• Neolithic decoration on a stone at Preban, south Wicklow

    On April 4th last, while I was photographing some of the headstones at Preban graveyard near Ballinglen in south Wicklow, a stone suddenly caught my eye. I am sure I have looked at this stone on numerous occasions and hadn’t noticed anything unusual about it. On the occasion in question I had already been at the site for over an hour and hadn’t noticed anything. As it happens, most of the time the stone in question sits in the shadow of a large headstone, and the sun only lights up the stone for less than half an hour before it is in the shade again. The reason why this is significant is because it was in those short minutes that the angle of the sunlight brought up every detail on the stone. Even from a distance the otherwise barely noticeable decoration appeared to jump off the stone and I quickly ran over. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

    The stone measures 64cm x 43cm across and 32cm thick. On one flat face are a series of circles that have been formed by light pecking. They are so lightly applied that they are impossible to see on an ordinary grey day. At the top of the stone in its present position are three or four conjoined circles. Below these is a circle with a pock mark at the centre, which is reminiscent of a cup and ring more commonly associated with rock art. Beside this is a pair of conjoined circles, and at the bottom of the stone is another circle with a couple of internal pockmarks. The circles range from 9cm to 11cm across.

    The pecked application of the decoration on this stone is consistent with Neolithic passage tomb art, and would not be out of place in the Boyne Valley in Co. Meath. However, the motifs are arguably more in keeping with rock art. There are no passage tombs in south Wicklow – though decoration is known from passage tombs at Seefin and Baltinglass Hill, which is in the southwest of the county. Yet, in south Wicklow there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that there may even have been a passage tomb in the Preban area. Indeed, there are very few megalithic tombs of any sort in south Wicklow, except for wedge tombs at Mongnacool Upper and Moylisha. However, there are several known examples of rock art in the broader area, including several examples from Threewells and Tinnakilly near Aughrim. Today, these are the only obvious Neolithic monuments in the Preban area.

    Interestingly, rock art has turned up at two other south Wicklow graveyards, namely Ballintemple and Ballymaghroe (I have written about these in this blog previously). In both examples the stones appeared to have been reused as headstones. At Preban this may also have been the case, though it also seems likely that the stone was used in the construction of a stone church that formerly stood at the site (today only the foundations survives; several architectural fragments suggest that it built in the late 12th century).

    So what is the significance of this decorated stone from Preban? Firstly, the style of art compares somewhat with rock art, which is known in the area. However, the application of the art on the stone is more in keeping with passage tomb art, which is not known in the area. This is also significant in terms of the date of the stone, as rock art is likely to be early Neolithic, whereas the passage tomb style of art is more likely to be middle Neolithic. The obvious question to ask is, is this stone an example of passage tomb art not associated with a passage tomb, but in the outdoor and open air tradition of rock art? I think that the answer has to be yes. And is this stone unique, or have other examples of this art simply gone unnoticed due to its subtleties? Once again, I feel that the answer has to be yes. Indeed, the art is so subtle on this stone, that once the decorated surface went into the shade again, I could barely make out the decoration, even though I knew it was there. Other stones like this could very easily go unrecognised.

    So, keep your eyes peeled and leave no stone unturned, and with a bit of luck and some good sunlight, you may find the next one.

    2 Comments

    • 1. Apr 16 2013 11:30AM by Vox Hiberionacum

      Great stuff!

      Regarding a possible tomb...I just took a quick look at Preban on the maps. Its an obvious medieval church location, with enshrined ecclesiastical enclosures...and its sits right on the townland boundary; just south of which is Tomcoyle, recorded by O'Donovan in Irish as 'Tuaim Coill'. Tuaim/Tuam, is an common early medieval Irish toponymic element, derived from OI Duma and LAT Tumulus...meaning, of course, 'a mound, cairn or tomb'. Ergo Tuaim Coill = Mound (of/in) the Hazel/Wood?

      The placename tomcoyle (+variants) is attested elsewhere in Wicklow/Wexford, with one example in north Wicklow being translated as 'tumulus of the hazel' by O'Donovan.

      If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck... ;)

    • 2. Dec 6 2013 3:33PM by Conor Graham

      Hi Chris,

      We have been commissioned by the Preban Community group to survey the Grave yard, including laser scanning, VR photography and an object scan of the stone decoration you discovered (Community members have samples of the work so far). I've just finished the 360 VR resource I created for the site, as it's hosted online you and your colleagues might find it useful.

      Link: www.tinyurl.com/preban

      Thanks, CG

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