• Ali Isaac

drombeg stone circle

Updated: Mar 16

I visited Drombeg Stone Circle on my way home from Skibbereen in Co. Cork a few weeks back. I didn't know quite what to expect; I've been to many burial mounds and grave sites since I moved to Ireland twenty years or so ago, but not many stone circles. I parked up in the little car park and walked down a neat gravel path bordered on one side by tall fuchsia bushes and ferns, and a dry stone wall on the other, and then, quite suddenly, got my first view of the monument, and instantly felt that familiar surge of excitement.

As I stepped off the path, I found myself moving forward onto a broad plateau carved from the hillside. The grass was short and neat, the site well maintained, the sun was shining and the air was warm and still. Unlike the wilderness and weather I am used to. It all felt a bit surreal, like walking onto a stage, and perhaps that's appropriate, because this setting was designed and man-made for the performance of ritual, although we cannot fathom what that entailed.

the two large portal stones which flank the entrance into the circle

through the entrance towards the recumbent alter stone and the notch in the hillside beyond

Drombeg, or Liagchiorcal an Droma Bhig, as it is known in Irish, dates to the late Bronze Age, and consists of seventeen standing stones arranged in a circle with a diameter of just over 9m, so it is quite small and compact. Directly opposite the entrance is a recumbent stone, often called the 'alter' stone.

Drombeg is an axial stone circle, of a design which is typical of Co. Cork and Co. Kerry; this means it has an axis across the circle from the entrance to recumbent aligned northeast-southwest, with the recumbent located southwest on the circumference. This is not a coincidence; at the mid-winter solstice, the sun sets in the notch in the hillside overlooked by the circle.

The term 'recumbent' suggests a stone which has fallen, but in fact, archaeology has shown that these stones were deliberately placed in a horizontal position, rather than vertically like all the other stones in the circle. Therefore, this stone clearly had a significant, if unknown, purpose.

the centre of the alter stone lines up quite nicely, but not perfectly, with the notch in the hillside

there are two shallow cup marks, one with a ring, in the surface of the alter stone, but they are quite weathered, and can barely be seen

However, a study in 2017 has come up with a new purpose for the construction of this site; in his article, Drombeg Stone Circle, Ireland, analyzed with respect to sunrises and lithic shadow-casting for the eight traditional agricultural festival dates and further validated by photography, G.T. Meaden shows that light and shadow created at sunrise by various stones in the circle interact with the carvings on the surface of the recumbent stone to indicate the major festival dates of the Celtic calendar. A regulated and efficient means of determining these dates would surely have been important for our ancient ancestors, not just on a social or communal level, but in terms of calculating their agricultural cycles.

you can read Meaden's article here: Drombeg Stone Circle, Ireland, analyzed with respect to sunrises and lithic shadow-casting for the eight traditional agricultural festival dates and further validated by photography.

An excavation by E. M. Fahy in 1959 discovered that within the circle the earth had been covered with a layer of gravel up to 10cms thick. Beneath this, and in the centre of the circle, two unmarked pits were found. One contained an urn cremation burial of an adolescent, the remains wrapped in a cloth, the other flecks of charcoal and bone. Three other pits were found to contain only shattered stone, which appeared to have been deliberately buried. Other finds included sherds of pottery, six small worked flint pebbles, and part of a shale tool. Fahey dated the pottery to the early to mid Bronze Age.

This complex site also includes a fulachta fiadh and two conjoined hut circles, one of which contained evidence of a roasting oven. These structures were linked by a stone path or walkway, as can be seen in the plan below. It is not known if these huts were permanent dwellings, or temporary for use during ceremonial preiods.

The purpose of a fulachta fiadh is not clear, but according to mythology and medieval writings, they served as outdoor cooking areas. As can be seen here, the site consists of a stone lined trough to hold water, a spring or well, and a hearth in which stones were heated and then rolled into the trough.

artist's impression of the fulachta fiadh at Drombeg as it may have been used

Experimental archaeology has demonstrated that water could be brought to a boil within 18 minutes, and whole sides of venison could be cooked in about three hours. Drombeg, then, could potentially have been a site of ritual and feasting for large gatherings or festivals.

Fulachta fiadh consisting of stone-lined trough with hearth, and well to the left

foundations of two conjoined hut circles

remains of hut circle with roasting oven at far end opposite entrance

Drombeg with the fullachta fiadh, centre background, and hut circles to the right

Sources & Further Reading:

Seán Ó Nualláin, 'The Stone Circle Complex of Cork and Kerry', The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland , 1975, Vol. 105 (1975), pp. 83-131.

G.T.Meaden, Drombeg Stone Circle, Ireland, analyzed with respect to sunrises and lithic shadow-casting for the eight traditional agricultural festival dates and further validated by photography.

The Southern Star, 'New discoveries about Drombeg Stone Circle'.

Ali Isaac, How Do You Feed a Hungry Fianna?