A Spatial Analysis of Megalithic Art in the Boyne Valley

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Howle, Carolyn
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The Boyne Valley Neolithic (4500-2500 BCE) tombs of Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth have long been viewed with curiosity and wonderment, due to their prominent, visual presence in the landscape. They have been studied through various theoretical lenses, thus becoming a case study for a variety of archaeological approaches to a single question: why were these monuments built? The analyses of these sites often centers on their petroglyphs. Understanding these structures and their use of motifs may help us to better realize the reasoning behind our own use of symbolism. In 1973, Claire O’Kelly compared the Boyne Valley petroglyphic motifs with those found in Brittany via the use of quantitative analysis. Using a nonrepresentational classification, O’Kelly determined that the more clearly representational art in Brittany did not relate to the symbols used in Ireland. Given that the study required extensive documentation and classification of the motifs, O’Kelly’s work became the de facto resource for identifying, contextualizing, and deriving meaning from the motifs found at the Boyne Valley tombs. Given that the classification system was established to compare the Boyne Valley remains to Brittany, O’Kelly’s methods may not have provided the most precise semiotic framework for understanding the rationale behind the petroglyphs and their spatial patterns and associations. Attempting to derive meaning from these glyphs will inherently be fraught with ambiguity. However, some success may be possible via a combined approach using cognitive processual archaeology, folklore, and spatial analysis. O’Kelly’s classification system was dis-aggregated, yielding a greater number of groups. Furthermore, every appearance of these motifs was counted, as opposed to only identifying each surface on which a motif appears. These data were then run through a kernel density function (KDF) to establish spatially significant concentrations. Spatial patterns at Dowth do not substantially differ between the two classification methods. However, a spatial differentiation between the two methods at Newgrange and Knowth appeared in which O’Kelly’s classifications and the new system shows great disparity in density locations. Cultural analysis of several of the glyphs, in combination with local folklore, points towards agricultural fertility symbolism as a possible theme at all three tombs.
Boyne Valley, Neolithic, Ireland, Archaeology, Petroglyphs, Folklore, Newgrange, Knowth, Dowth