Beaghmore Stone Circles

Beaghmore Stone Circles are located 8.5 miles north west of Cookstown County Tyrone, on the south-east perimeter of the Sperrin Mountains. While stone circles are fairly common in some parts of Ireland, namely in the east, south and north, the most extensive concentration of stone circles is to be found at Beaghmore.

The site, excavated in 1945-1949 and again in 1965, consists of seven low stone circles of different sizes and ten stone rows. All but one of the stone circles occur in pairs. The singular circle can be distinguished from the paired circles by its slightly larger stones. It is also unique in that the interior of the circle is filled with more than 800 small stones. These small stones, which have been placed upright within the circle are referred to as "the dragon’s teeth". Most of these circles have small stone alignments touching them at a tangent. In addition, the site includes a dozen small stone cairns, frequently covering a cremation burial. Each of the three pairs of stone circles have a small cairn placed in between.

The site also consists of low banks of small stones running below, and possibly pre-dating, the other structures which may have been field walls in the Neolithic period.

Beaghmore Stone Circles.

While the construction of the circles and rows unquestionably denote considerable organisation and effort, the precise purpose of this complex site at Beaghmore is impossible to ascertain. Investigation of the site and the surrounding bog indicate that the area was occupied since Neolithic times through the Bronze Age. The Stone Circles and Cairn are atributed to the earlier part of the Bronze Age c. 2,000-1,200 BC.

Beaghmore Stone Circles.

As to the function of the site, opinions vary. The site could mark a focal point for religious and/or social gatherings. Some archaeologists conclude that the circles have been constructed in relation to the rising of the sun at the solstice, or to record the movements of the sun and moon acting as observatories for particular lunar, solar or stellar events. Three of the stone rows point to the sunrise at the time of the solstice and another is aligned towards moonrise at the same period. However, most of the remains at Beaghmore do not indicate very accurate alignments upon specific astronomical features.

The circles do appear rather irregular and this has lead certain archaeologists and astronomers to propose that Beaghmore Stone Circles were erected according to geometric principles, which apply the "megalithic yard", a fundamental standard of length of 2.27 feet.

It has also been suggested that the construction of the site was an attempt to restore fetility to the area as worsening weather conditions caused the expanding blanket bog to cover the soil. Following excavation it was necessary to lay a system of drainage channels to prevent the monument from being reclaimed once again by the bog.

Due to the number of stone cairns on the site there is also a possibility that the main/or secondary function of the site was burial. Certain cairns have been found to hold cremated human remains, occasionally contained in a small cist. However, as not all the cairns have burial remains they could have been designed for an additional objective. Perhaps the are simply accumulations of surplus stones.

As the Beaghmore complex had lay hidden under a blanket of peat from the first millennium BC until the 1940s - when it was uncovered by turf cutting. It is conceivable that the full extent of the complex has not yet been revealed and further stones and cairns may still lie hidden in the adjacent peat.

Bibliography

Donnelly, Colm, J. 1997, Living Places. Belfast, The Institute of Irish Studies, The Queen’s University of Belfast.

Harbison, Peter. 1992, Guide to National and Historic Monuments of Ireland. Dublin, Gill and Macmillian Ltd.

Mallory, J. P. & McNeill, T. E. 1995, The Archaeology of Ulster. Belfast, Institute of Irish Studies, The Queen’s University of Belfast.

Weir, Anthony. 1980, Early Ireland: A Field Guide. Belfast, Blackstaff Press.

Historic Monuments of Northern Ireland. 1983. Belfast, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.