I come from a part of Northern Ireland famous for everything from the oldest licenced whiskey distillery in the world,
to the world famous Giant’s Causeway (Image on the left). Ireland is rich with ancient celtic lore, and as a kid i discovered a little bit of this for myself.
The idea of art has been around for thousands of years, from cave paintings chronicling important historical events for tribal communities to decorative designs. For today I want to talk about decorative designs. Generally a decorative design is a motif, an image printed or painted over and over to make a pattern. Some of these designs held meaning, and some were even dedicated to the almighty, or various gods. We see this with the intricate details of celtic designs. Other designs, presumably, were designed solely because the creative person doing the decorating felt that the designs looked good.
I want to tell you a real life story that happened in my own life. It will probably sound hard to believe considering it is not something that usually happens in day to day life. Situated in the North Coast of Ireland, my late uncle was a farmer and he had a crop of barley that needed cut. It was during the Summer and I was about maybe 10 years old, during the early 90’s.
The combine harvester was contracted in, and they were cutting the barley around midnight, which isn’t unusual for farm contractors since the majority of contract work is in the summer and they are kept in demand. So some contractors will work late into the night. To cut a long story short the front wheel of the combine harvester fell into a hole, a deep hole in the field.
It took a long time to get the harvester hauled out with the help of tractors and chains, but when it was pulled out, there was a deep dark cavern.
My uncle called my parents over and so I got to go along to see what had happened. As it turned out, the combine harvester had fallen into an ancient Neolithic cave, which was once a home of some kind to people many thousands of years previous. It’s not unusual to find the odd flint arrow head around the fields near where we live. I even found a flint knife once. However what we found in the cave was so much more than all that.
We weren’t able to see much by torch light and so we put off exploring the cave until the next day. With my uncle, and my dad we explored the cave together. We found a bottom floor to the cave, but no one would be able to fit down the hole that led to it except me. At the time, as a 10 year old, I was a lot skinnier than I am now, and so I ventured into the cave’s bottom. It was a square hole and maybe about a 6 foot crawl downwards until I reached the bottom. On the bottom was a flat floor with four walls. One of the walls to my left had a square cut out of the wall, which led into another room. To enter the smaller room to the left, you’d have to crawl through the “window” area, or what looked like a “window” frame, not with glass obviously, but where you could see into another smaller room that looked like a little storage area. My parents wondered if maybe the lower room was for a safety area for kids since adults, at least adults in our day and age, weren’t able to fit down into the lower room.
So what did we find in the cave? There were a few flint items and a few deer bones found, which I found interesting considering that the deer native to Ireland had become extinct long ago. We also found a clay pot and this brings us to my original point of the story. The history of art and decoration.
The clay pot we found was decorated around the rim with a very careful series of thumb prints. In later years I wondered if perhaps the thumbprints were embedded into the clay because the potter was using his thumb to manipulate the thickness of the clay around the rim of the cup, but with the rest of the pot having a smooth surface, the thumb prints around the rim were made more noticeable. In the mind of a ten year old and everyone else concerned at the scene, we felt that sure enough it was a pattern. This was also the opinion of the Archaeologists that came out to examine the findings, which they then took to the museum.
I admit, I was a bit sad that they took all the items away, and from time to time it
still annoys me. I’ve visited quite a few museums over the years and they always seem to have a surplus of these ancient relics. Why they need to collect everything that people happen to find doesn’t make much sense to me.
Over the years, from time to time, I’ve thought about that man or woman who put their thumb prints all around that pot. What were they thinking? Had the pattern any significant meaning? Was it more for decorative purposes?
We know that the spiral, for example, seems to be the one pattern in life that is seen everywhere, and if you’ve ever heard or read the Manga graphic novel Uzimaki you’ll see the funny side! Spirals are everywhere in nature. You can find spirals in everything from snail shells and spider webs, to hurricanes and tornados, even the Milky Way. Spirals were also important in much of ancient art, from the natives in Sedona to Celtic spirals in Newgrange, Ireland.