By Aoibheann Lambe:
In Ireland, we have many monuments dating back to the Stone Age. We know from carbon dating that passage tombs like Newgrange are over 5000 years old, made around the time of the Great Flood and before the Pyramids at Giza! The motifs which feature in passage tomb art consist largely of spirals, zig-zags and circles as well as round hollows, smaller than a bullaun, called cupmarks.
However, what very few people know, is that passage tomb art has a ‘first cousin’. Known as ‘rock art’, carvings similar to passage tomb art are found on boulders and outcropping in open pasture throughout Ireland. The most common motif is the cupmark which can be enclosed by one, two or more round grooves known as rings. As a whole, cupmarks and other grooves can make beautiful compositions. Rock art has been found in every county apart from (so far!) Limerick and Longford; and in greatest numbers in Donegal and Kerry. Many sites has been found in the last few years by individuals who include Gaby Burns and Jim Nolan in the Cavan Burren, Michael Fortune in Carlow and Wexford, Liam McLaughlin in Donegal, Christiaan Corlett in Wicklow and myself, with over 100 discoveries, in Kerry.
After all these thousands of years, the carvings on a rock surface are very easy to miss and can be taken for natural marks. As panels have been buried or destroyed as the carvings have either not even been seen or have not been recognized as part of an ancient tradition, not every example plotted on the map has survived to the present day. In nearly every case, the carvings are best highlighted in the slanting rays of the setting and rising sun.
The mystery is, what did these carvings mean? They must have had a deep significance for our ancestors as not alone are the same few symbols used over and over again but they are also found outside Ireland, especially in Scotland and the north of England. The landscape determined which rocks were selected for carving. Rocks with dramatic views, often with a prospect to water or along route ways, appear to have been favoured. A popular theory is that the carvings are maps of some kind. It is intriguing that so little folklore about rock art has survived. In Mayo, the elaborately decorated Boheh stone is known as ‘St Patrick’s Chair and Knee Mark’, the hollows presumably made by the saints knees as he prayed and rested en route to Croagh Patrick. In parts of Kerry, rock art is known as money/fairy stones and occasionally, coins can be found in the cupmarks.
Many of the landowners I know thought the carvings had been made fairly recently, perhaps by a work-shy ancestor! Once they know that it is part of our ancient heritage, they are proud to have it on their land. In the last six years, I have been devoted to researching rock art and am keen for it to be widely known and protected. As rock art can be very difficult to spot, especially in boulder-strewn landscapes, and with permission from the landowner needed to access privately owned land in Ireland, it really helps to have a guide. I have contacts throughout the country and can surely find someone to help you. In the course of my heritage/archaeological tours, some of which are public, others customized, I find it inspiring to hear people’s thoughts on rock art and other aspects of prehistory. If you know of any rock art panels which are not on the record, are aware of rock art folklore (from anywhere in the world) or would like to go on a tour, please do get in touch.
Aoibheann Lambe is an archaeologist based in Kerry who specializes in megalithic-era carvings known as rock art. She will be compiling her research into a PhD and also plans to publish a book on Irish rock art. She gives archaeological tours, both custom and general, trading as ‘rock art Kerry’
In a podcast Aoibheann Lambe speaks to us about the mystery of Ireland’s Rock Art
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