Prehistoric Rock Art refers to marks that have been engraved onto natural rock outcrops and standing stones in the open landscape. These petroglyphs exist all over the world and vary in form and technique.
Atlantic Rock Art tradition, known as Cup & Ring Art, is found all along the Atlantic seaboard of Europe, including Scandinavia. Britain, Ireland, France, north-west Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece. This Cup & Ring Art is mainly located in coastal sites, especially those with deeply penetrating estuaries. It is generally found on lower mountain slopes at the heads of river valleys.
Characterised by concave depressions or hollows, sometimes with concentric rings and other grooves, these carvings were laboriously pecked into the natural rock surface with stone and later bronze tools. They are believed to have been first created in the Neolithic period (around 6000-4000 years ago) and continued over a relatively long period through the Early Bronze Age (roughly to 1800 BC). Individual panels have carvings dating from significantly different periods, side by side.
Why these carvings were made and what they meant has been lost to the passage of time. Studies have suggested that the carvings may have represented astronomical alignments on significant occasions. Whether they were used to communicate political, spiritual or philosophical ideas cannot be definitively understood. Regardless of our understanding, it is still fascinating to imagine the lifestyles of those that lived so many thousands of years ago and these tangible links to our prehistoric forbears will continue to inspire us.
Many carvings are discovered every year and more are still waiting to be found. Carvings are often located on private land and access isn’t always possible. A large number of carvings have been destroyed by land reclamation or been eroded away over time. The total number of carved rocks may have originally been significantly higher. Previously recognised locations have become naturally overgrown and can be very difficult to find. Many sites have been reburied purposely to reduce damage caused naturally by weathering or by vandalism. Care and respect for these ancient relics and for the environment is vital to ensure they survive for future generations to enjoy.
Cup & Ring Art is found in many places around the coast of Ireland but the highest concentrations appear to be in Donegal, especially in the area surrounding Trawbreaga Bay. Doagh Isle alone, with 40 known sites is one of the most important locations of cup-and-ring-art in Ireland. Concentrations can also be found in Co. Louth and the Iveragh Peninsula in Co. Kerry.
One impressive example of Cup & Ring Art in Donegal that is more easily found is the Ardmore Gallán Standing Stone, located near Muff village in Donegal. It stands 2.1 metres tall and 0.9 metres in width and depth and overlooks the river Foyle. Dating from 2,500 BC, it features 40 cup marks, about half of which are encircled by one, two or three rings. As the Ardmore Gallán Stone is located on private land, permission should be asked from the owner before any visit should be attempted.
With special thanks to Liam McLaughlin and Bettina Linge for their comprehensive knowledge of Donegal Rock Art and also Adam Rory Porter, Seán Beattie of the Donegal Historical Society and Dr John Moulden of theLands of Éogain Heritage Group
Follow these links if you wish to learn more about Atlantic Rock Art:
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