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.

Fourknocks – the Little Giant

Interior

For our own Easter Monday celebration – while staying in Dublin – we took a trip out to Fourknocks. This is a decorated chambered cairn within the Boyne Valley complex, but very much a ‘little brother’ to the better known attractions of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth.

key

Only in Ireland would you be instructed to travel a mile down the road to pick up the key to a 5,000 year old monument (leaving a 20 Euro deposit for its safe return) and let yourself in by unlocking a heavy steel door that guards the way into the passage… But don’t be put off: it’s so well worth the effort. With luck you will be the only visitors and you will have the place to yourself – apart from the sheep families who share the field with Fourknocks. The name probably means ‘The Cold Hills’ – that’s the translation of the Irish Fuair Cnoc

sheep

Fourknocks was unknown to archaeologists until a chance conversation in 1949, when a woman making a visit to Newgrange mentioned, “there are mounds like this on my uncle’s farm…” The site was then explored and excavated by Archaeologist P J (Paddy) Hartnett in the early 1950s. You can read the full excavation report* online, by signing on to JSTOR. Like all the Boyne Valley Neolithic monuments, the mound had collapsed inwards and the dig involved removing layers of earth and fallen stone, analysing the spoil material and working out how the original structure had been put together. It’s methodical, scientific – and pretty dry reading! However, I couldn’t help being completely entranced as I imagined spectacular carved stones gradually being revealed, unexpected artefacts being turned up, and the unusual dimensions of the central chamber being realised.

excavationdiagram

P J Hartnett’s excavation diagram – from his report published in 1957

This ‘pear shaped’ central chamber measures 41.92 sq metres in area, considerably bigger than those at Newgrange (16.50), Knowth (20.21) and Dowth (15.21). However, the mound itself is relatively small – a ‘pimple’ on the hillside with a diameter of only 19 metres (Newgrange has a diameter of 85 metres). Yet, when you stand on top of Fourknocks, you understand its significance – there are panoramic views in every direction over countryside, ocean and mountains. You might expect to see the other Boyne Valley monuments but in fact they are hidden by a ridge, so this one enjoys splendid isolation in every respect.

Pan 2

Pan 4

Pan 5

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Cardinal Points: panoramic views in all directions from the mound of Fourknocks

Something else that’s unusual about Fourknocks is the way it has been reconstructed. Restoration of Archaeological structures has often been controversial. In Ireland the most notable example is Newgrange itself: Professor Michael J O’Kelly, who was in charge of the works there from 1962 to 1975, imagined that large numbers of white quartz stones which were found in and around the collapsed mound could have been used to face the entrance wall and duly designed the reconstructed passage tomb around this premise. He was (and still is) criticised for this ‘leap of faith’ – but, for me, the result is entirely justified: whether or not the original structure did look like this is perhaps irrelevant, as it has bequeathed to us such a visually iconic and powerful symbol of Neolithic Ireland…

Above and left: the great passage grave of Newgrange before excavation, Right: the iconic face of the restored monument today (image courtesy of Our Irish Heritage)

At Fourknocks the excavations did not prove that the chamber was ever roofed over. Certainly there was stone corbelling to suggest that this might have been attempted, but it is unlikely that the large span of the central court could have been enclosed in this way with the available technology, and the weight of the number of stones. However, complete enclosure is likely to have been a necessity, and a central post hole – which would have accommodated a large timber pillar – was found: Hartnett suggests that the roof covering was completed using light timber rafters and thatch. Rather than simulate this, a solution has been employed which is entirely modern – but, in fact, as imaginative as O’Kelly’s ideas at Newgrange: a reinforced concrete shell roof has been cast completley around and above the excavated structure. So what we see today as the ‘mound’ is a concrete dome which has been turfed over.

Open Door: the entrance to Fourknocks chamber outside and inside

But this 1950s innovation is far cleverer than it might seem. Cast into the new shell are holes and slits which project limited shafts of daylight into the otherwise unlit chamber. Each shaft has been carefully orientated to cast natural light on to one of the spectacular examples of megalithic art which are the showstoppers of this monument.

zaggy

To properly experience the unique adventure of Fourknocks, go inside and – be brave – shut the heavy door behind you. Immediately you are in darkness, and disoriented. But wait: as your eyes adjust, the chamber comes alive.

zigs

The subtle shafts of daylight filtering through the roof perforations focus on their targets and, gradually, you realise that you have entered a gallery of startling images – images made by our ancestors thousands of years ago…

concentric

As Rock Art enthusiasts, our particular interests lie in the cupmarks, concentric circles and other carvings found on outcrops and boulders dispersed over the Irish (and British) landscape: it’s fascinating and intriguing – but should we call it Art? Perhaps those marks have been made as signposts, to define territory, or to provide information to passing visitors – we just don’t know. But, with the carvings at the Boyne Valley monuments there can be no doubt: their purpose is to startle, impress and delight – Art, with a capital A! Fourknocks is such a good example of megalithic or passage grave art, not because of its quantity or complexity (you’ll find far more elsewhere) – but because of the context: the fact that you can stand there on your own and be startled, impressed and delighted – without the intervention of artificial lights, interpretation centres or display boards. It’s just you and the Neolithic mind in there.

