The Bird and the Serpent: From the Neolithic Goddesses to Ancient Chinese Symbols of Nobility and Benevolence

As with symbols they represent, the realms of the bird and the serpent cover all of the worlds – sky, water, and underworld. The association of the bird and the serpent to life and death goes back to the Neolithic period—and is later represented by ancient Greek’s Medusa, and eventually the two animals are revered as embodiments of power and nobility.

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Poulnabrone Dolmen, Ireland

Poulnabrone Dolmen (meaning “hole of the quern stones”) is a portal tomb in the Burren, County Clare, Ireland, dating back to the Neolithic period, probably between 4200 and 2900 BC.

The dolmen consists of a twelve-foot, thin, slab-like, tabular capstone supported by two slender portal stones, which support the capstone 1.8 m (6 ft) from the ground, creating a chamber in a 9 m (30 ft) low cairn. The cairn helped stabilize the tomb chamber, and would have been no higher during the Neolithic. The entrance faces north and is crossed by a low sill stone.

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The Neolithic art of Newgrange, located in County Meath, Ireland.

Older than the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt, and Stonehenge in England, Newgrange is over 5,000 years old (dating to approximately 3200 BC). The art of the entrance stone and Kerbstone 52 are regarded by many to be of the finest achievements of European Neolithic art.

The first photograph was taken in one of the three chambers off the central chamber. Shown next is the famous entrance stone, which measures 3.2m long, with a close up of its decoration shown in the following image. The fourth photo is from the walls of a passage, and the fifth photo, Kerbstone 52, followed by a close-up of the latter. Kerbstone 52 is 3.4m long, and diametrically opposite the entrance stone.

Photos taken by Cleta Ernst (1 & 4),  Douglas Pfeiffer Cardoso (2), Bob Usher (3), Daniela (5), and Dan Merino 

Uragh Stone Circle, County Kerry, Ireland

Uragh Stone Circle is a neolithic stone circle near Gleninchaquin Park. Situated near Lough Inchiquin, it consists of five megaliths. The largest stone is ten feet high and the circle is eight feet in diameter. There are two brilliant quartz stones at the south, as well as one off center within the ring.


Aaron Watson’s sonic experiments inside megalithic structures from the British Neolithic suggest that their design incorporated elements that caused sound to behave in unsual ways, and that altered states of consciousness, even trance, could be induced through drumming and other percussive practices.
In Orkney, at the massive stone block of the Dwarfie Stane, which has chambers and passages that were hewn out of the solid rock in Neolithic times, they encountered another odd phenomenon: when they set up a resonant frequency inside the chamber using their voices, they found that the massive stone block and the air within it appeared to shake vigorously. The vibration was also evident to people standing outside on top of the tomb.

(Ph: David Anderson)
(Text: Archaeology of Shamanism, Neil Price)


The Tomnaverie Stone Circle, near Tarland, Aberdeenshire, Scotland.

It took us about an hour to drive to this remarkable site from Aberdeen, and while still freezing, we fortunately got a beautiful, clear day. The site was completely deserted of other tourists, free to visit, and had unrestricted access to the monument -allowing you to walk around, and observe the stone circle up close.

The Tomnaverie Stone Circle dates from the Neolithic period, about 2500 BC. Although stone circles are relatively common in the British Isles, Recumbent stone circles, such as Tomnaverie, are unique to north-east Scotland. There are approximately 100 examples of this type of stone circle known, and they are characterised by having a large stone on its side, with two upright stones flanking it (see photo 3).

It is not entirely known why such recumbent stone circles were built. Tomnaverie was built on the edge of cultivated land, and away from the settlements of the living. It has been suggested that their purpose was to frame sacred landscape features (for example, Tomnaverie provides stunning views of Lochnagar), or might have been associated with the dead. Another line of thought is that they were closely related to agriculture, and used for astronomical observation: enabling the local farmers to track the changing seasons. For example, at Tomnaverie, the Moon would have been framed by the large 3-stone formation at midsummer. 

Much later, at around 1000 BC, the site was reused for cremation burials. In more recent history, the monument came close to complete destruction: nearly being destroyed by quarrying prior to the 1920s. Thankfully, intervention took place, and from this point the circle was taken into state care, and preserved for us to still view today. It stands as a testament to the Neolithic community who lived on this landscape, and provides us with a physical connection to these people we know so little about. It is a strange thing to be standing on the hill of the monument and looking out to the surrounding mountainous landscape, sharing the view of the prehistoric creators of Tomnaverie, only over 4000 years apart.

Photos taken by myself. AncientArt in Europe 2014/15.


Castlerigg Stone Circle, England

Castlerigg Stone Circle is near Keswick in Cumbria, North West England. One of around 1,300 stone circles in the British Isles and Brittany, it was constructed as a part of a megalithic tradition that lasted from 3,300 to 900 BC, during the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Ages. Castlerigg is among the earliest British circles, built around 3000 BC during the Neolithic period.


Beltany Stone Circle, County Donegal, Ireland

It has been suggested that the name of the site is linked to the Celtic festival of fertility known as ‘Beltane’, the anglicized name for the Gaelic May Day festival, commonly held on May 1st and historically observed throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man.

Beltany is a neolithic stone circle that dates from around 1400-800 BC and comprises 64 stones around a tumulus situated at the summit of Tops Hill. One stone is decorated with cup marks and many of the stones stand at an angle after being disturbed around a hundred years ago. There may originally have been about 80 stones. A single stone about 6.5 feet high stands to the southeast of the circle. It probably had some function related to the rites or ceremonies in the circle. A stone head was found at Beltany, probably carved between 400 BC and 400 AD. This may indicate that the stone circle was used for many centuries.