Ballyrisode Fulacht Fia: Discovering a New Bronze Age Site on The Mizen

Hidden in plain site – that’s how we stumbled across a hitherto unrecorded archaeological site at Ballyrisode Beach. It’s a popular swimming place, often swarming with swimmers, sun-bathers and picnickers in the summer and enjoyed by dog-walkers in the winter. Like many others, we were simply enjoying being at the water on a warm day when Robert drew my attention to an odd grouping of stones.

Three sides of a rectangle were defined by stone slabs laid on their sides in the sand, while two other upright slabs stood close by.

It had all the appearance of a carefully constructed trough, with one side missing, and it immediately reminded us of the cooking site at Drombeg Stone Circle.

Drombeg – besides the famous stone circle there is a hut site and this – a water-boiling trough with associated hearth and well, surrounded by a horseshoe-shaped mound of stone. An interpretive panel illustrates its use.

I took photographs and posted them to an online forum with a request for more information. An answer came back immediately, from a group of archaeologists who had excavated an almost-identical site in Sligo – what we were looking at was indeed an intertidal fulacht fia (full oct fee-ah, pl: fulachtaí fia/full octee fee-ah)).

E M Fahy excavated Drombeg in 1958 and returned the next year to dig the fulacht fia. This is his site drawing of the fulacht fia. You can read his original report here.

What exactly is a fulacht fia? The name translates as a wild cooking place and it was coined to describe this kind of open air kitchen. In Britain they are known as Burnt Mounds. Typically, they consist of a trough, normally lined with stone but occasionally with wood. The water in the trough was brought to a boil by dropping very hot stones into it, and therefore another feature of a fulacht fia is a hearth for heating the stones. Once the stones were used up (after heating and cooling one or more times they cracked and broke) they were tossed aside and over time a horseshoe-shaped mound of these burnt and shattered stones accumulated around the trough.

Another site drawing of a fulacht fia – this one was in Ballyvourney, excavated by Michael J O’Kelly in the 1950’s (report available here). Observe the numerous slabs laid on their sides around the trough – some for the roasting pit and some for the hearth. The two upright slabs at Ballyrisode are likely to have been part of such a related grouping of stones

Fulachtaí fia, in fact, are the most numerous archaeological sites in Cork, with 3,000 recorded sites, although they are known all over Ireland and in Britain and Northern Europe. Prof William O’Brien, in Iverni, refers to them as ‘water-boiling sites’ which is a more accurate description, since we don’t actually have overwhelming evidence that they were used for cooking. Few bones have been found among the burnt stones at some sites, although this is often explained away by reference to acidic soils and poor bone preservation.

Trinity Well, near Newmarket in North Cork, is a Bronze Age fulacht fia that has been re-purposed in modern times as a holy well! Read more about this site in Holy Wells of Cork

So the question remains open as to their purpose or purposes and proposals include their use for tanning and brewing. It is also possible they may have been used for bathing, or incorporated into sweat-house rituals.

From Prof O’Kelly’s report on his excavations come these photographs of his cooking experiments

We do tend to think of them as cooking-places, though, largely because of the experimental work carried out by Prof Michael J O’Kelly in the 50’s. I remember him telling us about it when I was a student in his classes and I can still see the obvious relish with which he described the juicy leg of mutton that emerged from the simmering trough after almost four hours (they used the 20 minutes to the lb and 20 left over formula) and how clean the meat was when unwrapped from its straw casing.

But the brewing argument is compelling too – just take a look at this experiment by two archaeologists making ‘a prehistoric home brew!’

But what about a site like our one, half buried in the sand? It turns out that there’s a similar one in Cork at Lispatrick on Courtmacsherry Bay, that was visible when first discovered at low tide but underwater at high (see note from Jerome Lordan in the comments). Thanks to Alan Hawkes for alerting me to that one. Alan is the author of The Archaeology of Prehistoric Burnt Mounds in Ireland, the most comprehensive study of fulacht fia ever undertaken.