Chambers 3

Fourknocks, the Newgrange complex, Loughcrew, Carrowkeel: there is even a passage tomb in our view from Nead an Iolair – over on Cape Clear Island and it produced a fine example of megalithic art, now in the Cork Public Museum. What were they for? In spite of being sometimes called passage graves or passage tombs we can’t assume necessarily that interment was their primary purpose, although significant human remains were found at Fourknocks, including cremations, skulls and bone fragments. Many of these are dated much later than the main structure – Bronze Age rather than Neolithic – suggesting a continuing use of and respect for the monuments over long periods of time. I hope we always retain that respect: the risk of the unsupervised access that we can enjoy at Fourknocks is a vulnerability of the site. Sadly, there is graffiti apparent on some of the stones, although this may be historic.

two sided

I could find no trace of folklore, legends or stories relating to Fourknocks. This is unusual for an ancient site in Ireland. Perhaps it’s because the place was lost to all but very local human memory for so long. Apart from the restored mound there appears to be either two or three other disturbed earthworks close by but not accessible – could this be the origin of ‘four’ cnocs (hills)?

effect 1

not a face

For more excellent photographs of this monument have a look at Ken William’s work in Shadows and Stones. If you are passing this way – as we were – perhaps on your journey to see the marvels of Brú na Bóinne, don’t hesitate to look out this wonder of the megalithic world- it’s a little giant!

Below: P J Hartnett at the excavation of Fourknocks, 1951

P J Hartnett

Excavation of a Passage Grave at Fourknocks, Co Meath: P J Hartnett – Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Section C: Archaeology, Celtic Studies, History, Linguistics, Literature Vol 58 (1956/1957), pp 197-277

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

Old Stones

A classic piece of Rock Art - on display in Dublin's National Museum

A classic piece of Rock Art – on display in Dublin’s National Museum

As we enter October, we begin to look towards the dark part of our year – and to think of the Cailleach who, in these western parts of Munster, is known as The Hag of Beara: in early tales she is pictured as a prolific figure responsible for shaping the landscape by carrying huge stones in her apron and dropping them to form hills and outcrops, as well as ancient standing stones, circles and alignments. She is also seen wielding a great hammer with which she sculpts and refines her geological creations. She has had seven periods of youth, one after another, so that every man who lived with her came to die of old age. Her grandsons and great grandsons are so many that they make up entire tribes and races. She falls asleep on Bealtaine (May 1st) and wakes again on Samhain (November 1st) – we will be looking forward to the storms which will herald her coming. Until then she rests on a hillside overlooking Coulagh Bay, beyond Allihies on the remote Beara Peninsula, where her rocky incarnation depicts her as both a young maiden and an old crone.

Monuments in the mist: The Hag of Beara and Drombeg Circle

Monuments in the mist: The Hag of Beara and Drombeg Circle

Ireland is stuck in a stream of warm air coming up from the tropics at the moment: this makes temperatures two or three degrees higher than the norm for early autumn, but also causes a damp landscape shrouded in fog: we have missed our view of the Fastnet for several days.

Standing stones

Some West Cork standing stones

The weather hasn’t hindered our exploration of Ireland’s old stones – the terrain created by the Hag. Yesterday we went to Drombeg Circle: a popular site for tourists. Many visitors will fail to notice the rock art carved on the recumbent stone that points out this megalithic monument’s alignment with the winter solstice. At the foot of another stone we found some enigmatic markings which I readily interpreted as a dancing Hare.

Drombeg Rock Art - and a mysterious Holy Well in Rossbrin Cove

Drombeg rock art – and a mysterious holy well in Rossbrin Cove

Bishops Luck - a megalithic close by Nead an Iolair: according to local legend, a

Bishop’s Luck – a megalith close by Nead an Iolair: according to local legend, a bishop is buried under this!

Ireland’s history is written in stone: the natural landscape; megalithic monuments; buildings – cottages, castles, farms, churches, lighthouses; every townland is rich in examples. Building material, track surfacing, grave marker and artists’ canvas (perhaps): stone has been a resource to aid human occupation for thousands of years.

Stone in context: Galley Head Lighthouse

Stone in context: Galley Head Lighthouse

The ultimate stone monument - Newgrange Passage Grave, County Meath - the spectacular quartz facing is a conjectural reconstruction

The ultimate Neolithic stone monument – Newgrange Passage Grave, County Meath – the spectacular quartz facing is a conjectural reconstruction

The Sun Stands Still

The Entrance Stone at Newgrange.

The Entrance Stone at Newgrange.

That’s what solstice means – the sun’s apparent ability to stand still at the mid-winter point. It rises no further south, hangs around that area for a few days, and then starts on its trek back to the eastern sky. For early farmers, like the ones who built Newgrange in the Boyne Valley in Ireland (and Stonehenge and the Pyramids) and like the ones who carved our rock art, such seasonal markings were critical. At Newgrange, an enormous passage tomb built 5000 years ago, the rising sun illuminates the passage and chamber only during the winter solstice. In West Cork, near here, the Drombeg Stone Circle is designed so that the winter solstice sun sets over the recumbent stone, through the two tall portal stones. Drombeg probably dates to the Bronze Age.

2012-12-20 16.17.50

Ballybane West at sunset

There is a good argument that open air rock art may also relate in some way to equinoxes and solstices and days of seasonal change, such as those that were celebrated in the ancient Celtic festivals. So far, the only rock art that has been putatively identified as having a significant solar orientation is the Boheh Stone in Mayo. We decided to visit our favourite rock art site, Ballybane West, on the evening of the 20th December and again on the morning of December 21, to see if anything interesting showed up at sunset or sunrise. We were rewarded in the evening by the rock art glowing beautifully in the slanting sunlight, although we could observe no particular significance about where the sun was setting.

Enigmatic carvings at Ballybane West

Enigmatic carvings at Ballybane West

The next morning, although the dawn colours were spectacular when we left the house, the clouds rolled in and obscured the sunrise. Still, it was wonderful to be out on the rock at dawn, listening to the birdsong and feeling in communion with the ancient spirits of this special place.

Happy Solstice to all our Family and Friends!

Ard Glas Dawn, Winter Solstice 2012

Ard Glas Dawn, Winter Solstice 2012