Winter Solstice Report – Newgrange, December 21st 2013

Winter Solstice sunrise shines through the roofbox above the door of Newgrange and along the passage floor

Winter Solstice sunrise shines through the roofbox above the door of Newgrange and along the passage floor

Click the ‘Play’ button below to start a slideshow. You can also click this link  to view larger in a new window, or if you are using a mobile device.

There’s a really special atmosphere at Newgrange on a sunny winter solstice morning, especially so this year since there hadn’t been a clear sunrise here on the 21st of December since 2007. This morning was surely one of the most memorable and welcome sunrises in recent years. Most of the people who had made their way to the ancient passage tomb had come prepared for the worst, it seemed unlikely that the thick cloud and driving rain would ever clear. As dawn approached, however, a clearing to the south west began to spread east, sweeping the horizon ever closer to the point on the opposite ridge where the sun was soon to appear.

The sun finally breaks over the low cloud and lights up the river valley

The sun finally breaks over the low cloud and lights up the river valley

The moment of sunrise passed, a stubborn bank of cloud sat just where the disc of the sun rises above Red Moutain. Within 15 minutes or so the window within which the sunrise can reach the chamber down the long passage would pass and the chamber would remain in darkness. The drumming and chanting from the crowd grew louder and louder, then all of a sudden a dazzling burst of light reached across the river valley, turning the white quartz facade of the 5,000 year old passage tomb a glorious golden orange. Accompanied by a loud cheer, the sun finally stretched across the floor of the chamber within the tomb, much to the delight of the lucky children and adults who had won places to witness the event inside the chamber.

Sunlight bursts through the specially designed roofbox constructed to admit light to reach deep inside the tomb

Sunlight bursts through the specially designed roofbox constructed to admit light to reach deep inside the tomb

The great passage tomb at Newgrange is over 5,000 years old, built in the Neolithic or ‘late stone age’ by local farming communities. For much of that time it had stood in ruin, its passage compressed inwards by the sheer weight of the mound and the ingenious ‘lightbox’ above the door filled in with rubble. It was during the excavations and conservation of the monument from the 1960′s through to the early 1980′s that the secret of its astronomical function was revealed. The phenomenon was first witnessed by the excavator, Prof. Michael O’Kelly of University College Cork, at midwinter of 1967, he described it thus:

‘I was there entirely alone. Not a soul stood even on the road below. When I came into the tomb I knew there was a possibility of seeing the sunrise because the sky had been clear during the morning.’

‘I was literally astounded. The light began as a thin pencil and widened to a band of about 6 in. There was so much light reflected from the floor that I could walk around inside without a lamp and avoid bumping off the stones. It was so bright I could see the roof 20ft above me.

‘I expected to hear a voice, or perhaps feel a cold hand resting on my shoulder, but there was silence. And then, after a few minutes, the shaft of light narrowed as the sun appeared to pass westward across the slit, and total darkness came once more.’

Gathering outside the monument has become a yearly tradition and it’s always great to old faces and new, catch up with the year’s events and look forward to the Christmas holidays and New Year ahead. The staff from the Office of Public Works deserve huge credit for the warm atmosphere and smooth running of the event each year, alongside all the other organisations and volunteers who help keep the event a family friendly affair. It’s great to see the smiling faces of the children emerging from the passage after witnessing something they may remember for the rest of their lives. Having seen their wonderful art hanging in the visitor centre, it was surely a very well deserved prize! Congrats to all the winners of the school art competitions and well done to everyone who took part.

Rock Art Expeditions: Some out-takes and some Ogham

Knockbrack, Co. Kerry

Some nice Ogham and a rather grumpy bovine

It’s been a while since the last blog update and there’s quite a backlog of photos and wonderful sites from over the summer months. But before I get down to the really heavy duty sorting and editing I thought I’d post a quick snapshot of the typical trials and photo-ops that might meet you on a typical trip out into deepest rural Ireland.