This photograph of the Lispatrick site is taken from Iverni

There’s another one at Creedon in Waterford (below) and that one is made of wood – thanks to Simon Dowling for sending me a 3D image of it (not shown), showing toolmarks on the wood

The wooden trough of the fulacht fia at Creedon Beach in Co Waterford, discovered by local historian Noel MacDonagh (photographer unknown)

Possibly the most helpful site to use as a comparison to Ballyrisode is the inter-tidal fulacht fia from Coney Island in Sligo. We are fortunate that the site was thoroughly analysed by James Bonsall and Marion Dowd of IT Sligo, and the results published in The Journal of Irish Archaeology in 2015 and available through JSTOR. (Thank you for the link, James Bonsall.) Ciarán Davis found the site and also participated in the excavation and he has kindly shared some of his photographs with me. Thank you, Ciarán!*

This and the following two photographs are of the Coney Island (Sligo) sites, kindly shared by Ciarán Davis

Like Ballyrisode, the trough is stone-lined and full of sand from the movement of the tide, which covers it at high tide. It was dated using a charcoal layer beneath the floor slab, to the Late Bronze Age (making it about three thousand years old).

The flat slab at bottom right has been interpreted as a kneeling stone – such stones have been observed elsewhere

The authors point out that it is impossible to tell whether the intertidal location of many such sites is a planned feature, or whether they were originally on dry land and have ended up in the intertidal zone due to erosion or shifting sea levels.  However, at Coney Island it seemed clear that the fulacht fia had been deliberately constructed such that it filled with water at high tide and held that water for several hours afterwards. The presence of a nearby midden indicated that this fulacht fia may indeed have been used to boil fish and shellfish in salt water – an efficient (and delicious!) method of cooking seafood.

So there you have it – an exciting new discovery to add to the archaeology of West Cork! This summer has seen incredible new finds in the Boyne Valley, due to the unusually dry weather and the emerging technology of drone photography. While our find is not in the league of a Dronehenge, it’s always good to know that there is still lots to discover in the wonderful West Cork landscape.

*As you can see with all the thank yous, archaeologists have been very generous in sharing information with me about intertidal fulacht fia. I am grateful for this supportive online community as I try to catch up on the forty years of archaeological research that I missed while in Canada.

Cape Clear: The Stone That Moved

along the roadThe enigma begins around 1874, on Cape Clear – the southernmost piece of inhabited soil on the islands of Ireland. Land here is hard won, and the stony fields are laboriously cleared using human power and – most likely – donkey power to improve prospects for grazing and tillage. In this year a narrow field in the townland of Croha West is being improved: the farm belongs to Tom Shipsey. His men – Dónal O Síocháin and Conchúr O Ríogáin – turn up a stone with strange markings on it, reportedly together with ‘shards of old incised pottery’, although these latter have never been traced.

Header: looking towards the townland of Croha West, where Thomas Shipsey and his men discovered the travelling stone. Above left – records from the Shipsey family dating back to the 1800s. Above right – possibly the earliest drawing of the Cape Clear Inscribed Stone, included in Michael J O’Kelly’s article of 1949  in the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society Journal

At this time the Curate on Cape is Revd John O’Leary. We might reasonably assume that he takes an interest in the stone and has it set up somewhere to show off its curious and undoubtedly historic decoration. We do know for sure that, when he leaves Cape Clear in 1877 to take up the curacy of neighbouring Sherkin Island, the stone goes with him and becomes a feature in his garden there. It does not, however, accompany him to Clonakilty whence he is transferred to become Parish Priest and Monsignor in 1881: instead it languishes on Sherkin, benignly fading into the undergrowth. Years later – in 1945 – the stone is ‘accidentally rediscovered’ by the then incumbent, Rev Fr E Lambe. Presumably recognising its probable significance he has it shipped off to University College Cork where it is received by Professor Seán P Ó Ríordáin.

Cork Exhibition

1902 World’s Fair, Cork – now Fitzgerald’s Park and the setting for Cork Public Museum

Close to the University grounds in Cork is a residence built by Charles Beamish in 1845 at the cost of £4,000 on land purchased from the Duke of Devonshire. Beamish has the grounds laid out with a variety of shrubs and trees, and due to their density the grounds become known as The Strawberries and the house as The Shrubbery. In 1901 the house and grounds are taken over by Incorporated Cork International Association and used as the venue for the great World’s Fair of 1902. Following this the grounds – now known as Fitzgerald’s Park – are donated to Cork Corporation for recreational use by the public. Eventually The Shrubbery is converted into Cork’s Public Museum which opens in April 1945, under the auspices of UCC: the first Curator is Michael J O’Kelly. The Cape Clear Inscribed Stone completes its travels (for now) and is on permanent display in the Museum.

