A Walk on Sherkin Island

You can’t live in West Cork without constantly being aware of the sea – it’s all around us. And the offshore islands are always in our view as we look across Roaringwater Bay. It’s easy to get to the inhabited ones: there are good ferry services that run year round, although they can be hampered by winter storms. In this picture – above – the Cape Clear Ferry is leaving Baltimore, while the Sherkin Ferry is arriving to collect passengers for that island, including us: on a whim we went across on a wonderful warm September afternoon.

It’s a short sea voyage to Sherkin – all of 15 minutes! But it’s always exciting to be on the water. That’s the lighthouse on Sherkin in the picture above: it was built in 1885 of cast-iron construction and is now fully automated, as are all of Ireland’s lighthouses today.

We did have an aim – to find a piece of Rock Art that may be the earliest physical evidence of human occupation on the island. It’s a cupmarked stone in the townland of Kilmoon, overlooking Kinish Harbour. It was a fair walk to the west, over deserted roads and through fields. After a bit of backtracking we managed to find the stone, well weathered but with its markings still visible. It is situated with panoramic views all the way round, taking in the peaks of Mount Gabriel, Mount Corrin and Mount Kidd on the mainland: surely it must have been placed with those views in mind?

This picture shows the cupmarked stone in its present setting, just inside a private garden (if you go, please make sure you seek permission from the owners of the house!), while the one above shows the panoramic distant view which the stone commands.

Here is the surface of the stone which is heavily blotched with lichen, but it is possible to make out the well defined cupmarks: there are 14 in all. If you want to find out more about cupmarked stones and how they compare with Rock Art in general, we wrote this post a while ago. It sparked off a whole lot of debate (have a look at the comments at the end of that post) – and there is still much to be discovered in a history that may go back 5,000 years.

Our main mission was accomplished, but we couldn’t resist taking in some other historical sites while on the island. Firstly, we had a good look at the Franciscan friary – situated in the townland of Farranacoush – which has a colourful history. Here is a description from the current Irish Franciscans site:

. . . Permission for this foundation was given by Rome to Finighin O’Driscoll in 1449, but it was not until just after 1462 that the Observant friars actually arrived. The friary became the traditional burial place of the O’Driscoll’s. In 1537 the citizens of Waterford burned the building in retaliation for acts of piracy by the O’Driscolls. The great bell of the friary was on display in Waterford as late as 1615. There is no evidence to suggest that the friars were disturbed by the events of the Reformation until the island was garrisoned by the English following the Battle of Kinsale. The friars soon returned and, except at the height of the Cromwellian persecu­tion, were active all during the seventeenth and well into the eighteenth centuries. The last friar, Fr Patrick Hayes, died soon after 1766 . . .

In the picture above – taken from the OPW information board – you can see the attacks of 1537 by ‘the citizens of Waterford’ on both the Friary (in the foreground) and the O’Driscoll stronghold of Dún na Long (beyond). The castle was subsequently partially rebuilt and was garrisoned by a Spanish force in 1601. It was then acquired and restored by the Becher family in 1655 and remained in their ownership until the late nineteenth century. We went to see what remains of the castle today.

Our visit to Sherkin only took an afternoon – albeit a golden one. There’s plenty more to see there – and other islands to be investigated. And an endless exploration of history to be had in the landscapes of West Cork.

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.

Knockdrum Stone Fort

There is no firm line that denotes where our most south-westerly Irish peninsula begins. Our series, Mizen Magic, has reported on walks, roads, views, history and archaeology which can definitely be defined as belonging to the Mizen (which we tend to think of as being to the west of, and including, its ‘gateway’ – Ballydehob). Perhaps we should start a series titled Magic Beyond The Mizen – in which case this would be the first: a report on a very prominent site about half an hour’s drive along the coast east of where we live: a historic structure – built within the last 2,000 years – but which contains evidence of much older human activity.

Here is an overhead view – the best way to see and understand the layout and construction of Knockdrum Stone Fort, which occupies a superb hilltop location in the townland of Farrandau between Skibbereen and Castletownshend. Thank you, Dennis Horgan – our professional West Cork aerial photographer – for allowing us to use this image: have a look at his website for other examples of his work, and for details of his excellent photographs and books.

