Something a little different today, arising out of a quick onomastic facebook post last week concerning one of the great prehistoric sites of Ireland – the Loughcrew Passage Tomb Complex, Co. Meath. September 22nd, 2013, sees the fall of the autumnal equinox in the northern hemisphere. For a day or two on either side (weather permitting, as always) visitors to Loughcrew can experience a wonderful sight as the rising sun shines directly into the main chamber of the central Tomb (Cairn T – built c.5,400 years ago) illuminating some stunning examples of neolithic passage tomb art.
Loughcrew (Carnbane East) lies at the summit of a small ridge with a spectacular panorama. Although partially reconstructed in the 1960s, it did not suffer the same ‘touristy tarting up’ that Newgrange, its near neighbour, did. As a result, Loughcrew provides a more simplified and personal Passage Tomb experience. With no queues, no buses, no visitor centre and surrounded by hulking echos of smaller (eroded) satellite cairns & tombs; one can very often have the whole site to yourself. Even on equinox days, the site and its landscape is never crowded with people.
No need to get mushy
I have visited it several times but a particular favourite was on the occasion of just such an equinox morning a few years ago. And so, for the weekend that’s in it, I thought I’d throw together a few pictures along with taking a quick look at the medieval (and later) re-imagining of the sites origins in folklore.
I should probably take this opportunity to confess that prior to choosing the early medieval period for specialisation, I came within a hairs breadth of going in the opposite direction (Prehistory, the horror, the horror!) with Loughcrew & its neolithic art playing a large part in the whole affair. A small part of me still yearns for impenetrable neurophysiological treatises on entoptic phenomena…
Loughcrew: An Equinox Morning
That morning was particularly misty, which very much added to the occasion. Arriving at a packed but silent carpark in the early morning gloom, we started the trek up to Cairn T. Its a short but steep enough climb with a few benches along the way for anyone who needs to take a breather. Voices eventually followed by figures, came out of the gloom. People already coming back down, convinced the mist would not lift in time.
At the top, we all floated around waiting. The OPW always have guide staff up there on equinox mornings and there was a small huddle of people gathered around the entrance. Others were off on their own, enjoying their own private moments. Some children playing. Some others praying. A lovely mix of old and young. The summit of Carnbane East really is a massive site when you factor in the space between all the smaller tombs and cairns which surround the central Cairn T. The few people milling around that morning barely registered within its overall potential capacity, reminding me that such sites were designed to hold hundreds if not thousands of people.
Such places tend to be discussed in terms of ‘the few’ – the stone age ritual specialists/elites to which access to the internal chambers was probably limited. But these ‘few’ would surely have been observed by ‘the many’ – hundreds of witnesses and onlookers filling up the outside areas. Amidst the kerbstones and the satellite tombs was probably as close as one would have got to such occasions back in the neolithic. A nice reminder that participation and presence outside such tombs were as much a part of the whole shebang as being on the inside. In actuality, those on the outside would have viewed and ‘received’ the rising sunlight long before those on the inside.
The OPW staff were watching both the time & the sun burning off the mist, and eventually started calling everyone together. Everyone took it in turns to go inside the central chamber. There must have been, at any one time, about 25 people, so we rotated access several times. When sun broke eventually through the mist, although still diffused, it was enough to make a difference. Those of us outside heard the first audible gasps of appreciation from within. Someone perched high atop the tomb started a gentle rhythm on a bodhrán. Not exactly chronologically authentic, but more than appropriate all the same.
I went inside twice over the course of about twenty minutes. It was quite something to see the time-lapse passage of sunlight moving across the surface of decorated stones at the back of the chamber. Everyone marvels at the main inscribed decorations but not a lot of attention is paid to the more ‘subtextual’ decorations. The ‘pockmarked’ pecking and myriad small depressions in amongst the more overt motifs generally don’t get a look in. But in the line of transition between sharp light & darkness, the shadow moving slowing across the micro indentations of such pecked designs almost seem animated. An impossibly slow but still perceptible shadow dance across undulations in stone, especially if one were to trace it with a finger in tandem. That’s another aspect of passage tombs that doesn’t tend to get much attention outside of academic papers. It’s always seemed plausible (to me anyway) that tactile interaction with the slabs inside, in both light and darkness, played a part in ritual proceedings.
