The Power of the Past

Logos from different parts of the British Isles that draw upon prehistory and look remarkably similar – how can this be?

I have two tokens for the lockers at my local swimming pool. One from the sports centre itself, one from the Prehistoric Society. Only recently did I realise how closely these two, apparently disparate, organisations are related. Both draw upon 5000-year-old art for inspiration. That from the Prehistoric Society is a realistic representation of three interlocking spirals carved upon the great entrance stone at Newgrange passage tomb, by the River Boyne, Ireland. The other, from the Pickaquoy Centre looks surprisingly similar. Given that a nearby prehistoric mound yielded a piece of decorated stone in the 1850s you would be forgiven for thinking, as I initially did, that the design is taken from this. The reality, however, is a bit more complex.

The carving on the Pickaquoy Stone is also curvilinear, but, instead of incorporating complex spirals like the Newgrange slab, it comprises a single motif: a central pecked cup mark, around which some make out three complete concentric circles and an incomplete fourth, though a recent rendition suggests that it may be a single spiral. It would appear that the designer of the Pickaquoy Centre logo, while inspired by the local art, turned to Ireland for inspiration to create their own.

It is an interesting development of a tradition that has persisted for some 5000 years. There are indeed several carved stones in Orkney that date to this period and appear to provide evidence of thematic links in expression between Orkney and Neolithic Ireland. The Pierowall Stone, discovered in the 1980’s in Westray, makes use of a complex pattern of double spirals, while simpler conjoined spirals and concentric circles also appear on a stone from Neolithic passage tomb in Eday that was demolished in the 1820s. There are other examples, including an elaborately decorated pottery sherd from the Neolithic village of Skara Brae which bears interlocking lozenges and spirals. None mimic the three spirals from Newgrange specifically, though it is clear that the inhabitants of Neolithic Orkney were aware, at least at some levels, of the wider world of the Neolithic across the British Isles

It is not, however, a tradition that shows any sign of continuity through the ages. The recent occurrences of the symbols carry their own symbolism and meanings and we know nothing of the precise weight and connotations of these designs in the past. Beyond deducing the fact that they were significant, our interpretations of the Neolithic design and art can never rise above academic (or other) narrative (helpful as that may be).

Nevertheless, I find the longevity of the inspiration strangely moving, even if the original meaning has long gone. Not only was the twentieth-century designer of the Pickaquoy Centre logo finding local roots in prehistory. But, like their Neolithic predecessors, they turned further afield to seek stimulation for their creation. When they sought to follow the vision of those who helped to create the monuments of Neolithic Ireland, they were merely following in the footsteps of their predecessors some 5000 years ago. It is interesting that the design gurus of the Prehistoric Society did likewise in looking for inspiration for their own logo in the 1980s. Deliberate or not, both provide a masterful indication of the way in which the past remains alive in the present.

There is a further, smaller, twist to the story. By drawing upon the Newgrange symbols for their logo, the Pickaquoy Centre has unknowingly created a local myth. I’ve been told many times that they made use of a local carved stone for their design. As we have seen that is not quite the whole story, but it is a good evocation of the way in which truth and fiction become entwined when we are creating our past narratives.