The Fort is located on a high ridge (although not on the summit of the ridge) with far-reaching views both inland and to the south, over the sea. The header picture looks from the Fort out to the west over Castlehaven to Galley Head in the far distance; the view in the picture above is due south – looking towards Horse Island, and the stone wall of the Fort is in the foreground. From these breathtaking vistas it’s reasonable to conjecture that Knockdrum Fort has a strategic siting, providing views of anyone approaching from the sea, and able to signal their arrival to dwellers in the ‘interior’ – the lands to the north. We cannot know for sure that stone fort structures had this – or any other – specific purpose: many theories have been advanced. Comparison with other examples is worthwhile. One of the largest stone forts in Ireland is Staigue Fort, near Sneem in County Kerry.

Staigue Fort (above) has a diameter of 27.5 metres, the present wall height is 5.5 metres, and the wall thickness is 4 metres. At Knockdrum the diameter is 22.5 metres, the present wall height is 2 metres and the wall thickness around 3 metres. The Duchas information board at Staigue says:

. . . This is one of the largest and finest stone forts in Ireland and was probably built in the early centuries AD before Christianity came to Ireland. It must have been the home of a very wealthy landowner or chieftain who had a great need for security . . . The fort was the home of the chieftain’s family, guards and servants, and would have been full of houses, out-buildings, and possibly tents or other temporary structures. No buildings survive today . . .

The picture above shows the present interior of Knockdrum Fort: the stone walls are likely to delineate a former building here. In the corner of the inner stone enclosure is the entrance to a ‘souterrain’ – a series of underground passageways. The souterrain is outlined on the following drawing of the Stone Fort which was made in 1930 after a detailed investigation of it by Vice Admiral Henry Boyle Somerville, the younger brother of writer and artist Edith Somerville of Castletownshend. Boyle, his life and his tragic death, is the subject of Finola’s complementary post today.

Finola is also discussing Boyle Somerville’s interest in the alignments of archaeological structures. In Boyle’s paper for The Journal of The Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 1931 (title page below), he presents the evidence that this Fort is on a solar alignment.

Boyle sets out the case for an alignment based on the Knockdrum Fort:

. . . This conception of the earlier use of the site of the cathair [the stone fort] for purposes which may perhaps be termed “religious,” seems to be borne out by the following fact. At a horizontal distance of about 600 yards to the E.S.E of the cathair, and at 210′ difference of level below it, there is a small rocky ridge standing up from the surrounding grass land. The name of the ridge is “Peakeen Cnoc Dromin,” The little peak of the white-backed hill . . .

The following paragraphs and photos are from the Journal paper:

Finola and I are familiar with the Peakeen Cnoc Dromin from our researches into Rock Art: the uppermost stone (which does appear similar to the capstone of a fallen dolmen) is heavily cupmarked. The photos of the Peakeen (above) were taken before we had any idea that they might form an alignment connected with Knockdrum Stone Fort. We will have to revisit again at Bealltaine. Boyle confirmed his alignment theory by personal observation:

He went on to suggest:

. . . It is one of the clearest instances of intentional orientation between two ancient, and artificially formed monuments that can be imagined . . .

Of course, it can’t be the case that a cupmarked stone dating from anywhere between 3,000 to 5,000 years ago was in any way connected with a stone fort that dates from the early part of the first millennium AD. However, I have as yet omitted an important piece of information: at Knockdrum Fort, high up on the hill, are two further ancient cupmarked stones – and significant ones: the larger also exhibits Rock Art. Somerville illustrated them in 1930, and Finola recorded them in detail in 1973.

Images above are of the stones recorded at Knockdrum: topmost is Boyle’s drawing from 1930. Below Finola’s drawings are photographs of the large stone lying by the Fort entrance today: it is known that this has been moved, possibly during Somerville’s time. The old photograph immediately above is from the Coghill Family Archive and shows Arthur Townshend beside the stone, which is standing. Arthur was born in 1863: this photograph may record the occasion of the expedition by the young Somervilles and ‘their cousin’ (quite possibly Arthur) to Knockdrum described below, which took place in 1875. It is the presence of Rock Art and cupmarks at the Fort itself which tells us that the site must have had significance in far earlier times (perhaps that’s why the fort was sited in that location – rather than on the summit of the ridge), and Boyle’s reported alignment would have been with the carved rocks (or the important location that they marked) rather than with the comparatively modern stone fort.

