Carrowkeel is a Neolithic passage tomb cemetery in the south of County Sligo, near Boyle, County Roscommon. An Cheathrú Chaol in Irish means 'the Narrow Quarter'. Circumstantial Carbon 14 dating places the tombs at between 5400 and 5100 years old (3400 to 3100 BC), so that they predate the Pyramids on Egypt's Giza plateau by 500–800 years. Carrowkeel is one of the "big four" passage tomb cemeteries in Ireland (the other three are Brú na Bóinne, Loughcrew, and Carrowmore). Carrowkeel is set on high ground above Lough Arrow, and the tombs seem to be oriented towards the area of Cuil Irra, Knocknarea and Carrowmore. There are fourteen passage tombs in Carrowkeel. Some can be entered by crawling through a narrow passage. Twelve more passage tombs are located close by, most of which form part of the Keshcorran complex. A particular type of crude pottery found in passage tombs has been titled Carrowkeel Ware, having first been recorded in the Carrowkeel Monuments.
Close to Lough Arrow and just north of Carrowkeel is another, apparently related, giant passage tomb, Heapstown Cairn. This is part of the legendary Moytura, site of battles between the Tuatha Dé Danann, the ancient gods of Ireland, and the demonic Fomorians.
The mountain range containing Carrowkeel is called the Bricklieve Mountains, meaning the speckled mountains in Irish, a possible reference to their appearance when more quartz rock survived on the outside of the cairns, causing them to sparkle in the sun. The tombs were opened by R.A.S. Macalister in 1911, accompanied by Robert Lloyd Praeger and Edmund Clarence Richard Armstrong. Although Macalister was acquainted with contemporary archaeological methods, he acted hastily at Carrowkeel and his removal and disturbance of the chamber floors have hampered investigators who followed him. In 'The Way That I Went', 1937, Praeger gives an eerie account of the first entry into one of the Carrowkeel monuments.
"I lit three candles and stood awhile, to let my eyes accustom themselves to the dim light. There was everything, just as the last Bronze Age man (sic) had left it, three to four thousand years before. A light brownish dust covered all... There beads of stone, bone implements made from Red Deer antlers, and many fragments of much decayed pottery. On little raised recesses in the wall were flat stones, on which reposed the calcinated bones of young children."
A 2004 excavation by Professor Stefan Bergh, NUIG, of hut sites on the slopes of Mullaghafarna - close to cairn O and P, Carrowkeel - promises to shed light on the builders of these monuments. Visitors to the site are asked not to climb on the cairns, or damage the monuments in any way, and not to take anything in or out of these ancient tombs. Some parts of the site contain deep crevices, holes and cliff faces.
The monuments at Carrowkeel were originally excavated by a team of researchers in 1911. These excavations led to an array of findings including animal bone, cremated human remains, human bone and tools and pottery from both the neolithic age when the monuments are thought to have been originally constructed, and the Bronze Age, which began c2,000 years after this.
The original excavation suffered from some uncharacteristically unscientific documentation that later led to many of the artefacts found on-site being lost. It also mistakenly dated the monuments as Bronze Age structures, which was later found to be incorrect after further research in the 20th Century.