Category Archives: IRELAND

Magic in the Hag’s Cairn of the Loughcrew Hills at the Equinox Rising Sun

Within the Loughcrew complex, Cairn T (Hag’s Cairn), which is situated on Carnbane East, is the most outstanding of all (see: Sliabh na Callighe (Mountains of the Witch). As if it had been designed as an astronomical construct, the mound “stands in the focal position and takes the most prominent place on the highest summit of a megalithic area” (Brennan 1994:46). Originally there were fifty to a hundred mounds (Ibid.). In the seven remaining mounds, sufficient stones are in their original alignment for a beam of light to be projected into the chamber and against the backstone, presenting a clearly defined frame of light (Ibid.). The number of remaining mounds allows to reconstruct the main elements in a planned astronomical and calendrical scheme.

Major mounds and their satellites

In 1980, two researchers, Martin Brennan and Jack Roberts studied the two most important cairns at Loughcrew, T and L, which are supplemented by smaller satellite mounds linked to their larger counterparts by orientation and alignment (Brennan 1994:46-50). “Cairns L and T – [initially] appeared to be oriented in the same direction according to archaeological surveys done before 1980s, however, [the explorers have eventually concluded that] in terms of real function, the equinox rising sun is focused on Cairn T, but does not approach anywhere near the passage of Cairn L” (Brennan 1994:48).

While conducting their studies, the both researchers had encountered similar problems as we did during our study trip, while they were trying to reach the Cairn T in March to observe the spring equinox (see: Sliabh na Callighe (Mountains of the Witch). Martin Brennan (1994:46) writes that “the mountains were covered in snow and the […] winds from the east blew icy gusts down the passage of the mound.” Actually, 5000 years ago the climate was more favourable to celebrate the spring equinox.

What does the equinox mean?

“Equinox literally means equal night. In terms of hours, equinox is the date, when the hours of day and night are equal. The two extremes of this are winter solstice, when the night is longest, and summer solstice, when the night is shortest” (Brennan 1994:90). So equinox (spring and autumnal) is midway between these two points (Ibid.:90). “At equinox the sun is raising due east to the horizon” (Ibid.:90).

Hag’s Cairn

As the major mound, Cairn T “dominates a group of smaller satellite mounds clustered around it on the summit of the Mountain of the Sorceress, [called like that for the mentioned reasons (see: Sliabh na Callighe (Mountains of the Witch)]” (Brennan 1994:48). It is orientated about nine degrees south of east and above the horizon (Ibid.:90). Therefore “the beam [of light] does not enter the mound until the sun rises to the proper altitude. At the spring equinox the angle of the sun’s path is very high in relation to the horizon, whereas at the autumnal equinox the angle of the ecliptic is lower. […] What [one can witness] at Cairn T [at the equinox is] the intended projection of light and its interaction with [the carved symbols]” (Ibid.:90).

Views from Loughcrew Passage Tomb near Oldcastle, County Meath. Photo by Stephen Keaveny (2014). CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo source: “Loughcrew” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

During their research at the time of the spring equinox, Brennan and Roberts noticed a rectangular patch of light on the upper left of the backstone inside the Cairn T (Brennan 1994:47,93). It was starting to take a regular form, “brilliantly illuminating the entire chamber in a glowing splendour of shimmering golden orange light” (Ibid.). As the researchers notice, it gives a different effect from the one observed at Newgrange at the winter solstice. Whereas in the latter, the beam of light sweeps across the chamber, inside the Cairn T at Loughcrew, “the light [assumes] a clearly defined geometric shape that [is] projected on to the upright backstone and [moves] diagonally across it, tracing the path of the sun against a mural of prehistoric art” (Ibid.).

Encrypted message of Loughcrew?

“The arrangement of the engravings in relation to the sunbeam reveals that there is quite precise time reckoning and careful determination of the equinoxes” (Brennan 1994:92). The beam of light is concentrated on one stone at the back of the passage chamber (C8) and in its journey it progresses from left to right (Ibid.:94). Finally it gradually moves down the stone, “reflecting the movement of the rising sun” (Ibid.:94) and “illuminating key symbols as it progresses” (Ibid.:92). “It is the beam of light itself which finally and conclusively identifies the inscriptions as solar symbols” (Ibid.:94). The focal point of the entire process is a petroglyph representing “a large circular radial sun on the right of the stone” (Ibid.:93; see 94).   

The researchers were highly impressed by the observed phenomenon, where the sliding beam of light played the role of a guide or key to the encrypted message left by the builders of Loughcrew. In this context, the petroglyphs on the backstone (C8)  in Cairn T may “be interpreted as the language of unknown archaic astronomers” (Brennan 1994:92).

“For the first time we were seeing the signs and symbols in the context in which the artist had meant them to be seen. Suddenly markings that had appeared to be random and haphazard became part of an intricately structured system that derived its meaning from the solar event we were witnessing” (Brennan 1994:47)

Cairn T at Loughcrew. Photo by William Whyte from Dublin, Ireland (2008). CC BY-SA 2.0. “Loughcrew” (2019). In. Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

Furthermore, the entrance stones and the narrow passage shape the beam of light into a regular geometric form of a rectangle (Brennan 1994:94). At the end it disintegrates in the process of moving on the right and away from stone C8 (Ibid.:94). The rectangular shape reconstructs itself reaching stone C10 (Ibid.:94). At autumnal equinox the process is repeated (research carried out at the site on 22nd September, 1980 by Martin Brennan and Jack Roberts) (Ibid.:98). “The beam of light clearly centres on the sun’s disc, repeating the imagery of the spring equinox. [Although the] focal image in both events remains the same, […] different sets of engravings are utilized to measure the beam of light” (Ibid.:98). With the same width of the beam as at spring equinox, at the autumnal its length changes and is about double as it is in the spring (Ibid.:98). In both cases, however, “the illumination of the sun wheel unambiguously links the prehistoric art and the astronomy” (Ibid.:100).

Precise solar construct

According to the results of research done at the site on 20th March in 1980 (on the day of the spring equinox), Cairn T turned out to be a precise astronomical instrument or a solar construct (Brennan 1994:48). Combined with the prehistoric petroglyphs, the visible differences in the movement of the sunlight on the backstone made it far easier and more precise in identifying the actual day of equinox  at Loughcrew than the day of winter solstice at Newgrange (Ibid.).

Epitaph for Jeremiah …?

Michelangelo, Jeremiah from the Sistine Chapel ceiling (1508-1512). The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. Public domain. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Jeremiah” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

There is a growing belief that Cairn T is actually the burial place of the Bible Prophet, Jeremiah! Some authors claim that Jeremiah’s message is encoded in the petroglyphs inside the entrance to the Cairn and that they even reveal the exact date of his death on 21st of September in 581 BC (JAH 1998-2006; O’Bryan 2017). According to the same authors, the Cairn T itself would have been designed to demonstrate the autumnal equinox just in memory to the Prophet (JAH 1998-2006). “These are the same [authors] who also believe that the Ark of the Covenant is buried on the Hill of Tara” (Murphy 2017-2020).

Jeremiah was the Jewish prophet known from the Old Testament from his prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem (O’Bryan 2017). According to one of the versions reporting a possible story of the lost Ark of the Covenant, Jeremiah may have been a person who escaped Jerusalem with the Ark in 587 BC (Ibid.). It may have happened just before “the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar took the city and destroyed the First Temple” (Ibid.). After the Book of Jeremiah, the Prophet escaped the conquered city together with other Israelites, among whom there was a Jewish princess and the scribe Baruch (JAH 1998-2006; O’Bryan 2017). As the legend says, the group sailed to Ireland, after stopping in Egypt (possibly Tanis) (JAH 1998-2006; O’Bryan 2017) Other accounts state, however, that the Israelites actually headed off to the south, in the direction of Abyssinia (today Ethiopia).

Bethel aka Stone of Destiny

Dipre (D’Ypre), Nicolas. 1495–1531. Jacob’s dream of a ladder. Avignon. Musée du Petit Palais. Photo uploaded by Eugene (2011). Public domain {{PD-US}}. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons.

It is also believed that Jeremiah brought to Ireland the Stone of Destiny aka Jacob’s Pillar, which was once used by the biblical patriarch Jacob (Genesis 28:11-22) as a pillow while he was dreaming of angels ascending and descending on a ladder suspended between the Earth and Heavens (JAH 1998-2006; Gilbert 2015). Jacob thought he had found himself at the door to God’s realm and so he put the stone in a vertical position and called the place the Bethel, which means the House of God (Gilbert 2015). The Stone of Destiny, in turn, was called in Irish Lia Fáil, which means the Speaking Stone or the Stone that Roared to give an explanation for its oracular function (JAH 1998-2006; Keyser 1999-2009). It is believed that it became later the coronation stone for the High Kings of Ireland (Keyser 1999-2009; Gilbert 2017). Herbert W. Armstrong writes that “many kings in the history of Ireland, Scotland, and England have been coronated over this stone – including the present queen. The stone rests today in Westminster Abbey in London, and the coronation chair is built over and around it” (Keyser 1999-2009). Additionally, the stone has got the plate behind it labelling it as ‘Bethel’ (Gilbert 2017).

Jeremiah, Ollamh Fodhla and Tuatha de Danann

Illustration of the Stone of Scone in the Coronation Chair at Westminster Abbey, 1855. Anonymous engraver. The History of England (1859) by D. Hume, continued by T. Smollett, E. Farr and E.H. Nolan Also published in The Queens of England (c. 1889) by Sydney Wilmot. Uploaded in 2006 and in 2016. Public domain {{PD-US}}. Colours intensified. Image source: “Stone of Scone” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Some authors look for evidence for the story in Irish Annals. None of those refers to Jeremiah (Keyser 1999-2009). However, the Annals of Clonmacnoise mentions a mysterious personage of Ollamh Fodhla who appeared on the Island accompanied by an Oriental princess (Gilbert 2015). As the story goes they brought to its shore ancient relics: a harp, chest and a stone (Ibid.). A leading authority on Irish history, Roderic O’Flaherty, however, states that Ollamh Fodhla could not be the same person as Jeremiah due to completely different origins and lifetime of both characters (Keyser 1999-2009). Some scholars also suggest that the Stone of Destiny was brought to Ireland already prior to 700 BC by mysterious people, the Irish myths refer to as Tuatha de Danann – a supernatural race who came to Ireland in ships (Gilbert 2015). It is suggested they were actually representatives of the Tribe of Dan – one of the tribes of Israel, according to the Torah, who had lived along the coast in the north of Israel (today Palestine) (Ibid.). Simultaneously, it was the place where Jacob had got his vision. Israelites from the Tribe of Dan were in danger of becoming captives of other invaders – the Assyrians (Ibid.). As they were excellent sailors, they may have escaped by the sea and reached the shores of Ireland together with their treasure – the Stone of Destiny (Ibid.). In this version, however, Jeremiah could not have played the role he has been ascribed to by the legend.

Replica of the Stone of Scone, Scone Palace, Scotland. The stone rests today in Westminster Abbey in London, and the coronation chair is built over and around it. Additionally, the stone has got the plate behind it labelling it as ‘Bethel’. Photo by Aaron Bradley from Vancouver, Canada (2013). CC BY-SA 2.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Stone of Scone” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Just speculations

Although such stories are fascinating, they are decidedly criticized or even ignored by academics. First of all, the Cairn T of Loughcrew was not built as a burial place for Jeremiah or aligned according to the day of his death as it is itself dated back to the second part of the fourth millennium BC, whereas Jeremiah lived in the sixth century BC. Most authors point to the fact that Irish records do not mention Jeremiah’s landing in Ireland or the fact he brought there such treasures as the Bethel or the Arch of Convents (Keyser 1999-2009).