The souterrain in the enclosure of Knockdrum Fort (entrance in top photograph – ‘chimney’ in lower photograph) was explored in 1875, as Boyle recounts:

The ‘band of three youthful archaeologists’ are likely to have been Somervilles: Edith (the eldest, then 17), Boyle (then 12 – it was he who was lowered down into the discovered ‘cave’ by his ankles!) and, probably, a cousin. Great adventures, which would undoubtedly raise eyebrows today.

Within the fort enclosure is this cross-marked stone. It was apparently leaning against the wall in Boyle’s days, but has now been embedded close to the entrance. We visit this site often: this time we noted some significant disruption to the upper level of the dry stone walling, possibly caused by the fierce storm winds earlier this year. Compare the detail below with Dennis Horgan’s aerial view above, taken a few years ago.

Some damage has also been suffered to retaining walls on the green boreen leading to the Fort from the main Skibereen – Castletownshend road (a walking route only), and on the stone walls beside the 99 steps which take you from the green path to the top of the hill. These are passable with care, but it is hoped that this monument – which is in State ownership – will be deservedly returned to good order before too long: it is one of the historic wonders of West Cork.


The cairn

What’s an archaeological anomaly? When the National Monuments Survey was being undertaken, some stone structures didn’t quite fit the description of a particular class of monument. They may have been ancient – but how ancient, and what exactly were they? The term chosen for such mysterious piles  was ‘anomalous stone group’. Here’s the definition: A group of stones, usually standing, which cannot be classified as any other known archaeological monument type on present evidence. They may be all that remains or is visible of a partially destroyed or obscured archaeological monument which may date to any period from prehistory onwards.

cupmarked rocks?

Just a leaning rock?

But it’s not the only term used for uncertain monuments: enclosure is a vague term that can mean a multitude of things, and an ‘unclassified cairn‘ can be defined simply as a heap or pile of stones. In the last few months our explorations of the Sheep’s Head have turned up several anomalies. The only thing they all have in common is their spectacular siting, leading to an ultra-rewarding field trip.

Heading towards the cairn

Hiking to the cairn

Perhaps the most magnificently situated of all is the unclassified cairn on the mountain ridge above Kilcrohane. It’s right on the way-marked Sheep’s Head Way, so it’s easy to find. While it’s described as a cairn in the National Monuments inventory, it could be as humble an object as a turf storage platform or as wonderful as a passage grave. We’ve been to it several times and always puzzled over it, but on our last visit we were alerted to a new element by Amanda and Peter.

Amanda investigates

The ‘new element’ – you have to really look!

A couple of stones had shifted, possibly in storms, and we could now delve deeper into the pile of rocks and see that one of them had a large circular opening in it. Very strange – I had never seen anything like it – and very intriguing.

Curious ‘holed stone’ at the bottom of the cairn

We noted that the highest point on Cape Clear was visible across the water, the hill on which a ‘real’ passage grave sits. Only excavation is likely to reveal the exact nature of this anomaly.

What's the orientation?

This one is called an ‘anomalous stone group’

Not too far away, in the same townland but on lower ground, is an anomalous stone group. This is a strange one indeed because half of it looks for all the world like a stone circle – identical to the numerous recumbent or axial circles that dot West Cork. The other half? It’s the rock face that the stones obviously came from.

Is it a stone circe?

Could swear that’s a classic recumbent, but where’s the other half of the circle?

It’s like a work in progress. If it is a stone circle, the builders decided that half a one would do the job just fine. Indeed the owner of the land has noted several significant  sunset alignments.

possible alignments

There seem to be several alignments – this one to the Beara Peninsula

But when I asked for comments on an archaeological social network site the general consensus seemed to be that it was unlikely to be a stone circle, since the stone face obscured half the horizon. But that same stone face would have provided shelter, so the speculation in the discussion centred on this being a hut site, with only some of the stones of the outside wall remaining.

radial cairn?

