Although some of the engraved and sculpted stones of passage-tombs
are complicated, many have simple designs very similar to those
on boulders and rock-outcrops around the periphery of Ireland.
or rock-scribings (or rock-art), generally assigned
to the Bronze Age, may share at least some functions and concerns
with the art of the Neolithic passage-tombs. They may be purely
derivative, or they may represent an independent (though obviously
related) tradition of lithomancy. Their distribution around the
coastline at different altitudes recalls the littoral origin of
passage-tombs, and their function is perhaps more mysterious, if
rock-scribings on La Palma in the Canary Islands are very similar
to Breton and Irish passage-tomb designs (particularly those at
Kilgreen in Tyrone), they and the Irish petroglyphs
are very different from the petroglyphs of southern Sweden and Norway
representing ithyphallic hunters, game, sun-wheels and boats (see
right). Some of the Irish and British petroglyphs more resemble
pictographs such as the traffic-signs and concourse-notices that
occur everywhere today.
also unrelated to the crude criss-cross patterns found very occasionally
at or in court-, portal- and wedge-tombs...
in one instance, on a rock face.
are obviously related to the cup-marks which evolved from natural
solution-pits in rock and boulders, and which were sometimes enhanced
by surrounding rings.
upper surface of the front roofstone
on a wedge-tomb at Burren, county Cavan.
Click on the picture
to see the tomb.
As at other Atlantic sites such as Galicia and the Canary Islands,
Irish "rock art" occurs not only close to the coast and
at sea-level (like the examples in SW Scotland) but as high up as
200 metres or more, and as much as 10 kilometres inland. (In Galicia
they occur up to 30 kilometres from the sea.)
never extensive like some in Argyll which cover up to 1800 square
other Atlantic petroglyphs they are mostly on horizontal outcrops
or on table-like surfaces of boulders. They were originally painted
with earth and charcoal colours: ochre, red and black - as might
have been the passage-tomb engravings, too.
the far more numerous stone
circles, they are nearly always carved where there is
a panorama or a wide open view.
occurs in county Kerry, which has the highest concentration of Irish
occurs in the other county of high petroglyphic concentration: Donegal.
occur on the vertical surfaces of standing-stones which are the
principal or marker stones of alignments.
are not obviously"cultic" like the relatively easy-to-interpret
stones of the Iron Age - of which our culture is a hugely-enhanced
frequent motif is the cup-and-ring, or cup and partial ring (sometimes
with a tail which always points downwards) and surfaces with this
motif tend to occur near places where copper or gold ores were mined.
Hence the possibility that they are priestly-prospectors' maps or
signposts. (A famous carved rock face at Valcamonica in N Lombardy
- nowhere near the sea - is thought to be a map showing buildings,
streams, paths and fields.)
at least has sun-viewing significance twice a year, so this also
must be reckoned with.
motifs, such as the multiple concentric ring and the multiple concentric
lozenge which occur frequently in passage-tombs, have been found
on the lower surfaces of the covers of kist-tombs - which sometimes
have come from elsewhere and re-used or adapted for funerary use.
click on the picture to see a typical
of the inner surface of the cover-stone of a kist from
Ballinvally, county Meath, photographed at the National
Museum of Ireland.
Might this have been (or become) a mystic map for a dead
were built from earliest times right through the Bronze
The significance of petroglyphs remains largely enigmatic. The semiotics
of the equal-armed cross in our culture, for example, include first
aid, x-marks-the-spot, crossroads, Christianity (especially Orthodox),
and the mathematical plus sign - all unrelated. So the multiple
concentric circle might have meant various things at different places
to different people at different times.
is now thought that the earliest, most 'primitive' petroglyphs:
patterns of dots (cupmarks), sun-bursts, grid-patterns, spirals,
zig-zags, snake-forms and wavy lines, are phosphenic or entoptic:
i.e. they are influenced by the 'visions' we get when we rub our
eyes briskly and keep them shut, or when hallucinating. Such designs
occur all over the world, and in both passage-tomb and rock-surface
designs in Ireland. More complicated designs are usually developments
of these phosphenic 'elements'. But, of course, as I mentioned above,
patterns of dots, in the form of solution-pits, occur naturally
they had a 'mystic' and 'ritual' significance which fitted in with
funeral rites, early astronomy and metal-mining. They are also part
of a common Atlantic seaboard (or edge-of-the-known-world) culture
which persists today in the striking similarities of character in
people inhabiting a littoral line passing from Norway around Scotland
and Ireland, across to Cornwall and over to Brittany, across the
Bay of Biscay to Asturias and Portugalicia, and on to the Canary
Islands off the Moroccan coast. Petroglyphs of probably-similar
date also occur at least as far south as Gabon.
is likely. And if bullaun-like stones in Africa have been used
to attract rain, then, in the Irish climate which deteriorated so
much in the Early Bronze Age, both cup-marks and bullauns could
have been attempts to attract the sun.
interest lies mainly in their appeal and surprise to the eye. In
an island where you might have to drive at least ten miles to find
something beautiful made by man (unlike many parts of rural Europe
where you have to drive at least ten miles to find an ugly building),
petroglyphic rocks and stones are especially delightful - even if,
like the one pictured above, it was irreverently dumped at the edge
of a field and lost for several years, before being placed in a
Distribution of petroglyphs in Ireland.