Tuatha Dé Danann as depicted in John Duncan‘s “Riders of the Sidhe” (1911). Public domain. Colours intensified. Painting source: “Tuatha Dé Danann” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The assumption that the Prophet was buried in the Cairn T of  Loughcrew is not borne out either by Irish Annals, petroglyphs of the cairn (unless somebody has deciphered their meaning) or by archaeological evidence. If the Bethel is the same as the Stone of Destiny, which is still under question, it seems more possible it was brought by the Israelites from the Tribe of Dan. Still these are also speculations …

Inside the Cairn T

We did not have a chance to visit Loughcrew in March. Yet I had already climbed up the Hag’s Hill together with my sister when she came to Ireland several months before our study trip. It was in October and we travelled with a group of tourists to the Boyne Valley. The weather was a little bit better than in March. There was a shower from time to time but without strong winds or low temperatures. Still it was wet and some people slipped down the side of the Hill and got covered in mud before they reached its summit. Although the visibility was quite poor because of the mist, we could eventually enter the Cairn T in small groups and admire the mysterious symbols on huge stones inside the passage. Together with my sister we were amazed by their circulating lines, zig-zags and circles engraved in stone. Fascinated with their various shapes I was tracing enigmatic lines with my fingers as if I in hope of understanding the prehistoric writing by touch.

I was tracing enigmatic lines with my fingers as if I in hope of understanding the prehistoric writing by touch . Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Do they contain any encoded messages at all …?

Featured image: Bing Map of the Cairn T at Sliabh na Caillighe (Loughcrew, Ireland). The map created by Archaeotravel by means of the Bing Maps. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Tuatha Dé Danann” (2020). In: Wikipedia. Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/33haaCw>. [Accessed 14th March, 2020].

“Jeremiah” (2021) Wikipedia. Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/3buWSJ3>. [Accessed 9th January, 2021].

“Loughcrew” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/2Xolsmz>. [Accessed 9th January, 2021].

“Loughcrew” (2019). In. Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/2K0hoWp>. [Accessed 9th January, 2021].

“Stone of Scone” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/38un5p7>. [Accessed 9th January, 2021].

Brennan M. (1994) The Stones of Time. Calendars, Sundials, and Stone Chambers of Ancient Ireland. Vermont: Inner Traditions International, Rochester.

Dipre (D’Ypre) N. (1495–1531). Jacob’s dream of a ladder. Avignon. Musée du Petit Palais. In: Wikimedia Commons. Available at <https://bit.ly/3aVu9t5>. [Accessed 14th March, 2020].

Gilbert, A. In: Gaunt T. (2015) “The Stone of Jacob” In: Secrets of the Bible. Season 1; Episode 8. Documentary.

Hurson R. (2014). “Entrance carvings Loughcrew Cairn T”. In: Wikimedia Commons. Available at  <https://bit.ly/2Sy4eUx>. [Accessed 29th May, 2021].

JAH (1998-2006) Jeremiah’s Tomb (The Tomb of Ollamh Fodhla). Available at  <https://bit.ly/2U8zCWC>. [Accessed 14th March, 2020].

Keyser J. D. (1999-2009) “The Coronation Stone – Jeremiah in Ireland”. In: Sanders, M. S. Mysteries of the Bible. Available at  <https://bit.ly/39MA7wi>. [Accessed 14th March, 2020].

McCormack L. (2020) “The Autumnal Equinox and the Sliabh na Calliagh Passage Tomb Complex” In: Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland. Available at <https://bit.ly/2WcTHhi>. [Accessed 14th March, 2020].

Murphy A. (2017-2020) Mythical Ireland. Available at  <https://bit.ly/2WcWAP3>. [Accessed 14th March, 2020].

O’Bryan L. (2017) “Could Ireland’s Cairn T Really Be the Tomb of the Prophet Jeremiah?” In: Ancient Origins. Available at  <https://bit.ly/2xvtDDJ>. [Accessed 14th March, 2020].

Back in Time between Peatlands and Cliffs

Over fifty years ago, “a team of archaeologists from UCD, [in Ireland], led by Professor Seamus Caulfield, first started to come to the remote north Mayo village of Belderrig, to uncover and study the ancient stone-walled field systems there. [The] link between UCD and Belderrig continues, with teams of student archaeologists [keep returning] to the village to progress the work [that was started by the] local man, Professor Caulfield” (McNulty 2008).

Professor Seamus Caulfield at fieldwork in the wetlands of Belderrig. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Again in Belderrig

Our team of students reached Belderrig in the very late evening. It was a part of a residential fieldtrip to Mayo, organized by the School of Archaeology, between the 6th and 8th October, 2017. Our destination, Belderrig or rather “Béal Deirg […] is a Gaeltacht village and townland in County Mayo (“Belderrig” 2019), in the north-western Ireland. The journey started at our University in Dublin and took nearly five hours. Factually, “coming to Belderrig is travelling back 1000 million years and more. [As] a rural area located in a region rich in historical and archaeological heritage, […] it is a [gift] to the geologist, archaeologist and the botanist” (Mayo Ireland Ltd. 2020).

Archaeologists and students at pet bogs in Belderrig. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Having reached our destination, we were first directed to the local pub to warm up and have dinner. Oh yes, those hearty Irish foods with dark beer are so good, especially on rainy and windy days of autumn, like that one. When we finally finished, the night had already fallen down, and it was completely dark when we finally went to bed in one of the cottages accommodating students.

Rewarding experience

Next morning, I got up earlier and went out for a short walk. The smell of salt air was overwhelming. Outside, there was waiting “the largely undisturbed openness of the countryside and the closeness of the wild Atlantic that stands in contrast with small cosy [whitewashed] cottages with their fireplaces. […] Once in Belderrig you forget traffic, haste, stress, depression” (Mayo Ireland Ltd. 2020).

After our self-made and quick breakfast, Professor Caulfield guided us to the open fields of the area to examine the site trench with an excavated section of a bog and the lay-out of the ancient walls. It was creepy cold and windy out there. And foggy damp, which is actually typical of wetland, especially in autumn. Most of the area is covered in bogs, turf and wild grasses. The only way to excavate was cutting through the topsoil with a sort of sharp shovel, driven into the ground with enough force to cut through the entire layer. Our experienced teachers showed us how to do it and it was fun for all of us. Still the conditions of archaeological work in Ireland are quite hard: bog water is extremely cold and with the mixture of strong wind the weather gives you an unpleasant feeling of coldness in your body. Waterproof clothes and wellingtons do not mean bog-proof so one can get completely soaked to the skin. Nevertheless, the sites are so beautiful in Mayo, you can easily forget about your wet clothes and just enjoy the field trip.

The site trench with an excavated section of a bog in Belderrig. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Archaeological digging is a quite complicated process but it is also a rewarding experience. Also each time it is different as it depends on where you do particular research: in the bogs or in bone dry sand. One time you plunge in water, the other you catch sunburn. Every time, however, it’s very exciting to feel and touch the history. This is one of the reasons I love archaeology.

6,000-year-old site

“When the Celts arrived in Ireland, the island had been inhabited for over 7 000 years. These pre-Celts have left no written records: they were literary pre-historic. But they have left extensive archaeological evidence, of which Newgrange is the most celebrated example”

Laurence Flanagan (1999) Ancient Ireland: Life before the Celts.
Wetlands in the are of Belderrig. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In July, 2008, an archaeological team “recorded the findings they had uncovered over the weeks, before they prepared to back-fill the site trench. Close to them were the reminders of past digs but, even without excavating the trench, the existence of 6,000-year-old life in the area is clearly evident. […] Over the weeks, the soil which was removed from the site was brought to the nearby Belderrig Research and Study Centre where students painstakingly sifted through the dirt and looked for signs of hazelnut, charcoal, fish bones and other items which could be analysed and dated” (McNulty 2008).

Fieldwork in Belderrig…
Copyright©Archaeotravel.

A significant part of the archaeological survey in Belderrig is the study of the ancient stone-walled field systems. “The lack of good agricultural land in the […] region is one of the main reasons why the structures stayed relatively intact under the bog for [the millennia]. The discovery of the walls in Belderrig has allowed archaeologists the opportunity to understand how [they] were constructed and to map out where they appeared on the landscape” (McNulty 2008).

For years, the site has consequently become a subject of one of the most important archaeological “study of the hunter-gatherers and the early farmers who lived in the region [in around 4 000 BC]. The landscape at that time in Belderrig could not have been more different from what it is now, with the area then characterised by light and mixed woodland of pine and hazel. Bog was just being formed and, over time, much of the woodland was eventually cleared by the Neolithic people to make way for their fields” (McNulty 2008).

Archaeological evidence from the coast

We walked slowly along the rough seashore being followed by the sound of the “Atlantic crashing against the windswept landscape close to Belderrig pier” (McNulty 2008).

Open spaces between the bogs and the coastline in Co. Mayo. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

It is truly “a beautiful sprawling coastal area, scenically located adjacent to the […] Ocean between Ballycastle and Belmullet. [It] offers a magnificent scenery of sea and cliffs capes, and dramatic mountains. […] From [there we had] fine views as far as Porturlin and Portacloy to the north west, [with] the Stags of Broadhaven [rising] majestically in the distance. On a clear day one can see the Sligo coastline and the cliffs of Killybegs and Teelin, [in County Donegal].

The Belderrig coasts.Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The Belderrig Cliffs also contain some of the most spectacular coastal geology [and archaeology] in Ireland” (Mayo Ireland Ltd. 2020): “[the erosion of the sea’s edge reveals evidence of 6,000-year-old fish bones and pieces of quartz, which was the dominant stone used by the Stone Age farmers in making stone tools” (McNulty 2008).

Megalith on the way

Walking across the prehistoric mountainous landscape, we came across a megalithic structure, whose stone elements were protruding out from the ground.

The region between Ballycastle and Belmullet offering a magnificent scenery of sea and cliffs capes, and dramatic mountains. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In prehistoric architecture, a MEGALITH is a large, often undressed stone, that has been used in the construction of various types of Neolithic, Chalcolithic or Bronze Age monuments, during the period 4500-1000 BC.

Toppr (2019); see Lucie-Smith (2003), p. 136.
Buried wedge tomb in the area of Belderrig. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

This one found in the filed, however, was rather small in size. Accordingly, it was a lesser-type of megalithic graves, known as wedge tombs, commonly found in Ireland. Wedge tombs look like stone boxes of different size with a sloping roof slab (Byrne 2020). “They are somewhat similar in appearance to some portal dolmens. Like the other kinds of monuments, they would have originally been covered with a cairn of stones” (Ibid.).

Cliffs of the Atlantic Way, Co. Mayo. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Céide Fields

Between Belderrig and Ballycastle, archaeologists discovered an extensive Neolithic field systems (Jackman 2018: site 68). Following the main Atlantic Way, we were travelling there on our last day of the field trip in County Mayo.

A pine tree 4000 years old from Belderrig. Photo taken in the visitor centre. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Before we reached the site, we stopped on the cliffs, and like from a viewing platform, we were looking for a while at the rolling bog land of Céide Fields (High Fields) (Fagan, Durrani 2016:281). They were impressive. “During the Neolithic period the climate would have been both drier and warmer than now” (Jackman 2018: site 68). Millennia ago, the Céide Fields were covered in forests of pine, birch, hazel and oak (Ibid.: site 68). Once they were felled by Neolithic farmers, the landscape was used for agriculture (Ibid.: site 68). However, “[over] millennia the climate has changed, and become both colder and wetter, allowing for the development of the blanket bog that has sealed and preserved much of this fascinating ancient landscape” (Ibid.: site 68). It is precisely Neolithic and dated back as far as to around 3 500 BC (Lavin 2011:111; Kelly 2016:119; “Céide Fields” 2020). “Radiocarbon dating for a hearth beside the remains of a house confirms [such a dating of the site, namely], that humans lived [there] a few centuries before [the third millennium BC]” (Lavin 2011:111).

