Revealing Rock Art: 150 Years of Images

This week a powerful image from Ken Williams of Shadows and Stone (copyrighted, used with permission) lit up the Irish Rock Art Facebook Page (180,000 people had seen it at last count, and it’s been shared more than 1500 times). The photograph, taken with Ken’s signature blend of natural and artificial light, was of a stone in Kerry often known as the Staigue Bridge Rock Art, although technically it’s in the townland of Liss.

As it turns out, this is one of the best-documented rock art panels in Ireland, with images dating from the middle of the nineteenth century to the present day.

Taken on a recent visit to Liss/Staigue Bridge Rock Art site. This is probably what a casual visitor will see. Can you make out any carvings?

The response to this photograph highlights several important features of Irish rock art. First of all, it seems people are hungry to know more about these enigmatic carvings, and yet rock art is one of the least known aspects of Irish archaeology. Time after time, as Robert and I present exhibitions or give talks, we meet up with a near-universal response of “How come we’ve never heard about this before?”

Another view of the top section of the panel

Secondly, a photograph like this is not normally what you observe in the field. Commonly, rock art (and this one is no exception) is actually difficult to see under most lighting conditions. This rock is just off a popular hiking trail and the vast majority of walkers are unaware of what is a few meters from their path. Even if the route went right alongside it, most walkers would pass by without noticing anything unusual.

This will give you an idea of the extent of the panel

Thirdly, it is no longer possible to record rock art by any of the traditional methods that were in common use up to the 1990s. Nowadays, recording techniques that do not impact in any way with the rock surface are preferred, and that limits us to what can be imaged through photographic and scanning technology.

Aoibheann Lambe’s virtuoso photograph – this is the panel in the second photograph, taken from almost the same angle but under perfect natural lighting conditions. © Aoibheann Lambe

There are currently three ways in common use to photograph rock art so that the carvings will show up. The first is to use the natural low, slanting, shadow-casting, light at sunrise or sunset. Rock Art Kerry, the work of archaeologist Aoibheann Lambe, has an outstanding photograph of the rock surface using only natural light. Given our climate, it is likely that many visits to the rock in all kinds of temperatures, early in the morning or late in the evening, were necessary before the perfect shot was possible. Aoibheann’s Facebook page is the place to be these days for new finds – she is making discoveries at a breathtaking pace!

Another of Aoibheann’s photographs – this one shows the extent of lichen growth on the rock surface, which often functions to obscure carvings. © Aoibheann Lambe

The second is to use flash photography – a technique that Ken Williams has perfected and uses to great effect to show up even faint carvings. We’ve seen Ken working – this isn’t a mater of a simple flash on a camera – multiple flashes are deployed with a skill that comes from long experience, and respond to an electronic trigger on his camera.  If you haven’t already done so, a visit to his site is an absolute must for anyone interested in rock art – or indeed in Irish archaeology.

Finola and Robert from Roaringwater Journal and Ken Williams of Shadows and Stone at Derrynablaha in Kerry

The third technique is that of photogrammetry. In essence, this is the combination of multiple high resolution photographs to construct a 3D image of a rock surface. The Discovery Programme has been sponsoring 3D imaging of various national monuments, including Ogham Stones and Sheela-Na-Gigs, for some time. Under this program, The Dingle Museum (Músaem Chorca Dhuibhne) has produced a series of 3D images, including an excellent one of the Liss/Staigue Bridge rock art panel.

The top panel rendered in 3D – this is a screen capture. © Corca Dhuibhne 3D 2017

It is particularly exciting because it’s unusually clear (rock art 3D images can suffer from lack of clarity for a variety of reason) and also because this technique allows an image of the whole panel, whereas photography can only capture pieces at a time.

These stills have been captured from the 3D images on the Museum site but they do NOT compare with the experience of viewing and manipulating the 3D images on screen. It’s brilliant work, so please go to their page for the real thing. © Corca Dhuibhne 3D 2017

But back to the past, when it was still possible to produce drawings of the carvings. Back, in fact, to the 1850s! There were two Irish antiquarians called the Rev Graves. The better-known one was the Rev James Graves of Kilkenny, but the one we are concerned with here was the Rev Charles Graves, Bishop of Limerick and a noted mathematician, scholar, antiquarian, and President of the Royal Irish Academy. He was fascinated by Ogham and on a trip to view Ogham stones in Kerry he came across other ‘inscribed rocks’ of a type he was unfamiliar with. He wrote up his findings and presented them to the Academy in 1860.

