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Corleck Carved Stone Head

Corleck Carved Stone Head Corleck Hill, Co. Cavan, 1st – 2nd Century AD

The carved stone head from Corleck Hill is on permanent display in the National Archaeological Museum on Kildare Street in Dublin. There is also a replica of the head on display in the Cavan County museum in Ballyjamesduff. 

The Corleck Head is a fascinating and mysterious artifact and although it appears to be very simple it evokes a powerful sense of the supernatural, which seems to speak directly from our ancient ancestors to ourselves, today.

What makes the head even more mysterious is the fact that most of the archaeological evidence of it’s find has been destroyed, but authors like B. Raftery and J. Waddell have attempted to place it in it’s proper context.

The carved stone head found at Corleck Hill, County Cavan dates from the 1st – 2nd century AD. It is carved from sandstone and stands 32 centimeters tall. 

The head consists of three faces. One of the faces has heavy brown and all three have bossed eyes, broad noses and slits for mouths and differ slightly from one another. 

The faces do not obviously appear to be male or female and one face appears to look up, one down and one straight ahead. 

One of the faces has a small circular hole in the centre of it’s mouth. There is also a hole at the base of the head which may have been used to secure the head on a pole or a pedestal for the purposes of display.

A 1.8 meter high wooden carving found in a bog at Balybritain in County Derry in the 1970s may give an indication of how the Corlick head was displayed. 

Sadly this carving was allowed to disintegrate and we only know it through a small sketch. Although the head is simply carved, without ears or hair, the faces have enigmatic expressions and the head evokes a distinct air of the the supernatural and even menace.

The head was discovered in the town-land of Drumeague, County Cavan at Corleck Hill. The name derives for the Irish corr, meaning ’round hill’ an leac, meaning ‘flat stone’ which indicates that the area had a long tradition of worship of old gods. 

Originally discovered in 1855 it was brought to scientific and public attention in 1937 by local historian Thomas Barron. The Corleck Head was originally discovered with a number of other carvings including a bearded bust known an the Corraghy Head which was later built into a barn in a nearby town-land. 

The carvings were found d when a passage tomb surrounded by a stone circle and earth embankment about 65 meters in diameter were dismantled between 1832 and 1900, destroying the context in which the finds were made. Other stone heads have ben found in the area including ones from Cavan Town and Corvilla. 

Further north there are also Iron Age carvings to be found at Emhain Macha, the main political religious seat of ancient Ulster. Geographically Corlick Hill is also close to the great Neolithic sites of Newgrange and Loughcrew on the river Boyne.

The site of these two monuments also seems to have been associated with an important local Lughnasa festival. The festival of Lughnasa was one of the the great pre-Christian quarterly festivals of Ireland and took place on the first Sunday of August and is still celebrated to this day. 

Sometimes three faced heads representing the old god Crom Dugh were buried up to their neck on hilltops overlooking the ripening corn so the young Lugh could take his place for the duration of the festival.

From the Corleck Head’s appearance there is speculation that it may be associated with Romano-British traditions. There is evidence that there were Roman traders in Ireland trading with locals at centers known as emporia and we have discovered artifacts like the Gallo-Roman potsherds found in the fort of Drumanagh at Loughshinny, Co. Dublin. 

Other heads with similar features have been found in co. Armagh, Co. Donegal and a two faced idol at Greetland, near Halifax and another in Anglesey in Britain. 

In Ireland head sculptures from the Iron Age are concentrated in the Northern areas of the country. The head was seen as the seat of the soul and the essence of human personality and this also came to represent the idea of god. 

Head taking was also very symbolic in battle and we see many instances of slain warrior’s heads being cut off and put on display in ancient Irish stories and myths including The Tain. Triple deities were common in many ancient cultures including Greek, Roman an Norse.

There are many instances of triple gods in Europe and inscriptions and statues to them have been found in Gaul, Spain, Italy, Germany and Britain. Roman soldiers worshipped double and triple gods from the 1st to the 3rd century. The number three was also very significant. 

In Irish mythology we see the term ‘Ti de Dana’ which refers tyo the three gods of art, Luchtaine the carpenter, Boibniu the smith and Credne the goldsmith. In the case of the Irish goddess Brigid it is unclear whether she is a single goddess or three sisters, each named Brigid. 

Brigid was co-opted by the early Christian church in Ireland and became the St. Brigid we know today. This ambiguity also features in the goddess, the Morrigan, a shape shifter who was associated with war, fate and death and also with the three Irish goddesses of sovereignty, Eriu, Fodla and Banba. 

The psychiatrist and psychoanalysts, Carl Jung thought that the triple god arrangement was a fundamental pattern in all religions.

It is a shame that the archaeological site at Corleck Hill was so thoroughly destroyed as it has robbed us of the archaeology surrounding the Corleck Head. It would be fascinating to be able to excavate the site and see how the objects that are now lost would have contextualized the head. 

That said, it is a beautiful and mysterious object and is surely one of the most iconic ancient Irish artifacts we possess today.

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