Megalithic Art Discovered at the Hellfire Club.

Sitting partially exposed in the hollow of the strange mound behind the Hellfire Club, a dark lump of igneous rock served as a handy border to many bonfires over the centuries.  However, those who enjoyed the warmth of the fire while lying up against the comfortably curved bank of the mound may not have realised that the mound they rested upon was the remains of an ancient tomb, and that plain looking dark stone was carved with symbols and designs that are over 5,000 years old.

The discovery of the artwork was the result of incredible serendipity.  The surface of the stone has been damaged by fires and weathering, so the artwork is almost completely imperceptible to the naked eye.  Had we dug our trenches anywhere else on site we would not have discovered it, and had we excavated during the summer, the higher flatter sunlight may not have revealed the faint trace of the artwork.

As the stone was sitting in a disturbed modern layer of material relating to picnics and parties, it was outside of its original context.  We removed it quite early in the dig, though due to the many fires that had been lit upon it, it fractured into four large fragments as we began to lift it from the trench.  As we did not originally notice anything particularly unusual about the stone, we (with some difficulty) 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.

Early in the morning of Wednesday 19th October, the low autumnal sun hit the stone at an angle that revealed a previously unnoticed long curving line.  As we looked at the line, the changing light revealed that the line cut over the top of two faint concentric circles, one inside the other.  This is a motif that appears in megalithic art at some of the most famous passage tombs in the country.  With great excitement, I sent images to Professor Muiris O’Sullivan of UCD and Dr Elizabeth Shee Twohig, who are both renowned experts in megalithic art.  Both were very excited by the find, and Elizabeth, accompanied by specialist photographer Ken Williams (of Shadows and Stone) arrived on site to carry out photogrammetry, to reveal details invisible to the naked eye.  The following day, Gary Devlin, Rob Shaw and Marie Brohet of the Discovery Programme carried out a laser scan of the stones, to fully record all of the details.  The work by Ken and the Discovery Programme revealed that the stone bore even more art than we had originally thought.  This analysis is still at an early stage, so all representation here may not fully reflect the art depicted on the stone, and may be subject to change.

Usually, megalithic art occurs on the stones that form the kerb surrounding the outside of the tomb, or on the stones that line the passageway or burial chamber.  The ‘art’ is characterised by carved and ‘picked’ abstract designs, perhaps the most famous examples come from Newgrange and Knowth with spirals, chevrons, zig-zags and concentric circles being some of the more familiar designs.  What the art means has been long debated. Some believe that they represent the artwork produced during states of altered consciousness, perhaps through shamanic ritual or consumption of mind-altering mushrooms or herbs.  Perhaps they were abstract representations of astronomical features, or perhaps simply abstract art (though as the symbols appear regularly at a number of passage tomb sites from this period surely the symbols had real meaning).  Perhaps the famous spirals and circles of megalithic art represent tree rings, a visible marker of the passing of time for these Neolithic farmers.