What’s an archaeological anomaly? When the National Monuments Survey was being undertaken, some stone structures didn’t quite fit the description of a particular class of monument. They may have been ancient – but how ancient, and what exactly were they? The term chosen for such mysterious piles was ‘anomalous stone group’. Here’s the definition: A group of stones, usually standing, which cannot be classified as any other known archaeological monument type on present evidence. They may be all that remains or is visible of a partially destroyed or obscured archaeological monument which may date to any period from prehistory onwards.
Just a leaning rock?
But it’s not the only term used for uncertain monuments: enclosure is a vague term that can mean a multitude of things, and an ‘unclassified cairn‘ can be defined simply as a heap or pile of stones. In the last few months our explorations of the Sheep’s Head have turned up several anomalies. The only thing they all have in common is their spectacular siting, leading to an ultra-rewarding field trip.
Hiking to the cairn
Perhaps the most magnificently situated of all is the unclassified cairn on the mountain ridge above Kilcrohane. It’s right on the way-marked Sheep’s Head Way, so it’s easy to find. While it’s described as a cairn in the National Monuments inventory, it could be as humble an object as a turf storage platform or as wonderful as a passage grave. We’ve been to it several times and always puzzled over it, but on our last visit we were alerted to a new element by Amanda and Peter.
The ‘new element’ – you have to really look!
A couple of stones had shifted, possibly in storms, and we could now delve deeper into the pile of rocks and see that one of them had a large circular opening in it. Very strange – I had never seen anything like it – and very intriguing.
Curious ‘holed stone’ at the bottom of the cairn
We noted that the highest point on Cape Clear was visible across the water, the hill on which a ‘real’ passage grave sits. Only excavation is likely to reveal the exact nature of this anomaly.
This one is called an ‘anomalous stone group’
Not too far away, in the same townland but on lower ground, is an anomalous stone group. This is a strange one indeed because half of it looks for all the world like a stone circle – identical to the numerous recumbent or axial circles that dot West Cork. The other half? It’s the rock face that the stones obviously came from.
Could swear that’s a classic recumbent, but where’s the other half of the circle?
It’s like a work in progress. If it is a stone circle, the builders decided that half a one would do the job just fine. Indeed the owner of the land has noted several significant sunset alignments.
There seem to be several alignments – this one to the Beara Peninsula
But when I asked for comments on an archaeological social network site the general consensus seemed to be that it was unlikely to be a stone circle, since the stone face obscured half the horizon. But that same stone face would have provided shelter, so the speculation in the discussion centred on this being a hut site, with only some of the stones of the outside wall remaining.
This area of rough ground to the right of Robert, Peter and Amanda is labelled an ‘Enclosure’
The third site we’ve explored is described as an enclosure. The description of the site states: A circular area (diam. 10.5m) is defined by the remains of a stone wall (T 1.3m; H 0.5m) displaying traces of an inner and outer row of large stones with a fill of smaller stones. A stone slab (H 1.15m; L 0.5m; T 0.4m) narrowing as it rises stands on the external perimeter at E. There is also a standing stone a few meters to the south.
Difficult to make out what’s here, but it seems like there’s a lot going on
This could be a radial cairn – take a look at the one at Kealkill to see what we mean. But equally, the description hints, it may have to do with field clearance. It’s almost impossible to tell a lot from the general jumble of stones and the furze and brambles that grow all over the site. Once again, however, we were rewarded with panoramic views to the Beara Peninsula. Another one where only an excavation will reveal the truth.
And these views of the farms to the east, lit by a shaft of slanting sun
Finally, we trekked out on the Lighthouse Loop Walk at the very end of the peninsula in search of possible cupmarks, discovered by Peter and Amanda’s son.
On the lighthouse loop trail, looking back
The cupmarks turned out, we’re pretty sure, to be natural solution pits. There were lots of them, of varying sizes, and some could only be viewed by lying on your back.
The ‘cupmarks’ are on the underside of the leaning rock
Instructive, though, as we have certainly seen cupmarked stones that don’t look a whole lot different than these ones – there’s a type of shaley sandstone in West Cork that laminates in a very similar manner when carved.
Solution pits – and modern graffiti
In West Cork, monuments that don’t fit into satisfying categories abound – and it’s just as much fun exploring them as it is the ‘normal’ type!
This kind of field trip is tough to take!