The Rock Art just off the road between Staigue Fort House and Staigue Fort was discovered by accident in the 1800s when it became exposed due to turf cutting.
Rock art is the term used to describe prehistoric carvings found on outcrops of bedrock and boulders.
When you come to the old stone bridge that is off the road to Staigue Fort and signed as part of the Kerry Way, take a moment to look at the bridge. It leads onto the ancient main road to Sneem. There is a small stone inserted near the arch marked with a symbol indicating the bridge’s height above sea level: 500 feet/152.4m. The bridge is unusual in that it is constructed parallel to the Staigue river rather than over it!
Now go past the bridge, enter the first field on your right, walk straight across it and up past the trees to the large flat rocks on an elevated position, looking down the valley over Kenmare Bay.
Rock art mostly occurs in elevated positions close to mountain passes, with commanding views over river valleys. They often overlook natural route ways and in many cases the sea is visible in the distance. It is also most commonly found close to, or in view of, water or river sources. The rock art here is perfectly located.
The carvings can be difficult to detect at first as they are obscured by a rich pattern of lichens. You will find one of the most frequently occurring elements in the rock art repertoir: the cup-mark (a shallow hollow) enclosed by one or more rings/circles.
There are wandering grooves which link the motifs. The more you look, the more cup marks and rings you will find. Archaeologists sometimes lay plastic film over rock art and draw the markings on the film as a non-intrusive way of documenting it.
The Cork Public Museum has examples of carvings on small flat rocks only a few cms in size.
It is virtually impossible to date rock art as the only archaeological remains are the carvings themselves. However, artifacts like scrapers found near rock art have been assigned Bronze Age dates.
The significance of the motifs is now lost. Cup-marks enclosed by rings are found at Newgrange and further afield in Northern England, Scotland, Brittany, Portugal and North West Spain with similar forms being found throughout the world including Mexico and India.
The motifs at Staigue are beautifully executed. A picking technique, using a stone point to make the carvings is apparent in some examples of rock art. The term rock art is probably misleading as the carvings are not necessarily the fruit of an artist’s imagination but more likely symbols serving a purpose or function. There are many theories as to the meaning of the symbols. It is also thought that the series of cup-marks show maps of ancient settlements, records of burials and maps of the night skies. A popular theory is that the cup-mark surrounded by rings represent the sun. Whatever the meaning of the carvings is, it must have of huge significance to the peoples of those times as they occur so uniformly so universally.
An intriguing contribution to the study of rock art was made by Alexander Thom in 1968. He contended that the motifs were carefully set out in fixed units of measure. This became his megalithic “inch”, 2.07cm which is one fortieth of the megalithic yard (82.9cm). He claimed the designs could carry information about their use as astronomical observatories. This theory would have surely have greatly interested Alexander Nimmo who proposed that Staigue Fort was built as an astronomical observatory.