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Dublin: 9 °C Thursday 20 September, 2018
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Major megalithic art find at Hellfire Club passage tomb

The motifs are similar to those found at the major passage tombs in the country, such as Newgrange.

megalithic art Archaeologists Neil Jackman and Ros O Maolduin from Abarta Heritage examine the art, exposed here through special photographic techniques by Ken Williams. Source: Ken Williams via Shadow and Stone

THE ARCHAEOLOGISTS WHO carried out the first-ever excavation of a passage tomb site at the notorious Hellfire Club in Dublin have announced a huge find.

Project leader Neil Jackman told TheJournal.ie that they have identified megalithic art on a stone uncovered at the site on Montpelier Hill.

“The discovery is really exciting and absolutely incredible luck that it was discovered,” Jackman told TheJournal.ie on confirmation last night of what is an incredibly rare discovery of megalithic art in the Dublin and Wicklow area.

The motifs-bearing stone at Montpelier Hill had been hiding in plain sight to visitors over the years. It was partially visible in the hollow of what remains of the burial mound but much of the slab of igneous rock was buried beneath the surface. It had suffered much wear and tear over the decades, exposed to both the elements and to revellers at the site.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

Some of those visitors had lit bonfires at the spot, using the rock as shelter, so that when the archaeologists from Abarta Heritage removed the stone from its socket, it split into four fragments, rendered fragile by repeat exposure to extremes of heat and moisture.

“We removed it quite early in the dig,” said Jackman, “and as we did not originally notice anything particularly unusual about the stone, we lifted it out of the trench and set it on the side, so it would be close at hand for when we began to backfill the trenches.”

Good luck and the low autumnal sun of 19 October last intervened to expose the true value of the large rock. The archaeologists noticed the sun highlighting what appeared to be “a previously unnoticed long curving line”. Their eyes were then drawn to two faint concentric circles, a motif which Jackman says appears in megalithic art in major Neolithic passage tombs.

ken The concentric circles first spotted by archaeologists when a low autumnal sun hit the stone at just the right spot. Source: Ken Williams via Shadow and Stone

It was an incredible find which sealed the date of the tomb to at least 5,000 years ago and put it in the grand tradition of sites like Newgrange in Co Meath.

Jackman is stunned by the series of coincidences that lined up to allow his team to spot something that had been lost to time and memory.

If we placed the trench a metre to the left or right and we wouldn’t have found it. If we excavated during the summer the high flat light would never have shown it up. If we had taken the stone straight to the spoil heap we wouldn’t have seen it. If we hadn’t have accidentally placed the stone with the art facing at a perfect oblique angle to the sun’s position in the morning it would have never been noticed. Although it is pretty corny to say so, it’s almost like some things just want to be found.

Although the discovery was made in the middle of the dig, it could not be confirmed until a number of processes were carried out. (You may have read and seen TheJournal.ie‘s report and video tour of the site last weekend which hinted at the find.)

Jackman sent initial images to megalithic art experts Professor Muiris O’Sullivan of UCD and Dr Elizabeth Shee Twohig.

Dr Shee Twohig then arrived on site with specialist photographer Ken Williams to use photogrammetry to expose the extent of the designs on the portions of slab which could not be seen by the naked eye. Encouraged by the results, a team from the Discovery Programme of archaeological innovation came to the site the next day to scan the stone and record all details.

The precious slab is now at the National Museum of Ireland for further study and an exciting 3-D model of it has been put together by the Discovery Programme – you can view that by clicking here.

Jackman cautions that the images here may not even fully reflect all the art depicted on the stone as analysis is at an early stage.

abarts Source: Abarta Heritage via Discovery Programme

As the motifs found here are similar to those at other passage tombs, it is believed that there was a common meaning to the symbols. Jackman has an interesting assessment of the theories around that meaning on his report on the find at his Abarta Heritage site (it also contains more details of how the find was made and confirmed).

The find also gives pause to ponder what else might have been lost by the historic desecration of the tomb.

The stones of the passage tomb at the Hellfire Club, on Montpelier Hill, were raided twice in the past 300 years. Stones from the cairn that would once have existed on top of the tomb were used to help build the Hellfire Club shooting lodge in 1725, and again at the beginning of the 1800s for building material for the Military Road project.

Whether other stones carrying similar art are now lying under a road through the mountains is a matter of conjecture but this find is what Jackman calls “a tantalising glimpse of that the original tomb may have looked like”.

He told TheJournal.ie last night: “The discovery of this stone had us check and examine every other large stone that we had removed during the excavation with no others found that bear art. Generally speaking, most megalithic art is found on the kerbstones that surrounded the tomb, or on the stones that lined the passageway and burial chamber.

“Unfortunately, these stones appear to have been largely plundered for building material for the Hellfire Club and the Old Military Road. However, perhaps more art remains to be discovered in the future.”

- Video by Nicky Ryan

See more pictures at the Abarta Heritage site> 

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