Megalithic Art – An Artist’s View
– An Artist’s View
In an idle moment, I often imagine myself 5,200 years ago watching someone stand up from the kerbstones at Sid in Broige blowing the dust from their newly carved work, checking their aching hands for blisters and I imagine cornering them to ask about their ideas and processes. (I always do this at art shows if I get a chance.) But in this scenario I only get an enigmatic smile in reply. We are suddenly surrounded by archaeologists who poke in the artist’s bag looking at the flint tools, another measures the footprints left by the artist’s feet. And one more finds the discarded hazelnut shells of the artist’s packed lunch and is so happy with the insights this will give but for me, a non-academic, practicing artist, there is just the wish that there was an answer from the artist themselves. The scene fades and I am back to the living room/studio and my piles of tracing paper and half finished work. I remember when I took the tour of Sid in Broige the guide said that nobody understood the art on the stones so our guess was as good as anyone else. Without the artist(s) to ask, anything I say next is only a hypothesis, my only qualification being my good ‘artist’s eye’.
A Closer Look at K67
I realise that Kerbstone 67 is not a perfect flat surface whereas my laptop and it’s circle drawing programme assumes that it is and I am working at a fraction of the actual size of the stone. Also I am only looking at photos and 3d digital representations of the stone and not the stone itself so I realise there are limitations because of that. With this disclaimer let’s have a look!
On the right it has two finely done Archimedean spirals that connect running into one another, if you put your finger at the centre of the left hand spiral and follow the line, it expands to the right and then changes direction as it winds to the left into the right hand spiral. Archimedean spiral arms maintain a constant width as they go around. Spirals at this level of precision, it needs to be said, cannot be done off the top of your head. Try drawing one yourself making sure it is evenly expanding and the arms are the same width as they extend while maintaining their circular appearance. No good? Have a go at the double spirals on the front of Kerbstone 1 and see how far you get. Who is the primitive artist now? Imagine trying to incise one with a pointed bit of flint or quartz on the uneven surface of a great sarson, to work evenly around those curves also maintaining equal pressure on the point of the chisel so the line is of the same depth as you go around. Imagine the stress of working on what must have been a specially selected stone that your community has dragged without benefit of the wheel from surrounding fields uphill for you to carve to become part of that astonishing feat of architecture and palace of the winter Solstice, Sid in Broige. I’ve tried carving and I know how hard it is.
There is a method for these kinds of spirals using a compass which only requires a straight line with a central point, and one measurement which is the width of the arm of the spiral. It is the “Two Point Spiral” design method which you can find demonstrations for easily on the internet. Did they have compasses? You will have to ask the archaeologists. It is possible to make an Archimedean spiral using only string looped around a pencil. You have to be able to extend the string in length after each half turn and move the string from it’s central position to a second position and back again (or use a new string) for each move. I’ve done it and while it is difficult (on a sheet of A3) it does work. The two point spiral method also elegantly makes double spirals possible too. If you just wind string around a pencil and allow it to unwrap as you go around pulling it taught from the centre, that is a Logarithmic spiral which means the arms get wider with every turn. The Boyne Valley spirals are Archimedean spirals made 3,500 years before Archimedes! If there are any logarithmic ones I am happy to hear about them! Interestingly, the Logarithmic spiral is the one found everywhere in nature from snail shells to flower patterns as it incorporates geometric progression however the Archimedean spiral is very rare in nature so perhaps this points to some other meaning in the use of these particular spirals unless it’s all a homage to coiled centipedes!
The Shapes Around the Spirals
The top diamond shape and the “double lined” square shape beneath it seem to be along the central axis of the spirals although the square is a little offside to the left. There are strange little shapes to the right of the spirals, an odd double line ‘L’ shape which on closer inspection may be part of a bigger design, below is a tiny double lined square and a blurry shape of a circle. Looking at the Discovery Channel’s 3D version you can see that it too is a spiral. There are also tiny repeated v shapes underneath the left hand spiral which suggest maybe a finer decoration might have existed beyond what we see now, they also extend into the centre of the square. There is also one circle/spiral to the far right that can hardly be seen on the plaster cast image. Without the benefit of actually seeing the stone close up in different lights I can only guess that there may be more (or less!) than I am describing. There is a cluster of odd shapes underneath the left hand spiral that don’t fit in with anything. On the top right is a series of curved ‘V’ shapes and above the left hand spiral seem to be the ghosts of lozenges long worn away with only two holes left.
