Prehistoric Rock Art Exhibition

Review: Tara O’Malley Brown

Prehistoric rock art is one of the earliest examples of art and was created 5000 years ago in the Neolithic period. There is currently an exhibition about Irish Prehistoric rock art running in Cork Public Museum in Fitzgerald’s Park.

‘Prehistoric Rock Art’ the exhibition opened on the 31st of October 2015. The idea for the exhibition was proposed by Claire Busher O’Sullivan and Daniel Breen. Claire Busher O’Sullivan is an archeology postgraduate student in University College Cork. She and Daniel Breen, Assistant Curator in Cork Public Museum, coordinated and designed the exhibition. The exhibition explains what rock art is and where it can be found. There are drawings of rock art by Finola Finlay and Robert Harris, photographs by Ken Williams and paintings by Keith Payne. There is also a sample of original rock art in the exhibition.

Before you enter the exhibition space, there is an example of a Neolithic settlement created by Alex Lee especially for the exhibition. This sets the atmosphere and context of rock art. The exhibition is in one large room. It consists mainly of photographs and original drawings. However, text boards are interspersed through the room giving explanatory information. The text is clear, concise and not too long. It explains what rock art is and how it was made. “Irish rock art consists of a limited set of motifs IMAG0097 (2)carved on open-air rocks and boulders during prehistoric times.” It is not to be confused with passage tomb art which is different in design. Both types of art were made using stone tools and a picking technique. The exhibition focuses on rock art found in Cork and Kerry. Although, it is also found in Carlow, Wicklow, Louth, Monaghan and Donegal. Examples are found throughout Europe too.

In the past, rock art was recorded by outlining the motif of the rock with chalk and tracing it on to cellophane. Afterwards, the tracing was re-drawn in black and white and photographically reduced. Examples of these types of drawings are drawn by Finola Finlay in the exhibition. Nowadays, photography or photogrammetry is used instead. Photogrammetry is the use of photography in surveying to ascertain measurements. This does not interfere with the rock. Robert Harris uses Computer Aided Design to produce drawings and examples of his drawings are in the exhibition.

Ken Williams developed a technique using flash photography and this reveals what otherwise cannot be seen. He is the foremost photographer of megalithic monuments and rock art in Ireland. Several of his stunning photographs are on the walls in the room. One photograph taken by him in 2007 is of a large table-like rock found in Derrynablaha, Kerry. It is an iconic example of rock art. It is unique as its upper surfaces are covered in cup-and-ring carvings but the smaller rock leaning against it has a rare ‘rosette’ Motif. Rosettes are groups of cup-and-ring carvings together.

Keith Payne studies prehistoric rock art and cave art. There are two of his paintings in the exhibition which he did the past five years. They are colourful interpretations of the rocks and the designs on them. They are slightly abstract and textured. The first painting is based on his observation of a large piece of rock art recently uncovered at Derreennaclogh in West Cork. It has an unusual motif consisting of spirals and circles. The cracks in the rock are represented in red. It is very abstract and multi-coloured. IMAG0127 (1)The second painting is of a large standing stone at Burgatia, Rosscarbery, West Cork. It is a huge canvas and the rock is life size. This rock has cup marks and spirals. Each design is represented in different colours. The rock is yellow and you can see the sky in the background. It is impressive and hypnotic. Keith Payne manages to bring the rock to life.

There is one original example of rock art in the exhibition. This rock is from Bluid near Castletownsend in West Cork which was found in the early 20th century. It has only cup marks on it and is unusual as it has markings on both sides. It is portable and is thought have been carried around perhaps for rituals. It is brilliant to be able to see an original piece. It is hard to transport most rock art so they were unable to have more samples. However, there is an example of passage grave art downstairs in the museum. There are also two examples of rock art in the Stone Corridor in University College Cork.

Although this exhibition only has one example of rock art, it makes up for it in other ways. It gives you a background to rock art and how it is recorded. Ken Williams’ photographs which are highly detailed and brings the rock art to life. It is also interesting to see Keith Payne’s interpretation of rock art. The exhibition is suitable for those who have an interest in rock art and those who don’t know anything about it. It is a unique and unusual exhibition. Prehistoric Rock Art will run until February 2016 in the Cork Public Museum.