2. The Relationship between Carvings and Relief

As in Palaeolithic cave art, during the Neolithic natural stone reliefs were a source of inspiration or were integrated into graphic compositions. This is one of the main characteristics of M. O'Sullivan's 'plastic art' (O'Sullivan 1986), which refers to a particular category of Irish passage tomb art. This art is later than to the classical art of Ireland and is frequently superimposed on it. Its geographical distribution is limited to some monuments: Knowth essentially (eastern and western tombs, a part of the kerb), but also Newgrange (many orthostats, kerbstones 1, 52 and 67), Dowth South (orthostat C12), Fourknocks, Millin Bay, Sess Kilgreen, Knockroe and Barclodiad y Gawres on Anglesey. Several criteria distinguish it from the traditional iconography of passage tomb art. The usual repertoire is hardly used and broad carved bands or large picked areas, whose dimensions are largely greater than the traditional picked signs, are preferred. Moreover, the plastic art was carried out after the construction of the tombs and was then located on accessible places, contrary to the traditional iconography, whose distribution extends to high parts of the tombs (corbelling) and on hidden surfaces of architecture. But the principal characteristic of the 'plastic art' is its adaptation to the physical shapes of the stone. The picked elements fit the contour of the stones as well as the reliefs of its surface. Thus, the plastic art is not so much a representation of signs on stone than an enhancement of the stone by carving. This art is essentially devoted to the space and volumes of the stone. The plastic art forms a separate category on iconographic and stylistic levels; nevertheless it shows how much Irish passage tomb art depends on its support. Our wish now is to show that this link also exists in the traditional iconography, called 'depictive art' by O'Sullivan (1986).

2.1 The stone space

The slabs bearing carvings are not just vertical surfaces, in two dimensions. They are objects in three dimensions, with several faces, several spaces. They are standing objects, with an upper part and a lower part, with a main face and lateral sides, with limits. Neolithic people were aware of the three-dimensional nature of these stones and some motifs were carved on specific places. Through several examples, we see that the motif's position on stones is significant. This shows that there is a relationship between the carved signs and the general shape and relief of the stones. For example, eleven stones show an arc sign carved at the top of the stone (Fig. 4). The sign, open towards the ground, is generally carved against the upper edge or arris of the stone. On orthostat 25 of Knowth East, the carved arc fits the upper contour of the stone. On four kerbstones in Knowth and Newgrange, the sign is centred and carved just under the upper limit of the main face (Knowth K67 and K97; Newgrange K4 and K52). A similar arrangement can be seen on orthostat C9 in Loughcrew L. In Loughcrew tomb T, sillstones 1 and 3 show an arc sign on the top of their front face and, in the first case, the sign reproduces the shape of the rounded top of the stone. In the same tomb, orthostat C2 shows a sign composed of two boxed arcs carved just below a significant arris, which cuts the upper face of the stone from its main face. Finally, on orthostat C8 (backstone), an arc sign has been carved on the top side of the stone, thus repeating the theme carved on the two sillstones that precede it in the axis of the tomb.

Figure 4 Figure 5

Figure 4: Arcs on top position on vertical stones (Ireland)
Figure 5: Scalariform signs in upper limit of kerbstones (Ireland)

In the Boyne necropolis, four kerbstones are carved with a horizontal scalariform sign whose location corresponds to the limit between the main face and the upper side of the stone (Fig. 5). On kerbstone B in Newgrange L, the sign is carved between various arrises which separate the front face and the top face of the stone. On Dowth kerbstone 51, the sign is carved on the top edge of the main face, leaning towards the top surface. On Newgrange kerbstone 7, the axis of the scalariform sign is superimposed on the axis of the upper arris. Finally, on Knowth kerbstone 97, the sign, composed simply of three vertical lines, is carved on a small vertical surface separated from the main face by a large horizontal arris. The sign is thus on an intermediary face between the front face and the top face. The analogy between Newgrange L kerbstone B and Dowth kerbstone 51 is interesting. The carved ornament of these kerbstones does indeed show several similarities: an alignment of circular signs is carved horizontally across the middle of the front face; moreover, the scalariform sign, in top position, is carved above a radiate sign. These, then, are two stones with the same function (kerb) and whose various signs are spatially organised in a closely similar way. The symbolic system of these two carved objects is undeniably identical and their example, among others, shows the intentional and constructed nature of sign arrangement in Irish passage tomb art.