Over the years I’ve had my camera bag rifled by pigs at a Portuguese dolmen, nuzzled by horses at an axial stone circle in County Cork, pecked by rooks in Wales and stampeded by sheep near Avebury in England. My encounter with some bullocks in County Louth even made a nice book cover, but these cows I ran into in Kerry really took beastly intrusions to a whole new level.

A Congregation of Cattle in Co. Kerry

A Congregation of Cattle in Co. Kerry

Cattle breath on your fingers means move quick or get licked...

Cattle breath on your fingers means move quick or get licked…

The tripod survived the head-butt but the flash is in the dirt...

The tripod survived the head-butt but the flash is in the dirt…

I was vaguely aware that there was a stone in the townland of Knockbrack with some rock art coupled with an ogham inscription from a chapter in a book by local archaeologist Fionnbarr Moore and I was hoping it had not weathered much since his photos and drawings were made in the 1980′s and 1990′s. Time has not been kind to the decorated stone however, and the pathologically curious cows seemed determined to thwart all my efforts at bringing the carvings back to life…

Some elephants can create art, cows are more into creative lighting effects

Some elephants create art, cows are more into creative lighting effects

I tried to get a few shots of the badly weathered rock art despite having all my carefully placed kit constantly re-arranged, but it quickly became a losing battle. I think a return trip is in order with some accomplices, purely to keep the cows entertained.

If you’ve been a regular visitor to this blog’s Facebook page, you will no doubt have already encountered some posts following my travels around Ireland seeking out and photographing Ireland’s prehistoric rock art. For the most part it is the unreliable Irish weather or bewildering and impenetrable terrain that provide the challenges in locating and recording these prehistoric traces in the landscape.

This particular form of rock art that I am most interested in is sometimes described as ‘Atlantic Rock Art’ or ‘Galician Rock Art’ after the main geographic areas in which it is found, from the North West coast of the Iberian Peninsula to the glens of Scotland. I usually just refer to it as rock art though they are often termed ‘cup and ring’ carvings as the prototypical panel consists of dots/cupules/cup marks surrounded by one or more rings.

These mysterious carvings are perhaps one of Ireland’s most obscure prehistoric remnants. Though they are sometimes found in large concentrations and across many areas of the country they are little known with barely any mythological or folklore associations. In contrast, another form of ancient stone carving, Ogham, is immediately familiar and it’s cultural importance widely recognised. The two traditions are very distinct, they are separated by thousands of years and a wide gulf of knowledge. Ogham has been much studied and its code deciphered and documented, while the meaning of the even more ancient rock art remains elusive. It isn’t very often you find both together on the same stone in a landscape setting so this particular site at Knockbrack, Co. Kerry is very intriguing and worthy of further study. Perhaps I’ll cover the rock art itself in more detail in a later blog post. For the moment, here’s some more shots of the stone and its guardian angels:

Knockbrack, Co. Kerry

Knockbrack, Co. Kerry

Knockbrack, Co. Kerry

Glendruid Dolmen, County Dublin

Cian (3) and the monstrously large Glendruid Dolmen

Cian (3) and the monstrously large Glendruid Dolmen

Glendruid Dolmen, also known as Brennanstown Dolmen, is one of the finest of the Irish portal tombs. It is also one of the largest examples, its capstone has been estimated to weigh between 40 and 70 tonnes. Although there is no direct dating evidence for this particular portal tomb, it is of a type that were generally built around the early to middle Neolithic period or ‘New Stone Age’ by farming communities that were becoming established throughout the island from about 4,000 BC, replacing the hunter gatherer groups that had first colonised post-glacial Ireland perhaps 4,000 years earlier. This early farming period is characterised by a new tool kit of distinctive stone tools; flint arrow heads, polished stone axes, pottery and so on as well as the introduction of cereals and domesticated animals that became the dominant food source and the basis for a new economy of trade and social exchange.

Situated in a wonderfully secluded valley with a forest walk and fast flowing stream, it is easy to forget that this spectacular tomb is within a short walk of the recently developed Luas tram line through the suburbs of South County Dublin. It is possible to access the valley from the as yet unopened Lehaunstown Luas stop by either climbing a 6ft wall and down a steep bank or by walking along the field south of the station and through a tunnel under the line.