One of the walkways running parallel to the Neolithic field wall at the Céide Fields. Source: Jackman (2018: site 68).

Today, the Céide Fields cover remote coastal area and “[consist] of megalithic burial monuments, dwelling houses and enclosures within an integrated system of stone walls, all of which are spread over 12 square kilometres. […] Many of its features are preserved intact beneath blanket peat that is over 4 metres deep in places. The significance of the site lies in the fact that it is the most extensive Stone Age monument [in Ireland with the oldest known field systems] in the world and the oldest enclosed landscape in Europe” (Kelly 2016:119; see “Céide Fields” 2020). The Céide Fields also provide an actual image of the Irish countryside from five millennia ago, so it is better to understand how the Neolithic agriculture worked (Lavin 2011:111).

Another megalithic tomb

Strong gusts of wind coming from the Atlantic Ocean kept pushing us forward across the Fields. Apart from the remains of the prehistoric past scattered all over, we met a few clusters of sheep looking at us curiously, as if judging our rights of being present in their territory.

Behy Court Tomb in the middle of the Céide Fields. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

There are wooden walkways over the fields to make visitors feel more comfortable while walking and to avoid getting wet. No need to say, we deliberately gave up such facilities to reach real treasures of the site, walking directly through the bog, beyond the tourist track.

One of the most significant landmarks of the Fields was the megalithic monument, known as Behy Court Tomb. It is situated just in the middle of the Céide Fields, still partially buried in the bog peat. As explained by our professors, it was initially described as a passage tomb as it features an entrance passageway leading to the cruciform gallery inside it, which is an important characteristic of this group of Neolithic tombs (Earth is Mysterious 2019-2020).  Court tombs usually have neither an entrance passage or a cruciform gallery but an elongated rectangular burial chamber with the exedra or forecourt (Ibid.). As the latter element has been also found at Behy Tomb, it could be simply described as a hybrid variant of court and passage tombs. Still, it is usually defined as a court tomb in the professional literature on the subject.

Broken Fort

Before heading off back to Dublin, we were yet planning to visit the nearby site of Downpatrick Head, which is strongly associated with Saint Patrick and his mission of converting Ireland to Christianity.

The modern statue of Saint Patrick at the headland.
Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Saint Patrick is actually believed to have carried his ministry in the north of Ireland, particularly in County Mayo. As some local folklore stories go, one of the pre-Christian gods or pagan priests, Crom Cruach resided on the headland (modern Downpatrick Head) and kept holy fires burning continuously (Makem 1997). “He dominated the whole area and [people] feared him. […] Saint Patrick was travelling in the area and approached the point of the headland. Crom Cruach rose up against him. The saint picked up a rock, carved a cross on it, lifted it with both hands above his head and roaring out a prayer, hurled the rock with great force into the [holy] fire. There was a mighty explosion and a blinding flash. When the smoke and confusion cleared, the point of the headland had split off and was sitting out in the water with Crom Cruach still on it. He was destined to remain there until he died, which [was not] too long afterwards. According to the story, he suffered horribly, being eaten to death by midges” (Ibid.).

Very similar stories about the beginning of Christianity in Ireland, especially saying of the holy fire being extinguished by Saint Patrick, also circulate in County Meath. Similarly, they also refer to Saint Patrick’s fight with ancient priests and pagan gods on the Hill of Slane.

The beautiful legend told in County Mayo additionally offers an explanation for the origins of the sea stack of Dún Briste (Gaelic for Broken Fort) (Makem 1997). It is a single large rock at Downpatrick, protruding out of the ocean at the height of forty-five meters. Once joined to the mainland, now being lashed by foaming ocean, it is one of the most scenic landmarks of County Mayo and Wild Atlantic Way.

Spectacular cliffs at Downpatrick. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“During the Second World War (or ‘the Emergency’, as it was known [there]), a lookout post was constructed [at Downpatrick] to keep watch for shipping or submarines that might stray into Ireland’s neutral waters and a large EIRE sign was created from white stones to warn aircraft away from crossing into Irish airspace” (Jackman 2018: site 70).

Private tour

Sitting over a cup of coffee inside the visitor centre at Céide Fields, I admitted to Professor Caulfield that I have been strongly interested in the studies on early Christianity in Ireland, once conducted by Françoise Henry (16 June 1902 – 10 February 1982), who was a scholar of early Irish art, archaeologist, and art historian at University College Dublin.

Doonfeeny standing stone with early
symbols of Christianity.
Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Henry was also a strong supporter of a thesis of Coptic influences on Pre-Romanesque art in Ireland. I knew Henry was studying early Christian symbols on prehistoric slab stones on the island of Inishkea North in County Mayo, where she kept returning between 1937 and 1950. Although the island was too far to get there, Professor Caulfield offered to guide me to another nearby site with cross-slabs, which was also on the way to our next scheduled destination. I enthusiastically agreed and drove to the site together with my guide, while the rest of the group was supposed to wait for us at Downpatrick.

Doonfeeny standing stone

Doonfeeny is a short five-minute drive from Céide Fields. We simply headed west on the road for a little over 2,5 kilometres and then turn right up a narrow road with grass growing in the middle of it (Jackman 2018: site 69). We followed this road for approximately 500 metres till we saw the tall stone pillar in the graveyard on one side and the ruins of a church on the other (Ibid.). We pulled in the car and started climbing up the hill to reach the slender trunk of stone soaring over the landscape.

Doonfeeny pillar in the graveyard. Source: Sacred Landscapes (2020).

“The area around Doonfeeny is an important early medieval landscape, with a number of ringforts and archaeological monuments” (Jackman 2018: site 69). Probably the most outstanding is our object of interest, the square-sectioned, leaning pillar “that stands proudly on a green hill overlooking the Atlantic” (Ibid.). The stone is also called a Menhir or Cloch Fada, which means ‘Long Stone’ (Sacred Landscapes 2020).

MENHIR, from the Breton words ‘men’ stone, and ‘hir’ is a long, a single upright stone, often of enormous size, which was deployed either on its own or in connection with a tomb site.

Megaliths. Encyclopedia of Stone Age Art (2020).

Although Doonfeeny stone is upright and fixed to the ground on its own, it does not look like a huge boulder as its shape is elongated and slender. “Folklore has it that this stone is on alignments with clefts in neighbouring hills and solar positions” (Ballycastle/Belderrig Development Co. 2020).

What was its original function?

“The Ordnance Survey letters (1838) describe the stone in the following manner: ‘A stone 18’ or 20’high and 9” thick, fixed in the ground and inkling to the East, on the N.W. side of which is cut the form of a cross about 2’ long, with a small cross 10” long and some ornamental incisions under it’” (Sacred Landscapes 2020).

Doonfeeny stone with the so-called Maltese cross, below the Latin cross. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The Doonfeeny stone “was likely to have first been erected in the Bronze Age, perhaps to mark a territorial boundary, or possibly to mark the area as sacred” (Jackman 2018: site 69). The pillar is also called the Ogham stone as it boasts signs of ogham inscriptions. Ogham writing, apparently called after Ogmios, the Celtic God of writing, was the original “Irish alphabet used on monuments from 300 A.D. to 700 A.D.” (Ballycastle/Belderrig Development Co. 2020) (see Pictish Symbol Stones: from Pagan Beast to the Cross). Unfortunately, the ogham inscription incised on the stone are today mostly time-worn and cannot be deciphered (Ballycastle/Belderrig Development Co. 2020).

“There once existed a tradition in parts of the west of Ireland that some of these standing stones were used as ‘Fertility [Objects]’ by women seeking to get pregnant, or alternatively, as a primitive form of contraception, and it is recounted that women were known to prostrate themselves before these stones all the while praying that ‘they might be delivered from the perils of childbirth’” (Sacred Landscapes 2020). “Although we may never know for certain the true intention of those who erected the stone, it still undeniably creates a powerful visual signpost in the landscape. it stands some [five metres] tall, making it [the second highest standing stone] in Ireland” (Jackman 2018: site 69; see Ballycastle/Belderrig Development Co. 2020).

On the verge of Christianity

Doonfeeny cross with Latin cross (above) and Maltese or Greek cross (below).
Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As much as other prehistoric sites, Doonfeeny pillar “was appropriated in the early days of Christianity, and two crosses were carved into the stone, a single line Latin cross with forked ends and horizontal base placed over a double-line Maltese type cross with a curved ‘birds-head-design’ line [at its foot]” (Jackman 2018: site 69). Some interpret the symbol of ‘birds-head-design’ as the wheel and sun-burst that possibly would symbolise the Resurrection (Ballycastle/Belderrig Development Co. 2020). “The crosses may date to as early as the sixth century or seven century, or perhaps even earlier” (Jackman 2018: site 69).

Two forts and a killed swine

The site’s information boards says that the church ruins in Doonfeeny Churchyard date back to the seventh century (Sacred Landscapes 2020). Nevertheless, it was overbuilt on the site previously occupied by an ancient church, probably from the sixth century (Ibid.). The Ordnance Survey Letters (1838) and the board also inform that to the south of the church, there is a cemetery surrounded with a fosse in the form of a fort, which is Dún (Fort) giving its name to the parish: Dún Fhíne (Fine’s Fort) (Ibid.).

The layout of the Four Maols’ Fort. Source: Sacred Landscapes (2020).

After the information on the board, north of the parish church there is an earthen work, called ‘The Fairy Fort of Doonfeny’. In fact, these are the remains of Rath Ui Dubhda, standing for ‘O’ Dowd’s Fort (Sacred Landscapes 2020). As a local story goes, the Four Maols, known as the infamous murderers, built the original fort there, which they dedicated by killing a swine (Ibid.). This pagan act was apparently inspired by a pro-Christian tradition, where the animal was a substituted for human sacrifice (Ibid.). The board ads that the Four Maols’ grave can be seen in Ballina, a town in north County Mayo (Ibid.). The grave is well recognizable as it is marked by a dolmen (Ibid.).

Saint Patrick again

From the site  we could see Dún Briste at Downpatrick Head (Jackman 2018: site 69).

One of the so-called blow holes in the area of Belderrig. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“It is enticing to consider that the ‘real’ Patrick may have seen this tall stone with his own eyes. It is not a great distance to Foghill, believed to be Foclut, the area that he described in his writings where he was held as a slave as a young man. The stone would have certainly already been standing for thousands of years before [St] Patrick’s time, and may have still been a distinctive marker on the landscape. If a young Patrick did see the stone, did he know what it symbolised? Or was it just another unknowable symbol in the strange pagan land in which he found himself?” (Jackman 2018: site 69).

Legend-encrusted blow-holes

When we finally caught up with the rest of the group reaching atop the visitor centre at Downpatrick, we were rewarded with “a wonderful view of this ancient and sacred landscape stretching as it does off down by the majestic Céide cliffs and across the foam to historic Downpatrick Head with its awesome, legend-encrusted blow-holes and the mighty storied sea-pillar of Dún Briste” (Sacred Landscapes, “Downpatrick Head” 2020).

Of the growling blow-holes we had already come across in the area of Belderrig, which are called Poille Beaga – ‘Small Holes’, the one on the headland of Downpatrick, Poll na Seantuinne or Poll na Sean Toinne, meaning ‘the Hole of the Old Wave’ (Sacred Landscapes, “Downpatrick Head” 2020) “is by far the largest, most impressive and the one most associated with the history and folklore of the place” (Ibid.). Although they are all carved naturally by thousands of years of marine erosion, there are a few legends ascribing these chasms more supernatural origins (Ibid.).

Legendary Ireland

Such stories are ubiquitous in whole Ireland. They may have appeared when ancient people were looking for a reason of natural phenomena. Nevertheless, in many cases, they may directly refer to historical circumstances or characters who had fired the imagination (Harpur, Westwood 1997:6).