2.2 Natural lines as components in graphic representations

Figure 6

Figure 6: Arcs in contact with stone edges (Ireland)

Lines, such as arrises or cracks, can be integrated into graphic representations. In these representations, natural patterns replace carved motifs. For example, several boxed arcs in Ireland are carved in contact with a natural line so that each end of the arc rests on this line. Two types of natural line can be distinguished: the lines separating two different surfaces (edge or arris) and the lines dividing the same surface into two spaces (crack, arris). In the first category, ten examples have been recorded (Fig. 6). On Knowth kerbstone 90, a large sign composed of eight arcs has been carved against the arris separating the front face and the damaged top face. On Pierowall stone 667, in Orkney, two large, perfectly semi-circular arc signs rest on two opposite edges. A similar motif appears in the same configuration on a stone reused in a stone wall in Ballinvally, in the vicinity of Loughcrew necropolis. A smaller sign has been recorded in contact with the upper arris of the side of Knowth East roofstone 37. In the western tomb, corbel Co37/38 is also carved with an arc sign resting on the lower edge of its front face. Orthostat 2a in Newgrange K presents an arc sign, both ends of which link the top edge with the left edge of the carved face. The western stone of Kiltierney is carved with various arc signs and three of them are in contact with or very close to its edges. The carved stone from Eday Manse in Orkney is similar to the Pierowall stone: it has an elongated shape and shows an arc sign resting on its longest edge carved beside a double spiral of type 2c. Orthostat C4 in Loughcrew L is carved with an arc sign, only one end of which rests on an edge of the stone. Lastly, the carved stone from Clear Island, off the southwest coast of Ireland, shows a sign composed of three arcs carved in contact with one of its edges. To this list can be added a stone fragment discovered in a cist in Beoch, Ayrshire. The fragment is carved with several concentric arcs and with a sign composed of three arcs that rest on the longest edge of the stone (McLeod 1938). Another Scottish cist, discovered in Parkburn (Midlothian), was built with four stones on edge, one of which is carved with six boxed arcs in contact with the top edge. That said, according to the excavator, the stone could be broken and the sign may be the remnant of a late circular sign (Henshall 1966, 211).

Figure 7

Figure 7: Arcs in contact with stone arrises (Ireland, England and Brittany)

Several arc signs are also carved in contact with another type of natural line (Fig. 7). Orthostat R2 in Loughcrew S presents on its main face three tier-like surfaces due to the flaking of the stone. A single arc, deeply carved and surrounded by weathered arcs, has been made on the second face in the middle of the stone: both its ends rest on the narrow top side of the lower face of the stone. On the eastern face of orthostat C2 in Loughcrew U, a sign composed of four arcs is carved just above a deep depression. In Knowth, kerbstone 78 is carved with boxed arcs resting on an important arris which cuts the top right part of the front face. In Knockroe, kerbstone 15 presents an original arc sign, carved just above a natural arris. The lintel above the final recess in Loughcrew T is carved with several arcs, two of which are on a horizontal crack in the stone. In Dowth North, the carved roofstone of the passage presents a set of six boxed arcs whose ends rest on an arris of the main face and on an edge. The same model can be seen on orthostat R3 in Loughcrew L. It is noteworthy that these two stones have a similar location in the tomb: both mark the middle of the passage. Lastly, stone B from the Calderstones shows two arc signs on both sides of a major crack.

More than 20 examples show the existence of a recurrent graphic model based on an arc sign resting on a natural line. This model also exists in Gavrinis passage tomb, in Brittany, where two arc signs are carved above a large natural crack on the top left part of orthostat C1 (Shee Twohig 1981, fig. 119). In this tomb, boxed arc signs are numerous and, interestingly enough, most of them are 'closed' by a picked horizontal line on which they rest (orthostats R4, R5, R8, R9, R10, R12, L4, L5, L6, L7, L8, L10, L11, C2, C3, C4; Shee Twohig 1981, figs 110-20). The theme is then identical, only the mode of representation is different: natural line in one case, picked line in the other case. The use of an artificial line is also known in Ireland, on orthostat 54 in Knowth eastern tomb, where four arc signs rest on two long and parallel incised lines (Eogan 1986, fig. 61). In addition, this graphic model frequently occurs in the ornament of Castellic ceramics in Brittany (Cassen 2000c) and it also appears on two pottery sherds discovered in the Achnacreebeag passage tomb in Scotland (Ritchie 1970) and in the Ballymacaldrack court tomb in Ireland (Collins 1976). On these vessels, the arc signs also rest on an arris between two faces, formed by the carination.

