Ancient Calendars

One of West Cork's ancient calendars

One of West Cork’s ancient calendars

We’ve been catching up on our rock art project this week and it’s brought us out into the field. On Saturday the weather was spectacular – crisp, but with a totally blue sky and vibrant colours. See Amanda’s photo of the day here. We spent most of the day just east of Rosscarbery, a picturesque settlement above the water at Rosscarbery Bay, where the birdlife viewing is always a delight.

One of the sites we visited was Bohonagh. Not only does it boast cupmarked stones, but a very fine boulder burial and a stone circle.

Bohonagh Stone Circle

Bohonagh Stone Circle

West Cork is particularly rich in 3000 year old Bronze Age stone circles and most of them are of the ‘axial’ or ‘recumbent’ type. This means that the circle is laid out on an axis that is oriented in a particular direction. On one side of the circle is a stone laid longways – the recumbent stone. Across from the recumbent are the portals: two tall stones that appear to create a doorway into the circle. Sometimes the stones rise in height from the recumbent to the portals, and the portal stones may be set ‘end-on’ to the circle. There are always, therefore, an uneven number of stones – up to 17 have been recorded, although many circles are incomplete, with fallen or missing stones. The purpose of the axis was to provide a line of sight on a sunrise or sunset (and perhaps even moonrise and moonset) at important calendrical points such as solstices and equinoxes.

The portal stones at Bohonagh

The portal stones at Bohonagh

Bohonagh quartz

Quartz at Bohonagh

A feature of these circles is that many of them include quartz rocks: sometimes as one of the circle stones, sometimes as an additional rock in the interior or exterior of the circle, and sometimes on a nearby monument such as a boulder burial. At Bohonagh there were several quartz rocks, including one lying outside the circle and two supporting the boulder burial. In one case, at Ballycommane, we have seen an enormous quartz rock function as the capstone of a boulder burial – quite awe-inspiring in its visual impact. Interestingly, this same phenomenon occurs in a stone circle in Cornwall – Boscawen-Un in the West Penwith Peninsula, not that far from West Cork! As we watched the quartz under the boulder burial glisten in the sun (impossible to capture on a photograph) we knew it had to be seen as a very special stone to the builders of these circles.

Brooding stones at Dunbeacon

Brooding stones at Dunbeacon

Stone circles often command sweeping views of the surrounding countryside. This makes them well worth visiting, even if a goodly hike is involved. Because they are invariably located on private land, it is good practice to try to track down the landowner and request permission, and of course to always close gates and observe good field etiquette on a visit. Don’t be surprised to find that many are no longer intact: the centuries have taken their toll and many of the stones have fallen or disappeared over time. On the upside, this adds to the romantic wildness of the scene.

Gorteanish Stone Circle, re-discovered in the laying out of  the Sheep's Head Way

Gorteanish Stone Circle, re-discovered in the laying out of the Sheep’s Head Way

One of the most famous of the West Cork stone circles is Drombeg, near Glandore. Here, people gather on the winter and summer solstices to witness sunrise and sunset.

Drombeg on a wet day

Drombeg on a wet day

At Bohonagh, the alignment is to the spring equinox sunrise and sunset, due east and west. We plan to be there!

Here Comes the Sun

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The sun rises across the valley from Ballybane West on Feb 2nd, 2013

Joint Post by Finola and Robert

In Finola’s solstice post, she wrote that archaeologists are aware of the astronomical siting of some Irish megalithic sites, such as at Newgrange, and Loughcrew.

Michael Wilson and his Whole Horizon Analytical Technique (WHAT)

Michael Wilson carries out his Whole Horizon Analytical Technique (WHAT)

We have become intrigued by the work of Michael Wilson, a talented amateur astronomer who is singlehandedly documenting the astronomical siting of many monuments in this area. Recently he has turned his attention to rock art. His website contains an astonishing body of work, meticulously researched and rigorously recorded, along with explanatory notes. His thesis, in a nutshell, is that the builders and carvers of Neolithic and Bronze Age times were keen observers of the day and night skies and were intimately familiar with their surroundings. They situated their megaliths and rock art in places where the contours of the horizon allowed them to mark significant solar and lunar events, such as solstices, equinoxes, lunar settings and risings, and intermediate points. Thus, the sun at the winter solstice might rise at the highest point on a nearby mountain, or set in a deep notch in the hills at the spring equinox. The solar calendar has four quarter days (the solstices and the equinoxes), four cross-quarter days (the half way points between the solstices and the equinoxes) and a further finer division into points half-way between the quarters and cross-quarters: an ancient 16 month calendar.

A few days ago, Michael posted this:

Imbolc, the spring cross-quarter, is almost upon us. It will be on Feb 1st by the Gregorian calendar, where it is commonly known as St Bridget’s Day or Candlemas, but this is not the correct day. By day-count, the times to celebrate will be sunset on the 3rd and sunrise on the 4th. Astronomically, the sun will be exactly half-way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox at about 16:13 GMT on Feb 3rd, while Feb 2nd is the day to see the sun rise and set at the prehistoric positions for marking this festival.

We set out for our favourite rock art site, Ballybane West, before dawn on Feb 2nd, feeling incredibly lucky to have a clear sky. As the sky brightened, and the nearby hills started to receive the sun’s rays, the carvings on the rock surface became clearly visible. Then, the sun rose, exactly where Michael’s predictions said it would, at the highest point of a rounded hill on the horizon. As people had been doing 4000 years ago in this exact spot, we marked the cross-quarter day of Imbolc – a time when the land starts to warm up, the first spring flowers appear, and the ewes are visibly pregnant.

The carvings light up in the dawn rays

The Ballybane West carvings light up in the dawn rays

If Michael is correct, we have to think in a whole new way about the rock art. Although there have been indications before that the location of the carved rocks was of some significance (for example: there is often a view of water; some theorists have posited that they are ancient boundary markers), this way of looking at rock art elevates the actual siting of the rock as most important, and allows us to view the carvings themselves as a way to indicate the purpose of the site – a means to an end rather than an end in itself. The motifs, though, will probably remain as enigmatic as ever.