Picturesque cliffs between Belderrig and Ballycastle. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The seed of legend was definitely sown in this region of Ireland, whose ancient past continues to draw tourists, pilgrims and … archaeologists (Ibid.:6).

Featured image: Dun Briste at Downpatrick, Co. Mayo. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

By Joanna
Faculty of History of Art and Archaeology
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland
University College Dublin, Ireland

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Belderrig” (2019). In Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/361bvic>. [Accessed on 15th May, 2020].

“Céide Fields” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/366l6o6>. [Accessed on 16th May, 2020].

“Megaliths” (2019) In: Toppr. Available at <https://bit.ly/2X5Gg1C>. [Accessed on 17th May, 2020].

“Menhir” (2020) In: Megaliths. Encyclopedia of Stone Age Art. Available at <https://bit.ly/2WFCLQv>. [Accessed on 17th May, 2020].

Ballycastle/Belderrig Development Co. (2020) “Standing Stone”. In: Welcome to Ballycastle Co. Mayo. Available at <https://bit.ly/2T6eSiP>. [Accessed on 16th May, 2020].

Byrne M. (2020) “Irish Wedge Tombs”. In: The Sacred Island. Available at <https://bit.ly/2WCd7vS>. [Accessed on 16th May, 2020].

Earth is Mysterious (2019-2020) “Megaliths: Stone Age Architecture”. In: Earth is mysterious. Available at <https://bit.ly/3bEOB1t>. [Accessed on 17th May, 2020].

Fagan B. M., Durrani N. (2016) Archaeology: A Brief Introduction. London & New York: Routledge.

Flanagan L. (1999) Ancient Ireland: Life before the Celts. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Harpur, J. Westwood, J. (1997) The Atlas of Legendary Places. New York: Marshal Editions.

Jackman N. (2018) Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way: A Guide to its Historic Treasures. Cork: The Collins Press.

Kelly C. (2016) “Rural Heritage and Tourism in Ireland: A County Mayo Case Study”. In: Heritage and Tourism in Britain and Ireland. Hooper G. ed., pp. 113-126. Glasgow: Palgrave McMillan.

Lavin P. (2011) The Shaping of the Celtic World: And the Resurgence of the Celtic World. Bloomington: Universe Inc.

Lucie-Smith, E. (2003) The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Art Terms. London: Thames & Hudson World of Art.

Makem T. (1997) “Céide Fields”. In: Tommy Makem’s Secret Ireland. Thomas Dunne Books.

Mayo Ireland Ltd. (2020) “Belderrig in Co. Mayo”. In: Mayo Ireland. Available at <https://bit.ly/3byWbdV>. [Accessed on 15th May, 2020].

McNulty A. (2008) “Back in Time in Belderrig”. In: Mayo News. Available at <https://bit.ly/361bvic>. [Accessed on 15th May, 2020].

Sacred Landscapes (2020) “Doonfeeny Standing Stone & Church”. In: Sacred Landscapes. Available at <https://bit.ly/2T8ORPF>. [Accessed on 16th May, 2020].

Sacred Landscapes (2020) “Downpatrick Head”. In: Sacred Landscapes. Available at <https://bit.ly/2Z9of4V>. [Accessed on 16th May, 2020].

Sliabh na Callighe (Mountains of the Witch)

In March we left for one-week study trip to the Boyne Valley. It was just a few days after heavy snowfall swamped the whole Ireland. Dubbed by the media as the “Beast from the East”, the cold wave had subsided after three days leaving behind white patches of snow and a hope for spring. Personally, as somebody who comes from Poland, I was used to the view of bigger snows and lower temperatures and so I got surprised by the reaction of people cleaning the shop shelves from food products on the day of the sinister weather forecast.

Brú na Bóinne

Boyne Valley with the hills of Loughcrew. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

According to archaeological studies, the Boyne Valley, called in Irish Brú na Bóinne, has been inhabited uninterruptedly since the end of the Ice Age, and is said to be the birthplace of Ireland’s Ancient East featuring one of the most sacred and mythical landscapes in the country. For these reasons, the region has always been very attractive in terms of archaeological research and international tourism (“About Boyne Valley Tourism” 2018).

The Boyne Valley mainly encompasses two counties, namely Co. Meath and Co. Louth, and it is itself a hugely attractive and unique region of Ireland to be explored by researchers, scholars and tourists. Unfortunately, its well-deserved fame and grandeur of incomparable monuments are not sufficiently illustrious and extended, except for the Stone Age passage tomb of Newgrange, which has become a significant ambassador of the local history encouraging the development of tourism in this area. Except for scholars and archaeologists widely interested in the region, tourists mostly head off to the Boyne Valley to visit only the passage tombs of Newgrange and Knowth, and possibly also the Norman Castle of Trim, which was the location for King John’s Castle in the film Braveheart (1995). Other monuments appear to generally exist in their shadow, and seem to be less attractive and more obscure to a broader group of visitors.

Less known but essential

Neolithic mounds of Loughcrew. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The key role of promoting the Boyne Valley is to point out and attract attention to other significant archaeological sites in the region, and simultaneously interesting tourist spots to be taken into account. It concerns prehistoric monuments of Dowth, Fourknocks and Loughcrew, royal and mythological Hills of Tara and Slane and finally medieval monuments of Mellifont, Duleek, Bective and Fore Abbeys as significant witnesses to European influence on insular tradition and architecture of Ireland (Michael 2018). Not without significant importance to the Irish history is also the site of  the seventeenth century Battle of the Boyne (Ibid.). Last but not least, there are ones of Ireland’s earliest Christian monastic sites, especially early medieval monuments of Irish sculpture – exceptional High Crosses of Kells in County Meath and those of Monasterboice in nearby Co. Louth (Ibid.). The monastic sites also feature Round Towers, which are not less interesting than the High Crosses themselves.

Archaeological assignments under the Irish sky

Newgrange in the distance and in the mist. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Yet before our study trip, we were divided into groups who each worked on a project dedicated to one particular site within the Boyne Valley. During our one-week trip, we stopped daily at three or four different sites and every group was supposed to give a lecture on a given monument in front of other students. Such a procedure would have been quite interesting unless a typical Irish weather that usually occurs in March. The snow gave its way to lashing and freezing rainfalls. Mixed with the prevailing winds, the rain was literally attacking us at each possible angle while we were trying to listen to the lectures in front of unmoved ancient stones, in the open space. Speakers suffered terribly: their voices were howled down by sudden blasts of icy cold air and their damped notes were literally falling apart between their fingers or were torn out by the wind.

Working in the field. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

I and two of my colleagues were assigned to the ancient site of  Loughcrew. However, the Beast from the East efficiently cut it off from the outside world due to the heavy snows, which still covered its ancient hills. Consequently, we were left without the subject of our study. To makes things even worse, our group was caught by an epidemic of stomach flu and some members of the study trip got sick and had to come back to Dublin, including one colleague of our three-person group. Therefore, two of us were left in the battlefield.

One of the sunniest days. Still wet and muddy. Wellingtons were the only option … Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As it turned out later on, we were compensated for all the inconvenience as we got a chance to present our project in much more favourable conditions than others. To make up for another rotten day, after visiting the High Crosses under the crying sky, we finally entered a warm coffeeshop in Kells where we were served fragrant sweet pastries and freshly ground coffee. Suddenly, our Professor came up with the idea of presenting the site of Loughcrew inside. We looked hesitantly at each other and then at clients curiously looking in our direction, possibly waiting for further development of the situation.

At Loughcrew in October, yet before the study trip. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

‘Well’, my colleague stopped the awkward silence. ‘Why not?’, he asked. ‘Unless it disturbs others …’ By saying ‘others’ he actually meant clients of the coffee shop.

‘No, not at all’, we heard some voices. Some members of the unexpected audience also approached our group to listen to what was going to be said. At once I got nervous. One thing is giving a lecture in front of my colleagues, the other thing was to expose yourself to criticism of strangers. I took a sip of my coffee, gathered my notes and joined my colleague who was already standing in a more open space, by the door.

Ancient site of Loughcrew

Loughcrew “gets its name from a nearby lake, originally called Lough Creeve: meaning lake of the tree, and is believed to refer to an ancient tree where rituals were held” (Celentano, Mulcahy, Pyrgies 2018). The site is deeply ancient as it dates back to around 3500-3300BC (O’Kelly 1978; Brennan 1994; Murphy 2018). It is spread across four hills: Carnbane West, Carnbane East and Patrickstown, the highest of which is around 274 meters above sea level (Celentano, Mulcahy, Pyrgies 2018). The hills were also known in the past as Sliabh na Calliaghe, which can be translated from Irish as Mountains of the Witch, referring to a folk tale surrounding the cairns (Ibid.).

Three hills with neolithic mounds. Photo source: Scott & Elaine Jones (2020). “Loughcrew Complex: (Passage Mounds)” In: Ancient-Wisdom.

“Nowadays [Loughcrew] is probably the best preserved example of a Neolithic landscape in the world. Nevertheless, the site initially “escaped the attention and well documented archaeological investigation devoted to other Boyne Valley [monuments]” (Brennan 1994:46).

“All things are full of gods” – Thales (c. 636 – c. 546 B.C.)

There are a few legends about the hills of Loughcrew, but perhaps the most famous is “the story of the hag for which the hills are named” (Celentano, Mulcahy, Pyrgies 2018). “The story goes that to rule over all of Ireland the Hag [or Witch – Calliaghe] had to complete a feat of enormous strength. She had to leap from hill to hill with stones in her apron. As she jumped from peak to peak she dropped a handful of stones. These stones became the cairns. On her final jump, to make her [ruler over] Ireland, she broke her neck and was buried under the stones on the side of the hill” (Shortt, Heery 2020). Another folklore says it was actually “a giant goddess named Garavoge, who came from the north-west with a collection of rocks which she dropped from her white apron” (Byrne 2020). In Celtic Folklore by John Rhys (1901-2015:393), the author gives an account of the legend he heard from his guide – a young shepherd, when he was visiting the cairns of Loughcrew in the summer of 1894. “He knew all about the hag after whom the hill was called except her name: she was, he said, a giantess, and so she brought there, in three apronfuls, the stones forming the three principal cairns” (Ibid.).

‘Ollamh Fodhla’s Seat’ – The ‘Hag’s chair’. Photo credits: Knowth.com. Colours intensified. Photo source: Scott & Elaine Jones (2020). “Loughcrew Complex: (Passage Mounds)” In: Ancient-Wisdom.

One of the most significant cairns of Loughcrew, Cairn T, is commonly known as the Hag’s Cairn as it is believed to be a burial place of the Witch. Furthermore, outside the Cairn T, there is a large stone, possibly a kerbstone, in the form similar to an armchair, named the Witch or Hag’s chair. Rhys’ guide also describes the same stone, which was “placed there by the hag to serve as her seat when she wished to have a quiet look on the country round” (Rhys 1901-2015:393). Yet he added that “usually she was to be seen riding on a wonderful pony she had: that creature was so nimble and strong that it used to take the hag at a leap from one hill-top to another. However, the end of it all was that the hag rode so hard that the pony fell down, and that both horse and rider were killed” (Ibid.). The author also notices that “the hag appears to have been Cailleach Bheara, or Caillech Berre, ‘the Old Woman of Beare’, that is, Bearhaven, in County Cork” (Ibid.).


Cartoon of the Caillech/Witch dropping the stones from her apron. Photo by Eibhlin Nu Sheinchin 1937. Photo and caption source: Lynda McCormack (2020). “The Autumnal Equinox and the Sliabh na Calliagh Passage Tomb Complex” In: Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland.