Taken from the Wikipedia article on Charles Graves. Image above by Anonymous – Church Bells (1874–1875)) W. Wells Gardner, Publisher, London, Public Domain

The good Bishop had none of our modern scruples about interfering with the rock surface, or removing the turf to see what else he could fine. He did both: three feet of turf was stripped back to reveal the extent of the carvings and a rubbing was made from the whole surface, which was later converted to a survey-drawing. This, to this day, is the only drawing we have of the complete carving.

When I wrote my thesis on The Rock Art of Cork and Kerry in 1973 I said this about Charles Graves:

The first paper devoted to rock art in Ireland was by Rev. Charles Graves. In 1860 he read a paper to the Royal Irish Academy entitled “On a previously undescribed Class of Monuments”. His paper, mainly concerned with Co. Kerry, is still very valuable and his drawings and observations are often more accurate and more reliable than many later accounts.

My own drawing was done in 1972. The technique I used then was to chalk in the carvings and trace them onto clear plastic film. That tracing was then re-traced on to good quality paper using indian ink and a stipple technique and then photographically reduced by a professional printing firm. It is naturally an imperfect and subjective method, but long practice enabled me to produce surprisingly accurate renditions which stand up well to modern recording techniques.

I confined my drawing to the main area of carving and used Graves’ drawing as an additional illustration

There are few examples of Irish rock art with the pedigree of Staigue Bridge. It is classic cup-and-ring art in its execution but also contains the unusual elements of very large circles surrounding small cupmarks. It is enormous – a fact that would never have been appreciated if Graves had not determined to find the true extent of the carved surface (although of course we do NOT condone this practice now). It has a literature that goes back a century and a half, and was one of the first pieces of Irish rock art to be described and illustrated. It’s a national treasure.

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…

dnc kp

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

gort

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
ballynahowbeg kw
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.

magheranaul kw

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.

Derrynablaha Expedition

Derrynablaha in all its glory

Derrynablaha in all its glory

It’s an almost entirely unknown national treasure – a valley of breathtaking grandeur dotted with the greatest concentration of prehistoric rock art in Ireland.

In Derreeny, Looking down the Kealduff Valley

In Derreeny, Looking down the Kealduff Valley

Derrynablaha (Little Oak Wood of the Flowers) is in Kerry, right in the heart of the Iveragh Peninsula (better known as the Ring of Kerry), on one of the few narrow roads that traverse the Peninsula. The rock art has been known for many years – the first paper about it appeared in the early 1960s, curiously, by an Italian rock art expert, Emmanuel Anati. The Cork husband/wife team of Michael and Claire O’Kelly traversed the valley, finding many new pieces and leaving extensive notes. Elizabeth Shee, the leading expert on passage grave art, added to the literature in the early 70s. In 1972 and 73 I (Finola Finlay) recorded and drew all the known examples, using the tracing techniques of the day. Blaze O’Connor and Avril Purcell both wrote about Derrynablaha in the early years of the 21st Century, relating the rock art to the landscape it occupied. Many more pieces came to light in the adjoining townland of Derreeny and were recorded by Ann O’Sullivan and John Sheehan in their Survey of the Iveragh Peninsula. Rose-Mary Cussen examined the art about five years ago, looking for patterns in the enigmatic carvings while other scholars have included Derrynablaha as part of a focus on Irish prehistory.  A few photographers have attempted to capture images of the art, but none more so than Ken Williams, of the outstanding Shadows and Stone website.

Robert, Clare, Finola, Elizabeth and Avril, checking the records and GPS readings. (Photo © Ken Williams)

Robert, Clare, Finola, Elizabeth and Avril, checking the records and GPS readings. (Photo © Ken Williams)

This weekend, several of these rock art enthusiasts and experts came together for a unique expedition to Derynablaha and Derreeny. Elizabeth Shee, myself, Avril Purcell, Rose-Mary Cussen, and Ken Williams took part, accompanied by Robert Harris (see his take on this special place) and Clare O’Sullivan, a UCC undergraduate. Our objective was to visit as many of the panels as possible and to assess what has changed in the landscape in the 65 years since it was first described in academic journals. (See the end of this page for links to other Rock Art topics we have  posted over the last couple of years.)