Many visitors remark on the sculptural quality of the tomb, the individual stones have been carefully selected to complement the plan and symmetry of the structure

Many visitors remark on the sculptural quality of the tomb, the individual stones have been carefully selected to complement the plan and symmetry of the structure

Although it seems at first glance that the chamber is quite low under the massive capstone, the ‘legs’ of the dolmen are actually sunken well down into the ground and stepping in over a sill stone to the rear of the monument allows access into a chamber that is really very roomy and comfortable to stand in. It also made a welcome shelter from the passing heavy showers on an otherwise sunny day!

The structural stones lean heavily under the enormous weight of the capstone.

The structural stones lean heavily under the enormous weight of the capstone.

All of the structural stones seem to be of granite. Some lean heavily and have even broken under the stress of supporting such a large capstone. At some point repair and conservation works were carried out to stabilise the structure, a large concrete triangular frame now props up the rear chamber stones and at least one has had large cracks cemented in.

A trip to this wonderful portal tomb makes a great day out, though you may want to pick a dry day as the grassy valley floor can get very muddy. My son Cian, who is three, particularly liked the forest walk and throwing a few sticks into the stream from a lovely little clearing along the banks. 

You can enter the valley via the Luas stop at Lehaunstown by walking along the wide grassy verge from the Carrickmines stop. Do so at your own risk however! There are one or two signs restricting access along the tracks themselves yet there is a small stile inserted into the wall allowing direct access onto the verge, so it’s not very clear whether there is public access to the green areas or not. You will see the dolmen through the trees on the opposite side of the stream along the forest path. You can try and cross the stream at a tricky looking fording point close to the tomb or continue along the path until you reach an old stone bridge and walk back along the valley bank. Alternatively there is direct access from Brennanstown Rd. through the grounds of a private house.

Click on a photo to open the gallery viewer:

More information and pictures of Glendruid available on: Megalithomania, Megalithic Ireland, Megalithic Monuments of Ireland

Megalithic Art at Midnight: King’s Mountain, Co. Meath

The decorated pillar under the midnight sky

The decorated pillar under the midnight sky, March 15th 2013

Down a narrow track off a minor country road, the pillar at King’s Mountain sits upright in a field like a beautifully decorated standing stone. This stone however is quite special, being the solitary remaining roofstone or lintel of a long destroyed passage tomb type monument which had been built around 5,500 years ago. Just five kilometers away is one of Ireland’s greatest passage tomb cemeteries from the Neolithic or Late Stone Age, the Loughcrew complex of decorated chambered tombs. These are also visible against the sky from this spot.  Meath is a relatively low lying county so even though the hills at Loughcrew are not particularly high, they do dominate the lowlands for many miles around.

Though they had been noted by a Miss Beaufort in 1828, the passage tombs at Loughcrew were first formally described by Eugene Conwell in 1864 and presented as ‘The Tomb of Ollamh Fodhla’ in paper read to the Royal Irish Academy in 1872. A cairn is marked near this location on an estate map of 1798. When he visited King’s Mountain, it was sadly just a little too late to record exactly the nature of the monument that stood near this spot:

“On its present site up to a few years ago, stood a tumulus, which the proprietor of the field caused to be carried away for top-dressing; and in the centre of the mound this stone was found, covering in a chamber formed of smaller flagstones and filled with bones, all of which have disappeared, the covering stone alone excepted” (Conwell, E.A. 1872)

The night sky above the spiral covered solitary remainder of a destroyed passage tomb.

