Equinox sunset over Knocknarea.
The bend in the passage at Knowth, west chamber, has a collection of wonderful engraved stones.

Megalithic art

One of the best known aspects of the neolithic cairns is the 'passage grave art', a mysterious symbolic language that ornaments many stones, especially in the Boyne Valley and at Loughcrew in County Meath. These engravings are the earliest writing or inscription in Ireland, carved by descendants of the first colonising farmers who landed in County Sligo in the years before 4,150 BC.

A few simple carvings have been found in the western sites: Listoghil, the central monument at Carrowmore, in the chamber of Cairn B at Carrowkeel and on a kerbstone at Heapstown, with what are probably Iron age carvings at Cloverhill near Carrowmore.

Knockmany, County Tyrone.
Knockmany, County Tyrone.

The simple western art connects the sites at Lough Arrow and Carrowmore to Loughcrew and the Boyne Valley, part of a common language of symbols used by the cairn builders. Robert Hensey:

As a result of these new finds there is now megalithic art known from all four major passage tomb complexes. While there seems to be a tradition of making megalithic art at passage tombs in County Sligo, it would be wrong to expect large undiscovered quantities of art in the north-west. The authors carried out a two-week search as part of the Carrowkeel Passage Tomb Art Project at many other passage tombs in the Carrowkeel-Keashcorran complex and a number of other passage tombs in the region, and the second stone in cairn B was the only additional art found.

It is likely, however, that more art will be discovered in the west in time. The possible use of pigments to make coloured motifs and designs might also explain the smaller quantities of carved art on passage tombs in the west. Evidence of the use of colour has recently been discovered on the parietal walls at Barnenez and Gavrinis passage tombs in Brittany, France, and at the Neolithic Ness of Brodgar site in the Orkney Islands. It may be that similar evidence will one day be found on the walls of passage tombs in Carrowkeel and on Neolithic monuments elsewhere in Ireland. But that, as they say, is another story.

Conclusion from Once Upon a Time in the West.


Carrowkeel County Sligo; neolithic art discovered recently in Cairn B.
Martin Brennan.
American rock art expert Martin Brennan visits Carrowmore 51 in County Sligo. The art is digitally highlighted; it is only visible during sunny afternoon misdummers.

There are several boulders at Carrowmore where natural faults and cracks in the rock seem like early inspirations for megalithic art. They are called intrusions and were created when the gneiss boulders were being formed. However, modern research has connected the Sligo monuments to the Brittany area, where there was a tradition of megalithic art before 4,000 BC.

Heapstown Cairn, County Sligo.
Kerbstone with engravings at Heapstown Cairn in County Sligo.

These engravings may well deal with ritual astronomical themes, demonstrated at several sites where the artwork is illuminated by the light of the sun or moon at a chosen time in the cycle of the body in question. This is demonstrated at Listoghil in Carrowmore, Tara, Cairns L and T at Loughcrew and the large mounds in the Boyne Valley.

Equinox sunrise at Loughcrew.
Equinox sun illuminates megalithic art at Cairn T in Loughcrew.
Equinox sunrise at Loughcrew.
Later in the same sequence.

Knowth alone has 50% of the engraved stones in Ireland. Early engravings have been discovered in recent years on the chamber of Listoghil monument at Carrowmore in Co Sligo. Heapstown Cairn, also in Sligo is known to have had several engraved stones, with perhaps an ogham stone standing at the top of the mound. Only one stone remains visible today, as many were robbed from the site in the last century.

The cosmic designs within the right recess of Cairn L at Loughcrew has echoes of the pattern on the huge basin within Knowth east.
Decorated cairn stones from Newgrange.
Decorated cairn stones from Newgrange.
The Great Basin of Knowth.
Knowth Basin.
The Great Basin of Knowth.

Few designs are known in the west of Ireland and some other scatteres sites such as Knockmany and Sess Kilgreen in County Tyrone. Loughcrew, just within the west boundry of County Meath has many engraved stones, of a type that seem rougher and earlier than the art of the Boyne Valley. Many of the engravings are badly weathered from long exposure to the elements, while those that had shelter are as fresh as the day they were engraved more than 5,000 years ago. Loughcrew retains two fabulous alignments where the rising sun illuminates and interacts with the panel of art at Cairns T and L.

Decorated stone in the mid left recess of Cairn I at Loughcrew. The rain helped show up the art. Note the vivid red blotch on the stone behind - the result of weathering?
Neolithic art on a passage stone within Cairn F on Carnbane west. Zig-zags, undulating waves and diamond shapes, the latter thought to be ancient units of land measurement by researchers Martin Brennan and Michael Poynder.
The so called Guardian stone or Owl man at the bend in the passage of Knowth west. The neolithic art is deeply scratched, probably by the later medieval graffiti artists who left at least 20 ogham names on the stones of Knowth.
Large and beautiful panel from a roofstone in the passage of Knowth east.
This stone was found lying in the medieval ditch that encircles the mound of Knowth, and was restored as a passage stone during the 'restoration'.
This kerbstone from Knowth may be a representation or diagram of the nearby mound at Newgrange.

The elaborately decorated roofstone in the end recess of Cairn T at Loughcrew. Note the spiders and the eight-spoked designs. This panel is brightly illuminated by reflected sunlight on the equinoxes.