This area of rough ground to the right of Robert, Peter and Amanda is labelled an ‘Enclosure’

The third site we’ve explored is described as an enclosure. The description of the site states: A circular area (diam. 10.5m) is defined by the remains of a stone wall (T 1.3m; H 0.5m) displaying traces of an inner and outer row of large stones with a fill of smaller stones. A stone slab (H 1.15m; L 0.5m; T 0.4m) narrowing as it rises stands on the external perimeter at E. There is also a standing stone a few meters to the south.

inner row?

Difficult to make out what’s here, but it seems like there’s a lot going on

This could be a radial cairn – take a look at the one at Kealkill to see what we mean. But equally, the description hints, it may have to do with field clearance. It’s almost impossible to tell a lot from the general jumble of stones and the furze and brambles that grow all over the site. Once again, however, we were rewarded with panoramic views to the Beara Peninsula. Another one where only an excavation will reveal the truth.

View east from the enclosure

And these views of the farms to the east, lit by a shaft of slanting sun

Finally, we trekked out on the Lighthouse Loop Walk at the very end of the peninsula in search of possible cupmarks, discovered by Peter and Amanda’s son.

Lighthouse trail, looking back

On the lighthouse loop trail, looking back

The cupmarks turned out, we’re pretty sure, to be natural solution pits. There were lots of them, of varying sizes, and some could only be viewed by lying on your back.

The pitted boulders

The ‘cupmarks’ are on the underside of the leaning rock

Instructive, though, as we have certainly seen cupmarked stones that don’t look a whole lot different than these ones – there’s a type of shaley sandstone in West Cork that laminates in a very similar manner when carved.

Solution pits

pits all aroundSolution pits – and modern graffiti 

In West Cork, monuments that don’t fit into satisfying categories abound – and it’s just as much fun exploring them as it is the ‘normal’ type!

tough to take

This kind of field trip is tough to take!

The Complex Cupmark

Rathruane More: the view from the rock art site includes a knoll with a row of cupmarks on its upper surface, and Mount Gabriel on the horizon

Rathruane More: the view from the rock art site includes a knoll with a row of cupmarks on its upper surface, and Mount Gabriel on the horizon

QUESTION: Is there a real difference between rock art and cupmarked stones?

A joint post by Finola and Robert
Distribution of 'rock art' (left) and 'cupmarked stones' (right) in Ireland

Distribution of ‘rock art’ (left) and ‘cupmarked stones’ (right) in Ireland, according to the National Monuments classification scheme

In recording the rock art of County Cork so far we have concentrated mainly on those examples described in the National Monuments Records as rock art. In the course of planning the Cork survey, years ago, a decision was made to distinguish between rock art and cupmarked stones and so they are listed separately. However, other counties appear to lump them together, or use the generic term rock art to include stones bearing only cupmarks. In addition, some monuments are classified using their most distinctive feature: a wedge tomb or a standing stone, for example, may well bear cupmarks on a surface, but do not therefore show up as examples of either rock art or cupmarked stones on the records.  

Drishane Cupmarked Stone. In other counties, this would be recorded as Rock art

Drishane Cupmarked Stone. In other counties, this would be recorded as Rock art

This is how the National Monuments Website describes cupmarked stones: A stone or rock outcrop, found in isolation, bearing one or more small, roughly hemispherical depressions, generally created by chipping or pecking. There are a total of 99 examples listed in Ireland, of which 64 are in Cork. However, as we have seen above, this is an arbitrary and misleading classification and varies from county to county. The number of cupmarked stones that fit the NM description is likely to be much larger. The question is – should we preserve this distinction between stones labelled rock art and those labelled cupmarked stones? Is it useful or merely confusing?

Rathruane - included in the list of rock art because, besdies cupmarks, it also has cup-and-ring marks, a rosette, and curved lines.

