Prehistoric Irish petroglyphs: Their analysis and interpretation in anthropological context

Susan Ann Johnston, University of Pennsylvania


Petroglyphs are found throughout Ireland, on both natural and artificial surfaces. They have not been fully examined since MacWhite's 1946 study. Since then, the number of known sites has more than doubled. Studies of these sites have been largely descriptive. The present study has two aims: to update the description of Irish petroglyph sites, and to evaluate their contribution to the study of prehistoric Irish culture.^ Of the 116 petroglyph sites identified, 65 were examined in the field; published data was also used. The analysis of this data indicated several conclusions. The motif repertoire is limited compared to other parts of Europe. Four types were identified for Ireland: cupmarks, cup-and-rings, linear motifs, and several "other" types. The weight of evidence indicates a broad date in the later Neolithic/earlier Bronze Age, though all of this evidence is indirect, and their date remains open to question.^ Irish petroglyphs were compared to other motifs of these periods in Ireland. This revealed a pattern of motif choice corresponding to particular cultural contexts in both periods. Circular motifs were largely confined to ritual contexts, while linear motifs were found in both ritual and domestic contexts.^ Focussing on sites as opposed to motifs revealed consistent choices in site location. They tend to occur on hillslopes, at low altitudes, near to water sources, and in areas of good quality soil. This suggests that they were located close to settlement sites. Their placement at the top of the cultivation line for the particular area suggests that they were positioned to overlook fertile land.^ Petroglyph sites may be interpreted as ritual sites. They show variation at the local level, but not at a regional level. This is different than other ritual sites of the period, notably burials, which show variation at both levels. By contrast, petroglyph sites cross the boundaries indicated by the regional variants in burial type. Their limited repertoire suggests a "pan-Irish" level of symbolic affiliation not indicated by any other class of material culture. ^

Subject Area

Anthropology, Archaeology

Recommended Citation

Johnston, Susan Ann, "Prehistoric Irish petroglyphs: Their analysis and interpretation in anthropological context" (1989). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9004794.