Witches’ Marks and Lovelorn Shepherds: Inscribed Rock Art in a Remote Valley

One day in the summer of 1972 I set off on my Honda 50, backpack full of recording tools, to find a new and different example of rock art. This was not my usual prehistoric cup-and-ring carving, but inscribed or scratched markings in a ‘cave.’ When I returned yesterday, 47 years later, it was to a place even more remote and wildly beautiful than it had been in my memory. Read Robert’s post for a full account of our walk up the Valley of the Cooleenlemane River.

The site itself is arresting. Huge slabs lean against each other to form three shelters – nowadays harbouring sheep but in times past, perhaps humans. There is an account in the Halls’ Tour of Ireland of an encounter they had with a family living in this area in what looks remarkably like our destination.

The House of Rocks from Ireland, Its Scenery, Character, &c by Mr and Mrs S C Hall, page 149. Drawn by A Nicholl, engraved by Landells

The ‘caves’ are known locally as the Bealick – Pat Joe pronounced it The Bay Lick. Leach (pronounced lack) is the word for a flagstone or slab so this could be a reference to the enormous stones themselves, but baoleach (pronounced bway-lock) is also the Irish word for dangerous, which may refer to beliefs about the power of the place. The townland name, Cooleenlemane, could mean the Little Nook of the Rock Outcrop, or it could mean the Rock Outcrop at the Remote End (of the valley). Either way, it’s apt.

The arrow points to the Bealick: you can see it from a long way away as you walk up the valley

We’ve written many posts about rock art in this blog, but the closest we’ve come previously to dealing with Inscribed markings was Robert’s post on the Aultagh stone, which has been suggested as an Ogham (or fake-Ogham) stone. This one is very different.

This type of site has been described most comprehensively in Elizabeth Shee Twohig’s paper, An Enduring Tradition, Incised Rock Art in Ireland in the 2014 book From Megaliths to Metal: Essays in Honour of George Eogan. She coins the term COMBS, based on where these kinds of marks occur – Caves, Outcrops, Megaliths and Boulder-Shelters, and gives details on the ones that have been documented to date, including the list I included in my 1973 thesis.

I described and drew three of the sites then – Glanrastel, Kealanine and Cooleenlemane – and I hope to get back to the others also. Of the three, Cooleenlemane has the greatest range of markings. There are three caves here, but markings only in two, which I labelled the East and West Cave. The markings run the full gamut of Shee Twohig’s motif range. There are also initials and words and letters that do not form words but that seem to run together.

The East Cave has the widest range of markings

This is what I wrote in my 1973 thesis about how the carvings were made:

The three sites of Glanrastel, Kealanine and Cooleenlemane share an identical incising technique. The markings have a V-shaped cross-section with smooth faces. In the case of the lighter marks, this effect could have been achieved by scratching with a strong knife, and at Kealanine and Cooleenlemane this technique accounts for many of the initials and letters, and some of the straight strokes. The deeper strokes were probably made by reaming with the end of a pointed tool. This tool need not have been metal. Identical techniques of marking have been identified by Shee. . . from passage-graves, which she suggests were executed with the edge of a stone axe.

The West Cave has more words and letters

At the time, we had no idea how to interpret these kinds of markings. I did say in my thesis they were more likely to be historic rather than prehistoric, and pointed out the Christian nature of the many cross motifs. The initials and words are, of course, fully modern.

But in fact, incised markings such as these are known from many contexts, including prehistoric. They are widely distributed in southern Europe, where they may be associated with figurative carvings also. The 2014 Proceedings of the XVII UISPP World Congress was published as Post-Paleolithic Filiform Rock Art in Western Europe, filiform being the word chosen to describe incised rather than pecked rock art. A chart of what the authors call The Geometric Type (above) contain many motifs that would be at home in Cooleenlemane. Some of these may date from the Bronze Age or the iron Age.

Shee Twohig also points out the long and varied traditions of marks of the COMBS type, including Early Medieval inscribed crosses on rock outcrops, and thirteenth century mason’s marks. You may remember our post about Keith Payne’s exhibition, Early Marks: inspired by Genevieve von Petzinger’s book The First Signs, he depicted many such inscribed markings, including one from Blombos Cave in South Africa, reckoned to be 75,000 years old.

A recent discovery at Creswell Crags in Nottinghamshire generated excitement earlier this year and may hold the answer to the puzzle of what at least some of these marks are all about. Dubbed Witches’ Marks, they are believed to have been tokens to ward off evil spirits. According to this BBC piece Protection marks are most commonly found in medieval churches and houses, near the entrance points, particularly doorways, windows and fireplaces. They are also often found in caves and shelters, near the entrance.

I said some of those marks – The initials and words, to my mind are equally important as evidence of our enduring need to leave our, er, mark on the world. How many generations of DKs (Several Dinny Keohanes, apparently, lived around the valley) carved their initials and hoped to be remembered? And was someone in the West Cave, in the time honoured-tradition of the love-struck everywhere, trying to make a declaration while sheltering with his sheep against a spring gale?

In the inevitable way of such special places in Ireland, the Bealick eventually became known as a Mass Rock (see this post for an explanation and examples) and it is described thus in the National Monuments records (Monument number CO091-003). Indeed, it would have made an excellent location for a mass rock, remote and hidden in its lonely valley.

