2.1 Prehistoric rock art

Rock art is a term used to describe motifs that were carved mostly onto earthfast rocks or boulders but also monuments, mainly in the later Neolithic and Early Bronze Age (about 4,900 to 4,000 years ago) (Figures 6–8). Around 2500 carved rocks are currently known in Scotland, although many new discoveries are made every year.


Figure 6: Prehistoric rock art at Auchentorlie, West Dunbartonshire. In Scotland the rock-art tradition is particularly strong in Argyll and Bute, Dumfries and Galloway, Highland Perthshire and around the Moray Firth where abstract designs, usually shallow pecked circles or cups, sometimes surrounded by rings ('cup-and-ring marks') or connected by grooves are the norm. Similar designs are also found in England, Ireland, Wales, Brittany and north-west Spain, and in other parts of the world. Crown Copyright: Historic Environment Scotland


Figure 7: Elaborate so-called 'passage-grave art', distinctive designs found along the Atlantic seaboard, was carved onto stones at prominent places in burial monuments, particularly in Orkney. Very occasionally, as here at Ri Cruin, Argyll and Bute, representations of copper flat axes were also made on burial monuments, sometimes superimposed over cup-marks. Crown Copyright: Historic Environment Scotland

Good histories of rock-art studies in Scotland exist (notably Bradley 1997a; Beckensall 1999; A Jones et al. 2011), and there is one short overview of Scottish research in relation to heritage and conservation (Foster 2010b, 6). 'One of the enigmas of archaeology' (Anderson 1883, 299), the earliest significant discovery of rock art in Scotland was only reported in 1830 (Currie 1830). The first serious antiquarian overviews appeared in the later 19th century (Simpson 1866; Allen 1882) but the path to evidence-based and theoretically informed understanding has been slow. From the 1960s to 1990s discovery, reporting and analysis was largely the preserve of avocational archaeologists. Local groups and individuals made an immense contribution to our knowledge of rock art but mainly focused on identifying and recording motif typology, a phenomenon not limited to Scotland (Nash and Chippindale 2002, 3). Fortunately, there is a worldwide literature on all aspects of rock-art research that invites reflection on Scottish understanding and approaches (e.g. Bradley 1997a; Nash and Chippindale 2002; Bertilsson and McDermott 2004; Bradley 2009; Barnett and Sharpe 2010; Darvill and Fernandes 2014a).

Recording improved with the RCAHMS' survey of the rock art in Argyll (RCAHMS 1988), although many new discoveries have since been made in the Kilmartin area. Important RCAHMS survey work in the Loch Tay area is as yet unpublished. Meanwhile, community-led initiatives, such as the Ross-shire Rock Art Project per North of Scotland Archaeological Society have recorded extensive rock art in areas where little was known previously. Recording methods have evolved in tandem with digital technologies, but digital applications are so far limited (exceptions including Cochno and Ormaigsee Condition monitoring at Ormaig: Case Study 37). So-called scratch art or graffiti is a relatively recently recognised form of engraving now generating research literature. In particular, this has been identified in prehistoric buildings in Orkney (Figure 8), where it was also sometimes painted (A Thomas 2015). That stones might be decorated just by application of colour rather than any form of carving is a consideration in this and later periods.


Figure 8: Some designs—possibly no more than scratches—were found recently during excavations of Neolithic houses at Ness of Brodgar, Orkney Islands. © Antonia Thomas

Arguably prehistoric rock art does not play a role in defining present local identity and sense of place because it tends not to be associated with modern settlements, and it has low public awareness. Kilmartin Glen and its museum is the obvious exception. This is as yet little researched, although the recent ACCORD project (Jeffrey et al 2015) demonstrates the potential contemporary social value of rock art. Another aspect of its social value that has not been researched is the way in which rock art has proved such a fertile ground for lots of fringe thinking about its meanings and origins. Past biographical dimensions of rock art have been recognised, and may prove to be a rewarding avenue for future research (Hingley et al. 1997; A Jones et al. 2011).

In line with practice elsewhere, archaeologists have begun to explore the immediate archaeological context of rock art (Bradley et al. 2012), finding dating evidence, associated structures and artefacts. An Animate Landscape. Rock Art and the Prehistory of Kilmartin (A Jones et al. 2011) is an example of what can be achieved through interdisciplinary research, modern archaeological perspectives and creative publication (although it offers a cautionary tale to involve soil scientists early in excavations: Foster 2013b).

The work of Andy Jones and Bradley, in particular, suggests that rock art was an important means by which prehistoric people made sense of their surroundings, so recording and understanding its landscape context is critical. Research into how to translate this into heritage practices, such as protection and interpretation of setting, is virtually non-existent, although the landscape has been opened up around some afforested sites (Ormaig: Figure 6; Condition monitoring at Ormaig: Case Study 37; Achnabreck), and we anyway know little about what the earlier landscapes looked like.

Rock-art research in Britain has mainly focused on a few areas with high concentrations of engravings, while studies at an inter-regional scale have been limited (e.g. Van Hoek 1997). This has created a fragmented and distorted overview in which the carvings are presented as disparate 'clusters' within a single, unified tradition, obscuring more subtle regional patterns and potential connections between geographical areas and prehistoric communities. British rock art is not uniform, however. There is considerable diversity within and between regions, yet we have no clear understanding of the common themes that bound all rock-art users, or how and why these varied regionally.

Research into the specific conservation needs of carved rocks (sometimes vertical faces) is negligible. Specialists are learning much through individual casework (such as the early medieval rock art at Dunadd), but research of this nature is rarely being drawn together into peer-reviewed publications where the outcomes can be shared. This contrasts, in particular, with experiences in Scandinavia (Hygen and Bengtsson 2000; Bjelland and Hellberg 2005; Hygen 2006; Gustafsson and Karlsson 2014) and England (ERA: England's Rock Art) where national initiatives assessed the conservation needs of the resource, identified priorities for action, and researched the appropriate conservation science and presentation methods. In England, involvement of local communities has raised awareness and encouraged sustainability (Rock-art recording: Case Study 29). This approach has proved successful on a smaller scale in Scotland (e.g. Kilmartin Museum activities; ACCORD project - Jeffrey et al 2015; Cochno). Ethical issues have also been considered elsewhere (e.g. Walderhaug Saetersdal 2000).

For further reading, download the Section 10.1 pdf ( 325 kb).