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

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.

Kilmashogue Wedge Tomb in the afternoon glow, 28-04-2012

Kilmashogue Wedge Tomb, looking over the gallery from the rear

A short, steep climb from the car park at Kilmashogue Forestry, along a track through the mature plantation, leads to an atmospheric clearing where the approximately four thousand year old ruins of a rather fine example of a bronze age wedge tomb lies. On an unexpectedly fine Saturday evening, it makes for an ideal spot for a quick visit with the family. It has all the charm and quiet of a fairytale forest, with pine cones to collect and a moss covered ‘fairy castle’ to explore!

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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