Rathruane – included in the list of rock art because, besides numerous cupmarks, it also has cup-and-ring marks, a rosette, and lines. The first photograph in this post was taken from this surface

The cupmark is the most basic and numerous element or motif of rock art in Ireland and elsewhere. In the examples labelled rock art in County Cork, they occur with other motifs, principally concentric rings, sometimes with radial grooves, and a variety of curved or straight lines. They can be incorporated within a motif (as in cup-and-ring marks, rosettes, or where enclosed by lines) or they may be scattered, seemingly randomly, over the surface of the rock, between and among the other motifs.

The two images above are from the shores of Lough Hyne. Two cupmarked stones lie on the beach, having probably fallen from the stone wall above. The right hand image is Robert’s drawing of the stone with 12 cupmarks

Since we have almost finished our recording of the rock art examples, we have moved on to focusing on those labelled cupmarked stones. As we spend time in the field recently with this class of monument we have begun to appreciate their differences from and similarities with rock art.

This simple cupmarked stone was placed many years ago within Knockdrum Fort, near Castletownshend, in the townland of Farrandau. It was brought to Vice-Admiral Boyle Sommerville by a local farmer

Let’s start with what differentiates them from rock art, apart from the obvious fact that the cupmark is the single motif employed in the carving.

  • Where a stone is smaller and moveable, it is more likely to bear only cupmarks. This also makes them more vulnerable to loss and to incorporation into field walls and other structures. While there are examples elsewhere, here in Cork we have found no examples of cup-and-ring carvings on small, easily moveable, stones.
  • We have found cupmarks on boulder burials here – Bohonagh is a good example, and Derreennatra (currently hidden under a mound of compost) may be another.
  • In general standing stones, where they have carvings, are more likely to have only cupmarks (we have three exceptions to this in West Cork).
  • The Bluid stone has cupmarks on both sides – there are no Cork examples with rock art on both sides.
The Bluid Stone is in Cork Public Museum but comes from near Castletownshend. It is a rare example of a stone with cupmarks on both sides, quite portable. Note the semi-circular patterns of the cupmarks

The Bluid Stone is in Cork Public Museum but comes from near Castletownshend. It is a rare example of a stone with cupmarks on both sides, quite portable. Note the semi-circular patterns of the cupmarks

Now – what’s the same?

  • Location: Most cupmark-only carvings are found in the open countryside, on large earthfast boulders or rock outcrops.
  • Clusters: as with rock art, cupmarked stones are often found within a kilometre or two of other examples or are within sight of each other or within site of rock art (intervisibility).
  • Carving technique: where it can be discerned, it appears to be the same as for rock art – pecking with a harder stone. In the case of some of the shaley sandstone that laminates easily, it is impossible to tell how the cupmarked was formed – it may have been simply bashed out.
  • Siting: where the cupmarks are found in situ, their siting is equally spectacular to rock art. In particular, many of them are found on rising ground with strongly marked horizons that include views, even quite distant views, of Mount Gabriel, Mount Kidd, or other prominent horizon features. The sea, or water in the form of a lake, stream or river, is often a feature of the vista from the rock. We have not worked with enough of them yet to form any opinion on whether they are sited at what may have been routes through a landscape or territorial boundaries.       
  • Patterns: as with more complex rock art, often the cupmarks appear to be scattered randomly over the surface of the rock. However, patterns of straight lines, or of rough circles or semi-circles, can be made out in several of the stones we have recorded to date.
Robert points to two outcrops in Kilcoe. The lower one has one cupmark, the upper one has 13 cupmarks arranged in a rough circular patter. The sea and Mount Gabriel are visible from this location, as well as some rock art

Robert points to two outcrops in Kilcoe. The lower one has one cupmark, the upper one has 13 cupmarks arranged in a rough circular patter. The sea and Mount Gabriel are visible from this location, as well as some rock art

In researching this piece we have been influenced by Christiaan Corlett’s book Inscribed Landscape: The Rock Art of South Leinster. Christiaan is an archaeologist with the Dept of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and specialises in the archaeology of Leinster, and especially Wicklow. His book has been the first to catalogue the extensive body of rock art in the South Leinster area (indeed the first published work on rock art in Ireland) and in his corpus he includes both cup-and-ring art and cupmark-only stones without undue distinction. He notes many of the same things about rock art that we have observed. For example, he was struck, as we were, by the dominance of high mountains (in his case, Mount Leinster, the Blackstairs, or Brandon Hill) in the horizon views from the rocks he studied, and by the intervisibility of stones from each other.

