Presenting Rock Art

A joint post by Finola and Robert

keith's dnc

On  Friday, the Blue House Gallery in Schull launched The Rock Art Show. It included everything that was in the exhibition at the Cork Public Museum, but with more of Ken William’s extraordinary photographs, and with the addition of some exquisite drypoint engravings from Brian Lalor.

The opening night was lovely. It was great to celebrate with friends and the community and to see their reactions to the show.*

Once the show was completely installed we were struck immediately by the way art and archaeology intersected on the walls. It’s designed partly as a museum exhibit, in which you walk around the panels, reading the information and digesting the accompanying illustrations. However, in this iteration, it is much more than that, and has truly turned into a show not just about the rock art per se, but about the power of these ancient and mysterious carvings to inspire an artistic response in others.

Some examples of what we mean…

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derreennaclogh rhKeith Payne’s wildly colourful painting contrasts with Robert’s sober CAD drawing

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gortnagulla-lalorThe first drawing of the Gortnagulla stone was done 40 years ago by Finola, using a tracing technique no longer approved. Brian Lalor’s engraving is of the same piece
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ballynahowbeg ff
Can you recognise the same stone in Ken William’s photograph and Finola’s drawing?

But in the end, images on a wall will only go so far in helping us to appreciate rock art. Ultimately, you have to get out into the countryside and see the rocks in their landscape.

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One of Ken’s superb photographs showing how this particular stone sits in its landscape  

Only then will you realise how hard they can be to see if the lighting is not good, to how difficult it can be to distinguish between natural and human markings on a rock surface, or how they all seem to be located in beautiful places with panoramic views. Or – to have an experience like this one, in which we made a breathtaking and unexpected discovery about one of our favourite rock art panels, and quite by accident recorded it all on video.

Derreennaclogh equinox circles

So  if you’re in West Cork before the end of September, drop by the gallery. We’d love to see you.

*With grateful acknowledgement of additional photographs of the opening night by Peter Clarke, Amanda Clarke and Miranda Payne.

Launched!

A joint post by Finola and Robert

Mingling

Hallowe’en (All Hallows – Samhain) was the perfect day to launch our Prehistoric Rock Art Exhibition at the Cork Public Museum. As Finola said in her remarks at the opening, it’s a time when the veil between two worlds is at its thinnest: in this case, it’s the veil between an ancient time and the present day. We hope the exhibition emphasises the work of our distant ancestors who have inscribed the landscape and given us the enigma that is Rock Art.

Blank Canvass

Almost there
Before the Exhibition – Robert contemplates the blank canvas (top) and installation work in progress (below)

As our regular readers will know, the exhibition has been a very successful collaborative effort: Finola and Robert (providing drawings, explanations and the overall design); Keith Payne, a West Cork painter whose work is inspired by ancient art; Ken Williams, the excellent photographer of megaliths and monuments; the staff of Cork Public Museum, including intern Clare Busher O’Sullivan who came up with the idea and Dan Breen, Assistant Curator and his team, who made sure it all happened.

The Team

The Core Team: Clare Busher O’Sullivan, Ken Williams, Keith Payne, Finola Finlay, Robert Harris and Dan Breen

After some intensive days, on site and off, it has all come together and was launched yesterday. It was a grand launch: Firstly, William O’Brien – Professor of Archaeology at UCC – outlined a history of rock art studies and research which started back in the nineteenth century. He mentioned a predecessor in the department – Professor Michael J O’Kelly – who was born exactly 100 years ago and is best known for his excavations and restoration work at Newgrange, the Boyne Valley passage tomb: Finola worked on those excavations and it was Professor O’Kelly who suggested that she should carry out the research on rock art in Cork and Kerry which led to her Master’s thesis on the subject in 1973 – and, 42 years later, to the undertaking of this exhibition.