The figure of the Witch or Giantess flying on her broomstick and dropping the stones seems to be always associated with the megaliths built on the summits (Hugh 2017). Her mysterious character not only joins the cairns of Loughcrew with those of Carrowmore and Carrowkeel in Co. Sligo, of Sheemor and Sheebeg in Co. Leitrim or of Corn Hill in Co. Longford (Hugh 2017; Byrne 2020), but she also appears in folklore far beyond Ireland.

“Determined now her tomb to build, Her ample skirt with stones she filled, And dropped a heap on Carnmore; Then stepped one thousand yards, to Loar, And dropped another goodly heap; And then with one prodigious leap Gained Carnbeg; and on its height Displayed the wonders of her might. And when approached death’s awful doom, Her chair was placed within the womb Of hills whose tops with heather bloom”


Jonathan Swift, c. 1720

Some sources say that Loughcrew became known as the Mountains of the Witch because Ireland was once a matriarchy (O’Bryan 2017). After the Annals of Irish High Kings, female judges, who were later nicknamed as witches, could take away human life as a penalty for heavy crimes, which was believed to have been imposed at the time of the year, referred today as Halloween (31st October) (Ibid.).

Loughcrew as a passage tomb

Loughcrew is one of the so-called passage tomb sites in Ireland. The centre of the passage tomb typically consists of several upright supports (orthostats) topped with a corbelled roofing or covered with a flat slab or capstone (Brennan 1994). Its plan usually creates a cruciform chamber, like in the case of the ground plan of Cairn T at Loughcrew, which takes the shape of one of the most ancient and universal sun symbols known as the equinoctial or Greek Cross (Ibid.). Another element characteristic of passage tombs is the passage itself, which is formed by the addition of a long entrance passageway to the central chamber (Ibid.). The entire structure is furthermore covered with a circular mound of earth, occasionally edged with external kerbstones (Ibid.).

Magical properties?

Structural stones of the Loughcrew monuments were made of local green gritstone, which is soft to carve (O’Kelly 1978; Brennan 1994; Murphy 2018). “Cairn T may [also] have once been covered with milky white quartz, the same stone which was used on the facade at Newgrange” (Murphy 2017-2020).

The inner passage of Cairn T. Loughcrew Passage Tomb cairn T, The wall on the left is pitted with so-called “cup marks”. When the tomb was opened, a large number of chalk balls were found at the base of this stone. These balls fitted the stone precisely; they may represent the stars in the sky. Photo and caption by Rob Hurson (2014). CC BY-SA 4.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Loughcrew” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

An author Jean McMann (1993) claims that “large pieces of quartz could be found behind the kerbstones and around the entry. Conwell also reported small lumps of quartz ‘strewn about’ at the base of the Hag’s Chair” (Murphy 2017-2020). It is generally known that quartz crystal is usually found at constructions known as passage tombs. Unquestionably, it was “valued and held in awe by almost every ancient culture as a magical stone (DeSalvo 2012:11)” Quartz is an example of hard mineral (7 on the Mohs’ scale) with a few interesting properties (Ibid.:14), of which “[the] piezoelectric effect is perhaps the most fascinating. [Namely], when stress is place across the crystal it develops an electrical potential. [Additionally, quartz is] able to transmit ultraviolet light, which glass cannot” (Ibid.:14-15). Why did the builders of passage tombs were so interested in using it at their constructions? Was it just because of its beautiful appearance or magical powers? If it was the second option, what should be understood by term “magical”? Some authors suggest that quartz crystal was selected due to its mentioned properties “and its use in information storage. […] Can quartz record information like a video recorder and then be played back centuries later? These are questions to consider” (Ibid.:15)

Astronomical instrument?

The Loughcrew mountains give a panoramic view nearly “from coast to coast and into both northern and southern provinces of Ireland” (Brennan 1994:46), which actually bears out is astronomical function. Undeniably the Loughcrew mounds constitute a large complex of astronomically aligned megalithic mounds (Brennan 1994) and after such authors as Martin Brennan (1994) they could have been originally designed as astronomical devices – not tombs.

Stone Age writings

Inside passage tombs, there are usually multiple megalithic petroglyphs (O’Kelly 1978; Brennan 1994). They are typically carved in stone in the forms of lozenge, triangles, leaf shapes, spirals, zigzags, circles, some surrounded by radiating lines, as it is observed in the Cairn T at Loughcrew (Ibid.). At some sites, anthropomorphic elements are believed to have been represented (Ibid.). They are usually interpreted as various facial features or body outlines (Ibid.). Some researches, as George Coffey claim such motifs are mostly ornamental and they may represent the style of decoration of the period (O’Kelly 1978). At the same time Coffey admitted himself that some of them may originally have been symbolical (Ibid.).

Loughcrew Passage Tomb with Cairn T with another satellite cairn at Loughcrew. Photo by Rob Hurson (2014). CC BY-SA 4.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Loughcrew” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Usually the motifs are picked or pitted on the natural surface of the stone slabs, using a sharply pointed tool (O’Kelly 1978). Sometimes, however, the same motifs are just incised or scratched, which can be explained by an assumption they are unfinished petroglyphs (Ibid.). Accordingly, in the process of their creation, the outlines were first scratched on the slab and then picked over (Ibid.). The most sophisticated effect was achieved while picking back the stone surface, leaving an unpicked area in relief, which eventually forms the pattern or motif (Ibid.). This technique is seen at Newgrange and Knowth (Ibid.).

Some researchers believe the Loughcrew complex is earlier than other Neolithic sites in the Valley as its engraving techniques seem to be more primitive (Brennan 1994:46). Still there are not radiocarbon dates to support this thesis (Ibid.). Motifs found at passage tombs were generally carved on the surface of well displayed slab stones, whereas some others were mysteriously hidden – such signs are placed in or above the passage roof, at the bottom of orthostats, and even below the ground level (O’Kelly 1978; Brennan 1994). However, the group of well visible motifs placed at the backstones could have played an essential role at the time of important astronomical events, such as equinoxes and solstices, giving an encrypted message by their interaction with the beam of sunlight (Brennan 1994).

The Cairn T (Loughcrew), also known as the Hag’s Hill. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Personally, I wish I could participate in such a celestial performance, when the stones of megalithic constructions seem to come alive under the touch of the rising sun. It is as if the right fuel had restarted the old mechanism of a complicated device, the function of which, however, is still hardly known to us.

Featured image: Bing Map: the Cairns of Sliabh na Caillighe (Loughcrew complex, Ireland). Carnbane West and Carbane East. The map created by Archaeotravel by means of the Bing Maps. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“About Boyne Valley Tourism” (2018) Meath County Council. Available at <https://bit.ly/2VUN1EC>. [Accessed 7th March, 2020].

“Loughcrew” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/2Xolsmz>. [Accessed 9th January, 2021].

Brennan M. (1994) The Stones of Time. Calendars, Sundials, and Stone Chambers of Ancient Ireland. Vermont: Inner Traditions International, Rochester.

Byrne M. (2020) “Loughcrew – Sliabh na Cailleach”. In: The Sacred Island. Available at  <https://bit.ly/2Tx6OrS>. [Accessed 8th March, 2020].

Celentano, E., Mulcahy, D., Pyrgies J. (2018) “Loughcrew. Sliabh na Callighe (Mountains of the Witch)”. In: ARCH40780: Irish Archaeological Landscapes. Presentation Handout. UCD.

DeSalvo Ph.D., J. (2012) Power Crystals: Spiritual and Magical Practices, Crystal Skulls, and Alien Technology. Rochester, Vermont: Destiny Books.

Dronehenge (2016) “Maps of the cairns at Sliabh na Caillighe, Loughcrew (Bing Maps)” In: Mythical Ireland Blog. Available at <http://bit.ly/3no4f7i>. [Accessed 14th March, 2020].

Hugh N. (2017) “The 7,000 Year Old Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery in Ancient Ireland” In: Megalithomania. Available at <https://bit.ly/2IKRkKH>. [Accessed 7th March, 2020].

Jones S. and E. (2020) “Loughcrew Complex: (Passage Mounds)” In: Ancient-Wisdom. Available at <https://bit.ly/2QgLUew>. [Accessed 14th March, 2020].

McCormack L. (2020) “The Autumnal Equinox and the Sliabh na Calliagh Passage Tomb Complex” In: Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland. Available at <https://bit.ly/2WcTHhi>. [Accessed 14th March, 2020].

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O’Kelly C. (1978) Passage-grave Art in the Boyne Valley, Cork: Houston&Son.

O’Bryan L. (2017) “Could Ireland’s Cairn T Really Be the Tomb of the Prophet Jeremiah?” In: Ancient Origins. Available at  <https://bit.ly/2xvtDDJ>. [Accessed 14th March, 2020].

Rhys J. (1901-2015) Celtic Folklore. Welsh and Manx. Vol.1. Cambridge University Press.

Shortt N., Heery F. (2020) “Loughcrew Cairns”. In: Loughcrew Megalithic Centre. Available at <https://bit.ly/38EUw5j>. [Accessed 8th March, 2020].

Swift J. (c. 1720) “Loughcrew Poem” In: Byrne, M. (2020) “Loughcrew – Sliabh na Cailleach”. In: The Sacred Island. Available at  <https://bit.ly/2Tx6OrS>. [Accessed 8th March, 2020].

A Survey of the Long Story of High Irish Crosses

One of the books I have come across while studying early Christian sculpture of Ireland, is the work written by Hilary Richardson. With the prominent High Crosses in the title, and with a depiction of a naive outlines of carved panels of the Cross of Moone on the front cover, this physically thin book, but of substantial content, is another position on a long list of academic publications dedicated to one of the most distinctive landmarks of Ireland – the so-called High Crosses. As indicated by the title of the book, An Introduction to Irish Crosses, (1990) it is just the very beginning of a long story, as if a threshold to the mystery of the Irish early Christian sculpture. Beside High Crosses figuring in the title, the book also describes a considerable number of stone slabs predating the mature sculpture of Ireland and bearing the first signs of the coming Christianity.

Just the Beginning of a Long Story

The work covers all the information in just a few pages of written text and gives basic information on the subject alongside with some interesting insights into assumed, yet controversial origins of High Crosses. Simultaneously, it can serve as a field guidebook to be with you while exploring High Crosses at first hand on various sites.

The head of the so-called Muiredach’s High Cross, with the details of the Crucifiction face, usually placed from the west. Monasterboice. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Also this is a highly illustrated book with a number of drawings and 199 black-and-white plates constituting the major part of its content, showing a variety and richness of the Irish early Christian sculpture. Interpreting a piece of art cannot be carried out without its proper image so it is essential that any description of art is accompanied by its complete illustration. Each picture from that section shows with details the same monument from various perspectives, which additionally allows a reader to see and examine particular features of sculpture on the crosses with a closer look. All photographs are also shown with a short caption. The major part of the pictures comes from the Photographic Collection of the Office of Public Works in Ireland.

As far as the composition of the book is concerned, Hilary Richardson – the author of the text, was responsible for drawings and diagrams, whereas John Scarry compiled the section with photographs. As a photographer, Scarry had been already familiar with different types of Irish monuments with High Crosses in the lead. He believed that such important monuments, as they have always been, deserved much more public attention than they had received so far. Chiefly for this reason, he engaged himself in the project together with the main author of the book, Hilary Richardson. Mostly remembered as an author of An Introduction to Irish Crosses, Hilary Richardson studied at University College Dublin together with another great specialist in early Irish art, Françoise Henry (1902–1982), whose hypotheses on the origins of High Crosses possibly influenced Hilary’s research. Hilary Richardson graduated in archaeology, anthropology and history of art, and became an academic in the Department of Archaeology, University College Dublin. She gave lectures on Irish High crosses internationally and published numerous papers on her research. She was invited at conferences in Austria and Italy, but mainly carried out her research in Armenia and Georgia.

