Both Robert and I have written about prehistoric rock art several times in this Journal – here and here, here and here. Readers will know that it was the subject of my Master’s thesis in the early 70s, and that it has become a shared passion for us both as well as a retirement project. One aim of this project for me is to assess how rock art has been doing, as a category of ancient monument in Ireland, since I last studied it intensively forty years ago.
Within the archaeological community there is discussion about how best to protect rock art sites. The arguments take shape around opposing approaches: the first alternative is to promote and advertise rock art, to make it as well-known as other monuments such as megalithic tombs and medieval friaries; the second is to leave it lie in obscurity.
Spain has a lot of rock art, and the approach there is to encourage people to come and view it and explore it. There are visitor centres, interpretive signs, rock art trails. While the results have been positive on the whole, raising the profile of this class of site and increasing the understanding and respect of visitors, it has not been without challenges: some damage and vandalism has occurred on carved panels.
In Ireland we have taken a low profile approach when it comes to promoting rock art. Its very obscurity, the argument goes, is its protection. All known rock art sites are recorded in the database maintained by the National Monuments Service, and anyone planning on building on or developing a piece of property must check plans against this inventory. But apart from that we do not advertise the presence of rock art with signs or centres. A few are marked on the Ordnance Survey maps, but are difficult to find. The folk-beliefs of country people have helped in the past – where any prehistoric site was known it was never interfered with for fear of the bad luck that would follow.
Weathering and lichen growth are not kind to carved surfaces over time and rock art in Ireland has not been protected from such natural occurences. On the whole, however, the fact that rock art is little known has indeed functioned to ensure that carved panels remain in place and my own sympathies would have lain therefore with the second argument. However, times are a-changing in Ireland and I have become alarmed at the prospects for the conservation of this important prehistoric resource. I have come to believe that the more people who know about rock art, who know the locations of the rocks and can keep an eye on them, the better.
Robert and I have spent a year now, in West Cork, visiting rock art sites and re-recording them. I have begun to understand in that time that there are two main dangers to rock art in the Irish landscape: ignorance and the economy.
First: lack of awareness. By this I mean that in general people simply do not know that there is a class of ancient monument known as rock art. They don’t know what it looks like and don’t recognise it when they walk over it. This is not their fault – rock art can be almost impossible to see on the surface of a weathered rock on a grey day, even when you know it’s there. We have described how in one case a building was erected on top of rock art. In another case we are aware of, a piece of rock art was unrecognised and probably damaged when a homeowner erected an ornamental stone circle beside it. In both cases the homeowners would have protected the rock art had they known it was there, or understood the extent of it.
Second: the economy. Here, two huge threats to rock art exist. The first is in the rapid growth of forestry plantations in Ireland – a practice that is altering the landscape and obscuring what lies underneath in many areas of the country. We have experienced this first hand: rock art in a nearby townland can no longer be located in a young forestry plantation.
The second is even more serious – the threat lies in the encouragement to farmers to improve and bring into production previously marginal land. All around us in West Cork the sound of the rock breaker is as common as the lowing of cattle. Vast stretches of rocky land, suitable only for a few sheep, are being levelled, drained and seeded. Green fields are appearing where once only scrubby grass and bog could grow.
We saw first hand what this could mean on a recent trip to Kerry. In the mountains above Sneem, on the Iveragh Peninsula, lies the lonely valley of Derrynablaha. It is spectacularly beautiful, but wild and remote. Forty years ago the one house in the valley was occupied by the farmer who ran his sheep on the mountain slope. That house is now in ruins: a new owner until recently simply carried on the use of the land for sheep. Imagine our surprise and concern, therefore, when, on a recent trip to Derrynablaha, we observed an enormous excavator working in the fields above the house. It had been there for some time. The ground had been levelled, all rocks and old field boundaries had been cleared away, and the land is now ready to be seeded and made into an enormous and pristine green field.
So what’s the problem with this? It’s alarming because Derrynablaha, and the neighbouring townland of Derreeny, contain the largest and most significant concentration of rock art in Ireland. Forty examples have been found and recorded so far. Some of them lie right beside the new field. An assessment by the National Monuments Service took place immediately and they will monitor closely now that they know this is happening. However, damage has already been done. Rock art does not exist in a vacuum – it is part of a prehistoric landscape and nowhere is this more so than in Derrynablaha, where the land has been lightly lived on over the centuries and where prehistoric and historic features lie just beneath the boggy turf.
The farmer, of course, is just doing his job. With the encouragement of the grants system he is improving his land, trying to be more competitive and hoping to pass on a viable farm to his son, so the young man won’t have to emigrate like many of his contemporaries. He is aware of the rock art and is avoiding direct contact with any pieces he knows. He needs no planning permission (a process that would have involved and alerted the County Archaeologist) to do what he’s doing.
In both these scenarios – lack of awareness and the economy – the intentions of everyone concerned were honourable. But honourable intentions won’t save rock art from damage and destruction. Our only hope lies in a Save the Whales approach: the more people who know about and appreciate rock art and who are committed to helping to preserve this precious resource, the better its chances of survival will be.