A while back, I was sniffing around the site of an old medieval parish church in Kilnamanagh, Co. Roscommon (not much remains) when I caught sight of an old stone ‘stoup’, or font, placed into the surrounding graveyard wall. It’s not medieval, probably 18/19th cent, but it nevertheless reminded me of medieval bullaun stones; hemispherical cup-shaped depressions hollowed out of rocks and very much associated with medieval ecclesiastical sites and pilgrim routes.
The crucifix that had been placed inside was plastic and coated with metallic paint, probably a fragment from a temporary grave marker. Being there a while, the metal had obviously undergone some sort of rust/oxidation chemical process. As a result, the water within had turned a wonderful blood-red colour, resulting in a very evocative image.
Which got me thinking. Imagine seeing something like that through the eyes of a medieval pilgrim, from the perspective of religious belief. Which then got me thinking some more, primarily, back to an article on Bullauns written by a friend and former colleague, Dr. Brian Dolan (of Seandálaíocht fame).*
The practicalities of the matter
Bullauns are likely multi-period, multi-functional features. Naturally, where they occur in ecclesiastical contexts, I see them very much associated with Christian ritual; yet they do occasionally appear outside of such. Even those within may have had a former, or duel, practical/industrial purpose. Early medieval ecclesiastical sites were not tranquil islands of perpetual calm at the best of times. Modern archaeology is increasingly illustrating the extent to which they were surrounded by industrial and agricultural production centres. So, even though we may be looking at later ritual use of Bullauns in association with pilgrimage, they may have had an earlier functional purpose too. Or perhaps even, vice versa. (See a recent example excavated last summer at Glendalough during the annual UCD School of Archaeology fieldschool).
Ironing out the possibilities
One of the key points that Brian makes in the article are the possibilities involving metalworking; especially the processes involved in the grinding of metal ores. He cites several examples, some ecclesiastical, where slag and iron working evidence has been found alongside mortar like depressions/bullauns. A particularly interesting one is that of Nendrum, Co. Down ‘where a circular stone, stained red as if used for crushing or as an anvil, was found associated with some nodules of ironstone ore‘.
If some medieval bullauns within ecclesiastical contexts were used in metal processing, either prior to, or concurrently with, pilgrimage activity; then the possibility arises that residual traces of iron oxides within the ‘bowl’ may have had a similar effect as the one pictured. Standing out in the open air, being replenished with rain water, such features may have occasionally taken on an appearance of having a ‘blood red’ colour. If so, then the resulting symbolism and metaphor from a Christian perspective would have surely made for a powerful visual and quasi-mystical ‘statement’ in the landscape.
In terms of pilgrimage, the very act was that of a spiritual journey of devotion, penance and/or purification to an ultimate holy destination. In terms of bullauns within a purely ecclesiastical context, their primary attribute would seem to have been as receptacles for water; viewed as being sanctified by their particular location, past association with saints, or indeed, their proximity to their subsequent church sites/burial places. For any medieval Christian engaging in such activity, such appearances of red ‘blood-like’ water within bullauns at holy locations would surely have carried significant religious currency.
Cleansing ‘Blood’ of Christ
The metaphor of the ‘blood of Christ’ is well-known from biblical contexts, (most notably 1 Corinthians 10:16; Ephesians 2:13; Hebrews 9:11, 14; 1 Peter 1:2, 19; & Revelation 1:5); but it is perhaps 1 John 5 that supplies a particularly appropriate framework, against which such appearances may have been viewed against.6 This is he who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ; not by the water only but by the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. 7 For there are three that testify: 8 the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree. (1 John 5:6-8 ESV)
Obviously, not all bullauns would have been in use at the same time and many may have never had any association/use with metalworking. But if any medieval examples were to have had, then those located close to ecclesiastical centres must surely be prime candidates. Within the multiplicity of potential bullaun functions could we perhaps be looking, in certain cases, at an initial unexpected and then later harnessing of residual cause and effect? Viewed against such biblical imagery, approaching the end of a journey/pilgrimage at any such sites and occasionally seeing ‘blood-like’ water apparently changed by the ‘sanctity/power’ of the stone itself, surely would have offered an impressive sight and inspiring experience for tired and weary medieval pilgrims.