Ireland’s Golden Age of Saints and Scholars

Tall High Cross at Monasterboice. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Alongside very richly illuminated manuscripts, carved in stone Irish High Crosses are one of the finest fruits of early medieval art of Ireland, and like round towers they are the most unique free-standing monastic monuments that are dated back to the legendary Ireland’s Golden Age of Saints and Scholars. Apart from Ireland, they were also built on the British Islands, especially in the regions of Celtic Fringe, namely in Wales, Cornwall, Northumbria and Scotland. High Crosses largely contribute to early Christian art in Western Europe and are of international importance. They are distinguished by the diversity of sculpture and designed as paupers’ Bible by means of elaborate pictures coming from the Old and New Testament, apocryphal texts and hagiographic legends of saints, and hermits who lived in Egypt. There is also a significant number of crosses, either with just a few figurative scenes depicted in panels or with solely geometrical or floral decorations, or none of those. Christian symbols appeared first on slab stones around the early sixth century and since then they had been developed into High Crosses or the so-called Crosses of Scriptures in the tenth and eleven century, to finally give the place to the styles coming from the Continent in the twelfth century. The very shape of the ringed cross, widely known as the Celtic cross has been always strongly associated with Ireland.

Elaborated free-standing monuments erected in the so called Dark Ages

At the beginning of the book, a very basic map is provided with monument sites showing a general location of the crosses marked with numbers from 1 to 55 listed. In addition, there are County Boundaries marked with the first letter of a name for each county within the boundary, so it is easier to localise a given monument on the map. The map depiction is followed by “Preface” with a fragment taken from Pilgrimage Home by Padraic Colum (1985:78-80), giving a poetic description of an encounter with “a stone cross with a circle” and of emotions accompanying this meaningful and deep experience. In “Introduction”, the author describes the aim of this work as a comprehensive illustration given on individual features of the major Irish crosses and strongly highlights the artistic value of High Crosses in European history, as the only elaborate free-standing monuments erected in the so called Dark Ages. Hilary points to their uniqueness belonging to the Irish tradition but at the same time she reminds of their strong links with the monastery of Iona in Scotland and the Celtic monasticism in general.

Muiredach’s High Cross, Monasterboice. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As it is only a practical survey, a complete catalogue of sculpture is not intended here. Nevertheless, the material gathered by the authors is impressive and gives an idea about an abundance of stone sculpture in early medieval Ireland. By a thoughtful observation of a carving style of some sculpted panels, Hilary assumes the presence of individual schools and even the same hand of a master sculptor. As she correctly notices, in various studies on the crosses some of elements of the sculpture are outlined, whereas others rather neglected. Peter Harbison, a great scholar and specialist on Irish High Crosses is also an author of the guidebook known as Irish High Crosses with the Figure Sculptures Explained, which is a sort of abbreviated version of the book entitled The High Crosses of Ireland published in three volumes. Likewise Richardson’s survey, a short guide by Harbison confines itself only to a group of crosses, namely those which bear figure sculpture. However, the sculpture excluded from his review has been listed by name in Appendix, at the end of the book. Richardson’s book lacks such appendix, which is a pity. On the other hand, the authors of An Introduction to Irish Crosses pay a greater attention to the detail of the panels appearing on the north side of the crosses or slab stones in the photographs, whereas in most works on High Crosses, including Harbison’s, that aspect of High Crosses seems to be neglected, apparently due to a poor lighting of that side of the monuments.

In the next part of the book, Hilary Richardson returns to the matter of an in-depth interpretation of the crosses and the symbolism expressed by their form and sculpture. The author focuses first on an a

The third high cross on the site, the North Cross, Monasterboice. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

ppearance of a typical ringed Irish cross and gives a short graphical description of its general form, breaking it into several basic parts: a stepped base, shaft, ring, and a cap stone with its different types. More detailed characterization of the particular components of High Crosses and their supposed origins are given in the following parts of the written survey, entitled “Structure” and “Interpretation of the Cross”. Yet before that Hilary explains the general meaning of the Christian cross and Crucifixion and defines their iconographical representations in the Irish sculpture from the sixth to the twelfth century. She also underlines a particular role of the Emperor Constantine in shaping such an iconography, by changing the meaning of the cross from the symbol of execution and shame into the sign of triumph and symbol of Christian faith. Constantine was also the first who introduced the use of the Chi-Rho monogram, often enclosed in a circle of a laurel’s wreath, which may be the origins of the ring encircling the arms of High Crosses, as suggested by the author.

Next part of the book is entirely dedicated to stone carving in Ireland, where the author suggests pagan origins of the free standing monuments dedicated to Christianity. The latter undeniably developed from stone pillars erected in prehistoric times. First Christian forms, like a Latin cross with wedge shaped terminals, or a Greek cross inscribed in a circle with floral characteristics predate more complex and three dimensional monuments, fully carved in the form of the cross with a free circle around its arms. The oldest examples of free-standing crosses were usually depicted among interlaced decorations in low relief and supposedly appeared first in the far-west of the country. Hilary emphasizes the fact that we are missing an absolute chronology in case of many of these stone carvings around Ireland. In her opinion, slab stones with various forms of crosses incised usually indicate the times of early monasteries, others bear engraved inscriptions in the form of short prayers, many a time including the names of deceased, which is very helpful in their dating. As far as the function of High Crosses in concerned, the author reminds that their role cannot be confined to funerary memorials only, even if some contain such indications. The question of various inscriptions and their function on different crosses are more discussed later, under the title “Inscriptions”.

Orientation and grouping

Cross of the Scriptures, Clonmacnoise. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Quite significant part of the survey says on the general rule for the orientation of crosses within the plan of an early Christin monastery, as it is presented in the diagram of the eighth century Book of Mulling. That aspect is usually omitted or hardly mentioned in most studies on High Crosses. Like other scholars, Hilary Richardson also makes an attempt to categorize the crosses into several groups according to their location and style. Peter Harbison divides High Crosses into two major groups: the crosses with biblical themes, created in the midlands and in the north, from ninth to the eleventh century, and those with less emphasis on the scriptural content and with bigger figures in high relief, erected mainly in the twelfth century. Hilary Richardson’s division is more detailed. According to the author, the crosses fall into four successive groups: the Athenny and Osory Group; Transitional Crosses, Scripture Crosses, and finally Late Crosses. Her classification ranges chronologically, like in Harbison’s case, from the ninth century and the earliest ringed carvings with more abstract decorations, through the introduction of biblical scenes to the representation of large single figures, usually of Christ, a saint or a bishop, in the twelfth century.

Mysterious Eastern origins

In the section entitled “Interpretation of the Crosses”, a reader can find thought-provoking assumptions on the origins of the very distinctive characteristics of Irish High Crosses, namely the stepped base, capstone, but first of all, the ring. Hilary suggests that they all developed from artistic forms established already in the fourth century, that is to say in the times of the Emperor Constantine. The author also claims very strong links of early Irish art with Jerusalem, Georgia and Armenia, where very similar features and stone carvings appeared. Such a theory strongly distinguishes Hilary’s survey from other works. Richardson’s proposal that Celtic crosses have their close parallels in the East Christian world, especially in the Caucasus, may have been influenced by the hypothesis proposed by another specialist in the subject, Françoise Henry. The latter theorised on cultural and artistic connections between Ireland and Coptic Egypt. That controversial idea had already been argued by Arthur Kingsley Porter in the first part of the twentieth century.

Major studies in the field

Tall High Cross at Monasterboice and the Round Tower. It is well visible by the difference in colours of the the main vertical shaft that the high cross has been reconstructed. Copyright©Archaeotravel

In the last section of the written part of the book, Hilary Richardson gives a list of the major studies on the Irish Crosses up to the time of her own research underlying an invaluable role they played in the development of the studies. In her list of authorities, there appeared the names of such famous scholars as Henry O’Neill, Margaret Stokes, Henry S. Crawford, Arthur Kingsley Porter, Françoise Henry, and Helen M. Roe. Since An Introduction to Irish Crosses was published, however, many other scholars have become involved in the further studies on Irish High Crosses, without whom such a list will not be complete. Among them there are Peter Harbison, Elinor D.U. Powell, Ryszarda Bulas and Oliver Crilly.

From general information to the details

In the “Catalogue of Crosses and Illustrations” which follows the written part, the crosses are enumerated alphabetically, according to their location. After a short description of a monastic site containing certain High Crosses, each of them is described with the sequence : north side, south side, east face and finally west face. Successive panels are listed from the bottom upwards. Small diagrams of the crosses are also provided to assist in the identification and location of particular features or scenes. Each description of the sequential panels contains an abbreviation which stands for the initials of an author of a given interpretation. The height of the crosses is given including the base, shaft and the head. There is also a range of plates referring to every cross with their numbers given in the brackets. As the author remarks, new discoveries are constantly changing a direction of the studies. A short bibliography at the end of the book is proposed to encourage a deeper interest in the subject and its development in time.

To summarize

An Introduction to Irish Crosses itself is a very important survey listing and illustrating significant stone carvings among those erected in Ireland. It is a very essential introduction, and simultaneously, a guide which should be taken for reference in studies of the monuments.

Featured image: The seventh-century Donagh Cross or St Patrick’s Cross, Carndonagh, Co. Donegal. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

By Joanna
Faculty of History of Art and Archaeology
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland
University College Dublin, Ireland

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Richardson, H. and Scarry, S. (1990) Introduction to Irish High Crosses. Cork & Dublin: the Mercier Press.

Colum, P. (1985) “Pilgrimage Home”. In: Selected Short Stories of Padraic Colum, Sterlincht, S. ed. Syracuse: University Press.

Harbison, P. Irish High Crosses with the Figure Sculptures Explained, The Boyne Valley Honey Company, Drogheda, 1994.

Henry, F. Irish Art. In the Early Christian Period, London, 1940-1965.

Henry, F., L’Art irlandais, v. 1, Yonne, 1963-1964.

Kingsley Porter, A., “An Egyptian Legend in Ireland”, Marburger Jahrbuch für Kunstwissenschaft, v. 5, Marburg, 1929.

Hermitage of the Archangel in Ireland

Summer weather was at its best while we were driving south along the Ring of Kerry, which is also a stage of the famous Wild Atlantic Way with sea-salted shores and blowing winds.

Valentia Island. Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The scenery was breath-taking – it was like stepping into a picture book. Our destination, the Skellig Islands, lie 12 km off the Kerry coast and the boats there depart from Portmagee and Ballinskelligs. The Islands are actually two very steep rocks, protruding proudly out of the wild roaring Atlantic. Skellig Michael, which peaks at 217 metres above sea level, was the home of a group of 13 monks in the sixth century AD. This monastic settlement became then designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996. The smaller island, Little Skellig, which is a haven to various seabirds, has the second largest gannet colony in the world.

Valentia Island: View from our B&B’s window. Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“You can do Ireland in a day, but you really only do Valentia properly in a lifetime”[1]


[1] Karen O’Connell (2018). “Explore Valentia”. In:  Valentia Island. Come on in. Valentia Island Development Company.

We had booked our B&B on Valentia Island – one of Ireland’s most picturesque westerly points. It lies off the Iveragh Peninsula in the southwest of County Kerry and is accessible either by the Maurice O’Neill Memorial Bridge from Portmagee and by car ferry from Renard Point, Cahersiveen, which operates from April to October. The ferry crossing takes around 5 minutes. After a night-sea journey from Wales, and having travelled across a large piece of Ireland, from Rosslare, we felt only like going to bed. B&B (like the very few houses scattered around the island) was an isolated and charming place of the home-stay atmosphere of remote villages.

