Rock Art Ramblings… away from home!

Ireland? No - it's Rock Art in Italy

Ireland? No – it’s Rock Art in Italy

At our talk in Ballydehob yesterday I mentioned briefly the world-wide context of Rock Art: this generated a lot of interest during and after the event so I thought it worthwhile to write a post about non-Irish Rock Art. portugal stamp The carvings in Ireland appear to be part of a cultural phenomenon that runs down the Atlantic coast – from Scandinavia to Iberia – taking in Ireland and Britain on its way. However, Rock Art is widespread across the world, and over the whole time spectrum of human occupation of land. There is a UNESCO World Heritage site in Portugal – the Côa Valley Archaeological Park – which is based on finds of Rock Art. When the project was opened in 1996 its Director stated: “…The Upper Paleolithic art of the Côa Valley is an exceptional illustration of the sudden development of creative genius at the dawn of human cultural development…” That’s quite an announcement! The Park is home to some 25,000 carvings created at various periods over the last 10,000 years. Some of it is visually similar to our own Neolithic / Bronze Age examples (which were probably made within the last five Millennia) but other earlier examples seem – surprisingly – more sophisticated: mainly very beautiful representations of animals.

Canary Island example

Canary Island example

Where do we find the oldest Rock Art? Possibly in India: the Bhimbetka Caves show evidence of human habitation dating back more than half a million years, and in one particular site – known as the Auditorium Cave – carved cupmarks were found under human debris deposits that could be dated to at least 290,000 years ago. This means that the cupmarks must be as old as that date. Some scientists claim that they could be twice this age. Those cupmarks are exactly the same as the ones we have in Europe – and when found they contained traces of red pigments, suggesting that the carvings might have been painted.

India – Norway – Africa – Europe – the Americas – Australia… Ancient rock carving has been found in all continents of the world excluding Antarctica. It’s not all the same as Irish prehistoric Rock Art – where the simple motifs are familiar to regular readers of this blog – but cupmarks do seem to predominate as a common occurrence, and are usually apparently carved in the same way wherever you find them: shallow circular indentations are picked out using one hard stone tool striking another.

What does it all mean? Finola did a good job of sidelining that question during yesterday’s talk but came up with some plausible pointers: it is, of course, impossible to be certain when we are so out of touch with the peoples who produced the marks. We should also be careful of making any assumptions based on our own cultural ways of thinking. An archaeologist (Mountford) witnessed cupmarks being carved in central Australia in the 1940s: he reports that these were made as an increase ritual for the Pink Cockatoo (Kakatoe leadbeateri). The particular rock the cupmarks were hammered into was thought to contain the life essence of these birds, so the mineral dust rising from the activity was believed to fertilise the female cockatoos and thus increase their production of eggs, which the Aborigines valued as food.

I have mentioned before the cupmarks which are found carved into the lava stone in Hawaii’s Volcanoe National Park: it’s worth noting again that they are very similar to those we find in Ireland and Britain – even to the extent of having concentric rings around some of them. Hawaian families who go a long way back will tell you that they are made to receive the umbilical cords of newly born babies – to ensure health, long life and fertility. The carvings are known as ‘Puka’.

Rock Art is fascinating. I want everyone to be excited by it. It’s a ‘poor relation’ archaeologically speaking: it’s very easy to miss. It’s also an ‘endangered species’: in Ireland, some examples which have been recorded in the past can no longer be found. Perhaps our exhibition and talk will at least have raised awareness.


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.


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 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.


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.