This one wasn't too hard to find

This one wasn’t too hard to spot

Finding the panels was the first challenge! We had all the information from the National Monuments records, including GPS locations for each rock. However, GPS readings can vary, and many of the ones we were using for Derrynablaha were from the early days of GPS and could be 30m out or even more. Apart from the small fields around the original farmhouse, this is a landscape of bog, gorse and tall grasses, of steep hillsides and tumbling streams, of numberless boulders and outcrops. It was, we think, populated by early herding agriculturalists in the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods. Historically, it supported a sizeable population in pre-Famine times (ruined cottages dot the land) and one sheep farm still operates now. Finding the rock art needle in the landscape haystack took time and patience, sharp eyes, and the good memories of those who had been there more recently than I. Where the GPS recording let us down we turned to the meticulous notes made by Claire O’Kelly: notes that said things like “keep the stream to your right and the large triangular rock in view and the rock is a short way below the wire fence.” These notes turned up trumps more than once.

The rock art is NOT on the large panel, but on the tiny stone by Robert's knee.

The rock art is NOT on the large panel, but on the tiny stone by Robert’s knee

In the end we located all but one panel of the ones we were tracking. The Derreeny rocks were easier to find as the GPS readings were more accurate. It was exhausting and exhilarating work and reminded us yet again how difficult this art can be to find and to see. While some panels were clear and sharp, others were weathered and lichened to the point of invisibility. For some, my drawings were needed to appreciate the full extent of the carvings. (I was feeling pretty pleased with myself about these drawings until we discovered one panel on Day 2 for which my drawing was mirror-imaged in my thesis. Fortunately, the Sullivan and Sheehan Survey had noted and corrected this in their work.)

Day 2 Crew: Ken, Rose-Mary, Finola, and Robert taking the photo.

Day 2 Crew: Ken, Rose-Mary, Finola, and Robert taking the photo

On day 2 the team consisted of Ken, Finola, Robert and Rose-Mary and we spent our time on the most southerly examples in Derrynablaha, especially the large tabular rock and its associated rosette stone. One of the most extensively carved pieces of rock art in Ireland, this iconic piece commands a panoramic view of the whole area, extending to Lough Brin to the east, the Ballaghbeama Gap to the north and to Kealduff River valley to the south. Leaning against it is a stone with a superb example of the rare “rosette” motif.

For really excellent images of this stone, view it on Ken’s Shadows and Stone site.

We also lingered over an unusual panel with multiple lines, cupmarks and rosettes: this one was so faint that Ken resorted to having us provide shade using his jacket and our bodies. The results he got, with his flash technology, revealed astonishing detail totally invisible to the naked eye.

How he got that high tech photo © Ken Williams

How he got that high tech photo  

My drawing, done over 40 years ago.

My drawing, done over 40 years ago

Our second objective was to assess the general ‘health’ of the rock art and its context. Mostly, we were encouraged: very little has changed in this valley over the years. It is remote and the land is marginal, suitable mainly as rough mountain pasture for sheep. The landowner knows about the rock art and is careful not to disturb or damage it.

 lDerrynablahaandscape - changed and unchanged. Note forestry activity.

Derrynablaha landscape – changed and unchanged: note forestry activity

However, two factors threaten the rock art even in this far-flung region. The first is forestry: a sizeable plantation occupies an area east of the road and at the south end of the townland. We didn’t have time to visit this area, but noted in the National Monuments records that two previously identified pieces of rock art are now within the forest boundaries and can no longer be found. The second factor is land-clearing for the purposes of improving the grazing fields. Farmers are encouraged to do this and there are grants available through European funds. We failed to find one piece that was located in such a cleared area, despite extensive searching over two days. Hopefully, this is a function of erroneous GPS readings and the rock still exists – but it is worrying.

Elizabeth, Robert, Avril, Clare, Finola and Ken. Day 1 Team by Derreeny rock art.

Elizabeth, Robert, Avril, Clare, Finola and Ken. Day 1 Team at Derreeny rock art  © Ken Williams

Derrynablaha and Derreeny have always been special places. We can only speculate on the meaning or meanings of the extraordinary numbers of carved rocks in this landscape. Were they familiar, even domestic, expressions of belief or supplication? Did they mark routeways through the mountainous territory or boundaries between clan lands? Were they, or some of them, hidden ritual sites known only to certain members of a priestly class? Did the carvings identify suitable spots for calendrical observations? Did they have altogether different functions that we have yet to comprehend? We may never know the full extent of the meaning of the rock art to those who carved them. Yet – we do know their meaning to us. As the largest body of this category of prehistoric site in Ireland, this collection constitutes a vital link to our most distant past.

