Diving for Petroglyphs

Finola unravels the mysteries of Rock Art

Finola unravels the mysteries of Rock Art at Knockdrum

Our friends Chris and Gill from Devon are staying with us at the moment, so we took them on the mandatory Rock Art tour: be warned, anyone who comes to see us…

The Rock of the Rings at Ballybane West

The Rock of the Rings at Ballybane West

Visible signs of newly discovered Rock Art

Visible signs of newly discovered Rock Art: note the building on the right

There have been rumours of a new discovery in the Ballybane West area – not far from the Rock of the Rings and the piece on Danny and Gill’s land (and within spitting distance of the Derreennaclogh find), so we set out to track it down. And discover it we did: a distinct but unexciting single ring, right beside a newly built timber studio in someone’s garden. For me this was all fine and neat and tidy: we measured and photographed it and I was ready to move on to the next location without any loss of dignity. Finola, however, was like a dog with a bone – you’ve heard of Truffle Hounds: Finola is like a Petroglyph Hound with a bone – she won’t let it go. She was convinced there was more of the Rock Art – underneath the building! Of course not, said I, uncomfortably eyeing the very small space between the timber framed walls and the muddy wet rock underneath. But too late! Within seconds all you could see were Finola’s feet sticking out from the foundations and muffled shouts of enthusiasm from some deep and murky place. I gingerly stuck a few fingers in the crevice and quickly realised that I have always suffered badly from claustrophobia. Chris, however,  smartly and snazzily dressed as always in something totally unsuitable for pot-holing was away down there in no time, and we soon heard calls for torches, paper and measuring tape.

Finola goes underground

Finola goes underground

We will have to go back another time to somehow accurately measure and record this example, but Finola and Chris emerged mud-encrusted but triumphant with some photographs and sketches of another unusual panel containing circles, rectangles and cup-marks. These are very much in the style of the panels at Derreennaclogh and Ballybane West, themselves atypical of the more usual cups and circles which show a pattern of Bronze Age carving extending through the Atlantic seaboard from Scotland, Britain, Ireland to the Iberian coast, and pose so many questions on the culture and communications of those times.

The find: a piece of carving with similarities to motifs seen at Derreennaclogh (below)

The find: a piece of carving with similarities to motifs seen at Derreennaclogh (below)

derreennacloghBut this discovery does highlight the vulnerability of Rock Art – perhaps the ‘poor relation’ of archaeology in Ireland. Examples can go unnoticed (as in this case), can become overgrown, and can be so easily damaged or obliterated by weather or human intervention. They can also be underwhelmingly low key: a few circles or marks faintly visible on a rock surface. Farming practices are changing, and the transformation of rocky rough land into ‘pasture’ through grants which encourage large scale rock-breaking is a great potential threat to examples of petroglyphs which have only a paper protection through being listed on the Archaeological Survey of Ireland. As yet, we are unsure of how we can best look after this heritage: this is clearly an area of discussion for the future.

Trophy: Chris produced a valuable sketch of the 'hidden' motifs

Trophy: Chris produced a valuable sketch of the ‘hidden’ motifs

The Stones Speak

derr scale dwg 06

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

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

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

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

derr panel

Motifs picked on the rock surface

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

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

1   Photograph

2   Text and legends

3   Grid and grid reference numbers

4   Perimeter tracing of the rock

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

6   Tracings of the natural rock fissures

7   Tracings of the rock carvings

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

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

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

Motifs traced over the photograph

Motifs traced over the photograph

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

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

Cupmark with eight rings at Derrennaclogh

Cupmark with eight rings at Derreennaclogh

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

Whimsy - a conjectural geometric redrawing of the motifs at Derreennaclogh

Whimsy – a conjectural geometric redrawing of the motifs at Derreennaclogh

Enigma

gary, Finola and Furry friend contemplate the Enigma

Gary, Finola and Furry Friend contemplate the Enigma

We went to look at an exciting new Rock Art discovery, in the hills between Ballydehob and Bantry: wild country. The man who uncovered it – Gary Cox – lives close by, and became familiar with the terrain through walking his dogs over the land every day. He noticed in passing a small piece of exposed rock, just a few centimetres square, on which it was possible to make out a couple of curved lines. Intrigued, he began to carefully pull back the moss and gorse to expose a secret which had lain hidden from view for hundreds – perhaps thousands – of years.

L1080544

The Derreennaclogh panel is one of the finest and most intriguing pieces of Rock Art that we have seen in West Cork. Because the surface has (until now) been largely protected from direct contact with the weather, the carvings are pristinely visible, especially on a good bright day. On the rocks at Ballybane West – just over the hill – the designs are so weathered that you can go there day after day and never make them out, unless the shadows from a low sun are just right.

details

Details from the Derreenaclogh motifs

Current thinking suggests that all the Rock Art in ireland is Bronze Age – between four and five thousand years old: it’s breathtaking to think that we are looking at such ancient depictions of …. what? There’s the enigma: we have no idea – there are cup marks, circles, lines, even squares and waves on this newly revealed one: very unusual. Theories abound, of course: sun, moon, stars, maps, calendars – I’m sure someone has suggested they are flying saucers! We’ve written more on this in previous posts, and of the prolific appearance of rock carvings on the whole Atlantic facing coast from Scandinavia down through Scotland, Britain, Ireland, Brittany, Spain and Portugal. There are variations but the same symbols or motifs occur over and over. But here – on our doorstep – are some of the most unusual shapes to challenge our imaginations.

pukas

I have been extending my researches to petroglyph cultures beyond our own roots. I was intrigued to find some images from New Mexico – strikingly similar to our rock art – and Hawaii. In the latter place there are numerous circular depressions, around 50mm in diameter, interspersed with lines and circles. On our rocks in West Cork cup marks are also widespread – one of the most common images. They are also surrounded by concentric circles: at Derreennaclogh there is one cup mark with eight concentric circles around it – that’s more than we’ve seen on any other site.

Boca Negra Canyon Petroglyphs

Petroglyphs from New Mexico (left) and Hawaii (right)

There is folklore attached to the Hawaiian cup marks: local historians explain that these holes are called ‘Puka’. When a child was born a Puka would be carved in the lava stone. The new baby’s ‘Piko’ – umbilical cord – would be placed in the Puka to wish blessings upon the child for a long and prosperous life. In Hawaii and New Mexico the carvings are reckoned to be between 500 and 1,000 years old – much younger than our Rock Art. But here’s more food for thought: in Irish there’s also a word ‘Púka’ or ‘Pooka’ – sometimes a Fairy, or a shapeshifting spirit which can appear as a Hare or a Horse with dark fur. If a human can jump on the back of the Horse he will be given a wild ride but will probably be thrown off. Legend says that Brian Boru – the High King of Ireland – was the only man who could truly ride the Púka – by using a bridle incorporating three hairs of the Púka’s tail.