Figure 8

Figure 8: Meandering signs carved along stone arrises (Ireland)

Another sign of the Irish repertoire is frequently associated with natural lines on the stone. The meandering sign, of elongated and rectilinear shape, is often carved along an arris or a crack (Fig. 8). On Newgrange kerbstones 2, 16 and 52, a meandering sign is carved above and along the arris which separates the front face from the top face of the stones. On the loose stone discovered in Loughcrew I and on Knowth East corbel Co40-5, a meandering line runs along an arris that extends across the main face of the stone. The two carved stones discovered in Ardmulchan display two picked signs and one incised sign related to their edges. In tomb 14 in Knowth necropolis, orthostat 8 is carved with various meandering signs, two of which are closely related to the arris that separates the main face and the south side of the stone. On Knowth kerb, two large meandering signs are carved along the top edge of stones 4 and 91. Lastly, on orthostat R2 in Dowth South and on orthostat 38 in Knowth West, the sign appears on the lower right part of the stone, where it is associated with the arris separating the main face and the side face. The slender form of the meandering sign fits well the narrow and elongated space provided by the sides of various stones. A sign carved in this space is then associated with two parallel edges. Such a configuration can be seen (Fig. 9) on the side of four orthostats (Loughcrew H, C14; Loughcrew R2; Loughcrew U, C9; Newgrange K, 5b), on the side of a corbel stone (Loughcrew T, Co1/C2) and on the side of a loose stone (Knowth, loose stone 9).

Figure 9

Figure 9: Meandering signs carved along stone sides (Ireland)

In Irish passage tomb art, several single chevrons can be combined and linked together with a central line. The motif can be termed a 'ramiform' ((branched structure) because of its similarity with vegetation, especially when the length of the chevron increases or decreases gradually and symmetrically. This figure is rare and is, in three cases, associated with a horizontal natural line on which it rests in a vertical position (Fig. 10). Thus, among the various incised lines made on the right part of corbel Co37/38 in Knowth West, a vertical ramiform motif can be distinguished whose base is in contact with two horizontal arrises. On the back face of Newgrange kerbstone 4, the motif rests on an arris under which is an original motif formed by a spiral enclosed in a crescent-shaped motif. An identical composition appears on kerbstone 51, where a ramiform sign is separated from a spiral and crescent motif by the arris between the main face and the top face of the stone.

Figure 10

Figure 10: Ramiform motif on a horizontal natural line (Ireland and Brittany)

It is interesting to make an analogy with Brittany where the ramiform motif, also very rare, shows the same relationship with stone relief. On Guib stele, discovered and recorded at the end of the 1990s (Cassen 2000b), the motif is carved just above a horizontal line of relief. On orthostat 3 in the Table des Marchands passage tomb, a ramiform motif is also carved above a significant arris under which appears a meandering sign. Both motifs are separated by a line of relief and the distinction is stressed by the difference of depth of the surface on which they are carved. This model can also be recognised on Newgrange kerbstone 51 where the ramiform motif is carved above a meandering sign as well as on a decorated vessel found in Lannec er Gadouer long barrow (Boujot and Cassen 1997). (Darvill 2001, 54-5, made the analogy between the ornament on Lannec er Gadouer vessel and the carvings on Newgrange kerbstones 4 and 51; we thank him very kindly for making us aware of this work.) Here again, several representations of a similarly constructed theme can be found in Brittany and in Ireland. An interesting difference between both regions is in the opposite direction of the 'branches' of the ramiform motif: downwards in Ireland and upwards in Brittany.


© Internet Archaeology/Author(s) URL:
Last updated: Wed Jul 29 2009