• Rock art from the ancient graveyards at Ballintemple and Ballymaghroe, Co. Wicklow

    Staying with the theme of graveyards, the name of the old graveyard at Ballintemple near Woodenbridge clearly indicates that this must be the site of an ancient church, though all physical remains of the church itself are long gone. And as in the case of the old graveyard at Hollywood, when I visited Ballintemple in October 2010 I had my eyes peeled for any remains of the former church – a carved piece of stone from the church itself or an even older cross slab. What I didn’t expect to find was a carved stone that predates the graveyard by about four millennia!

    The stone consists of a schist flag that measures 1m long and 60cm across. The decorated surface is flat and features eight cupmarks – the two largest cups are 7cm and 9cm across, whereas the smallest is just 3cm across. Notably, none of the cups are enclosed by rings; this is a common feature of rock art in Wicklow. Another feature of the Ballintemple stone is the linear grooves; this is a feature of rock art in Wicklow as well as neighbouring Co. Carlow. There are also two triangular depressions which I haven’t seen parallels for in the area.

    The stone in question had been used as a grave marker, probably during the 18th or 19th century. The big question of course is whether it originally came from around about the graveyard itself or was it brought here from further afield. Even if the latter is the case, it is unlikely to have travelled from too far away.

    When I say that I was surprised to see the rock art here – I should say that I was pleasantly surprised. In fact, a month earlier I had exactly the same experience at Ballymaghroe graveyard near Knockananna. Once again, the stone from Ballymaghroe appears to have been reused as a grave marker within the last couple of centuries. Once again, this site represents an ancient church site. The stone in question is 52cm long and is clearly broken along one edge; on one face there are seven cup marks and two of these are broken across the middle where the stone has been split. A groove extends out from the largest cup mark and splays slightly at the opposite end. Curiously, on the opposite face are two small cups. This is an unusual feature of rock art. Most examples of rock art in Wicklow are (or at least were) earthfast boulders, but the fact that this small stone is decorated on two faces suggests that perhaps this small example was always portable.

    Whatever about their original purpose, the fact that the Ballintemple and Ballymaghroe stones were reused in more recent times as headstones is interesting in itself and raises some very interesting questions. Why were they selected, and how did the people who reused them interpret and understand these ancient symbols? And where did they originally come from?

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