Of course, on the other hand , it could all just be a load of bullauns.
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*Brian also has a great illustrated powerpoint presentation on his site, ‘Bullauns and early Irish Ironworking‘ which expands on archaeological details and examples.
Dolan, B. (2009) ‘Bedrocks and bullauns: more than one use for a mortar?’, Archaeology Ireland 23 (1), 16-19.
Update January 2014
At the time of writing, I had another example of ‘bullauns and blood’ in mind, the details of which I didn’t have to hand. Having recently stumbled across them again, I include them here now…
In the Ordnance Survey Letters from Co. Sligo, Thomas O’Connor, (who, with the greatest of respect, was a far better Landscape Archaeologist than John O’Donovan!) writing in 1836, included a fascinating tidbit of information regarding a Holy Well at Killmacowen:
‘In the townland of Killmacowen is an old church in ruins called Teampall Cill Mic Eoin, at which there is a well called Tobur Patraic i.e. Fons Patricii. At this well there is a stone having on it the impression of St. Patrick’s knee, and retaining on it apparently the Saint’s blood, as the people think, for its representing a red (rust-like) colour.’
Thomas O’Connor, OS Letters Sligo Vol. 1, 14F 14/9, (4th Sept, 1836, 60)
Saintly ‘Knee Prints’ are of course a common early modern depiction/description of bullaun type depressions in stone, usually found in antiquarian and folklore accounts of the same. According to the ASI database, there are no surface remains of this holy well (SL020-054004-) or Holy Stone (SL020-054003-) at the location today, however, a cross slab (SL020-054005-) at the nearby medieval church ruin is thought to date (stylistically) to the 7th – 9th centuries AD.
Update: Aug 2014
I was reminded of all the above recently upon visiting the magnificent multiple bullaun boulder in Clonmore, Co. Carlow. Four depressions, filled with rainwater, with four distinctly different colours – presumably a result of different grinding at different periods. Imagine early medieval eyes and imaginations looking at something like this…
Needless to say, if anyone reading has, or comes across, similar examples of coloured rainwater within Bullaun depressions – I’d be most interested in hearing/seeing more about them.
Update Oct 2014
Came across another ‘Blood’/Stone connection concerning a holy well at Clooncree, Co. Galway. Known as Tobar Ceannach, the well (GA022-018—-) is named after a local saint who is depicted as having being murdered there. Hence the blood connection. Local folklore has him carrying his own head to wash in the well and variants thereof. Whats really interesting are the details that the ‘blood’ could not be washed off a stone afterwards, and was still to be seen. Note also, a second blood stained stone” example contained within same story at nearby Shanboolard/Ballynew which is a penitential station (GA022-010—-) containing a boulder with a red streak, said to be from the same saint. While the second example is no doubt a natural geological vein, one wonders whether the first example was something like a bullaun depression. Either way, another interesting, if later, depiction of residual saintly blood on holy stones/holy water, sanctified by the ‘blood’ itself.
Update 6th Nov 2015
I am indebted to Dr. Eva Johnston for bringing this fine red stained bullaun to my attention.
Update Dec 2015
Despite having written an article specifically mentioning it last year, it only recently struck me – in the middle of a talk on Skellig Michael – that the following excerpt from Giraldus Cambrensis is potentially another fine example of bullauns, ‘blood’ and water…
In his Topographia Hiberniae, Giraldus makes reference to what is almost certainly a bullaun stone on Skellig Michael:
Chapter XXX: Of the stone in which a cavity is every day miraculously filled with wine.In the southern part of Munster, in the neighbourhood of Cork, there is an island with a church dedicated to St. Michael, famed for its orthodox sanctity from very ancient times. There is a stone outside the porch of this church, on the right hand, and partly fixed in the wall, with a hollow in its surface, which, every morning, through the merits of the saint to whom the church is dedicated, is filled with as much wine as will conveniently suffice for the service of the masses on the day ensuing, according to the number of priests there who have to celebrate them…
Of course, Giraldus needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, but the existence of the underlying visual and physical attributes, within a 12thC context, are very interesting. Ecclesiastical site. Pilgrimage. Bullaun stone/depression. Miraculously filled on a daily basis (rainwater?) with wine (Red, blood-like) for the mass. i.e. the blood of Christ.