Leaving Derrynablaha

Leaving Derrynablaha

Other Rock Art Posts in Roaringwater Journal

Rock Art Ramblings… away from home!

Our Rock Art Exhibition!

Rock Art in Danger

Rock Art

Equinox Adventure

Diving for Petroglyphs

The Stones Speak

Here Comes the Sun

Enigma

Tiny and perfect example of Derrynablaha rock art

Tiny and perfect example of Derrynablaha rock art

Our Rock Art Exhibition!

A joint post by Robert and Finola…

Derrynablaha A2.PC9

For all of you who are fortunate enough to live within reach of our beautiful part of West Cork we are pleased to invite you to our exhibition, which is being shown as part of the Ballydehob Art and Culture Weekend, running from 17th to 19th October. The exhibition is being held in the West Cork Gourmet Store (go left at the statue of Danno and it’s just up on the right, behind the Post Office), and it will continue to run there during opening hours for the two weeks after the Art and Culture event.

Finola studied for her Archaeology degree at the University of Cork, and her thesis was written on the Rock Art of Cork and Kerry. For her research – in the early 1970s – she travelled across the two counties on a borrowed Honda 50, visiting every piece of Rock Art known at the time, and recording each piece using a tracing technique which would not be allowed today. The thesis is a unique and valuable archive of the rock carvings, which date back anything from three to five thousand years. We believe that this is the first time a comprehensive exhibition of Irish Rock Art has been shown.

knockdrum detail.PC9

Regular readers of Roaringwater Journal know that we are still working on Rock Art: Robert has recorded some more recently found examples using a ‘non-invasive’ technique, and we are involved with CRAG – the Cork Rock Art Group – under the aegis of the University, where our aim is to produce a website which lists and illustrates all known examples of Rock Art in the west of Ireland. Eventually the work may extend further afield: there are Rock Art sites elsewhere in the Republic. Similar carvings are found on the Atlantic coast, from Scandinavia down to Iberia.

Finola, Gary and companion study the Art

Finola, Gary and companion study the Art

On Saturday 18th October the exhibition will be formally opened at 4pm, and we will be giving a talk on the subject and on our adventures studying it. Some refreshments will be on hand: please come if you can!

Title poster.PC9

Rock Art in Danger

The age-old landscape of Derrynablaha

The age-old landscape of Derrynablaha

Both Robert and I have written about prehistoric rock art several times in this Journal – here and here, here and here. Readers will know that it was the subject of my Master’s thesis in the early 70s, and that it has become a shared passion for us both as well as a retirement project. One aim of this project for me is to assess how rock art has been doing, as a category of ancient monument in Ireland, since I last studied it intensively forty years ago.

Benign neglect - rock art in a cow field

Benign neglect – rock art in a cow field

Within the archaeological community there is discussion about how best to protect rock art sites. The arguments take shape around opposing approaches: the first alternative is to promote and advertise rock art, to make it as well-known as other monuments such as megalithic tombs and medieval friaries; the second is to leave it lie in obscurity. 

Spain has a lot of rock art, and the approach there is to encourage people to come and view it and explore it. There are visitor centres, interpretive signs, rock art trails. While the results have been positive on the whole, raising the profile of this class of site and increasing the understanding and respect of visitors, it has not been without challenges: some damage and vandalism has occurred on carved panels.

Vandalism to rock art in Libya

Vandalism to rock art in Libya

In Ireland we have taken a low profile approach when it comes to promoting rock art. Its very obscurity, the argument goes, is its protection. All known rock art sites are recorded in the database maintained by the National Monuments Service, and anyone planning on building on or developing a piece of property must check plans against this inventory. But apart from that we do not advertise the presence of rock art with signs or centres. A few are marked on the Ordnance Survey maps, but are difficult to find. The folk-beliefs of country people have helped in the past – where any prehistoric site was known it was never interfered with for fear of the bad luck that would follow. 