Professor Michael J O’Kelly (left) was renowned for his work at Newgrange (right)

Next up was Finola, who told us more about her expeditions back in the early 1970s. In those days when the boreens of rural Ireland were mostly populated by donkey carts her own travel was by means of her brother’s Honda 50 motorcycle, and we pictured her loaded down with compass, tapes, chains, chalk and tracing paper – a recording methodology now completely out of favour. But the result was a set of beautiful monochrome illustrations that form the core of the exhibition.

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Rock Art: a detail of the picking technique (top left), and Finola’s drawings from 1973

In our modern days non-invasive recording methods have to be used: Ken Williams has developed a very effective method of photography using slave flash units to provide low angle lighting over the carved rocks, which brings the maximum level of detail out of the panels. The exhibition contains many fine examples of Ken’s work in this field.

Ken Williams in action: at the Bohonagh stone circle (left) and in the Derrynablaha townland, Kerry (right)

Finola also talked about Keith Payne’s work. He produces large and visually striking paintings based on particular rock art motifs. Two of these artworks are in the exhibition and will inevitably draw the eye, providing a good and colourful counterpart to Finola’s drawings.

Keith Payne at the hanging (left) and at the launch, in front of the remarkable Derreennaclogh stone (right)

The official launch was in the capable hands of Ann Lynch, now Chief Archaeologist at the Irish National Monuments Office. Ann and Finola were fellow students at UCC. Ann outlined the work of her department in recording Ireland’s monuments – and the difficulties involved in pursuing the preservation and protection of these monuments, including Rock Art – before formally declaring the exhibition open.

Ann declares it open

Ann Lynch, Chief Archaeologist at the National Monuments Office, declares the Exhibition open

Noteworthy exhibits include one piece of Rock Art – the Bluid Stone from County Cork – which is in the safe keeping of the Museum, and will remain on permanent display after the exhibition closes at the end of February next year. The Museum also houses an example of passage grave art from Cape Clear island (prominent in our own view from Nead an Iolair).

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Fine Detail: the Bluid Stone under close inspection

Other exhibits include Ken’s superb photo of the iconic stone at Derrynablaha, Co Kerry, in its panoramic setting of a Neolithic landscape. This occupies the whole of the end wall – and is simply beautiful.

Gazing

Visitors are surprised to see much of the floorspace taken up with a 70% life-sized image of the stone at Derreennaclogh: some hesitate to walk over it, but the printing is on hard-wearing vinyl, so feel free. The idea is to give you the feel of what it’s like to discover and explore the Rock Art out in the field. We have to mention how impressed we have been with the printing work carried out by Hacketts of Cork in the preparation of the exhibition – in particular, we were fascinated to watch the professionalism of their installation of the large items.

Yes – that floor can be walked on!

The timescale is set admirably by Alex Lee’s ‘Neolithic Settlement’ on the approach to the exhibition room. It’s well worth studying closely all the artefacts set out in this, and imagining what life must have been like for our artist ancestors in Ireland four or five thousand years ago.

Alex

Alex Lee at work on the Neolithic Settlement

We were delighted by how many of our friends from West Cork and beyond attended the opening, and gave us positive feedback. If you go during the next four months, please sign the visitors’ book. We are so grateful to our friends Amanda and Peter Clarke for being so supportive throughout – and for taking most of these photographs of the event: very many thanks.

Earnest discussions (left) and one of Ken’s superb photographs (right)

Our own day was rounded off by a visit to the Shandon Dragon festival, which processed through the centre of Cork in the evening – another unmissable event which reminds us of ancient times and long-held beliefs…

Shandon Dragon

Hallowe’en: The Shandon Dragon Procession makes its way through Cork City

The Stones Speak

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This drawing is a true scale representation of Rock Art on the horizontal surface of a large, earth-bound slab of sandstone in the townland of Derreennaclogh, Co Cork, Ireland. Archaeologists believe that carvings on this stone – and on very many others in Ireland and across the Atlantic coastline of Europe – were made by early farmers during the Neolithic or Early Bronze Age period, anywhere from 5,000 to 3,000 years ago. The carvings shown here were only discovered in the recent past: they had lain under a covering of peaty soil for hundreds or, perhaps, thousands of years and had therefore not suffered the natural weathering that many other examples of Rock Art exhibit. In one section – shown as ‘weathered rock’ on the drawing, the surface had previously been partly visible, and the curved lines which could be seen on this area led the finder of this piece to carefully pull back the overgrowth to reveal a remarkable Rock Art panel – perhaps one of the most complex and best preserved in Ireland.