The newly-discovered Kilbronoge cupmarked stone. From it you can see Roaringwater Bay and a wedge tomb to the SE, and Mount Gabriel diametrically opposite in the NW

The newly-discovered Kilbronoge cupmarked stone. From it you can see Roaringwater Bay and a wedge tomb to the SE, and Mount Gabriel diametrically opposite in the NW

Robert's drawing of the Kilbronoge Cupmarked Stone, done on CAD using architectural drawing tehniques

Robert’s drawing of the Kilbronoge Cupmarked Stone, made using architectural survey and CAD techniques

His work is a strong argument for the inclusion of all cupmarked-based prehistoric carving under one rubric – rock art. First of all, he argues that it is all likely to be of a similar early origin. Recent thinking is that rock art may predate megalithic art and belong to the Early Neolithic (at least 5,000 years old). In fact, the cup-and-ring art may already have been dying out during the great flowering of megalithic art that we see at Newgrange, Knowth and Loughcrew. Cupmarks on their own may have persisted longer, as they are found in association with Bronze Age monuments such as wedge tombs and boulder burials. Here’s what he has to say about our search for meaning, vis-a-vis the humble cupmarked stone (p.78):

Arguably, it is only within the context of the overall composition that we may come close to some comprehension of the motifs found in rock art. Even the meaning of a completed composition, however, may only have been understood by the person(s) responsible for it. Perhaps the symbols represent a complex message of family history or a personal spiritual journey associated with an initiation ceremony or rite of passage, or perhaps they simply served to delineate family, tribal or sacred boundaries… [There is] a natural temptation to focus on the more elaborate designs and compositions found in rock art, as if they are more important because they are more accomplished. Yet the frequency of compositions consisting solely of plain and unelaborated cup-marks should not devalue their significance. Clearly their commonness would strongly suggest that these examples were just as important as, or maybe even more important than, the most elaborate examples of rock art found in the region. Given the intrinsic simplicity of a composition consisting entirely of cup-marks, however, it is arguably impossible to decipher or decode the specific meaning of the symbols themselves. That is not to say, of course, that we cannot attempt to understand the broader message of rock art, particularly where a complex of sites can be analysed. In such cases it may be the context of these sites that will provide the key to unlocking the meaning of rock art, in terms of the position and relationships within a given landscape, and the relationship with other examples of rock art on the vicinity.

The Kilcoe Cupmarked stone. The original record described three cupmarks - in fact there are 13, arranged in a rough circle.

The Kilcoe Cupmarked stone. The original record described three cupmarks – in fact there are 13, arranged in a rough circle

Christiaan deals with the similarity of cupmarks to the bowl-shaped depressions known as bullauns, assumed to be Early Medieval. But that’s a topic for another day. Suffice it to say here that one of our favourite stones, Castlemehigan, may have both cupmarks and bullauns on its surface, as well as a cross indicating its later use as a mass rock. In its extraordinary mix of seemingly-randomly-scattered but also possibly-linear-arrangement of cupmarks; large bowl and basin-shaped elements; a spectacular siting that includes views to a distant Mount Gabriel and a closer view of the sea; a nearby cluster of other cupmarked stones; and the folklore that surrounds it – this very special cupmarked stone embodies all that is wonderful about this class of ancient monument.

Castlemehigan cupmarked stone

Castlemehigan cupmarked stone

To come back to the question we posed at the beginning – should we preserve or abandon the notion that we are dealing with two classes of monument – rock art versus cupmarked stones? Our answer is that we’re not sure.  What do YOU think?

The Giant's Grave, Drishane. It bears numerous cupmarks on the upper surface of the 'capstone'

The Giant’s Grave, Drishane. It bears numerous cupmarks on the upper surface of the ‘capstone’

For those interested in more of our posts on rock art, go to Derrynablaha Expedition and scroll to the end for a list.