The Left Hand Side - Triangles and Lozenges.
Then there are the triangles and lozenges on the left, which are broken into three layers of similar looking shapes with or without borders around the shapes. It all seems at first glance to be, well, unprofessional is the word I might use. Some triangles flop on one side like a wet cardboard box or bow at the bottom. Everything is at an angle climbing from left to right but not evenly. Some have interpreted the repeated triangles seen in much of the art as a counting system (Martin Brennan-The Stones of Time) so perhaps their shape is not so important (although he did in his earlier book The Boyne Valley Vision present theories on structure using large circles that encompassed the whole designs). But why were some of the triangles perfect and others not? Why if they appear to lay along a line of sight are some dipping below the line and others perfectly on the line. Why were some shapes repeated to perfection and others apparently arbitrarily untidy and inconsistent? Why are the diamond and square between the spirals not exactly on the central axis? The artist was capable of precision (the spirals) so why not be precise? So frustrating.
The Left Hand Design – A Chance Observation
Having studied and drawn and redrawn this image I noticed something. I was tracing the spirals image and moved the tracing paper to the left of my drawing of the entire stone meaning I could see the triangles through a spiral, The top right triangle in the row of three has sides that curve gently outwards and it had a perfect straight base. One side of it fitted perfectly inside the second turn of the spiral Could this mean something? I drew a sort of K67 machine rumbling on with apparent wheels turning and noted curves everywhere. I tried to see if there was some consistent way of making sense of this half section of a circle, then I saw two circles overlap amid the chaos of all the tracings and like a bolt of lighting I saw that the triangle was the centre of a ven diagram so this meant it was a shape made by two interlocking circles. I did a bit of surfing and found that there are loads of ways of making images using interlocking circles and that many of these were often described as “sacred geometry”. I have scoured the internet and not found anything on their use before the Roman period. I noted that when circles interlock they make a grid of lozenges with great ease. If you have a circle with the centre marked then you can play endlessly with designs. You will get a lot of 60 degree angles and 90 degree angles. So you can make squares, lovely isosceles triangles, parallelograms, rectangles to any size you like, all without needing protractors or T squares or indeed numbers, just string and a pencil and some kind of ruler.
Then I realized something important. If you make an interlocking pattern of circles showing it’s line grid it gives you three options if you are drawing a line. You can use the straight line of the grid like the base of the triangle I was focusing on or you can use the curve of the circle as in the left and right sides of the triangle. This was starting to get me very excited about the floppy triangles. Another point about this way of drawing is it allows you to have pinpoint accuracy without measuring anything. You put a circle with the centre point on a straight line and you build from there always placing the central point on where circles intersect and you will not go wrong. To my utter astonishment an interlocking pattern which makes 6 petals and a grid of lozenges was the basis for the entire left side of the stone. The etched semicircle on the left of the stone fits into the pattern. If I continued beyond the diagonal border between the left side and the right side the circles stopped making such clear sense.
The Right Hand Circle Design
I then turned my attention to the right hand side of the stone and noted that while there seemed to be circle segments, the left hand circles were too small to fit like when you try to put the lid of a jam jar on and realise your mistake when it drops into the jam. So the circles on the right side were based on the (invisible) outer arm of the spiral. You can see a curved line in evidence rather than a dead straight line on the top right of the diamond shape. Also if you look at the large square, it’s outer top right side is a circle segment and you can even see the circle extend a bit downwards, is this a guideline? The tiny square also has a curved edge. And look at the ‘L’ again. This too could be a section of a circle. Was there more design to be seen originally and we are left with some bits missing? I squinted at my laptop and drawing programme.
