Tag Archives: Books

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


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.

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.

Continue reading Studying Prehistoric Archaeoastronomy on the Islands of Malta and Ireland