Prehistoric carvings like the ‘cup-and-ring’ motifs of Britain and Ireland also occur in other parts of Europe. Similar motifs are found on outcrops and boulders in north-west Spain and Portugal, and tend to be called ‘Atlantic rock art’. Some of these carvings are associated with images of recognisable subjects, such as stags. Cupmarks and cup-and-ring carvings are also found in areas of Norway, Sweden and Denmark. The similarity between the cup-and-ring motifs and the way they were made suggests that Neolithic and Bronze Age communities in all these regions were in contact.
There are several other prehistoric carving traditions in Europe and Scandinavia. The Alpine region is renowned for its images of humans, animals, and weapons, as well as abstract motifs, which date from the Copper Age (from around 3500 BC) to the end of the Iron Age (around 0 BC). These are mainly concentrated in Alpine valleys, such as Valcamonica in northern Italy, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Mont Bego area in the French Alps Maritime is home to another important collection of over 30,000 prehistoric carvings. Uniquely, these cluster high up the mountainside, around 2000m above sea level.
Prehistoric carvings are also a significant feature of the Scandinavian landscape. Norway and Sweden both have two distinct carving traditions. ‘Northern Tradition’ carvings are found mainly in northern Scandinavia, notably at the Alta World Heritage Site in Norway. Common themes are boats, humans, reindeer, moose and other wild animals, which were carved by hunter-gatherer communities between at least 4500 and 500 BC. In southern Norway and Sweden, ‘Southern Tradition’ carvings were created by farming communities during the Scandinavian Bronze Age (around 1800-500 BC). This carving tradition is famous for its magnificent images of armed warriors and ships, although there are also numerous abstract motifs (including over 30,000 cupmarks!). The best examples of Southern Tradition carvings come from the World Heritage Site of Tanum in southern Sweden.
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 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.
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.