On a rainy day in 1838, Lady Georgiana Chatterton climbed a hill on Ireland’s Dingle peninsula and sketched “a very curious piece of antiquity,” which she included in her travelog “Rambles in the South of Ireland During the Year 1838.”
For decades, the sketch of large stones, which resembles the Flintstone’s house in the old cartoon, was the last known recorded evidence of the Altóir na Gréine or sun altar.
It had stood for about 4,000 years but disappeared by 1852 when an antiquarian noted it had been dismantled, according to Irish broadcaster Raidió Teilifís Éireann. Its exact location was a mystery.
Over 170 years later, during COVID lockdowns, folklorist Billy Mag Fhloinn went searching for the temple’s remains on a hill called Cruach Mhárthain near the village of An Buailtín. He found a few of the large stones.
“I was interested in this particular tomb, firstly because it is less than half a mile from my house but also the mystery surrounding it,” Mag Fhloinn told Business Insider via email.
The structure may have once held remains of Bronze Age people, or they may have used it for ceremonies and rituals, Mag Fhloinn told RTÉ.
Photographs helped find the site
Mag Fhloinn lives at the bottom of the Cruach Mhárthain hill, according to Live Science. An instructor at Dingle campus of Connecticut-based Sacred Heart University, he’s mapping the sites of wedge tombs.
“These types of structures are burial places,” Mag Fhloinn said, generally dating to around 2,500 to 2,000 BCE. “They contain the cremated remains of a number of different people, mixed together in the chamber. “
The Bronze Age stone tombs are widespread and numerous across parts of Ireland. Many others have been excavated. Researchers have found pieces of pottery, remnants of fires, and other evidence that people may have performed rituals at similar tombs.
“They are places of ceremony, and it might be useful to think of them as being like ancestor shrines as much as graves,” Mag Fhloinn said.
During his searches of the hill, Mag Fhloinn took photographs to create a 3D model. Using a technique known as photogrammetry, he digitally joined different images together. That’s when he noticed the orthostats, or upright stones.
Rotating the 3D model on his screen, Mag Fhloinn saw how well it corresponded with the 1838 drawing. “That was my real eureka moment,” he said.
A few left-behind stones
Mag Fhloinn and a fellow scholar, Seán Mac an tSíthigh, printed out Chatterton’s picture, went up to the site, and found two matching stones. “Two stones matching was very solid evidence,” he said.
It was a surprising find. Richard Hitchcock, the antiquarian who, in 1852, couldn’t find the tomb, wrote that the stones had “been broken and carried away for building purposes, as if there were no others in the neighbourhood,” RTÉ reported.
Caimin O’Brien, an archaeologist with the National Monuments Service, verified Mag Fhloinn’s findings.
“For the first time in over 180 years archaeologists know where the tomb is situated and it will enhance our understanding of wedge-tomb distribution,” O’Brien told RTÉ.
Now that the lost tomb has been found, the archaeologists want to know if the sun altar lives up to its name. Some wedge tombs were built in relation to the sun.
Most wedge tombs face west, particularly to the southwest, Mag Fhloinn said. But this tomb seems to be pointing east. “Local folklore talks about the rising sun casting light upon the stones,” he said.
That might make the tomb interesting to archaeoastonomers, he said, who could “see if there is any truth to the folk accounts.”