Boyle’s Bealtaine: Rock Art, Ancient Festivals, and Archaeoastronomy

Bealtaine is one of the great ancient festival days, the one that heralds the beginning of the season of fertility in crops and animals. It marks the mid-point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice, making it a cross-quarter day, and this year it fell on May the 5th. For the non-Irish speakers out there, it’s not pronounced bell-tane, but byowl (to rhyme with owl, the bird) – tinnuh – Byowltinnuh. If you’re really keen on getting it right, you can listen to it here.

Things did not look promising as we arrived at the Giant’s Grave – cloud and fog

We devoted two posts recently to the subject of Boyle Somerville. The first was a post about his life and his pioneering work on what is now called archaeoastronomy, but which he called the new science of Orientation. The second was about a site that was close to his home in Castletownshend, Knockdrum Fort. In Boyle’s own article on Knockdrum (available online with a JStor subscription), he notes a particular orientation between two fallen galláns (or standing stones) on a slight prominence in the grounds of Drishane House, to Knockdrum Fort itself at sunset on Bealtaine in 1930.

Standing behind the Giant’s Grave, Knockdrum Fort is clearly visible on the horizon

On that day, he states, he stood on the fallen galláns and watched the sun set directly over Knockdrum Fort. Yesterday, we did the same thing. It was a nerve-wracking business as not only cloud cover but a constant drifting fog obscured the hills and we were not hopeful that we would be able to see anything at all. But Boyle was up there, looking down on us, and at the last minute the clouds parted and there was the sun, exactly where he said it would be, angling slowly down to the fort.

The sun lights up the Giant’s Grave, making the cupmarks on its surface more visible

Watching this descent was a real highlight of my life here in West Cork. First of all, it felt really special to be on the same spot as Boyle Somerville, 88 years later to the day, and verifying his sighting by recording the phenomenon with photographs and video. If anyone else has done it in the intervening years, we can find no record of it, but would love to hear about it.

Secondly, this is essentially a rock art story, rather than a stone fort story. As Boyle himself pointed out, the stone fort at Knockdrum is but one piece of evidence of a long and continuous use of this commanding site. There are two carved stones at Knockdrum, one outside the fort with cup-and-ring type carvings, and a cup-marked stone currently lying within it. Look back at Robert’s post to see photographs and drawings of these two stones. These examples of rock art are likely the oldest artefacts on the site, dating to between four and five thousand years ago. There is also a cross-inscribed slab, possibly indicating an Early Medieval use of the site for ecclesiastical purposes. The stone fort itself may have been a relatively recent period of occupation, marking it as the fortified residence of a high-status individual about a thousand years ago. Boyle felt it may even have been used for look-out and defensive purposes in the seventeenth century.

 

Robert’s 2014 drawing of the surface of the Giant’s Grave capstone with 17 cupmarks

But the fallen galláns, known locally as the Giant’s Grave, also have cupmarks, tying them to the rock art tradition. The upper surface of the top slab has 17 cupmarks. Boyle counted 19 and the National Monuments record has it as 12, showing how difficult it can be to accurately identify man-made marks on a rough and heavily-lichened surface.

The Giant’s Grave, or fallen galláns, from the west side

While Boyle described this monument as two fallen galláns, it is unclear whether the placement of the two stones, one on top of the other, is accidental or deliberate. If deliberate, then this may be another type of megalithic structure, perhaps similar to a boulder burial (or clochtogle, as he preferred to call them). The orientation, then, as observed by Boyle in 1930 and by us in 2018, is from this probably Late Neolithic or Bronze Age structure to the place where other other pieces of rock art originally stood. Intervisibility, or the visibility of one piece of rock art from another, is well established in the Irish rock art literature. While we have written before (see here and here) about orientation from a piece of rock art to horizon markers, we have never before recorded a specific orientation, involving a solar event on a calendrical day, between rock art sites. So, this is a first for us, and may be a first for Ireland.

This is the Gortbrack stone, on its stand in the Stone Corridor at University College, Cork (UCC). It came from the townland next to Knockdrum Fort

In fact, it is easy to forget that three other examples of rock art come from adjoining townlands because they are no longer in situ: one is in the grounds of Drishane House and two are in Cork City. Six pieces of rock art less than 3 kilometres apart make for a ‘concentration.’

Above, the rock art currently in the grounds of Drishane House, but originally from Farrandeligeen

The Drishane House stone came from Farrandeligeen, immediately west of Drishane townland. In the field notes kept by Boyle, and discovered by Dr Elizabeth Shee, he notes that the stone was originally built into the wall of an outhouse. . . but was brought to Drishane House by Colonel Somerville in about 1880, for safe keeping.

This is one side of the Bluid Stone (both sides are covered in cupmarks), which is housed at the Cork Public Museum

The other two pieces are from the townlands of Gortbrack, immediately to the west of Farrandau (the townland in which Knockdrum Fort is situated) and Bluid (either East or West) which is to the west of Gortbrack. Gortbrack is in the Stone Corridor at University College Cork, and the Bluid stone (an unusual two-sided example) is at the Cork Public Museum. Both had been in the possession of Boyle Somerville, and were presented to UCC after his death. They had been brought to him by local farmers who knew of his interest in such things. We can only lament that of the six separate examples of rock art known from this immediate vicinity, we can be reasonably confident that only one, the Giant’s Grave, is in its exact original location. Neither of the two pieces at Knockdrum Fort are precisely where they were found, but at least they do not seem to have been moved more than a few metres from their original situations.

There is scope for much more investigation of this intriguing group – we shall call it the ‘Boyle Somerville Rock Art Concentration’. But for now, let us once more raise a toast to Boyle, pioneering archaeoastronomer of West Cork.  His legacy lives on.

8 thoughts

  1. What an amazing experience, and the video was wonderful to watch – I can see lots of investigation going on into the BSRAC in the near future! And I need to visit the Giant’s Grave,

    Like

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