The night sky above the spiral covered solitary remainder of a destroyed passage tomb (click to view larger)

The decoration on the bottom three-quarters of one face of the stone consists of spirals of various  sizes with both clockwise and anti-clockwise turns, joined by arcing lines. The dominant spiral has also been enlarged with penannular circles. These have been integrated into one larger design across the face of the stone more consistent with the mature ‘plastic’ style of megalithic art found at the Boyne Valley passage tombs of Newgrange and Knowth than the more haphazard and wonderfully energetic freestyle of depictive art found at the Loughcrew tombs. (Shee Twohig, E. 1981, Herity, M. 1974)

The site is located down a maze of local minor roads, miles from the nearest village or town and is about as good a dark-sky location as anywhere on the east coast on very clear nights. Some light pollution from Oldcastle was dimly visible while I was taking pictures, giving an orange tint to some of the longer exposure photographs. Seeing as it was heading into the St. Patrick’s festival weekend, I thought it would be worth rummaging around the bottom of the camera bag for some Strobist gels to add a festive green tint to the stone, I’m not normally a big fan of using different coloured effects with flash but here’s the slightly more subtle results using a fluorescent correcting light shade of green over the handheld flash unit:

Lit up green for the St. Patrick's Festival!

Lit up green for the St. Patrick’s Festival! (click to view larger)

The site is located on private land down a narrow track, see Knowth.com for more information. Click here if you would like to purchase a print, please specify if you would like image 1,2 or 3 from this page.

References:

Conwell, E.A. 1864. On ancient remains, hitherto undescribed, in the County of Meath. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy (1st series) 9, 42-50.

Conwell, E.A. 1866. Examination of the ancient sepulchral cairns on the Loughcrew Hills, County of Meath. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy (1st series) 9, 355-79.

Conwell, E.A. 1872. On the identification of the ancient cemetery at Loughcrew, Co. Meath; and the discovery of the tomb of Ollamh Fodhla. Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy (2nd series) 1 (Literature), 72-106.

Herity, M. 1974. Irish passage graves: Neolithic tomb-builders in Ireland and Britain, 2500 BC. Dublin: Irish University Press.

Shee Twohig, E. 1981. The megalithic art of western Europe. Oxford: Clarendon Press

Kilcarrig Rock Art, County Carlow – the Mother of all Cup and Rings

Kilcarrig Rock Art, Co. Carlow

Overlooking the small County Carlow town of Bagenalstown, not far off the top of the south facing hillside with a wide view over the northern lowlands, a large boulder bearing some remarkable carvings now rests within the undergrowth among the piled clearance of the surrounding fields. This is an elusive boulder, my previous attempt resulted in total failure and torn wet gear as I made my way back to the road in the late twilight. This was not unexpected as I had heard that it had been only rediscovered several years ago after a number of repeated visits and much hacking through the thick hedgerow. It was more a stroke of luck that I came across it in the end, having almost reached  the limit of the rough ground in which it was supposed to be found.

The boulder 'as found', though as bad as it looks it only took about ten minutes of hacking to free the stone from the undergrowth.

The boulder ‘as found’, though as bad as it looks it only took about ten minutes of hacking to free the stone from the undergrowth. As usual, click on any photo to see a larger version.

It is most certainly worth the effort, the sheer size and depth of the motifs cut from the hard granite makes this a particularly fine example of the ‘cup and ring’ genre, a style of preshistoric decoration found in the open air on boulders or outcrops. It seems a widely distributed tradition, with broadly similar examples found across a wide geographical area along the Atlantic Seaboard from Galicia in north west Iberia, through areas of Ireland, into Northern England and Scotland. True to the ‘diffusionist’ explanations of the time, it was thought the tradition originated on the continent before spreading to Ireland and the British Isles during the Bronze Age (eg. MacWhite, 1946). For this reason it is often still termed ‘Galician-Style Rock Art’ or just ‘Galician Rock Art’, though there can be significant regional variations on the basic ‘cup and ring’ theme. Seemingly comparable designs can also be found in Northern Italy and in the Alps, while the concentric circle motif and simple cup marks appear in many archaic rock art traditions worldwide.

Its dating and function are still much discussed and debated, though some consensus that the tradition stretches over a long period beginning in the early Neolithic (approx. 3500-4000BC)  has become established in the last decade.

The stone revealed...

