Rock Art under Starlight at Campo Lameiro, Galicia, Spain

 

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Campo Lameiro, in the mountainous heartland of Galicia in the north west corner of Spain, is home to one of the most significant prehistoric rock art landscapes in Europe. Over 4,000 years ago, people carved a bewildering array of symbols and schematic representations of animals on the wooded hillsides, using the many exposed granite outcrops as their canvas.

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The expertly carved motifs range from the classic abstract circular ‘cup and ring’ motifs that are ubiquitous across the Atlantic rock art tradition of Western Europe, to majestic stags of all sizes, some of which feature particularly magnificent antlers. If you look carefully you may even spot a rare horse or two.

In recognition of the special cultural and heritage value of the area, and to make the rock art more accessible, an archaeological park with an excellent interpretative centre was opened in 2011. Now, visitors can enjoy many of the carvings along pleasant mountain trails that wind through open grassland and wooded groves of native species which are more in keeping with the relict landscape. Explanatory panels help to identify the various elements of the carvings. As with the museum exhibition itself, they are all in the native language. Maps and information in English are provided in the visitor centre.

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Rock Art is so abundant in Galicia that drawing up a list of even a dozen must-visit sites would be difficult. However, there is no better place to start your explorations than here at Campo Lameiro. The permanent exhibition explores many of the theories and speculations that surround the mysterious signs and symbols, while a recreation of a small Bronze Age settlement is tucked away in a charming little meadow. The staff and guides are some of the most enthusiastic and well informed of any heritage site I’ve yet visited.

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Usually, the carvings are best seen in summer under the late evening light. Only the most deeply carved motifs resist being washed out in the texture of the granite under the mid-day sun. On certain nights of the year however, during the high season, you can book a place on a very special tour after nightfall where even the most faded carvings come to life under the skillfully guided beams of torchlight provided by the park guides.

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I was very lucky to have booked a place on the first tour to provide dual Spanish-English guides. Benito Vilas Estevez and Elena Tabodao Duran drew on their experience, knowledge and passion for the rock art to immerse the guests within the prehistoric landscape, while the accompanying guides dramatically revealed the significant carvings with torches (and also helped one over-enthusiastic photographer navigate the pitch-black woodland after falling behind the group).

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The remote location of the park also means that light pollution is at a minimum so the area is also a great dark-sky location for viewing the stars and planets. The park is taking full advantage of this to offer some very special night tours this month, where Benito Vilas will be sharing his expertise in rock art, archaeology and ancient astronomy. I was delighted to see that the park had chosen to use one of the images from my visit on the poster for the event below.

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See the full details on the park website or on their Facebook page and please enjoy the galley of photographs from my visit below.

Click on an image to view larger:

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

Laser Scanning the Great Tombs of the Boyne Valley

Marcus sets up the instrument to begin a 360° scan of the chamber and passage of Knowth East, collecting an astonishing 500,000 data points approx. per second.

As one of Ireland’s foremost heritage landscapes, the great neolithic passage tomb complexes of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth, collectively known as Brú na Boinne, attract hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. The chamber within Newgrange, the most famous of Ireland’s many passage tombs, welcomes a steady stream of tourists who crouch and shuffle single file up the long passage, literally rubbing shoulders with some of the finest megalithic art in Western Europe.

In the 5,000 or so years since it was first constructed, the settling of the mound’s layered bulk had caused many of the uprights lining the passage to lean and tilt inwards, making parts of the passage difficult to negotiate. This was remedied during the excavations and renovations led by Prof. Michael J. O’Kelly between 1962 and 1975 so that today the chamber is readily accessible. At Knowth and Dowth however, the chambers remain largely out of reach for most visitors due to a mixture of structural obstacles, site management and safety concerns.

At Knowth East, the passage orthostats nearest the chamber lean in so heavily that the only route through is on hands and knees along a wooden plank. At the time of the chambers discovery in 1967, the excavator, Prof. George Eogan, actually entered by crawling above the passage orthostats, eventually managing  to reach the chamber floor below by lowering himself down along the two metre high portal stones.

The situation is not much different at Dowth North, here the only means of access to the passage is a rather claustrophobic and uncomfortable crawl down a 20 metre long souterrain that was probably constructed between the 9th-11th centuries A.D. The lighting fixtures that had been installed decades ago are now flooded and defunct, the chamber now lies in damp and eerie silence.

With the sophisticated technology and expertise offered by a team from the York Archaeological Trust however, it is hoped that ‘virtual visits’ may be offered in the future through the medium of 3D virtual reconstructions and interactive ‘fly through’ videos of these unique and remarkable sites. The incredible level of detail and realisitic textures captured in this project will also allow researchers, whether within Ireland or abroad, to continue to study and analyse the construction and decoration of the tombs from their desks.

Over several days in May 2012, Dr. David Strange-Walker and Marcus Abbott meticulously scanned, photographed and logged GPS co-ordinates for both Knowth and Dowth in an exciting project organised in conjunction with UCD. Dr. Steve Davis of the School of Archaeology in UCD was one of the main co-ordinators of the project and both he and David were interviewed inside the chamber of Knowth for a piece on RTÉ News, broadcast on the 15th May:

Phillip Bromwell of RTÉ meets the team at Knowth.

I was delighted to be given the opportunity to meet the team and check out the work going on within the chambers of Knowth and Dowth and am very much looking forward to seeing the results of the surveys and scans, particularly the megalithic art. Having firsthand experience of how difficult it can be to record and in some cases even access the sheer number of decorated stones, it will be very interesting to see how technological advances along with the talent of people like Marcus and David can bring this collection of some of Europe’s finest pre-historic carvings to life for everyone to enjoy.

In the meantime, below are some images from my short visits to see the team in action. This was of course a very challenging environment to work in. Not only are there extremely low light levels within the chambers, but due to the scale of  the project it was not exactly practical to stop the work in progress and set up some atmospheric environmental portraits, not to mention the need to regularly find the nearest hiding place and sit still for several minutes while the scanner was collecting data! All of the shots therefore were taken handheld at exceptionally low shutter speeds mostly combined with very high ISO settings to increase the sensitivity of the camera just to avoid blurring as Marcus and David went about their various tasks.

Marcus secures the scanner to its low-level base where the passage meets the chamber in Knowth East.

It’s very much a case of ‘watch your head’ and ‘watch your step’ in the eastern chamber at Knowth.

Marcus checks the location and visibility of the targets which will allow the different scans to be combined later with sophisticated software.

The large basin stone in the rear chamber, Knowth East.

Marcus checks the settings on the scanner before it begins a 360° scan of the chamber and passage.

David Walker sets up the camera to capture the texture and colour of the surfaces that have been measured by the laser scanner.

The scanner set up in the right hand recess of the main chamber of Dowth’s northern passage.

The chamber in Dowth North is normally in permanent total darkness, the lighting arrangements are ‘bring your own’.

The very talented Marcus Abbott (left) and David Strange-Walker pictured in the eastern chamber of Knowth.

For more information on laser scanning and past projects using similar techniques, the wonderful website of the Nottingham Caves Survey project is very much worth a browse. Other exceptional case studies are featured on Marcus Abbott’s site. Special thanks are due to Dr. Steve Davis for arranging access for both myself and the team over the ten day period and particularly to the OPW for their time and co-operation in facilitating the work.