Drombeg Solstice Celebration

Setting

At sunset on the winter solstice the sun sets over the recumbent stone at Drombeg Stone Circle, near Glandore in West Cork. That is – if you stand looking between the two portal stones, you will see the sun set in a notch in the opposite hill and over the recumbent stone which is diametrically across from the two portal stones.

approaching 2 RH

For a full explanation of what I’m talking about here and for more about how and why stone circles were constructed, see our post Ancient Calendars. And take a look at Shadows and Stone in Action for our record of the same phenomenon, except at the autumn equinox, down the road at Bohonagh Stone Circle.

Watching

This solstice was the first opportunity Robert and I had to see the Drombeg phenomenon and what an evening we had for it – clear skies and a glowing sun. What’s lovely about this every year is that local people turn out to witness the solstice sunset at a stone circle designed by Bronze Age people perhaps three or four thousand years ago and still functioning the same way millennia later. It’s our West Cork Newgrange.

Meaden 2

Terrence Meaden (above) was there – a physicist and archaeologist, he’s been researching and writing about the calendrical aspects of Drombeg for several years now. Tirelessly visiting at all times of the year, his research compellingly illustrates how the builders planned the placement of the stones to maximise shadow-casting at the eight cardinal points of the calendar – solstices, equinoxes and cross-quarter days. While I don’t agree with a couple of his conclusions, he has done us all a service by encouraging us to look afresh at a monument we thought we knew.

Drummers

There was a lovely, community feeling to the hour we spent at Drombeg. People kept arriving and greeting one another in a sociable way. Kids ran around, a couple of drummers kept up a steady beat, and a group was holding a meditative circle that including some harmonious humming.

Final Moment

Anticipation mounted as the sun sank lower, there was a final good natured jockeying for position to get the best shots, and a collective sigh as the sun finally disappeared into the cleft.

Last Rays

It felt good to be part of something that West Cork people have been coming together to celebrate for thousands of years.

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.

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.

Coomasaharn

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).

Tired

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

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

Shadows and Stone in Action

Ken Williams - capturing the moment

Ken Williams – capturing the moment

Shadows and Stone is the undisputed champion of prehistoric photography sites in Ireland. The work of photographer Ken Williams, it contains an enormous number of high-quality images from Ireland, England and Wales, and Portugal. Within Ireland, the site is organised by the various types of monuments (passage graves, stone circles, rock art, etc) and there are also galleries devoted to solar phenomena such as the Equinox at Loughcrew.

Ken and Robert: getting ready for sunset at Bohonagh

Ken and Robert: getting ready for sunset at Bohonagh

Ken’s work on rock art is astounding. We know first hand how difficult it is to get good photographs of the carvings. Many of them are covered in lichen, obscuring all the detail, and can really only be discerned in long slanting light, such as at sunrise or sunset. Ken uses artificial lighting to capture his excellent images and when we first met him a couple of years ago we asked him how he packed all those lights up to the remote locations in which a lot of rock art is found. He grinned and opened his backpack. “This is my equipment,” he said, “It’s all I use.” Essentially his gear consists of a camera, flashes, and tripods.

flashes strategically deployed

flashes strategically deployed

If you want to see the difference between what Ken captures and what us ordinary mortals manage to do, take a look at our photograph below of the highly carved panels at Derrynablaha in Kerry. Hard to see anything on them, right? Now click here for Ken’s version!

Derrynablaha Panels 5 and 6. Probably most highly carved pieces of rock art in Ireland. Can you see it?

Derrynablaha Panels 5 and 6. Probably the most highly decorated pieces of rock art in Ireland. Can you see the carvings?

We met Ken this week at the Bohonagh Stone Circle: he was there to photograph the equinoctial sunset. It was a beautiful evening – perfect conditions to see the sun sink behind the recumbent stone, as it does in these axial stone circles at either the equinox or solstice.

Looking over the recumbent

Looking over the recumbent

It was a treat to see a master photographer at work and to have Ken explain how he gets those amazing shots. Since we had already had the opportunity to shoot the sunset last March, I knew how difficult it was to portray a scene when you’re aiming directly into the glare of the setting sun. It took a lot of processing afterwards before I could see both the sun and the stones in my shot, and by that time the sky was competely washed out. This time I concentrated on capturing the photographer at work. Ken, meanwhile, worked his usual magic – and here’s the result, included with his permission. Not only can you see everything, including the still blue sky, but his picture captures the mysterious ambiance of the setting and the occasion.

BohonaghEquinox15-12

We hope to tag along with Ken again in the future. Meanwhile – our thanks to him for an inspirational day and the great rock art chat.

Thanks, Ken!

Thanks, Ken!

By the way, it’s been a week of sky photography here in West Cork – first the equinox and then an eclipse! My neck hurts now.

Solar eclipse, West Cork, March 20, 2015

Solar eclipse, West Cork, March 20, 2015