Loughcrew, or Slieve na Calliagh, is one of Ireland’s most magnificent and abounding archaeological landscapes. It is located at the western end of Co. Meath and incorporates a complex of passage tombs distributed across the four neighbouring hilltops of Carnbane West, Carrickbrac or Newtown, Carnbane East and Patrickstown, in an area measuring 3 km from east to west and 600m from north to south (Fraser 1998, 206; Cooney 2000a, 159).
On a clear day the panoramic views from the summits of these hills make it possible to see the Wicklow Mountains, the Mournes, Slieve Gullion and the mountains to the north-east (Shell and Roughley 2004, 22), giving a view of Ireland from sea to sea, about its narrowest part (Conwell 1866, 355). Previous accounts of these passage tombs have addressed individual motifs and how they are related to burials and deposits, the entire complex with the locations and orientations of specific passage tombs, and movements of people through and around the monuments (e.g. Herity 1974; Cooney 1990; Thomas 1992; McMann 1994; Shee Twohig 1996).
This paper aims to build upon these previous ideas of landscape context and motif location with physical and visual engagements in order to develop a further argument that includes the possible sequences, differences and repetitions that are being performed by the passage tombs on Carnbane East and West.
I draw upon the Loughcrew passage tombs and settings to explore
potential relationships created by the engravers and spectators of the
visual images. The passage tomb motifs will be analysed as a flux of
images and technological illusions (or the illusion of created
technologies, such as an engraved motif or built passage tomb) that may
have represented and influenced some Irish Neolithic societies. Although
there is indication of some people continually interacting with the
summits of Loughcrew from the Mesolithic through to the Neolithic, there
is currently no settlement evidence available.
It is suggested that both the sequential application of images, the
topography of the Loughcrew summits and the passage tombs themselves
develop visions, gazes and glances that are anchored in the present, with
the present being a ‘temporally extended field’ of retentions of the
past in the present, as well as being extensions of the present into the
future (Gell 1998, 239-40). Following Gell (1992), I review the Loughcrew
evidence and consider how the repeated alteration of the sites in the
Neolithic (their ‘now’), among a society, was the result of the ways
in which people continually renewed their beliefs in and of the world.
Recently, Thomas (1990; 1992; 1993; 2001) has explored the view that
distances and explorations into other worlds and spheres of knowledge are
expressed not only through the internal architectures of the Loughcrew
passage tombs, but also via the locations of specific motifs. By moving
further into the inner areas of the passage tomb, the spectator is
challenged with increasingly managed movement through more complex
spatial divisions (Thomas 1990). This is argued to occur in order to
facilitate the accumulation and manipulation of communal and ‘ancestral’
authorities (Thomas 1990, 175).
In this discussion the passage tombs, their settings and their motifs will not be regarded as static, but rather ‘animate’, fluid and transformative. This avoids the paradox created when prehistorians utilise text to understand a Neolithic world in which text did not exist. Better comprehensions of how some Irish Neolithic people perceived their world undoubtedly derives from focusing on what they had seen and what they made of what they had seen (Bloch 1998). Taking my lead from Bloch (1995) and Gell (1998), this paper abandons interpretations founded on unambiguous visual meanings, definable symbolism and decipherable textual codification (see also Dundes 1980; Gell 1999; Gottdiener 1995; Holly 1998). Instead, I seek out alternative metaphors (cf. Thomas 1998) and ‘modes of attention’ (Baxandall 1997, 135), such as the carnivalesque. We should endeavour to see their ‘world-as-a-picture’ in flux, rather than their ‘world-as-text’ in stasis (Mitchell 1994, 16).
To achieve this, detailed accounts are made of episodes and
temporalities, multiple meanings and overlapping phenomena. The
superimposition and location of motifs is reconsidered within a
carnivalesque framework. This perspective is pregnant with conflicts,
tensions and paradoxes, all of which allow a more complex understanding of
the immediacies and non-uniformities of overlain visual images engraved in
passage tombs and their placement within an environment.
The Loughcrew cairns are located on an east-to-west axis, with an
almost linear structure, with smaller tombs arranged near larger focal
ones (see plans below). In this respect, they can be compared to the Boyne
Valley, Co. Meath, sites (Cooney 1990).
Click on Map for a larger view
The topography at Loughcrew consists of a dominant elongated ridge orientated south-west/north-east on the interface between the areas of the Boyne/Blackwater and Shannon river systems. This location between rivers is also comparable to the Boyne Valley sites. To the south and west of the hill are the comparatively low, undulating, limestone plains of Co. Meath and Westmeath, and to the north slate rocks occupy the low areas around Lough Ramor (Conwell 1864, 43). The passage tombs are situated along the curving spine of the ridge; with the central component of the complex residing above the 214m contour line (Cooney 1987; 2000b).
The passage tombs are centred on moderately flat-topped summits and are again similar to the Boyne Valley passage tombs in that the smaller sites are clustered around larger tombs. The undulating, steep and flattish features of the topography have been argued to directly affect and influence an individual’s visual experience through its contrast and transformation (Fraser 1998, 212). The flat features of the summits are only apparent when one reaches the tops of the hills. It is interesting to note that most cairns are located on the margins of the summits, although exceptions do occur (e.g. Cairn D and T). This creates a visual ‘island’ whereby the internal spaces are framed by the steeper banks on the periphery of the summits and by the cairns, which in turn physically and visually block out the external spaces (see again plan above).
Fraser has suggested that these topographical and artificial features possibly demarcated eight focal areas or as I have proposed ‘islands’ within the Loughcrew Hills (1998, 212-14; see plan above). The summits form ‘islandscapes’ (Cooney 2004, 145), special places where striking features of the land are embellished and special material culture created and used to enhance links with the lived-in-world and ‘other’ worlds, whilst also delineating boundaries to these liminal places (Bradley 2000, 36). After Whittle (2004), we might therefore describe these aerial locales as ‘islands-that-float-to-the-sky’. Indeed, some Neolithic people may have regarded mountains and hills as part of the sky rather than just the land (Watson 2004, 60).
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