Tony Bailie's Take On Nature: Co Down petroglyphs allow for a loop back in time

Petroglyphs on a slab of rock near Saul, Co Down
Petroglyphs on a slab of rock near Saul, Co Down Petroglyphs on a slab of rock near Saul, Co Down

SOMETIMES even the most sharp-eyed among us will not see something that is so obvious that you wonder how you missed it for so long.

For years I have been walking the laneways and tracks in the countryside between Saul and Lough Money, close to Downpatrick, and knew that there were pre-Celtic carvings but never managed to find them.

People pointed out where they were on maps and gave me precise directions, but every time I came to the spot where they were supposed to be they remained invisible to me.

Then one day while out walking last year with someone else I mentioned the carvings and they pointed to a slab of rock in a field where cows were grazing, just a few metres from the track we were walking along.

And there they were, two looped shapes that are almost appear like spirals, one of them enclosed between two straight lines and a scattering of small circular indents.

The petroglyphs are similar, although not as sophisticated, to those carved into the passage tombs at Brú na Bóinne (Newgrange) and at Lough Crew in Co Meath – the signatures of a people who lived in Ireland between 5,000 and 2,500 years ago.

Petroglyphs are found mostly in coastal regions of Ireland or within a few miles of the coast and usually in open areas with views over the surrounding landscape.

Circles and spirals are ancient symbols, found carved into rocks around the world – they are found in Aboriginal art in Australia, Native American sites, in both the north and southern continents, African and Asian cultures.

They seem to be a symbol that is deeply ingrained in humanity’s collective psyche – perhaps because they are such a common sight in nature – on the shells of snails and sea molluscs, in the shapes created by lug worms burrowing into sand and in the trunks of trees, petals or on the wings of a butterfly.

Exactly what our ancient ancestors were trying to tell us by carving these symbols into rock is long lost but clearly it was something that resonated deeply with them and that they felt needed to be communicated.

According to the Dictionary of Symbols a spiral “displays the appearance of motion rotating outwards from a fixed point of origination, continuously expanding and lengthening into infinity. It is typical of those unending lines which constantly link the two ends of the future… [it symbolises] emanation, extension, evolution, cyclical but progressive continuity and rotational creation.”

While circles are thought to symbolise “the results of creation, in other words, the universe in so far as it may be distinguished from its first cause”.

The landscape surrounding the looped petroglyphs close to Saul is dotted with ancient ceremonial sites. It is overlooked by Slieve na Griddle on top of which sits a flat stone kist. However, drawings by the 19th century antiquarian WF Wakeman show a stone circle on top of the hill which has views over much of Co Down and across the Irish Sea to the Isle of Man.

About 40 minutes’ walk from Slieve na Griddle is a dolmen, which also dates from pre-Celtic times, although many of these sites were incorporated and adapted into the rituals and mythology of subsequent waves of settlers in Ireland.

While there are signs of modernity all around – roads, phone masts, electricity pylons and wind turbines, a network of lanes and tracks allows you to plunge into a landscape that at times would not have been that unfamiliar to the dolmen builders and stone carvers. A loop back through time.