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:

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.

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.

Summer Sunrise at Bryn Celli Ddu, Anglesey, Wales.

Bryn Celli Ddu Sunrise

Bryn Celli Ddu (pronounced approximately ‘Brin Kethlee Thee’) is a restored passage tomb on the island of Anglesey on the north Wales coast. Built on top of a destroyed henge and stone circle, it is a late example of the type of chambered tombs built during the Neolithic, between 5-6,000 years ago. The restored mound is a fraction of its original size, but the passage and chamber are much the same as they would have been originally.

In 1906, Sir Norman Lockyer published one of the first systematic studies of megalithic astronomy. Based on observations made at Easter, he predicted a summer solstice alignment at Bryn Celli Ddu. This idea was not take seriously at the time and the notion fell into obscurity until archaeologist Steve Burrow came across Lockyer’s book. In 2005, he was able to make observations that proved Lockyer correct. The discovery was widely publicised at the time and a video of the sunrise can be viewed in the museum in Cardiff. Click here to read the BBC report.

Sunbeam in Chamber of Bryn Celli Ddu

During an otherwise very cloudy and damp holiday on Anglesey this summer, I was fortunate enough to have one very fine, clear morning. A very early start at 4.20am was well rewarded with a spectacular light show inside the chamber, click to play the slideshow below:

Click here to view a larger version of the slideshow on the website, should also work on the iPhone/iPad and other mobile devices.

Although the morning I was in the chamber was a couple of weeks after the solstice, the rising position of the sun moves so slowly during the solstice period that the phenomenon changes only slightly over the weeks before and after the ‘standstill’. See the diagrams below to see how the sun’s angle at sunrise changes over a couple of weeks. The length of the passage is also quite short compared to Newgrange or Knowth, which also extends the window of of time during which the light beam can be observed.

The yellow lines depict the angle of the sun at sunrise on each of the dates, compare where the line passes through the buildings in the farmyard. Screenshots are from the excellent Lighttrac app for the iPad

Sunrise at Bryn Celli Ddu on 21st June 2012

Sunrise at Bryn Celli Ddu on July 2nd 2012

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.

Bealtaine at Beltany Stone Circle, Co. Donegal

The beginning of May and official summertime was marked in more ancient times by the fire festival of Bealtaine. Bealtaine falls close to the astronomical cross-quarter day, half way between the equinoxes and the solstices. It is known to have been celebrated from at least medieval times and marked a time of reckoning when rents and debts were due and workers and servants were hired for the season ahead. Its significance in more ancient times is more obscure. The actual astronomical cross-quarter day this year falls on the 5th of May however the festival in the modern calendar is fixed on the 1st.

Beltany Tops stone circle sits on a hilltop in Co. Donegal, not far south from the village of Raphoe. 60 or so stones remain from what was likely to have been a contiguous kerb-like circle around a raised platform 45m in diameter. It also features two outlying stones. It probably pre-dates the ‘Celtic’ calendar festivals by several thousand years, however we cannot be certain that people in the Neolithic or Bronze Age did not have a similar calendar or festivals.

Various astronomical alignments have been claimed to exist at the circle, however the most intriguing is the Bealtaine sunrise, possibly marked by a triangular stone whose inward face is covered in cup-marks (small round depressions hammered or ground out of the surface of the stone and the most common form of prehistoric rock art). Around the cross-quarter day the sun rises directly behind this stone, as can be seen in the title photo of this post. The name ‘Beltany’ also happens to be an anglicisation of ‘Bealtaine’, adding another interesting layer of association.

The above photos were taken on a perfect sunrise on the actual cross-quarter day in May 2007. The sunrise is now partly blocked by nearby trees but the effect is still quite spectacular to witness as the first limb of the sun peeps through the branches directly behind the cup-marked stone which is pointed, almost like a target.