Under all that lichen lie many cupmarks

Under all that lichen lie many cupmarks

Weathering and lichen growth are not kind to carved surfaces over time and rock art in Ireland has not been protected from such natural occurences. On the  whole, however, the  fact that rock art is little known has indeed functioned to ensure that carved panels remain in place and my own sympathies would have lain therefore with the second argument.  However, times are a-changing in Ireland and I have become alarmed at the prospects for the conservation of this important prehistoric resource. I have come to believe that the more people who know about rock art, who know the locations of the rocks and can keep an eye on them, the better. 

Robert and I have spent a year now, in West Cork, visiting rock art sites and re-recording them. I have begun to understand in that time that there are two main dangers to rock art in the Irish landscape: ignorance and the economy. 

If only we'd known, we would never have built it on top of the rock art!

If only we’d known, we would never have built it on top of the rock art!

First: lack of awareness. By this I mean that in general people simply do not know that there is a class of ancient monument known as rock art. They don’t know what it looks like and don’t recognise it when they walk over it. This is not their fault – rock art can be almost impossible to see on the surface of a weathered rock on a grey day, even when you know it’s there. We have described how in one case a building was erected on top of rock art. In another case we are aware of, a piece of rock art was unrecognised and probably damaged when a homeowner erected an ornamental stone circle beside it. In both cases the homeowners would have protected the rock art had they known it was there, or understood the extent of it.

The shadows are from a newly built stone circle

The shadows are from a newly built stone circle

Second: the economy. Here, two huge threats to rock art exist. The first is in the rapid growth of forestry plantations in Ireland – a practice that is altering the landscape and obscuring what lies underneath in many areas of the country. We have experienced this first hand: rock art in a nearby townland can no longer be located in a young forestry plantation. 

The second is even more serious – the threat lies in the encouragement to farmers to improve and bring into production previously marginal land. All around us in West Cork the sound of the rock breaker is as common as the lowing of cattle. Vast stretches of rocky land, suitable only for a few sheep, are being levelled, drained and seeded. Green fields are appearing where once only scrubby grass and bog could grow.

The excavator is at the top left of the photograph

The excavator is at the top left of the photograph

We saw first hand what this could mean on a recent trip to Kerry. In the mountains above Sneem, on the Iveragh Peninsula, lies the lonely valley of Derrynablaha. It is spectacularly beautiful, but wild and remote. Forty years ago the one house in the valley was occupied by the farmer who ran his sheep on the mountain slope. That house is now in ruins: a new owner until recently simply carried on the use of the land for sheep. Imagine our surprise and concern, therefore, when, on a recent trip to Derrynablaha, we observed an enormous excavator working in the fields above the house. It had been there for some time. The ground had been levelled, all rocks and old field boundaries had been cleared away, and the land is now ready to be seeded and made into an enormous and pristine green field.

So what’s the problem with this? It’s alarming because Derrynablaha, and the neighbouring townland of Derreeny, contain the largest and most significant concentration of rock art in Ireland. Forty examples have been found and recorded so far. Some of them lie right beside the new field. An assessment by the National Monuments Service took place immediately and they will monitor closely now that they know this is happening. However, damage has already been done. Rock art does not exist in a vacuum – it is part of a prehistoric landscape and nowhere is this more so than in Derrynablaha, where the land has been lightly lived on over the centuries and where prehistoric and historic features lie just beneath the boggy turf. 

It's hard to see, isn't it? But tjis is one of the most iconic pieces of Irish rock art

It’s hard to see, isn’t it? But this boulder at Derrynablaha is one of the most iconic pieces of Irish rock art

The farmer, of course, is just doing his job. With the encouragement of the grants system he is improving his land, trying to be more competitive and hoping to pass on a viable farm to his son, so the young man won’t have to emigrate like many of his contemporaries. He is aware of the rock art and is avoiding direct contact with any pieces he knows. He needs no planning permission (a process that would have involved and alerted the County Archaeologist) to do what he’s doing.

Just part of the surface of the Derrynablaha rock above

Just part of the surface of the Derrynablaha rock above

In both these scenarios – lack of awareness and the economy – the intentions of everyone concerned were honourable. But honourable intentions won’t save rock art from damage and destruction. Our only hope lies in a Save the Whales approach: the more people who know about and appreciate rock art and who are committed to helping to preserve this precious resource, the better its chances of survival will be. 

Derrynablaha - current landscape at that rock

Derrynablaha – current landscape at that rock