Saturday 27 December 2014

Leaving your mark

Inscribing the Landscape, the Rock Art of South Leinster by Christiaan Corlett. Wordwell. 2014
Executive Summary: Buy, it's worth every penny.

Q. Why do we write?
A. Because we can do no other?
People who don't write tend not to understand what the drivers are:  "Another damned fat book, Mr. Gibbon? Scribble, scribble, scribble, eh Mr. Gibbon?" as either the Duke of Gloucester (or his brother King George III) quipped when presented with another volume of Gibbons' monumental Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  The whole +1.5million words of Gibbons' history is still in the public domain (with multiple backup copies against Armageddon), but the majority of Sophocles' plays have been crumbled in the dust of history. 

Bob the Builder pic: C.Corlett
The written word is therefore, notwithstanding warehouses full of servers storing every tweet and e-mail, and almost independent of quality, ephemeral.  But the landscape of the Sunny South East is littered with works of art which have been around, more or less unchanged, for 5000 years or more.  A short while after we discovered the parts of The Ringstone, the neolithic rock-art between two of our fields, we grassed ourselves up to the Department of the Environment and when we assembled the pieces [L] into something approaching its original canvas we called on Chris Corlett of the DoE to supervise our jig-saw puzzling.  We asked him to do this because he is The Expert on the decorated stones of Leinster and has been threatening to write it all up in a book.  At last, this Summer he was able to scratch a line in the creeping mass of new lithographic data and get the thing into print.  When ‘Inscribing the Landscape, the Rock Art of South Leinster’ was launched at the end of August in the local Big House, we were in America so I was less miffed about missing free canapes than I might have been if I'd been here.  Launched, you can now buy the book for less than €20 direct from the publisher, and I recommend that you do so because it's just great.  128 profusely illustrated pages (with maps!) documenting the location and relationships of all the decorated stones of the Sunny South East between Dublin and Kilkenny. The Beloved gave me a copy for Christmas (so I'm delirah!) and I sat down and read it through between the mince-pies and the cold chicken sandwiches.

Our Ringstone is in there, and I am now less inclined to knock our neolithic craftsman as the Knockroe Apprentice by comparison with the work of the Rathgeran Master, which "is probably the best in Ireland" and less that 4km away. Some of the entries in the book look quite sketchy with only a few cup-marks and no rings. Harrumph, I said, if those can make the cut and into the book, I'll go out and have another look at the earthbound boulder that is barely surfacing in the field next to our house. This huge buried boulder carries a single circular indentation, maybe 3cm across and 2cm deep in the middle of its grassy tonsure.  I've always assumed that the dent was made in the last 100 years with a club hammer and a cold-chisel as the start of a hole to hold a stick of dynamite; now I'm not so sure.  We definitely have a field-wall made up predominantly of shattered granite, so dynamiting was part of local field-clearing practice.  And the fact that the hole was unfinished merely adds it to a long catalogue of abandonned rock-splitting attempts that litter the hillsides hereabouts.

Corlett's book is full of interesting material, suppositions, ideas and analysis, and well-executed photographs. He reflects on the fact that several known and documented pieces of rock-art are now no longer in place, having been moved in recent times as more and more fields are cleared to qualify for subsidies from the EU. One archaeologist was active in the 1880s and a bunch of his identifications are no long to the found. Even Corlett himself noted a few cup marks on a rock in the region less than 20 years ago and found it had disappeared when he went back to photograph it a few years later. The reason why so much rock-art hugs the unproductive edges of the local hills might be because everything nearer the flat-lands has been shifted out of the way to make room for unobstructed pasture or fields for wheat and barley. The landscape, under this hypothesis, must have been positively embroidered with art-work in times past. This heedlessly destructive clearance has become much easier in the last 40 years since the arrival of JCB back-hoes and bulldozers.There are numerous cases too of conscious shifting and destruction of such pre-historical artifacts because their existence curtails the use to which the landowner can put to his land: there might be other artifact in the vicinity and their value is almost entirely in their archaeological context.

On the other hand, several of my neighbours say that they have found rock-art further up on the hillside while searching for fraochán [bilberries Vaccinium myrtillus R] when they were children . . . and haven't been able to re-locate the spot now that they realise it's of interest. We should host a massive meitheal to walk our hill lifting the heather to scrutinise the surface of each rock . . . and don't forget the GPS-phones!

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