Rock art is the name applied by archaeologists to a particular form of prehistoric art found in northern and Atlantic Europe. In Ireland it is found in large concentrations along some coastal areas in Kerry and Donegal, as well as parts of south Leinster. Rock art is also found in smaller but growing numbers in southwest Ulster, including several examples in Fermanagh. By far the most impressive example of Fermanagh rock art can be found at Reyfad, Boho. The site consists of six outcrops of limestone, all in their original position. Five of the stones are decorated, but it seems likely that the sixth was formerly decorated also, but that the carvings have been lost over the millennia. Four of the stones are relatively small and feature a series of cup marks, some enclosed by one or more rings.
The fifth decorated stone at Reyfad is the largest and measures over 3m long and over 2m across. The marks of wooden wedges that were used by stone cutters sometime in antiquity thankfully indicate an abortive attempt to split this stone, which would have deprived us of one of the finest examples of rock art anywhere in Ireland. The entire surface of this massive stone is covered with cup and ring motifs, and is arguably the densest composition of Irish rock art. Like the stones nearby, the surface of this outcrop is very uneven, and also slopes to one side. This did not deter our Neolithic sculptors, who may even have taken advantage of naturally occurring solution hollows in the rock surface to create some of the cup marks. One of the cup marks is enclosed by four rings, and in several instances the cup and rings are conjoined. There are also a number of small crosses that appear to form part of the original composition.
What is so impressive about the rock art at Reyfad is the density of the carvings. However, in reality there are only a small number of motifs; unenclosed cup marks, cup and rings, and cup encircled by two or more rings. It seems quite likely that these motifs had more than one symbolism and could have been used to convey a number of meanings. The complexity of the composition at Reyfad reflects just how unlikely it is that we can ever come close to understanding the specific meaning of the art. Even the meaning of an overall composition may only have been understood by the person or people responsible for it. Certainly the density of the decoration at Reyfad implies that more than one person was responsible for carving it.
One of the most fascinating aspects of rock art is that it is arguably the most environmentally friendly ways of altering the landscape without making any physical alterations to it. Unlike the concept of creating an entirely artificial monument such as the Kiltierney passage tomb, our Neolithic ancestors chose existing rock surfaces in the Fermanagh landscape for their canvas. However, by selecting existing rock surfaces they cleverly avoided making any direct changes to the landscape. In this way rock art was a simple and environmentally friendly way of altering or framing the landscape in a permanent format, while at the same time making the least amount of physical alteration to that landscape. At face value, rock art on a stone in a field may seem to be primitive, simplistic and archaic. A closer examination of our oldest art form reveals that it is sophisticated, complex and arguably very modern.
There can be little doubt that more examples of rock art will be found in Fermanagh to compliment the recent research in neighbouring parts of Cavan that have shown that rock art is much more widespread in southwest Ulster than was previously thought. From previous experience in other parts of Ireland, one of the potential places for rock art to turn up in Fermanagh are in the drystone walls that enclose the many fields. The marks of the stone cutters on the main panel of rock art at Reyfad may show just how close this stone came to being broken up and used as building material for the nearby stone walls. How many examples of rock art were not so lucky?
To read the full report on the Reyfad Rock Art by Christiaan Corlett download the pdf below.