View from sea

The highest point on Cape Clear is Quarantine Hill – the trig point can be seen as a ‘pimple’ in this photograph, taken from the north side of the island

There’s a prequel to this story of the travelling stone. We have seen that it was unearthed on Farmer Shipsey’s land in 1874. Apparently this isn’t where it started out. O’Kelly (who became head of the Archaeology Department at UCC in 1946) wrote a monograph on the stone for the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society in 1949 (volume 54 pages 8 – 10):

…The motifs clearly belong to the passage-grave group of carvings and can be paralleled at Newgrange, Bryn Celli Du [Wales], Gavr’ Inis [Brittany] and elsewhere. The stone is therefore an important discovery and because of this, the lack of information about the nature of the site on which it was found is all the more disappointing. At this stage only a few vague traditions concerning its finding could be gleaned in the district. The statement of one old man that ‘a mound of stones was being cleared from a field’ may possibly indicate a cairn and if such were the case, the decorated stone may have formed part of an underlying tomb chamber. There is also some reason to think that fragments of pottery were found, though none has survived. This may be a further hint that the stone was associated with a burial. With reserve, it might therefore be assumed that the structure, whatever its exact nature, was erected by a group of passage-grave folk who either by accident or design came to land on this island off the coast of Cork…

This little narrative sowed the seed that the stone might be connected to a passage grave. If so, this would probably date the carving to some five thousand years ago. But, surely, there should be some trace of the passage grave itself if this is the case? No such traces could be found in the townland of Croha West.

View from PG

looking north
Spectacular views from the prehistoric site on Cape Clear, both looking north towards the mainland

We move forward to 1984 when four archaeologists (Barra O Donnabhain, Mary O’Donnell, Jerry O’Sullivan and Paddy O’Leary) explored the wider area and discovered, on the very summit of the island, the ruins of a prehistoric structure. This site, 533 feet above sea level, is in the townland of Killickaforavane and is known locally as Quarantine Hill. At this time the island was investigating the possibility of producing electricity by wind power: hitherto electricity to some properties was provided by a diesel generating system which had been in place only since 1969. The obvious efficient place for wind generation was the highest point and plans were laid for setting up two SMA Regelsystem Gmbh 33w turbines (which began operation in 1987). In preparation for this installation an archaeological survey of the immediate area was carried out by Prof Peter Woodman and Dr Elizabeth Shee. Paddy O’Leary and Lee Snodgrass were also present at that time. The collective view seemed to indicate that the structure could, indeed, have been a small passage grave.

chamber closer

Probably the chamber of a 5,000 year old passage grave, Killickaforavane, Cape Clear

The wind turbines were sited a little distance from the prehistoric remains and have themselves become archaeology of a more industrial nature. While in use they generated 90% of the island’s demand during favourable winds (force 3+). The corrosive effects of the Atlantic climate – in particular the wild south-westerly gales – rendered the mechanisms beyond repair after some ten years; a submarine cable bringing electricity from the mainland (8 miles away) arrived in about 1995. For a short time the systems operated in tandem and produced sufficient power to feed back to Ireland’s National Grid. According to a letter to the Irish Times by Séamus Ó Drisceoil, who was manager of the island Co-op at the time of the installation …the Cape Clear system is credited with providing the first concrete evidence for the viability of wind energy in Ireland…

Tomorrow’s archaeology: the pioneering – but now defunct – wind generating system on Quarantine Hill, overlooking the passage grave site

