Monday 23 November 2020

Ireland’s prehistoric rock art: free booklet published

A free online booklet has been published by the Heritage Council on Ireland's prehistoric rock art, which can be found in many parts of the island.

While the passage grave cemeteries of Newgrange and Knowth are already world famous, there are many other examples, and this new book – Rock Art, by archaeologist Clare Busher O’Sullivan – explores the art form; where it can be found; what it means; and how it can be protected.

Rock art is carved, drawn, painted, engraved, or incised imagery on natural rock surfaces. Ireland's examples are known as ‘open-air’ Atlantic rock art, a carving practice that was widespread across Atlantic Europe, including in Scotland, England, France, Spain and Portugal. Unlike megalithic art, which is associated with monuments, open-air Atlantic rock art is typically found on boulders and outcrops. The Atlantic tradition dates to the Later Neolithic / Early Bronze Age period (c3000-1500 BC). In Ireland, examples of this ancient art can be found in clusters in Carlow / Wicklow; Louth / Monaghan, Fermanagh and Donegal. However, the densest concentration can be found in the Cork / Kerry region.

“In Ireland, the most common motif in Atlantic rock art is the ‘cup-mark’, which is a circular human-made depression in the rock surface," says Clare Busher O’Sullivan. "The cup-mark is often surrounded by one or more concentric rings. The art is referred to in Ireland and Britain as ‘cup and ring art’. The rock art is located in rural landscapes, often in open valleys or the foothills of mountains and almost always in close proximity to water sources.”

There is no definitive explanation for the art, although there many theories. Some researchers believe that the placement of rock art marks boundaries and routeways within prehistoric landscapes, while others think rock art marks places of worship and pilgrimage in prehistoric society.

Launching the new richly-illustrated 28-page booklet, the Heritage Council's Head of Conservation, Ian Doyle, said: "While this form of open-air art is widely known to archaeologists, it is not well known to the general public. We hope that this publication on Atlantic rock art will bring this internationally important but enigmatic form of prehistoric art to a wider consciousness and that walkers and landowners will be able to identify more of it and be aware of the need to care for it.

"The new publication also includes the ‘Rock Art Code’, which provides guidance for members of the public visiting rock art sites and interacting with decorated panels, and the landowners.”

The Rock Art booklet can be downloaded in pdf format from the Heritage Council website. Information on visiting rock art locally can be found on the Historic Environment Viewer on

Some examples of where open-air rock art can be found include:

  • Wicklow: Concentrations to the west / south-west of Roundwood in Co Wicklow, in close proximity to Lough Dan. There is another high concentration in Ballykean, between Kilbride and Redcross, and some scattered examples between Aughrim and Avoca.
  • Carlow: Rock art panels concentrated in multiple townlands around Borris.
  • Louth: In Louth, clusters occur to the north of the county between Kilcurly and Inishkeen, to the west of Dundalk.
  • Donegal: In the Inishowen Peninsula in Donegal, the townlands of Carrowreagh/ Craignacally and Magheranaul have very high concentrations.
  • Cork/Kerry: They are scattered on Cork's Mizen Peninsula. On the northern part of the Iveragh peninsula of Co Kerry, the townlands of Letter West, Kealduff Upper and Coomasaharn have some impressive rock art panels on privately owned land. On the Dingle Peninsula, the townland of Kilmore has a high concentration of rock art.