Night falling upon Valentia Island with the Skelligs in the distance. Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Out of reach …

We were planning to take our Skellig Michael landing tour in one day and I was praying just for god weather conditions as the landing on the rock is always subject to this natural factor and the Irish weather is really unpredictable… We arrived in Ireland at the end of July having had the visit booked already at the beginning of May, as one must do it much in advance before heading off to the Skelligs. It was in 2015, just before the Star Wars’ Episode VIII was filmed at its top and Luke Skywalker won its place on the island, removing its real and fascinating characters in the shadow. Due to that, nowadays it is even more difficult to land on the island as there are hordes of Star Wars’ fans and thus government restrictions are applied now more than ever, not to mention a very high price for this major tourist attraction that could be the highlight of every holiday.

One of the most fascinating destinations in Ireland. Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

First of all, tours with landing can only be taken from May to September. All bookings are usually taken online with no waiting list. If there is a cancellation the spots automatically become available again on the booking page, which happens very rarely. There is one trip per day for this tour departing at approximately 9:00 am daily, usually from Portmagee Marina (depending on the tour operator) if the sea and weather conditions are suitable. As I have mentioned, availability for this tour is very limited so you really need to book well, well, well long … in advance: there is a maximum of four persons per booking and the tour itself is not suitable for children under 12 years of age.

When I am looking at the availability now, I can see the whole season is nearly booked out (there is only one date available!) Also you would require a reasonable amount of fitness to undertake climbing the rock at its summit. In case your boat tour is cancelled, you can take instead a tour around two islands but without landing …

The Skelligs seen from Valentia Island. The best place to begin our journey. Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In the morning of the tour day, our B&B’s hostess welcomed us with a wide smile assuring us the boats were going to departure. I also responded with a beaming smile and came back to my full Irish breakfast composed of crumbled eggs, fried sausages, crunchy toasts and milky butter. I had already phoned my tour operator and he assured me the weather would be perfect for our journey.

‘Would you like some pudding?’, – the hostess asked. ‘I’ve got delicious black and white pudding if you wish’.

‘I’d love to’ – my friend said in Polish – ‘I feel like having something sweet …’

Evening on Valentia Island, just after crossing the sea to Michael Skellig. Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel

Pudding is a type of food that can be either a dessert or a savoury dish, which comes from French boudin, meaning ‘small sausage’. My friend who shudders at any kind of red meat definitely was for the first option, whereas the hostess had meant the second one. When my friend  finally found out, she refused point-blank to try anything of that kind.

Off we go …

Good walking shoes, mostly hiking boots with an ankle support, and waterproof clothes are essential for the tour!  The boats are small fishing vessels and the open sea crossing takes approximately 45 minutes.

Office of Public Works (2014). “Visiting Skellig Michael – A Safety Guide”. Source: Youtube.

Rough seas make you get soaked to the skin, even if a day is full of sunshine. The boats are being constantly hit by high waves and so it’s quite unstable as the boats are rocking all the time. Hence it may be a very difficult experience for people who are prone to seasickness. The site is also difficult to walk around, as well as may pose problems for anyone with a fear of heights. There are no visitors’ facilities of any kind on the island, such as toilets or a shelter. This is a bare and high rock exposed to the weather.  Make sure you bring with you enough food and water. All your stuff should be packed in one small backpack to allow your hands to be free while climbing up and down the steep staircases.

The boats are being constantly hit by high waves and so it’s quite unstable as the boats are rocking all the time. Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

A camera should be with you but only hung around your neck. Sun cream is also very important. Even if the sky seems cloudy, there’s enough sunlight reflecting from the water to cause sunburns. While our cruise to the Skelligs, the sky was completely covered in grey clouds. On the island there was already the sun and on our way back I got a strong sunburn on my face. After drinking a pint of Guinness in the end, my face looked like a red berry on the background of green Ireland. Well, it’s not to discourage you, just let you know what you can expect … One more thing! Once landed on the island beware of seagulls and albatross hunting for meal! It can be your sandwich or a cookie you have just grabbed in your mouth …  You may have a literally close encounter with a huge bird flying onto your face. As I did myself!

Beautiful puffins can be seen on the Skellig Michael from April to early August. Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Without a doubt, one of the most graceful and friendliest bird visiting the Skelligs is a puffin. They arrive and breed on the island from March to early August. It’s a cute, colourful seabird with a huge, yellow-reddish beak and curious eyes. While the birds are walking around, they look like black-white balls rolling down the hill. It’s really worth seeing!

Skellig Michael
Reaching the Skelligs by Boat (statue in Cahersiveen). The “Irish Currach” recommend tar-covered leather-skinned ships as timber boats would easily break apart in the Ocean. Photo and caption source: Skellig Gift Store (2017). “Archangel Michael: Saint of the Skelligs”. In: Skellig Gift Store.

Just before our heading off, there was a warm shower. I sat by the side of my friends, back to other people. We were eight altogether, not counting two men, probably fishermen driving the boat. Although it was a rather wet and rough journey, I really enjoyed it. This is one of these moments you may really feel a unique atmosphere of ancient Ireland. We were on the open sea and our crossing seemed to go on forever. I also thought about ancient monks and pilgrims who must have made just the same distance in simple boats – coracles, and without modern navigation devices down the centuries. I wondered how many of them had survived.

Now crossing takes around one hour. Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The Loneliest Place on Earth

Two black pinnacles of pointed rocks thrust out into the Atlantic Ocean. The smaller of these two is known as Lesser Skellig, which is home to a great number of gannets, and grey seals lying airily on their backs and enjoying the warmth of the summer sun. Visitors cannot land on it as it is the birds’ reservation. The larger island and our destination is called Great Skellig or Skellig Michael. The latter name probably originates from a legend saying that St. Patrick once saw the Archangel Michael hovering over the island. Here, in the wilderness of the Atlantic Ocean and isolated from the comfort of the mainland, early Christian hermits lived for centuries fighting with natural forces and invaders coming from the sea – the Vikings.

Peter Cox (Photography) (2017) “The Wonder of Skellig Michael”. Source: Youtube.

Their harsh life many a time is similar led by Christian monks in Egypt who started this kind of an isolated existence, dedicated to God – monasticism. I believe that in their desire to imitate the lives of the Egyptian Fathers, Irish monks found their substitute for the desert in the sea and ocean. On numerous islands like Aran, Inishkea North, Duvillan, Iona, or Skellig Michael, Christian Celtic monks were looking for their own desert. Just like an Egyptian desert of the Coptic hermits, an ocean is huge, desolated and deprived of sweet water. On the other side, it must have seemed attractive, unknown, inhabited by fantastic monsters, and so became an escape from the earthly world. The ocean has been a symbol of trial, weakness, heroism, and as in the unfriendly desert, the help of God becomes indispensable there.

I looked upwards at this soaring rocky sanctuary covered in a green coat. Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The waters were calm on the open sea but as we were getting closer to the rising pyramid of the rock, the waves became stronger fiercely crushing against the shore. Our drives moored the boat properly and we carefully climbed out of it. The rock-solid land beneath my feet seemed to jump up and down as much as our boat. I looked upwards at this soaring rocky sanctuary covered in a green coat, and I could just felt the loneliness of this place fulfilled with the ghosts of the wandering monks.

The views were stunning! Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Soon we reached the staircase of ancient rock-cut steps made by the hermits and polished by countless pilgrims’ feet. There are over 600 uneven and steep stairs leading up to the monastery. I felt my great respect for the monks who chose this remote island for their home. It called for extraordinary self-discipline and great courage. As modern pilgrims, we entered into the monks’ enclosure almost suspended in the sky. The views were stunning!

Soon we reached the staircase of ancient rock-cut steps made by the hermits and polished by countless pilgrims’ feet. Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

We passed through a low archway breaking the silence of the past. A small monastic garden sheltered around with rough stones. Another archway led us higher to the tiny chapel and a cluster of dry-stone beehive huts look like bulbs or swallows’ nests clinging to the rock.  These extraordinary shelters are circular from the outside but square in the inside. Perhaps the hermitage on the Skellig has preserved the original pattern of monastic buildings, existing once at monastic sites on the mainland. The beehive huts resemble the stle of stone constructions of the neolithic period typical to insular tradition.

Monastic idea brought by the Copts ? Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

However,  after some researchers, the shape of these monastic structures was reminiscent of the monastic areas in Egypt. Desert fathers built similar huts in the shape of bee hives, most often from silt, initially in isolation, later probably in order to provide themselves with greater security and mutual support, they began to gather in small communities, putting together a number of such structures. Before the belly-like huts became the home of the hermits, they had been first simple houses. Similar constructions are traditional for the desert regions of the Middle East and for millennia they have been used as such by the rural community, such as by one in the territories of today’s Syria, in the town of Sarouj.

A cluster of dry-stone beehive huts look like bulbs or swallows’ nests clinging to the rock. Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

There are dry-stone cells, a square oratory, a church dedicated to St. Michael, two small wells for collecting fresh water, and a miniature graveyard of those who lived and died on the island. I learnt that there were apparently thirteenth hermits occupying the monastic sites, which is a symbolical number that stands for twelve apostles led by Jesus Christ.  One legend – a treasury of knowledge on the past – ascribes the founding of the monastery to St. Fionan in the sixth century. Still the first historical reference goes back to the fifth century and says of the King of West Munster being pursued by Oengus, King of Cashel. The former fled to Scellec (Sceillic), which means a steep rock. Hence the name f the islands. In the following years, there were three recorded attacks on the monastery by the  Vikings who put many monks to death. During one of them, the Abbot, called Eitgall was chained up and starved to death to amuse his captors. Some monks escaped slaughter by hiding in rocky crevices, still they were left on the rock without their coracles burnt by the leaving Vikings.

The beehive huts resemble the style of stone constructions of the neolithic period typical to insular tradition. Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

To my surprise, one story says that King Olaf Tryggvason of Norway met there a hermit who impressed him so much that he became baptized. After his return to Scandinavia, he is said to have introduced Christianity there before he died in the year 1000 AD. The Skellig monastery had greatly flourished since the sixth century and lasted famous till the twelfth century, when the Celtic Church was overtaken by the Church in Rome and the meaning of monasticism started long ago by Coptic hermits ceased. What is more, around 1200 AD, the climate had changed. Cold weather and fierce storms made the island even more inhospitable than before. As a result the monks moved to Ballinskelligs Bay on the mainland leaving behind their desolate rock.

There are dry-stone cells, a square oratory, a church dedicated to St. Michael, two small wells for collecting fresh water, and a miniature graveyard of those who lived and died on the island. Skellig Michael.

It was not until the late tenth century or early eleventh as the monastery is first referred to as Skellig Michael in the Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters. Probably, the small church dedicated to St Michael was built at that time. Its architecture is thus different from the earlier dry-stone constructions built by the monks. It is believed to have had a hollow stone of miraculous properties fixed to its wall. Some scholars consider the Libellus de Fundacione Ecclesie Consecrati Petri from the mid thirteenth century to be one of the most important written source on Skellig Michael. The manuscript originates from the Consecratus Petrus, an Irish Monastery in Regensburg, in Bavaria. Since the seventh century on, the Irish monks had been travelling to the mainland, founded monastic sites and preached … but it is another story … Anyway, the manuscript reveals a tale from Irish Monks in medieval Germany. It provides a context for its dedication to Archangel Michael.

Skellig Michael
Anonymous : Victorious St Michael over the devil represented as the dragon. Image source: Skellig Gift Store (2017). “Archangel Michael: Saint of the Skelligs”. In: Skellig Gift Store.

As the story goes Ireland suffered under a plague of demons, dragons, serpents and toads. People called upon St Patrick who banished the demons to the highest mountain (Skellig), cutting off all access for safety. Still, the evil was still present there. St Patrick then raised his arms in invocation and suddenly, the skies illuminated. Out in the Ocean, on top of Great Skellig, stood Archangel Michael with the host of angels surrounding him. Angelic forces battled with the demons and eventually cast them into the Ocean. Eventually, the angels returned to Great Skellig, and from the peak, Archangel Michael ascended back to heaven, leaving his miracle-working shield behind.