Once the concept of the island supporting a five thousand year old passage grave on its summit has been digested, then the question has to be asked – did the Cape Clear stone now in the Cork Public Museum originate at this site? It was found a good half mile away, in a different townland – but this might suggest that an earlier antiquarian (or interested observer) discovered it on the hill and had it moved to Croha West for safekeeping, display, or even because it was thought it might have some value. No-one on the island seems to have any knowledge of this distant event. As O’Kelly says – it’s disappointing that there is no ‘story’: one might almost expect a tale of the person moving one of the ‘old stones’ having met with an unfortunate fate because of interference with the domain of The Other Crowd

the way through

Kerb and passage

Top: looking towards the summit of Quarantine Hill – there is no clear path up there, and the traveller can be waylaid by gorse and brambles… Below: the prehistoric site – we are probably looking at the orthostats of a passage, which has a summer solstice orientation, and a kerbstone. On the right is a modern cairn while to the left in the background is the remains of one of the turbine towers

There is, surely, a strong likelihood that the Cape Clear Inscribed Stone did originate in the hilltop passage tomb, in which case we have completed the tale of its travels, up to the present day. The tomb is in ruins, although enough remains to show its shape and probable orientation. Paddy O’Leary tells the story of his investigations with Lee Snodgrass in an article for Mizen Journal, Volume 2, 1994:

…We were convinced that it was a passage tomb and that it was orientated on the rising sun of the summer solstice… We planned a two night vigil for June 1993 and were buoyed up by a good weather forecast. Saturday afternoon was sunny and we transported our equipment direct to the top of Quarantine Hill from the boat. We set up our cameras and, taking advantage of the sunny weather, took photographs, especially during the late evening, when there was a lovely sky. On Sunday morning June 20th we rose shortly after 4am to prepare for dawn. It was very cold but the sky was clear. A dull grey cloud began to show to the northeast, we set our cameras and waited for the sun. Shortly after 5am it peeped above the horizon, nestling in the gap between Carrigfada and the hill to its north… Gradually it rose in a 40 degree angle, flooding the sky with first light and mirroring its golden red orb in the brightening sea… A perfect sunrise perfectly recorded. The warmth was now penetrating almost numb fingers and feet. The line of the orientation was exactly as expected, directly along the supposed line of the passage, into the centre of the chamber… The most southerly point of Ireland had its passage tomb, with a summer solstice sunrise orientation; a nice counterpoint to the Newgrange winter solstice sunrise…

cairn and view

Quarantine Hill, Killickaforavane townland, Cape Clear. The view looking east – towards the summer solstice sunrise – from the prehistoric site on the summit

If the inscribed stone was, indeed, incorporated into the Cape Clear passage tomb, where might it have been placed? There are parallels in its design with some of the lintel stones at Fourknocks, but also I am drawn to similarities with stone L19 from Claire O’Kelly’s Corpus of decorated stones included in Michael J O’Kelly’s Newgrange – Archaeology, Art and Legend (Thames + Hudson, London 1982). This one is a standing stone – perhaps our well travelled stone was standing also.

Newgrange

Newgrange entrance stone

Iconic passage tomb in Meath, Ireland – one of the greatest monuments to the Neolithic people in the world: the top picture shows the east face of the great mound as reconstructed by Michael O’Kelly using the white quartz stones which were revealed during the excavations (Finola took part in these digs!); the lower picture shows the entrance stone to Newgrange – the Cape Clear inscribed stone must be related to this type of prehistoric art, although situated a very long way away…

Here’s a suggestion – probably considered heretical in some quarters: why don’t we complete the travels of the Cape Clear Inscribed Stone by taking it out of the Cork Public Museum and (with some suitable ceremony) transporting it back across the sea to Cape Clear and setting it back up there for all time? For me, museums – while obviously providing safe keeping – sometimes lack the reality of true context… Alright then, if that is considered as inconceivable an idea as I suspect it would be, let’s make a very good replica and send it up to the top of Quarantine Hill. At the same time we could re-establish a pathway to attract people up there: our own pilgrimage to this very special site involved making heavy way through gorse and brambles.

looking towards west

Below: Newgrange Stone L19 from Claire O’Kelly’s Corpus of decorated stones included in Michael J O’Kelly’s 1982 book on Newgrange

claire stone

With acknowledgements and thanks to those quoted above and the following sources, which have enabled me to pull together the story of this site: Paddy O’Leary and Lee Snodgrass (Mizen Journal Vol 2 1994 and personal communication), Michael J O’Kelly (Cork Historical and Archaeological Society Vol 54 1949), Chuck Kruger (Skibbereen and District Historical Society Journal Vol 6 2010)

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