What I couldn’t have imagined is that every single shape would eventually find its meaning in the design and it is a design of such astonishing complexity and beauty I couldn’t have believed it. Far from being less than perfect, it was based on an amazing two part design! Please go back and forward to see where each circle finds its origin. It may be a tiny little edge of something but it is there and will always have it’s corresponding matching shape on the other side but will have a different line to guide you. As it gets more complicated I am sure there are errors and omissions as it is impossible to find the central point as all the lines become blended together but you can see in principle that it makes sense. The V shapes on the top right also make circles that touch the lines within the spirals but by the time those are done the image is almost obliterated by lines! The large circles also match up with the left over lines of the left hand pattern.
So what have we got? The left hand side is a design made using a repeat pattern and the right hand side is a single symmetrical (hooray!) image involving a mind-bendingly dazzling use of circles. And to think the first time I saw K67 I thought it looked like an owl in flight. I suppose the next question is why do a pattern and then remove arbitrary bits of it so the original pattern can’t be easily discerned? Was it completed on special occasions using paint or charcoal? Was it a secret known only to certain people? Or was it simply a grid over which patterns and designs could be made which I since found is a feature of Islamic art of the middle ages. The left hand side pattern makes me think of the stories of the swans with rings around their necks all connected to eachother by silver or gold chains. The spirals make me think of Boanne breaking taboos by walking around a well in counter clockwise direction rather than the prescribed clockwise direction.
The implications of this could be big. The art of the Boyne Valley specifically consists of so-called geometric shapes such as lozenges triangles squares and rectangles, and then a more fluid style of curves, circles, wavy lines, dots etc. In the case of K52 there are different sections with both apparently opposing styles, a section of spirals and a section of grid made using straight interlocking lines. If I am right in my hypothesis then these designs are part of the same set of design tools and motifs. The grid could hold circles, the circles can hold a grid and both can be used to make art that is at first glance not symmetrical and apparently haphazard even. Giant ‘X’s naturally form from interlocking circle grids too. I’m thinking of the roof box stone with its eight ‘X’s. Is it related to the other art? I am now looking at other stones and seeing this and other methods appear. Some stones are more stubborn than others but in between making my own art I will carry on looking as long as the original artists maintain their silence.
– An Artist’s View
The Equinox Stone at Loughcrew
I was reading Manchan Magan’s excellent book “32 words for field”. He said he came to Loughcrew and stared at this stone and for a moment it made sense and then dissolved into randomness. I find it interesting how a multi lingual man had this moment. It was in the context of his chapter on circles which seem to be so important in ancient irish art and building. Having seen how circles can be the basis for the design on kerbstone 67 at Sid in Broige I decided to have a look at the Equinox stone.
Not an archaeologst….
I have read a lot of papers on the stones I love so much and while I respect archaeologists for their patience and diligence and breadth of understanding I respectfully note that when looking at the artwork on stones they do what they do best, record faithfully, describe in detail and categorize. This is a great way to do archaeology but it is not a good way to understand art. I know that they can work out the type of tool used and whether the stone was done in situ or carved off site but that doesn’t tell you much about how the design was conceived. Also how was the design transferred to the stone? Is it plausible that they sat down with their tools and without making a single error produced this image? Did they draw on the stone first? How did they make circles on the stone? Charcoal stick and string, templates, stencils? I call on experimental archaeologists to help me out here!
There are comments on the style of art being ‘plastic’ or ‘geometric’ but that is not enough for me as an artist. It also seems the standard view that the more apparently organized looking images are superior to the ones that seem random or hastily executed. There is no basis for this assumption in my world. I know that it is only in talking to the artist that you can understand what went into the creation of an image however it may look at first glance. Picasso was once asked why he charged so much for a drawing of a dove that took him minutes and he replied that it didn’t take him minutes it took him decades.
In archaeology the art can only exist in the context of other art ie being similar or dissimilar to art of the same date or same area, it’s value in its own right is not really explored. I look at the Equinox stone at Loughcrew and I see an artwork. I understand it is not a modern artwork in that it had a ritual function as it is lit up by the equinox sunrise but like a modern artwork someone had to come up with the design on its surface and whatever the meaning of the symbols (if indeed they are symbols!) the design itself can be deconstructed. This can then perhaps give insight into the decisions of the artist and therefore the people who caused the art to be made. So as an artist and drawing teacher I hope I can add something to the discussion. I have labelled the motifs on the stone on my annotated drawing which will help to locate the motifs I discuss below. I refer to motifs as ‘stars’ ‘boats’ ‘flowers’ etc not because I think that they represent those things but more that it is a means to navigate around a complex image.