All of the island lie on the same invisible path. Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

It was the early Christian age of Skellig. The pagan one is even more hidden in the misty legends of Irish history. Unfortunately, such records are usually treated as purely mythical, without historical value.  According to them, the fabled rulers of Ireland – Tuatha de Danaan, once used their magical powers to overcome new  invaders (1400 BC). They caused a shipwreck and brought death to two sons of the invaders’ leader – Milesius. Skellig became a burial place to one of the brothers, who was called Irr. Another legendary visitor was Daire Domhain – the King of the World, who stayed on Skellig in around 200 AD before attacking the mainland. Irish stories are full of legends of old and new invaders, of victors and defeated.

The pagan period is even more hidden in the misty legends of Irish history. Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Skellig Michael is the last of three islands dedicated to St Michael I have seen. All of them lie on the same invisible path, aligned to the direction of 60 degrees NW-SE. The so-called Apollo/St Michael Axis stretches further south-east to run  not only across the tree islands but also two Archangel’s monasteries suspended high in the mountains, and finally reaches the sites in Greece, dedicated to Apollo, the pagan counterpart of Archangel Michael.

Featured image: Little Skellig seen from the Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Continue reading Hermitage of the Archangel in Ireland

Studying Prehistoric Archaeoastronomy on the Islands of Malta and Ireland

Astronomic Devices in Prehistoric Malta

The megalithic temples of Malta are one of the most recognized UNESCO’s World Heritage sites ranking amongst the earliest free-standing Neolithic constructions in the world. The so-called Maltese temples display unique developmental characteristics, and while comparing to other megalithic structures, they are of the distinctive nature and achievements of Maltese civilization.

Mnajdra Temple. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

On the other hand, similarly to other megaliths, they were undoubtedly designed to accurately detect and mark the winter and summer solstice together with autumn and spring equinoxes, and other celestial movements. Same as the Stonehenge circle in Britain and Newgrange in Ireland, Maltese temples fulfilled astronomical observation and calendric functions. Among their other possible functions, a connection between astronomy and the temples orientations has constantly been provoking an intense debate since the great publicity given in the second half of the twentieth century by Gerald Hawkins on Stonehenge and the surveys by Alexander Thom on different megalithic structures in England and elsewhere. But it was an astronomer, Sir Norman Lockyer who as early as in 1909 evidently stated that Newgrange is oriented to the winter solstice. Accepting that idea turned out to be difficult for archaeology as it was first presented in the form of folklore and legends in the seventeenth century. In spite of negative opinions of the foremost experts on megalithic structures, interdisciplinary research efforts on the subject have been carried out and quickly augmented, mainly in the study of archeoastronomy, cosmology and archaeology.

Maltese Temples and the Sky

The book by Tore Lomsdalen, entitled Sky and Purpose in Prehistoric Malta: Sun, Moon, and Stars at the Temples of Mnajdra (2014) is the latest attempt to resolve the two-century controversy over the unusual connection between the Maltese temples and the sky. At the same time, it successfully elaborates on the first tentative surveys on temple orientations in Malta. This remarkable work charts the major points of debate on astronomical alignments of the prehistoric megaliths of Maltese archipelago with a special focus on the question of the intentionality of the significant orientation of the Mnajdra Lower or South Temple. The overall conclusions found at the end of the book are thoroughly investigated and supported with accurate factual information drawn from both, the previous interdisciplinary studies on the subject, and results of the wide-ranging and detailed fieldwork done by the author on the sites. Simultaneously, the book contributes to the international research done on the astral connections of megalithic constrictions in different parts of the world, underlying their similarities and uniqueness at the same time.

The author of the book, Tore Lomsdalen is an astrologer working internationally. He was born in Norway and lived in Italy. He holds a MA in Cultural Astronomy and Astrology from the University of Wales Trinity Saint David and a certificate from the Faculty of Astrological Studies in London. While working on the mentioned work, he had already been engaged in a PhD research program with University of Malta on Cosmology in Prehistoric Malta. Through a combination of astronomical analyses and insightful interpretation of the enigmatic ancient monuments, he entirely dedicates himself to the studies on cosmological observations related to Maltese prehistoric sites. He understands the need for revisions in the context of interdisciplinary studies, where the discipline of archeoastronomy blends with the study of archaeology, and specifically prehistory. As he frequently points out in his book, archeoastronomy may contribute to archaeological examination, especially in the reconstructions of the building phases in case of the Mnajdra South.

Loughcrew Megalithic Cairns. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Similar attitude has been already underlined by Martin Brennan, an Irish-American author who, like Tore Lomsdalen, perceives megalithic monuments as sophisticated calendar devices having been designed by contemporary engineers in order to reflect the sky. Martin Brennan majored in visual communication at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and studied prehistoric art  in Mexico. As Lomsdalen,  he was engaged in a series of fieldwork where he gathered overwhelming evidence for his theory which was at that time quite controversial.

Newgrange in the distance and in the mist. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Martin challenges conventional opinions on presumed purposes of megaliths as tombs and proves their high sophisticated orientation in relation to astronomy. In his book, The Stones of Time. Calendars, Sundials, and Stone Chambers of Ancient Ireland, (1980s) Brennan interprets the real function of Newgrange by means of the unified languages of archaeology, archeoastronomy, architecture and art. That interdisciplinary unity of sciences can be deeply felt when the rising or setting sunlight is being caught by inner chambers of passage tombs at critical times of the year, illuminating only particular patterns among many other engraved on the stone. In such a way abstract symbols, which were thought to have appeared haphazardly, suddenly became the key to the enigmatic language of prehistory connecting with the stars.

Megalithic Art

Although Brennan underlines the importance of megalithic art as a crucial element in relations to astronomical calendar, for Lomsdalen it does not play a vital role. Likewise Brennan, he also points out to architectural areas of the temples illuminated by the sun, such as key thresholds of the side altars and the vertical slabs, yet without elaborated descriptions of artistic decorations of the temples. Lomsdalen realises the significance of the perceivable effect of dichotomy of light and dark created by sunrise illuminations. However, he mostly focuses on his archeoastronomical survey and ably presents the results of his fieldwork juggling with astronomical complex calculations, with particular attention to the alignments of the Mnajdra Temple complex. Lomsdalen also places the Maltese structures in their archaeological context redefining their building sequence, still without clearly stating their purpose in prehistory, as Brennan does while relating to the passage tombs as megalithic observatories. In the matter of fact, Martin Brennan completely rejects the idea that Newgrange and other similar constructions were built as burials and argues that originally they served as astronomical devices.

Dowth – megalithic art inside the so-called passage tomb in Ireland. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Undeniably, one of the aims of  Lomsdalen’s work is an investigation whether the Mnajdra Temple complex was built as a sacred site in relation to the cosmos, and as a device for celebrating the seasons, but none the less, that research question is a secondary in the conclusions of his book. His major concern is the intentionality behind the astronomical alignments of the Mnajdra Temple complex, which is in turn, the precondition of the hypothesis of religious, sacral and ritual character of the so-called temples. The author’s argument for intentionality is strengthened by the fact that astronomical orientations appeared in the Mnajdra complex throughout successive stages of its construction. In this case, all the claims against his postulate lose substance. The idea of intentionality in prehistoric architecture is also strongly supported by Martin Brennan in case of passage tombs in Ireland. He argues that such precise positioning of stones in an astronomically important context cannot be just coincidental. Both researchers additionally employ similar methodology in their fieldwork. Besides surveying, astronomical observations, and photography, they implement principles of experimental archaeology, or rather archeoastronomy, which involves testing a hypothesis through experiment in order to find evidence of ancient astronomy, apparently practiced by temple builders. Phenomenology, that is to say walking and experiencing the landscape, is another approach to their research.

Malta is “perhaps the best-kept secret in Mediterranean archaeology”. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Final results of Tore Lomsdalen’s report show new evidence about the architecture of Maltese temples and their link with the sky. Namely, the author confirms the hypothesis of a sky-based intentionality behind the construction of the Mnajdra Temple complex. Not only confirms he the known alignments at the Mnajdra South but also discovers new alignments at the Mnajdra Middle. Furthermore, there is a strong preference of the temples being directed between southeast and southwest, with one remarkable exception of the Mnajdra South or Lower facing east allowing the rising sun to cast a beam of light along its central axis at the equinoxes and cross-jamb illuminations at the solstices. The Temple’s sophisticated solar illuminations is explained by an increasing awareness by its creators of horizon-based astronomy and their better understanding of precise divisions of a solar year, including cross-quarter and the eighth days. The so-called oracle holes in the stones and postholes have also been investigated as supposed devises playing a significant role in aligning the temples to celestial bodies. Finally, the author proposes a redefined building sequence based on both archaeological finds and archaeoastronomical components. He strongly claims that the Mnajdra Temple complex was not built at once but in five successive stages: double apses and other architectural features had been added on for one and half millennia.

Mnajdra Temple Complex

Before moving directly to the matter of his studies, in the first chapter the author starts with a description of the temple culture within a sacred, cosmological, and astronomical context and uncovers “perhaps the best-kept secret in Mediterranean archaeology” in relation to the megalithic constructions on Malta. In Chapter 2 and 3 he introduces readers to the rich Maltese prehistory within the context of the Mediterranean, which is a very important background of the Neolithic temples. He also gives some speculative ideas about the origins of the temples and their mysterious creators. At this stage, he provides a detailed description of the Mnajdra Temple Complex. He stresses the importance of Maltese landscape and its influence on the carefully chosen location of the temple sites. Quite significant for the author is also their relations to land and sea, as in the case of the Mnajdra Temple East – the only one in Malta lacking an orientation towards sunrise, but oriented, and so apparently connected to Filfla islet. Next chapter moves smoothly to the core of the subject, from Maltese cosmology and astronomy in the context of the temple culture to methodology used in this work.

Lomsdalen, T. (2014) “Mnajdra was not built in a day.” Accessed on 17th of July, 2018, on Youtube Channel by Tore Lomsdalen.

In Chapter 5 the author presents the results of his fieldwork in Malta, particularly at the Mnajdra site, and subsequently compare them to other researchers’ findings. After all the results being discussed, Lomsdalen finishes his study with a summary and conclusions of the major findings regarding his hypotheses brought by and cited before. Simultaneously, the author highlights the need for further studies to be conducted, especially in searching for archaeological evidence on the chronological phases of temple construction.

Language of Astronomy

The amount of data gathered, survey measurements and a frequent use of the language of astronomy is impressive from one side, but from the other, it may be confusing to average readers not trained in astronomy. Nevertheless, the author helps a reader to understand a more scientific content by providing an approachable description of some definitions, such as the key difference between “orientation” and “alignment”. Additionally, there is a number of technical drawings and diagrams in order to illustrate the issues being dealt by the author during his studies.

Loughcrew Cairn: Martin Brennan completely rejects the idea that Newgrange and other similar constructions were built as burials and argues that originally they served as astronomical devices. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

What is more, at the end of the book readers can find a glossary and acronyms of temple orientations in Appendix IV, a detailed bibliography for reference, and very interesting discussions of the author with other researchers in Malta, Frank Ventura and Reuben Grima talking on different aspects of the megalithic temple culture. The book is also beautifully illustrated by series of photographs, including archival black-and-white photos from the nineteenth century and colourful pictures taken by the author himself. In general, it is a really comprehensive, consistent work and a very valuable complement to the study of both, archeoastronomy and archaeology. Additionally, Tore Lomsdalen’s innovative idea of dividing the construction of Mnajdra Temple complex into five sequences according to the temples’ alignments with the sun may be carried out at various megalithic sites scattered all over the world, where archeoastronomy together with archaeology can assist in determining successive phases of prehistoric constructions.

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