The rock at Derreennaclogh: Mount Gabriel is prominent on the western horizon

The rock at Derreennaclogh: Mount Gabriel is prominent on the western horizon

I have been working on this scaled drawing for nearly a year. This long period is partly because my life has been filled with other things (such as moving permanently to West Cork and buying a house which has needed some upgrading), but also because I have been devising a method to measure and record in fine detail the carvings on the stone without any adverse intervention to the rock surface. When my partner Finola was writing her thesis for UCC in 1973 – The Rock Art of Cork and Kerry – it was normal practice to chalk in the carvings and trace over them using a wrapping film, these tracings then being transferred to high quality mylar and photographed for reproduction. Now the codes for archaeological work have changed and it is no longer acceptable to use chalk or any ‘rubbing’ technique: the thinking is that this could damage the surface. There is a whole debate here on how to best preserve our prehistoric heritage – and no doubt there are those who would say that the Derreennaclogh stone – with its carvings in such a remarkable state of preservation – should never have been uncovered at all, or should perhaps be covered over again in a way that will ensure the retention of its markings in a pristine state, while hopefully allowing occasional access for viewing. These matters are being considered in other areas where Rock Art occurs, particularly in Portugal – where some examples are much visited and provided with interpretation centres – and Scandinavia, where many petroglyphs are protected by toughened glass.

derr panel

Motifs picked on the rock surface

I call my recording method, illustrated here, ‘visual rubbing’. It is not entirely without intervention, as I had to walk across the carved face of the rock, and place a camera tripod on the surface. I suppose this is a lesser evil when compared to some examples on open farmland where cattle walk freely across Rock Art panels or where – in places – rocks are being broken up to create new pastures: we have seen alarming signs of large excavator tracks passing right beside some good recorded pieces here in West Cork. Where the carved stones are listed in the Archaeological Record the landowner is always made aware that the monument is sacrosanct, but this does not guarantee practical conservation. Also, it may be argued that the topographical context of Rock Art is important (another debate) and that there should be restrictions in destructive activities to landscape in the vicinity of prime examples. Fortunately, the Derreennaclogh panels (there are two) are in bogland which is not currently grazed or used agriculturally.

The rock measures about 3m by 4.5m at its extremities, and it was fairly easy to establish a 50cm grid using tapes. Fortuitously, one relatively straight side of the rock lies on a north – south line (magnetic north), and it was convenient to set my grid to compass orientation. The stone fills 55 of these grid squares and – using a Leica camera with a Vario-Summicron 2.8 lens – I took 55 high resolution photographs, each one centred on a grid square, and with the camera held a constant 1.5m above the flat rock surface. Back at the work station I stitched together all these photos using Photoshop, and this has given me a very accurate scaled base which is the bottom layer of the drawing I have subsequently created. My training as an architect has included using CAD techniques (Computer Aided Design), and I can trace very accurately the outlines of picked markings which show up on the photograph. The drawing is made as a digital file which can be reproduced physically to any size or scale, depending on the properties of the printer used. A CAD drawing can have any number of layers which can be switched on or off (or made transparent) to provide a matrix of information. My layers so far in ascending order are:

1   Photograph

2   Text and legends

3   Grid and grid reference numbers

4   Perimeter tracing of the rock

5   Tracings of the natural rock striations resulting from glacial movement (this appears to give the rock a definite directional ‘grain’)

6   Tracings of the natural rock fissures

7   Tracings of the rock carvings

The composite photograph (left) and tracing of natural features on the rock (right)

