These pages provide an overview of rock art in Scotland, Britain, and other parts of the world. We explore some of the key questions about rock art: What is it? Where is it? How old is it? Who made it? And above all, what does it mean? We can’t promise to answer all these questions, but we can offer information about what is currently known and how to find out more.
The term ‘rock art’ refers to symbols or marks with no obvious purpose that have been painted or engraved onto natural rock surfaces. People have been creating rock art all around the world for over 40,000 years. It has been made within deep caves, in natural rock shelters, and on rocky outcrops and boulders in the open landscape. Rock art is best known for its images of animals and people, and objects such as boats, weapons, or houses (generally called ‘figurative’ rock art). Interestingly, however, around half of the world’s rock art shows simple or complex symbols (‘motifs’) that do not resemble anything recognisable – this is called ‘abstract’ rock art.
Rock art is one of the most fascinating and mysterious aspects of our shared past, and the quest to understand it has captured our imagination for many centuries. There are huge challenges to understanding rock art, however. It may have meant different things to different people. Its meaning may have changed depending on how it was being used, or when it was being used. There are hundreds of possible explanations, and you can read more about some of these on our Rock Art and Meaning page.
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.
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.
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.