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

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

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.

New rock art turns up in Naas?

A few weeks ago a photo was posted on a Facebook page of a stone outside a housing development in Naas, Co. Kildare. A passerby noticed a quite distinct partial ring around a wide bowl-like depression on the edge of the narrow granite stone, which is now set into the ground with it’s opposite face ground smooth, polished and engraved with the name of the estate. Continue reading