The composite photograph (left) and tracing of natural features on the rock (right)

I have added layers (5a, 6a and 7a) so that I have the outline tracings of carvings etc, but also ‘fills’ to these outlines. All these layers can be given different colourings. I have the intention also to separate out motifs depending on ‘motif type’: for example, the Archaeological records for West Cork distinguish between ‘Rock Art’ and ‘Cupmarked Stones’. Cupmarks are the simplest form of motif, and the most prolifically spread. The Cupmark is a concave depression, often surrounded by one or more concentric rings, and sometimes with a radial groove from the ring to the outermost circle or beyond. ‘Rock Art’ can include any other motifs – rings, squares, figures of eight, dumb-bells: the rock at Dereennaclogh provides examples of all these and more. A drawing layer devoted just to cupmarks would be useful.

Motifs traced over the photograph

Motifs traced over the photograph

The motifs are ideally traced on a large screen, which enables the picking to be clearly seen: ‘picking’ means the hammer-on-stone technique of carving out the shapes. So far I don’t have a layer which includes information on the depths of the carved motifs. This would in any case be subjective and could only be done by taking a large copy of the drawing to the rock, measuring the depths of each mark and recording this ready for transfer to the file back at the workstation. This is a future job, and will involve a more selective coding to show the extent of picking graphically, It would in any case be academic and not necessarily a true record of what was carved, because of erosion and wear factors. Derreennaclogh is a valuable trial for developing these techniques as the carvings are on the whole in very good condition. It is not so easy on other examples: there is a further debate waiting on how it might be possible to retrieve information from a more heavily worn rock surface. Laser scanning surveys are showing up some interesting possibilities but better still would be an ability to analyse the body of the rock in a way that would show up the ‘attack marks’ from the original picking which would have altered the molecular structure of the surface. Laser scanning and this ‘attack’ recording technique (if it were possible) could both require the hauling of relatively expensive and relatively unwieldly equipment out into the field. My ‘visual rubbing’ technique is tabled as a method to be applied anywhere that is humanly accessible, and is within the capability of a retired CAD-adept draughtsperson with time on his or her hands.

There are drawbacks to the ‘visual rubbing’. One is the subjectivity of it. No rock surface is completely flat or smooth. There are striations, faults, pits and holes. Some of these resemble the carved motifs (particularly when the rock has been severely weathered), so I have to make decisions at all times as to what is natural and what isn’t, and also on where the actual edge of the carving is. Often it seems possible that the natural features of a rock influenced or informed any ‘design’ intentions. I’m sure many of my decisions are arguable. I can only say that my guesses are ‘educated’ by experience.

Cupmark with eight rings at Derrennaclogh

Cupmark with eight rings at Derreennaclogh

But this dilemma has led me to consider a further layer: intentions. I know this requires a leap of imagination and will seem bizarre – if not anathema – to trained academics, but when I am finely tracing some of the images I find myself asking what the carver originally set out to do in each individual case. So many of the marks are nearly geometric – concentric circles and parallel lines for example – but just don’t make it. Obviously there are limitations in the carving technique and you can’t rub out mistakes. Also it is interesting that some of the motifs seem to relate to natural striations and fissures – which is why I have shown the most prominent of these on separate layers. So here I am daring to have a ‘top’ layer which shows my interpretation of what the Rock Artist might have set out to do if he or she didn’t have the limitations of crud(ish) tools and materials. Please ignore this layer if you are not whimsically inclined – or a romantic. I am incurably romantic, and always still waiting for that moment when I am pensively standing on the rock and will be startled by the appearance beside me of a stray artist carver from 5,000 years ago. Miraculously we will be able to communicate – and, after that encounter, I will be able to provide the answer to the question that is always asked by voyeurs of prehistoric Rock Art: what does it all mean?

Whimsy - a conjectural geometric redrawing of the motifs at Derreennaclogh

Whimsy – a conjectural geometric redrawing of the motifs at Derreennaclogh