge tomb, which will no doubt contribute to a better understanding of this monument-type and its distribution.

The tomb is also set to be included in a deep-mapping project focused on the cultural landscape of the Dingle Peninsula. Conducted by the Sacred Heart University, a US college with a campus in Dingle, a component of this project involves recording the peninsula’s megalithic tombs and generating 3D models of the monuments using photogrammetry. Altóir na Gréine has already been 3D scanned by Billy Mag Fhloinn as part of this initiative.

Previous records of Altóir na Gréine

Before its recent rediscovery, the only existing visual depiction of the tomb in an intact state was a sketch by Lady Georgiana Chatterton from 1838. An English aristocrat, she travelled around the south of Ireland that year and later documented her experiences in a travelogue titled “Rambles in the South of Ireland During the Year 1838”.

Drawing of Altóir na Gréine by Lady Chatterton published in "Rambles in the South of Ireland During the Year 1838".
Drawing of Altóir na Gréine Bronze Age wedge tomb by Lady Chatterton (Rambles in the South of Ireland During the Year 1838, published 1839).

The travelogue indicates that Lady Chatterton, accompanied by the 65-year-old Fr Casey and a local Roman Catholic curate, ascended “Bally Ferriter’s hill”, where they found the tomb at its summit:

“On the top of the hill were the remains of a very curious piece of antiquity, once an altar, supposed to have been used for offering sacrifices to the sun. We heartily wished we could have had an opportunity of telling the sun, before hand, of our intention of visiting his altar; for a more thick, penetrating rain I think never was experienced, than fell to our lot while poking over the remains of the old stones, and taking the sketch …”

However, when antiquarian and librarian Richard Hitchcock wrote about the tomb just 14 years later, in 1852, he explained that he could not locate it:

“I regret to say that this cromleac, or, as lady Chatterton calls it, “sun altar,” does not now exist, the stones which composed it having been broken and carried away for building purposes, as if there were no others in the neighbourhood!”

In 1938, local schoolboy Liam Bhúdhlaeir collected information about the tomb from Peaid Ó Conchúbhair for the Schools’ Folklore Collection. This account, in Irish, states that the tomb is located above “Bhaile’n Fhirtéuraig Thiar” and that it earned its name because when the sun rose in the east, it would shine upon this place. This account further tells us that Mass used to be celebrated here.

Account of Altóir na Gréine, near Ballyferriter, collected by Liam Bhúdhlaeir in 1938.
Account of Altóir na Gréine collected by Liam Bhúdhlaeir in 1938 (credit: The Schools’ Collection, vol. 0419, p.244 by Dúchas © National Folklore Collection, UCD, CC BY-NC 4.0).

>>> READ MORE: Bronze Age horns: Ireland’s oldest musical instruments

Notably, the description of the tomb’s location in this account is presented in the present tense, possibly suggesting that some still knew its location at that time. Equally interesting is the implication that the tomb served as a mass rock, presumably during penal times.

Billy Mag Fhloinn had long been captivated by Chatterton’s Victorian-era sketch of Altóir na Gréine. During the lockdowns, he began searching for the tomb, long thought to have been lost to the passage of time. He told RTÉ News:

“I knew there was a lost site of Altóir na Gréine on the hill somewhere. So I started to walk the hill in search of it, covering a large area. Eventually, these stones caught my eye. Then when I took a closer look I saw that the features on one of the stones perfectly matched an orthostat in the sketch from 1838.”

The circumstances surrounding the partial destruction of the tomb remain unclear. In 19th-century Ireland, vandalism of ancient sites was typically considered to invite bad luck upon the culprits.

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What is a wedge tomb?

Wedge tombs are the most common type of megalithic tomb in Ireland. They are so-called because of their distinctive wedge shape being broader and higher at the entrance and tapering in height and width to the rear. A typical wedge tomb consists of a long, narrow burial chamber (or “gallery”), sometimes with a smaller chamber to the front or rear. Large roof slabs lie on top of the sidewalls, which often comprise one or more rows of outer-walling. A cairn (or mound), marked by low kerbing, usually covers the tomb.

Labbacallee wedge tomb, Cork.
Labbacallee wedge tomb, Co. Cork (credit: © VisionsofthePast, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0). This is one of the largest wedge tombs in the country and was excavated in 1934.

Most wedge tombs were built in the Bronze Age about 4,000 years ago. For example, radiocarbon dates obtained from human bone in the wedge tomb at Labbacallee, Co. Cork, indicate that the monument was in use in the late third millennium BC (c.2200-2100 BC).

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