The stone revealed…

A large vein of quartz runs the entire surface of the stone, forming a curve at one end that partly encloses the cup and ring. This feature is particularly visible in the photo below.

The large boulder in its present setting within a wide, overgrown field boundary chock full of field clearance.

The large boulder in its present setting within a wide, overgrown field boundary chock full of field clearance.

The boulder itself is approximately 1.8 meters in length and its carved face is about 1 meter wide. The enormous centre cup or basin is 15cm in diameter. The official entry in the databases of Archaeology.ie describes a single outer ring, however as you may see from my recent photos there is a faint second ring , part of which results from clever use of the curved end of a vein of quartz that runs the length of the stone surface. Although it seems to become overgrown quite quickly, the surface of the stone has relatively little moss or lichens growing along the middle band of the stone on which the carvings are found.

With hand for scale

With hand for scale

Lower on the stones surface is a wide groove, apparently artifical, running at an angle for about 20cm before disappearing below the current ground level. A ‘cup mark-like’ depression is also obvious in the photos, about 30cm to the right of the main motif, while very faint traces of possible and suspect carvings to the lower left of the rings shows on the photos. This inverted ‘U’ shape with small cup mark/dot was not apparent while I was actually in front of the stone but seems reasonably suggestive, enough to warrant a further inspection with more targeted lighting or photogrammetry.

Not spotted while I was photographing the stone, some possible carving, an inverted U shape with cup mark, is just visible to the left of the main cup and ring motif.

Not spotted while I was photographing the stone, some possible carving, an inverted U shape with cup mark, is just visible to the left of the main cup and ring motif.

Slightly softer lighting shows the finely finished carving work, the depth and size of the main motif is unusual in the typical rock art repertoire.

Slightly softer lighting shows the finely finished carving work, the depth and size of the main motif is unusual in the typical rock art repertoire.

While the general type of motif and its location are typical of the local rock art tradition across Carlow and Wicklow, I have to admit to having some very slight niggling feelings that this particular example may not so clearly be what it may seem. Perhaps it is the exceptional depth of the carvings and its good state of preservation on the relatively tough and weather-resistant granite but it almost seems too well executed and perfectly formed.  The steep-sided central cup and ring seem subtly different to the more typical shallow groove technique of the genre. On the other hand, every carving of this type has a more or less unique combination of attributes in location, surface type, composition and complexity, so it is to be expected that differences will often be apparent that may feel intuitively odd or out of place. It surely is ancient in origin in any case and a particularly fine example that is well worth a visit. Access is via the farmyard to the south where permission can be sought.

Equinox Dawn, Loughcrew, September 2012

Equinox Dawn, September 22nd, 2012, looking east past Patrickstown Hill towards Slane where the sun rises over the Irish Sea.

For three days around the Equinox, which occurs roughly around the 21st March and September each year, the Office of Public Works allow access to the chamber of Carin T, the central passage tomb on Carnbane East, Loughcrew, Co. Meath. Cairn T is also the largest on this central hill of a small chain of hills which are conspicuous from many miles around due to the low lying farming land in this part of the country. Within its passage and chamber, the passage tomb is highly decorated with a type of carving described as megalithic art, made by chipping away the surface of the stones that make up the structure that sits underneath a massive cairn or stones.The passage tombs on Carnbane East have not been scientifically excavated though the style of construction and decoration suggests that they are probably contemporary with, or even earlier, than the great passage tombs of the Boyne Valley at Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth. Knowth and Newgrange have produced radiocarbon dates from the late neolithic for the main construction phase, indicating the main focus of passage tomb activity dates back to around 5,000 years ago.

Catching the sunlight on the backstone of the rear chamber of the passage tomb

The weather reports for the weekend suggested that the morning of the actual astronomical Equinox, the 22nd, would be the best chance to see some light inside the chamber. Although there were clear skies when I left Wicklow at just before 5am, as I travelled north the cloud began to build over the eastern horizon. Though a large cloudbank above the clear horizon can lead to some spectacular colours, it did also limit the amount of time the sun would shine inside the chamber. On a clear morning the Fsun may be visible in the back chamber for almost a full hour, on this morning we had a much smaller window of about 20 minutes. As the event has become publicised more widely, so the crowds have grown larger each year. This September there was a crowd of about 150 people qeueing from before dawn, since the chamber can only accomodate six or seven people, inevitably only a lucky few would see the full display of light.

