Subjective Vision and the Source of Irish Megalithic Art

By Dronfield, Jeremy | Antiquity, September 1995 | Go to article overview

Subjective Vision and the Source of Irish Megalithic Art


Dronfield, Jeremy, Antiquity


The use of substances and techniques to alter perception and consciousness is a neglected aspect of past cultures. Sherratt (1991: 52) argues that 'Any account of prehistoric Europe which omits a consideration of such substances is likely to be incomplete'. According to a survey by Bourguignon (1974), the number of existing societies wherein some form of consciousness-altering is not practised is negligible. From this, we can infer that most of our prehistories of Europe are indeed incomplete. The few efforts to remedy the deficit follow two distinct lines of approach: the search for material culture items associated with the preparation and consumption of intoxicating substances (Sherratt 1987; 1991), and the identification of representations of subjective visual imagery in rock art (Dronfield 1993; 1994; Lewis-Williams & Dowson 1988; 1993) and ceramic decoration (Stahl 1989).

Here, Irish passage-tomb art is identified as deriving from subjective visual experience.(1) The notion that Irish and European megalithic art may be so derived has been argued before by Bradley (1989) and Lewis-Williams & Dowson (1993; see also Patton 1990; 1993). I took an interest in the specifics of Irish passage-tomb art (Dronfield 1991), since the treatment of western European megalithic art, including diverse areas of the British Isles, Brittany and Iberia in one analytical category, seems excessively sweeping (Dronfield 1993). The research described here studies one large regional manifestation of megalithic art in greater detail. This, in combination with a different analytic approach, shows that Lewis-Williams & Dowson's methodology is flawed (Dronfield 1994; forthcoming (a)), although many of their conclusions are substantially correct.

The analytical method described here is based on distributions of highly specified diagnostic shapes and patterns (see Dronfield 1994 & forthcoming (a) for a full methodological explanation and Dronfield 1993 for a pilot study using a smaller data set). These shapes display patterned distributions in different types of art, as demonstrated by evaluative analysis of nine samples from well-documented clinical, ethnographic and historical sources [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. Category S arts are associated with various forms of consciousness-altering and represent subjective visual phenomena. Category N arts are known to have no connection with such practices. Three categories of shapes were used: General un-diagnostic; Endogenous diagnostic [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]; and Nonendogenous diagnostic. The purpose of the Undiagnostic category was to investigate the extent of commonality in all abstract arts. The distribution of the diagnostic shapes shows a clear differential patterning between categories S and N.

Samples of passage-tomb art

Five groups of passage-tomb art were selected for analysis, on the basis of completeness of survival of the monuments and, therefore, the art: Knockmany, Sess Kilgreen, Loughcrew, Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth. Numerous tombs at Loughcrew, Knowth and elsewhere were not used because they are substantially incomplete. The reason for this selective approach is that the diagnostic method of analysis requires a good level of confidence that, in any instance, examples of all the design elements used are represented in the surviving material. An absolute level of confidence would be unrealistic; of all Ireland's art-bearing passage-tombs, only two have all their stones intact and in their original positions.

Knockmany and Sess Kilgreen

Although conventionally classified as a passage-tomb, Knockmany (Co. Tyrone) appeared to its excavators (Collins 1960; Collins & Waterman 1952) to have no passage, but excavation plans (Collins 1960: figure 3) show that the polygonal chamber does have a short passage leading into it, as pointed out by Twohig (1981: 204). Nine of the structural stones are engraved and have been published (Twohig 1981: figures 210-12). …

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