A short blog on archaeology, tourism and information panels inspired by a trip to a Neolithic Stone Row in Ireland.
The N71 towards Kenmare (the Caha Pass) offers the fastest escape from the kitsch of Glengarriff; it’s views of the stark Beara Peninsula a welcome tonic after overpriced sweaters and Guinness branded tin whistles.
There’s also a a Siren call to holidaying archaeologists: a brown sign to a Neolithic Stone Row.
The monument is located in Releagh at Molly Gallivan’s Cottage (Irish Grid Ref. 92127, 62228), a heritage tourist attraction based around traditional farming in the mid-19th Century. The site is incredibly popular, rated as one of the top attractions in Kenmare and is the recipient of a TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence.
x Become 2
To reach the Neolithic row you follow a winding 500 meter route via a clutch of inquisitive chickens. At the top of the trail you reach a small escarpment and the following information panel:
The first two sections of the panel read as follows:
Neolithic Stone Row
A Stone Row or Stone Pair consists of two or more standing stones manually arranged in a straight line. They are generally orientated in a north-east/south-west direction and are sometimes found to align with Sunrise or Sun set positions on important dates of the Celtic year, such as the Summer or Winter Solstice.
Here a stone pair, dating from the Neolithic or early Bronze age (2000-3000 BC), form an ancient Sun calendar and may also mark burial or ritual sites from that time.
Stone (no.9) marks the point from where the sunrise was observed on significant days of the year, most notably the cross-quarter (5th November / 5th February) and the Summer Solstice (21 June)
Observing the Alignements.
View the alignment from the red arrow, by lining up the top of stone no. 9 [the stone numbers refer to the numbered stopping points on the Molly Gallivan site map] to the with the top of stone no. 10 (50 meters east) and the mountain in the far background [see photo below]. Note how the angle of stone no.10 matches exactly the slope of the mountain in the background. This alignment marks the sunrise position on the 21 June, the turning point of the year, when the sun is at it’s most northerly position and days are longest.
Ax + By = C
None of us there that day knew enough about archaeoastronomy to critique the alignment (and I don’t want to fall into the default sceptical archaeologist position so adroitly defined by Burl [1987: 7]), but there was no hiding the disappointment as we discovered the row was two stones ‘arranged in a straight line‘.
There was also a high degree of cynicism over the archaeological nature of the second stone (no. 10).
2 Become 1
A quick visit to the National Monuments Service of Ireland’s Archaeological Survey Database seemed in order. The one record for the area (site no. KE102-081—-) read as follows:
In rough pasture, on a S-facing rocky slope, overlooking the valley of the Sheen River. This possible standing stone (L 2.65m; Wth 0.6m; T 0.26m) leans against a low outcropping rock. According to local information, the stone once stood in the depression which is visible in the ground at the S end of the stone. Possible packing-stones were noted in this depression.
This record, based on information in the 2009 Archaeological Inventory of County Kerry. Volume I: South-West Kerry (McQueen and Cronin eds., 2009), refers to stone no. 9. There is no mention of stone no. 10 in the database (or any other archaeological literature that I can find). The sun calendar, even if there were two stones, would seem tenuous when stone no. 9 has been moved. The stone row, which started off so vivid in our imaginations, was reduced to the singular.
This information is fairly easy to find. The NMS database is freely accessible online and the Archaeological Inventory of County Kerry is available in many public libraries. So why then is this alignment/sun calender regarded uncritically by journalists and tourists alike?
It may be, as suggested by Kelli Costa, that many tourists have no desire to look deeper at prehistoric monuments and landscapes as they fall outside the vision many hold of what Ireland is (2004: 86), a vision where prehistoric archaeology is ‘enveloped in an insular mist or perplexity and legend…meant to be seen not heard‘ (2004: 71). The popularity of the famine cottage and the American Wake at Molly Gallivan’s certainly seem to support this (and indeed the popularity of Molly Gallivan’s itself over the nearby, prehistory focussed, community run Bonane Heritage Park). In this scenario it seems that Ruth McManus’ warning that Ireland may undergo a ‘Disney-fication of the past’ (1997: 93) is less the result of ‘an unholy alliance’ between heritage and tourism (1997: 90) and more attraction owners attempting to make prehistory palatable to the audience.
In the Country of Narrative, the Writer of the Interpretation Panel is King
Does any of this really matter? Post processualism was, after all, meant to lead us into an era where ‘any individuals or groups had the right to use archaeological data to create the pasts they wanted… democratizing archaeology and purging it…of elitist pretensions’ (Trigger 2006: 468). Isn’t the interpretation panel at Molly Gallivan’s a logical outcome of this?
Much archaeological information (such as the NMS’ Archaeological Survey Database) is on the Deep Web (i.e. it’s not indexed by standard search engines) or behind paywalls. It is not readily accessible to the general public unless they already know it exists or have an affiliation with an academic institution. Consequently opportunities for people to create the past they want is severely limited by circumstance, education and pre-existing knowledge. True, the conceptual ideas many tourists bring with them may mean many have no interest in discovering prehistory or constructing new pasts, but that doesn’t mean we should make it difficult for those that want to explore further. As McManus says ‘many peoples’ experience of the past will be influenced by interpretation as given in these centres, folk parks and museums. There is a responsibility on people involved…to ensure that the complexity of the record of life in the past is presented by and in the heritage industry‘ (1997: 93).
Burl, A. 1987: The Sun, the Moon, and Megaliths: Archaeo-Astronomy and the Standing Stones of Northern Ireland. Ulster Journal of Archaeology 50: 7-21.
Costa, K.A. 2004: ‘Conflating Past and Present: Marketing Archaeological Heritage Sites in Ireland’ in Rowan, Y.M and Baram, U. (eds). Marketing Heritage: Archaeology and the Consumption of the Past. Oxford: AltaMira Press.
Johnson, N.C. 1999: Framing the past: time, space and the politics of heritage tourism in Ireland. Political Geography 18 (2): 187-207.
McManus, R. 1997: Heritage and Tourism in Ireland-an unholy alliance?. Irish Geography 30 (2): 90-98.
McQueen, A. and Cronin, R (eds.). 2009: Archaeological Inventory of County Kerry. Volume I: South-West Kerry. Dublin: Stationery Office.
Trigger, B .G. 2006: A history of archaeological thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2nd edition).