From this angle you can see the three caves. There are no markings in the closest one

Seeing it again after all these years, I was struck by wonder at how my 22 year-old self managed to find it (I suspect I would have applied to the nearest dwelling and been directed there after multiple cups of tea and slices of brown bread) and to draw it. It must have taken hours then, but the 20 minutes I spent stooped inside yesterday trying to get photographs just about crippled me. But mostly what I felt was gratitude – first for the privilege I had been granted all those years ago of doing something so exciting and important for my thesis, and second for the untouched and pristine nature of the Bealick and its setting.

(Thanks, Keith, for the inspiration for this shot)

Scratched Stone – Scratched Heads

stone scratches

Aultagh Ogham Stone

One thing always leads to another – that’s something you can be sure of when we are on our archaeological adventures. A case in point was a recent expedition to have a look at Ballynacarriga Castle (not far from Dunmanway, County Cork: 16th century – notable for having a Sheela-na-gig carving built high up into the outer masonry wall, and some unusual carved inscriptions on the internal stonework).

Ballynacarriga Castle (left) with its Sheela-na-gig (right)

Perhaps these various stone scribings turned our minds to the subject of Rock Art (easily done). Our excellent guide on that morning, Margaret Murphy of the Skibbereen Heritage Centre, offered to show us an Ogham stone not too far away, in the townland of Aultagh. How could we refuse?

finding the stone

Assistance required in finding the stone!

Our goal was beside an ancient track in Aultagh Wood (Coil an Ailtaigh), approached from a private driveway. Margaret knew the owner who readily gave us permission to have a look. In fact, he provided sterling service after we had searched in vain for the elusive rock – opportunely arriving with a pole to clear the thick undergrowth, and soon revealing this modest boulder to our eager gaze.

stone discovered

Stone uncovered…

The stone lies close to a drainage ditch and has possibly arrived there from another location at some time in its history. In one area the surface of the rock has been damaged, affecting part of the scribings: it may be that it was once standing – now it is prone with carved marks clearly visible on the upper surface.

stone in context

The Aultagh Ogham Stone in context

The last time I wrote a post about ogham (here it is) I gave a very general overview of the subject. Ogham stones are concisely described by the Irish National Monuments Service as:

…upright monoliths or recumbent slabs, onto which ogham script has been incised. Ogham script consists of groups of 1-5 parallel lines and notches cut along the side or across the edge of a stone to represent the sounds of the Irish language. It is usually read up the left angle. The inscription gives a person’s name (usually male) and immediate antecedent/s or tribal ancestor. The stones may have functioned as memorials, grave markers or territorial markers and date from the late 4th to the early 8th century AD.
Fine examples of ogham stones in Ireland

Here’s the entry in the National Monuments Service records for our Aultagh stone:

Description: On a W-facing slope, in Aultagh Wood. Fallen stone (L 1.1m; 0.7m x 0.3m) with inscription on flat face. According to Macalister (1945, 75) ‘fashioned by an illiterate artificer, copying by rote from a wooden model cut for his guidance’ and reading UBEDABO ALTASI.

MacalisterThat’s quite a bald statement from Robert Alexander Stewart Macalister who was Professor of Celtic archaeology at University College Dublin from 1909 to 1943, during which time he compiled and edited the catalogue of all known ogham inscriptions from Britain and Ireland. Macalister’s theories on ogham are generally out of favour today (some commentators have claimed that his interpretations are gibberish) but he seems to accept the Aultagh stone as being within the early medieval ogham tradition. Yet it seems to me very different from many of the other stones we have seen: it is very sharply incised, obviously with a fine-tipped metal tool, whereas a majority of the traditional or ‘classic’ ogham stones are larger and more robustly carved.

Possible ogham stone at Maulinward, West Cork (left) and others from the Stone Corridor at UCC

When you begin to delve into modern literature on ogham you realise how very many varieties of examples there are, and also how many differing interpretations there are of how to ‘read’ the script. This was monumental writing, labour intensive and time consuming to undertake. For this reason it is generally supposed that ogham was ostensibly reserved for marking important graves or places, and that the inscriptions are all names.

Aultagh Inscribed completeAultagh Ogham Stone – ‘classic’, ‘scholastic’ – or ‘fake’?

There are suggestions that ogham inscriptions for more general – and less monumental – usage were once carved on wood, and might have been language primers for the bardic poets. Later inscriptions are sometimes termed ‘scholastic ogham’ deriving from the fact that the inscriptions are believed to have been inspired by manuscript sources, instead of being continuations of the original ‘monument’ tradition. Hallmarks of scholastic ogham are the median line and scribings being on the flat face of a stone (as at Aultagh) rather than on the edge. Ogham was occasionally used for notes in manuscripts down to the 16th century, and the burgeoning interest in all things antiquarian from the 18th century onwards led to  a popular ogham revival. A typical example, from the graveyard in Ahenny, Co Tipperary, has an English inscription dated 1802 and this in ogham: FA AN LIG SO NA LU ATA MARI NI DHIMUSA O MBALLI NA GCRANIBH, interpreted as ‘Under this stone lies Mary Dempsy from Ballycranna’. Macalister takes the view that this inscription, and others like it, were written “with much more zeal than discretion”, while some scholars have suggested that this more modern usage of the scribing should be termed ‘fake ogham’.

Aultagh Incised Stone

My own drawing of the Aultagh inscribed stone – traced from detailed photographs

You may like to have a go at translating the inscription at Aultagh for yourself. Firstly you will need to select your decipherer: a quick internet search will show that there are many, and also a whole lot of inconsistencies. But perhaps this is all part of the head-scratching: and also part of the whole fascination of a historical subject where many of the elements can only be guessed at…