Everyone else in there with me were suitably amazed for what seemed like ten seconds, and then spent the rest of their time trying to get the perfect picture. I chose to soak it all in instead. There are plenty of great pictures elsewhere on the net. They’re pretty nice and all, but not what such things are all about. The stone age designers of such tombs utilised architecture, light, darkness, touch and (probably) sound to effect an overall sensory experience. No amount of flash technology, or amplified lens filters is ever going to capture how it appears to the actual human eye. As I was leaving the second time, I took one picture, above, with no flash. It’s not very good, but I like it because of its shortcomings. In a way, it’s the closest one can maybe get to capturing and transmitting a tiny fragment of how it may have looked to neolithic eyes as the light faded.
Above is a picture, taken at another time in artificial light, of some of the motifs carved on one of the horizontal roof slabs. Always look up in a passage tomb. (Many people never do!) This is one of the more overt examples of neolithic intent and agency. Such slabs, where we can see them at Loughcrew and elsewhere, because of their relative inaccessibility show that neolithic people sometimes decorated them prior to final placement/tomb construction. Excavation at some passage tombs have previously revealed decorated stones that would never have been seen when such tombs were finished construction.
The main back stone which receives the equinox light, again taken at another time in artificial light. I could go on and on about this one. Perhaps the most interesting thing, is its ‘depictive style’; a term used by some archaeologists to designate elements and motifs which seem to have been individually carved, at different times, without much consideration, or relationship to the those done previously. It’s an archaeology ‘of the now’, without much regard to the future.
Elsewhere at Loughcrew (and other such tombs – particularly on slabs at or near the entrances) a different design is thought to have been employed later on – one which involved an overall intention and inclusiveness of the entire stone surface/canvass, with several designs and motifs both respecting and interacting with each other. This is thought to be representative of a shift in neolithic intent. A more open design, with an eye towards larger public visibility. An ‘opening up’ perhaps of the tombs inner areas, at least to some visitors.
Surprisingly, as soon as the direct sunlight had passed, everyone pretty much packed up and left, leaving my party and a couple of new age mystical types the only people remaining. The new agers were engaging in some version of a ritual which involved circumnavigating the tomb, enclosing it in a line of brightly coloured powder. They seemed put out by our continued presence around the entrance way, so we withdrew to the back of the cairn, to let them finish their business. This done, they had a bit of a meditation at the top before leaving. Within a relatively short period, even on an equinox morning, we had the place to ourselves.
Imagine having these views, alongside this much archaeology, all to yourself. That is what is particularly special about Loughcrew. It’s just the right distance off the beaten track, with just the right level of elevation and ‘walking only’ accessibility to keep it off the radar of more general motorised tourism. Long may it continue.
But what about the medieval hags, you say. Where do they come into it?
That, as they say, would be an ecumenical matter…
(To be continued)
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***For details of 2014 OPW/Equinox times: see here.***
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Bibliography & Futher Reading
Bradley, R. 1989. Deaths and Entrances: A Contextual Analysis of Megalithic Art. Current Anthropology 30, 68-75.
Dronfield, J. 1995. Subjective vision and the source of Irish Megalithic Art. Antiquity 69, 539-549.
Dronfield, J. 1996. The Vision Thing: Diagnosis of Endogenous Derivation in Abstract Arts. Current Anthropology 37, 373-391.
Eogan, G. 1986. Knowth and the Passage Tombs of Ireland. London.
Fraser, S.H. 1998. The Public Forum and the Space Between: the Materiality of Social Strategy in the Irish Neolithic. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 64, 203-224.
Lewis-Williams, J.D. & Dowson, T.A. 1993. On Vision and Power in the Neolithic: Evidence from the Decorated Monuments. Current Anthropology 34, 55-65.
McMann, J. 1994. Forms of power: dimensions of an Irish megalithic landscape. Antiquity 68, 525-544.
O’ Sullivan, M. 1986. Approaches to Passage Tomb Art. Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 116, 68-83.
O’ Sullivan, M. 1989. A Stylistic Revolution in the Megalithic Art of the Boyne Valley. Archaeology Ireland 3 (4), 138-142.
Patton, M. 1990. On Entoptic Images in Context: Art, Monuments and Society in Neolithic Brittany. Current Anthropology 31, 554-558.
Pearson, M. & Thomas, J. 1994. Theatre/Archaeology. TDR 38, 133-161.
Shee Twohig, E. 1981. Megalithic Art of Western Europe. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Sheridan, A. 1986. Megaliths and Meglomania: An Account, and Interpretation, of the Development of Passage Tombs in Ireland. Journal of Irish Archaeology III, 17-30.
Thomas, J. 1990. Monuments from the Inside: The Case of the Irish Megalithic Tombs. World Archaeology 22, 168-178.