X Y axis
X Y axis
As with many of the decorated stones (K1 and K67 at Sid in Broige) there is a simple way to begin the analysis which is to note the centre point of the stone. If you do this with Loughcrew you get the bottom ‘star’ of the row of stars (S4) as the dead centre of the stone. So this is where the X and Y axis intersect. When you draw a line through those four ‘stars’ using the centre points of their little designs as guides they line up perfectly. Also the wavy line design (W) on the top right of the stone comes to a screeching halt in its undulations at this invisible line. We can then take a perpendicular to this line and we notice something interesting. This X axis corresponds with the natural flaws/cracks either side of the stone. Something else that seems to happen is the X axis cuts a slice off the bottom ‘petal’ of F3. And also skims under the edge of the two similar looking grid shapes G2 and G3 and continues along to skim the top of another main motif F5. It appears to me that the stone was divided into two using the flaws as a guide and the vertical was perpendicular to that. As with all the stones the art is working with the stone and taking its lead from the natural shapes and cracks in it. The angle of the sun as it moves down the stone also corresponds to the Y axis though I am unable to verify this with any precision regarding angles only having seen videos of the phenomenon. Interestingly another equinox stone K67 also has an angled division. Could this represent part of the X created by the Equinoxes in the wheel of the year? Assumptions within guesswork but it is a nice idea.
One ring to rule them all
One ring to rule them all
On K67 I discovered a ‘key’ circle, one circle that will rule them all, so to speak (two in fact). It is this circle that is used as a basic primary element in a motif to be repeated or overlapped with other circles. Is this something that is ritualized? Many of the stones are seen as covered in ‘random’ almost chaotic shapes and attempts by archaeologists to categorize them into circles, arcs, radials, lozenges, triangles seems to miss something, which is that all those shapes are sections of a circle, and I would take it further and say they are often made with a circle of the same size on each stone. (Spirals are another matter in that they are by their nature changing in size shrinking or expanding) Some stones lack a coherent pattern or I haven’t found it but in the case of the Equinox stone there appeared to be a mix of obvious individual motifs which could loosely be themed as multi-petaled ‘flower’ motifs and some other stuff in between.
Numbers within the stone
Numbers within the stone
On the Equinox stone there are numbers everywhere. Even if you leave my circle theory out of the story this is so obvious. Some numbered items are contained in a circle or outer shape some not. Some are divided into two sets some not. Grids with a vertical line through it make me think of the 5 bar gate that is still in common use when numbers are not really useful. The designs while beautiful are clearly showing countable lines or shapes and this is deliberate. These patterns cannot be made spontaneously (as you know doubt appreciate by now!) no more than the spirals on K1. F3 has 8 petals and the double leaf contains 3 lines on each one so this artist is not making a realistic image of a flower or the sun but a motif with specific parts to it. So what does it mean? I don’t know but my guess would be it is something to do with time.
Sun sun sun! Here it comes!
Sun sun sun! Here it comes!
Site specific, time based art is what modern artists would call Loughcrew (and Sid in Broige and the other sites in the Boyne Valley) if it was made today as an artwork. This is artwork that can only exist in or may be a part of a particular setting or building and it involves a ‘happening’ that people must attend at a specific time, the rest of the time the art does not exist. A movie is time based for instance. For me as an artist the fact that the rising sun completes the work is such an amazing idea. What a special moment for the artist when the sun came and all went to plan. It is in a place aligned to the rising of the Equinox sun and cannot be seen any other way unless a burning torch was brought inside. The stone is not portable in that it couldn’t have been taken out and looked at in day light. It waits for this event and then the stone is lit up by the sun that travels along the shapes and they are individually lit up. This is sun dialling but in reverse as it is not casting a shadow but capturing the light in the gap between objects. For more I recommend Martin Brennan who wrote extensively on this and did real time experiments and observations.
