Dating rock art can be problematic, especially for carvings. Although pigments and other materials used in painted rock art can often be precisely dated (also called absolute dating) with scientific techniques, such as Radiocarbon dating or Uranium Series (when in caves), these methods can not be used for carvings (for now). Unlike painted rock art, carvings are cut into natural rock, and are rarely linked to deposits that can provide precise dates. The main way to date carved rock art is usually through stylistic comparisons (called relative dating methods). This means analysing the type of motifs depicted on the rocks, the techniques used, their location in the landscape, and other recognizable characteristics, then compare them to similar sites where dateable information is available.
European cup-and-ring carvings were originally dated to the Bronze Age because carved stones were sometimes found in funerary monuments of that period. In countries such as Portugal and Spain, cup-and-ring motifs are often carved alongside images of weapons (daggers, halberds) that are similar in style to actual Bronze Age weapons. Researchers concluded that the cup-and-ring carvings were created around the same time as the carvings of Bronze Age weapons. In recent years, however, opinions on the age of cup-and-ring rock art have shifted, mainly due to new discoveries from archaeological excavations.
Prehistoric carvings in Scotland, as elsewhere in Britain and Ireland, are almost entirely abstract and do not represent anything that might give us clues about when they were made. We do have indirect evidence to help us, however. Cup-and-ring carved rocks are sometimes found in prehistoric monuments with a known date, and this tells us that the carvings were created before or at the same time as the monuments. Researchers now believe that they were first created in the Neolithic period (around 6000-4000 years ago). This is supported by the discovery of cupmarked rocks in Neolithic monuments, such as the long cairn at Dalladies in Aberdeenshire, dating to 3280 BC. Excavations of a rock art panel at Torbhlaren near Kilmartin, Argyll has also provided Neolithic dates from deposits on and around the rock surface, whilst in Northumberland, excavations of a carved rock at Hunterheugh revealed that an Early Bronze Age burial had been built over earlier, eroded motifs. You can read more about this research on our Other Research page.
Although there is still no certainty about the date of Britain’s rock art, we now think that it was created over a relatively long period during the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age (roughly 4000-1800 BC). It may also have been used for much longer in some parts of Britain, possibly throughout the Bronze Age and Iron Age. Many questions remain, however. Was rock art made constantly throughout this period, or were there bursts of carving activity? Were carvings made at different times in different regions? Did certain types of motifs have long life-spans, whilst others were current only for a short time? Similarly, it is possible that some carved rocks were one-off creations, and others were repeatedly added to and modified.
Rock art is one of the most fascinating and enigmatic traces left by our ancestors. It has been created for thousands of years, and is still produced today in certain parts of the world.
The term rock art refers to human-made marks or images that are deliberately carved, painted, or sculpted on natural rock surfaces.
About a third of all prehistoric rock art known in Britain is found in Scotland. Most of the carvings are on rocks in the open landscape, but some were also used in monuments or re-used in later structures.
Britain and Ireland share a similar tradition of prehistoric carving. In the British Isles, carvings of cup-and-rings, cup-marks, and similar images were engraved on boulders and outcrops in many parts of the landscape.
Rock art is widespread in Europe and very varied, ranging from the Paleolithic Caves of Spain and France, to the Italian Alps, Southern Spain, and of course the Atlantic Art common to many countries in western Europe.
Rock art is a global phenomenon. Paintings and carvings have been created for thousands of years on walls, shelters, and rock surfaces in the open air in many parts of the world. Have a glimpse of some wonderful and mysterious rock art in this section.
The oldest written reference to rock art in the British Isles dates back to the 19th century. Interest in Britain's rock art has grown over the decades and it is now a well-established academic subject.
What do the symbols mean? This is the question most often asked, but it one of the most difficult questions to answer. There are many theories about rock art's meaning, and you can find out more about what research has revealed in this section.