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Ballintaggart Court Tomb

The Ballintaggart Court tomb from Co. Armagh has found a new home at the Ulster Folk Museum. Expertly assisted by Restoration Works Ltd. and archaeologists from Queen's University, this new addition to the Rural area deepens the heritage we share at the museum.

Standing stones in the foreground while in the background a yellow digger stands.

Saved from destruction

In 1966, Ulster Museum Keeper of Antiquities Laurence Flanagan was informed that a Neolithic court tomb at Ballintaggart, County Armagh, was at risk of destruction from expansion of a neighbouring quarry. With the assistance of his colleague Deirdre Crone and four local workmen, the court tomb was surveyed, excavated, and installed at the Ulster Museum. In 2006, the court tomb was removed and placed into storage as the Ulster Museum embarked on a 3 year renovation project. It has remained in storage until now.

In 2019, National Museums NI conducted a period of consultation with stakeholders regarding the long term future of the Ballintaggart Court Tomb. It was decided that the Ulster Folk Museum was the best location for its reconstruction due to the potential for linking Ulster’s archaeological heritage with the folk history represented at the museum. 

Over the past few months, the court tomb has been reconstructed stone by stone in the rural area of the museum. This incredible piece of our shared heritage will soon be open the public to visit and learn about our ancient past.   

What is a court tomb?

A court tomb is a Neolithic burial structure, with the chambers inside holding human remains. A series of upright stones form a semi-circular 'court yard' at the entrance to the chambers. This area must have acted as a focal point where people could gather to conduct rites and rituals. The tomb would have been covered in a mound or ‘cairn’ of stones.

The first signs of Neolithic activity in Ireland begin around 4000 BCE. The first court tombs appear a few centuries later around 3700 BCE. Other types of megalithic tombs include Newgrange where the entrance was built to align with the rising sun at the winter solstice. While some well-known Neolithic structures such as Newgrange were built to align with certain solstices, court tombs in Ulster do not seem to have a particular orientation as a rule. 

Some court tombs held grave goods including pottery fragments and flint. While grave goods were not found in three of the four chambers of the Ballintaggart Court Tomb, this does not mean that they were always empty. Local Armagh history suggests that curious locals had explored the tomb in the preceding years. The fourth chamber of the Ballintaggart Court Tomb held 100 flint flakes as well as a flint scraper and a core. A selection of these grave goods are on display at the Ulster Museum. 

Court tombs are some of the earliest built stone structures in Ireland. They suggest a certain amount of spiritual awareness and necessitated a level of social organisation to help with their construction. 

A new home

The Ulster Folk Museum was chosen to house the Ballintaggart Court Tomb because of our aim to share the rich heritage of Ulster. Throughout the ages, the people of Ulster were aware of these archaeological structures and formed their own ideas, stories, and folklore about them.  

The journey to the Ulster Folk Museum began with the assistance of researchers from the Centre for Community Archaeology at Queen's University Belfast, who created models each of the stones of the Court tomb. These models were then 3D scanned, allowing for full 360 degree examination of each of the stones. For years, Archaeology students from Queen's University have used the Ballintaggart Court tomb as part of their studies. 

Two men study a computer rendering of the court tomb
Dr Colm Connelly and Brian Sloan from the Centre for Community Archaeology at Queen's University Belfast reviewing the court tomb structure. 

In the spring of 2023, Restoration Works Ltd. began installing the tomb in the Rural area of the museum. The stonemasons and contractors prepared the field and consulted both historical documents from the initial excavation and the prepared models from Queen's University to ensure that the stones were placed correctly. Their expertise in heritage work ensured the stones were well situated and tightly installed.

A man in a field watches the court tomb being installed.
Tim McMilan of Restoration Works Ltd. uses scans and documents to ensure the stones are placed correctly.

The Ballintaggart Court tomb will be open to the public in June 2023.