The art exists in a particular place and time and ceases to exist in its true form until this place and time converge again so whatever is on that stone must mean something in that context. When I decided to do a watercolour of the stone using imagined colours, I had this feeling of the stone shouting that the sun was here in many different voices as each motif lit up with my brush. “Sun sun sun, here it comes!” There is a stone to the right which has ridges across it and to my mind when watching a video of the sunrise light pouring over the stone it appears to measure the movement of this rectangle of light that moves down the stone at an angle taking about 50 minutes. Did people sing or chant or drum in time to this?
Once more with feeling! The Sil Stone
Once more with feeling! The Sil Stone
As the light leaves the chamber it swoops over the Sil stone. It has an 8 petaled motif (there are two on the Equinox stone) within a circle that tapers a little at the top similar to F4 . What is distinct about it is that it’s petals are formed by hollowing out the shape rather than etching a line around it. This is a clear choice to do the opposite technique to the Equinox stone to describe the shape. The little petals do not reflect light, they are in shadow surrounded by light. It is a very important difference to me as an artist even if it doesn’t seem that important at first glance. It is about intention and consciously playing with the idea of capturing light or capturing darkness. It is different to the other flower like patterns in that it contains dots in its pattern besides the centre dot. Does it use the same size circle as on the Equinox stone? I can’t be sure not having any way to measure it from my studio in London! I believe but cannot prove that the dots are the centre points of each circle used to create the design. My circles’ central points do not all line up exactly with the dots but it may be to do with the angle of the surface of the stone in photographs. The tapering point at the top can be formed by one of the outer petal shapes as it forms outside the main circle. It is a beautiful farewell to the sun before it leaves till next time.
Putting it all together
Putting it all together
The overall effect of all the motifs is an intense visually noisy image but done with great delicacy like an embroidery. It is all happening on the surface with the faces of the ‘flowers’ directly in front of the viewer. You are meant to see each detail of the main motifs. The motifs seem to have wider gaps between them as you go lower down the stone and the frequency of the tiny in-between motifs also diminishes until the bottom area has no marks at all. This part of the stone is obscured by the sil stone so this does suggest a work that is meant to be looked at from a particular position and indeed I can’t imagine there being much room to see if from any other angle. The most repeated theme in the work is a star or flower shape, a central dot with lines or loops splayed wide some enclosed some not. This repetition but not exact repetition makes the stone come alive with a notion of change or growth. The pattern on the sil stone seems a final flourish although there are other minor patterns the sun interacts with before it leaves the chamber. To me it reads almost as music with variations on a theme. I know that it has been compared less favourably to the masterpiece that is K1 at Sid in Broige (Newgrange)in that K1 is more sculptural and this is true. But K1 was an art piece that could be viewed from many angles as people approached Sid in Broige whereas the Equinox stone was made to be seen from one position and close up as it forms the backdrop to the sun’s journey within the chamber. (I used to be a window dresser and made lots of props for windows that had an almost 3D view a bit like K1 which were not meant to be viewed from the back but approached from left and right). Perhaps this is why a flat stone was chosen so that the light ran smoothly over the surface and also the motifs remain ‘legible’ not distorted in any way by being at a different angle or going around a curved surface. In terms of the thought and planning behind it I see it as equal to K1 but more like a painting than a sculpture. Truly joyous to behold!
One more thing (focal beag)...daisies
One more thing (focal beag)…daisies
I know I said that I called the motifs on the Equinox stone ‘flowers’ just for ease but something has occurred to me about this particular flower. The english word daisy means Day’s Eye referring directly to its resemblance to the sun and how the sun is an eye that looks out over it’s domain. The irish word for daisy is “Noineen” which translates as “little noon”. This means the humble daisy with its multiple little loops around a circle in irish usage is not a representation of the sun or even an eye but a time.
The Boyne Valley Vision by Martin Brennan.
The Stones of Time by Martin Brennan
The Origins of the Irish -J P Mallory
The Story of Three Graffiti
Vol. 16 (1999), pp. 42-69 (28 pages)
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