Since the first discoveries of rock art, people have been searching for its meaning. There have been numerous suggestions, some of which are more believable than others. The Scottish lawyer and rock art enthusiast, Ronald Morris, famously compiled a list of 104 theories that he ranked according to their credibility. More plausible ideas include maps of the landscape, astronomical alignments, and marking ritual places. The more unlikely suggestions range water diving, moulds for casting metal objects, and grooves made by coiled snakes.
Traditional societies that produce rock art today are a valuable source of information about why paintings and carvings are made. This type of study suggests that our prehistoric carvings may never have had a single, fixed meaning. Their meanings may have changed depending on how and when they were used, and who was using them. Over time, different people have encountered the symbols and interpreted them according to their personal cultural backgrounds and beliefs. This accounts for the many legends and folk stories involving fairies, magic, and giants associated with prehistoric carved stones.
Although we may never know what the symbols themselves meant to the people that created them, the types of rocks chosen for carving, and their position in the landscape can provide important clues about the role of rock art in the prehistoric world. Studies of British rock art using this approach have suggested that the carvings mark routeways and significant places in the landscape. There also seem to be distinctions in the complexity of carvings and their position in the landscape.
We can also consider other dimensions of the rock art beyond their visual appearance and physical setting. How was the rock art experienced by the people that made and used it? One suggestion is that the rock art might have formed part of a communal performance that involved sound, light, and activity. The experiences and activities associated with producing the rock art may have been as important to people the symbols themselves.
Recent excavations in Britain and Scandinavia have revealed fascinating evidence of some of the activities at rock art panels. You can read more about this work on our Other Research page. If you are interested in finding out more about rock art, you may like to look at our Reading page in the Resources section, where you will find details of relevant books and articles about rock art in Britain, Europe and other parts of the world.
You might also be interested in viewing this summary of some of the main rock art theories.
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.
Dating rock art is very challenging. For a long time, it was thought that Scotland's prehistoric carvings were about 4000 years old, but recent research shows that they were probably made at least 5000 years ago in the Neolithic period.