Megalithic Art Illuminated by the Dawn Sunlight

Click  the ‘play’ button on the slideshow below to view a selection of photos from the equinox event or click here to view a larger version of the slideshow on the website, should also work on the iPhone/iPad and other mobile devices.

The Spiral Stone, Llanbedr, North Wales

The Llanbedr Spiral Stone

The mysterious and intriguing Llanbedr Spiral Stone lurks in the shadowy space behind the last pews of the old church in this small North Wales village. It was found in the hills above the nearby town of Dyffryn Ardudwy by a Dr. Griffith in the 19th Century, possibly near some ruined hut circles, although the original location remains obscure. It had been carried north to Llanbedr where it was placed beside some standing stones. From here it was taken to the local churchyard, perhaps for better protection, eventually it was brought into the sanctuary of the church where it is preserved today.

Hide and Seek – The stone is just visible behind the large font.

Spirals are quite rarely found in open-air rock art, they are more commonly to be seen in megalithic tombs, particularly passage tombs like those in the Boyne Valley and Loughcrew in Ireland. The two decorated passage tomb sites on Anglesey, Barclodiad y Gawres and Bryn Celli Ddu (40 miles away) are the closest parallels for this style of carving and even those are considered possible outliers of the same Boyne Valley/Irish tradition.

Since it’s such a rarity I had been hoping to see this stone up close but hadn’t had the opportunity while on holiday on Anglesey over the summer. Luckily a last minute decision to attend the surprise launch of a festschrift for Frances Lynch in Bangor gave me the perfect excuse!

The church is located along the main road through the village so finding it was not a problem. Unfortunately on this day it seemed to be locked shut. However, I was very fortunate to knock on the door of a local man who not only knew the correct way to open the latch (you have to twist the large ring that looks like a door knocker, not the smaller handle below!) but who was also very knowledgeable in the history of the area and keen to share it.

Llanbedr Spiral Stone

The stone propped against the wall, beside some odd carved stone bowls.

The stone is propped against the side wall of the church, almost opposite the entrance, but tucked behind the font making it easy to miss. Even in the low, flat lighting of the church you can see the nicely executed spiral quite clearly but some additional lighting really brings it to the fore. As I set up the lightstands and tripod I was given a fascinating account of some of the local history, an Irish connection with the church itself and an even more intriguing account of how this stone came to be here. Apparently Dr. Griffith told of other carved stones he had seen about the place at the time he found the spiral stone, though only the one was small enough to transport down the hill. He may have also kept the location a secret so that the other carved stones would not be disturbed. While it’s impossible to verify, the supposed hillside or hilltop location, the size of the stone itself and the type of decoration are temptingly suggestive of a passage tomb. 
The spiral measures just under 30cm in diameter and appears to have two small cup marks associated with it, as well as some plough damage. The stone may have been part of a larger slab which had been broken up at some point.
The full face of the stone showing the decoration on the top left.

The full face of the stone showing the decoration on the top left.

 

 

This stone is definitely worth a visit, even the charmingly warm welcome messages and books etc. for children make the church itself a pleasant place to spend a few quiet minutes . I was also very grateful for the hospitality of the local man who lives next to the church, we chatted for quite some time and only for the fact that I had to be back in Bangor for a pre-book launch meal I could have listened to the local lore all day. Because the stone is located in such a tight spot it took longer than usual to find a good arrangement to light it properly, it seemed my chances of taking up a kind offer of a much needed strong coffee were getting slim. However, my host soon reappeared mug in hand to deliver it to me in the church while I worked, there’s certainly a warm welcome waiting for you in Wales!

More on the Spiral Stone here and here