This page focuses on excavations of British rock art over the last 40 years, and how this has improved our understanding of the carvings and when they were created.
Archaeological excavations can accurately date objects and materials dug out of the soil, especially when there are organic remains that can be radiocarbon dated. If rock art panels have become buried over time, and sealed by deposits that contain objects and materials of known date, these can help to shed light on when the rock art was created. This is how many examples of cave art were dated in the past.
A number of archaeological excavations have recently been carried out on and immediately around rocks with cup-and-ring carvings. In some cases, these excavations have unearthed objects and features that provide important information about when the engravings were made, what activities took place around them, and what tools were used to carve the motifs.
Some of the first excavations of rock art sites happened by chance when carved stones were occasionally found during excavation of funerary monuments and their associated artefacts. One of the most important examples of this was the discovery of a cup-marked slab in 1970 by Professor Stuart Piggott, while digging the long cairn at Dalladies, NE Scotland. The carved stone formed part of the structure of the monument, and the burial context provided a radiocarbon date of around 3240 BC, placing it in the Neolithic. The carvings were eroded and had clearly been exposed for some time before they were placed in the burial monument.
Similarly, in 1973, a group of students from Alnwick College of Education, led by Stan Beckensall, excavated Fowberry Moor Cairn (Northumberland). This burial cairn is situated on top of a large outcrop, heavily decorated with cup-and-ring motifs, and was clearly built after the carvings were made. Four carved stones were included in the monument’s outer double kerb, and around 20 cup-marked cobbles were recovered from the cairn.
Following these exciting finds, there have been several more archaeological excavations at rock art sites with cup-and-ring motifs in Britain and Ireland.
In 2003, Blaze O’Connor excavated Iniskeen, a rock art site in Druimiril (Ireland). Initially there was a small-scale excavation within the area known as Deer Park. In this area there were many carved sandstone outcrops located on the small hills and ridgelines characteristic of the region. After the initial excavation, and a detailed geophysical survey, the work was extended to a larger area, where a number of features had been detected near to the carved rocks. These included possible pits, post-holes, areas of burning, and several curvilinear enclosures and field boundaries. Clearly there had been considerable prehistoric activity in this area. The new excavations unearthed a large pit containing fragments of Early Neolithic pottery. Another trench revealed a section of a carved rock outcrop with evidence burning at high temperatures, and a natural linear depression filled with a charcoal-rich deposit capped with stones.
Also investigated were a large oval enclosure, and a hilltop with several carved panels. The enclosure was surrounded by a low bank with a stone revetment and an inner ditch. A possible post-hole was set into the bedrock at the base of the inside slope of the bank. Neolithic pottery was scattered in the ditch and over the outer slope of the bank. Additional trenches revealed an internal terrace-like area containing many features, including a large central pit edged by fire-reddened stones, with a stone-lined post-hole at its base. The pit was surrounded by two small charcoal-rich deposits, and three stone-line post-holes, forming a trapezoidal structure. Various artefacts were recovered from this excavated area, including a flint round scraper, a quartz hammerstone, a blue glass bead, cremated bone fragments, charcoal, burnt hazelnut-shell fragments, and porous vitrified material. The features were covered by a layer of angular slabs of local sandstone.
O’Connor, B. 2003. Recent Excavations in a Rock Art Landscape. Archaeology Ireland 17(4): 14-16.
O’Connor, B. 2006. Inscribed landscapes: contextualising prehistoric rock art in Ireland. 2 vols. PhD Thesis submitted to University College Dublin
In 2004, archaeological excavations were undertaken by Clive Waddington and Aron Mazel around Hunterheugh 1, a carved rock outcrop in Northumberland. The aim was to investigate the relationship between the rock carvings and a small stone burial cairn, built directly on top of the decorated rock. If the cairn could be dated, this would provide evidence for when the carvings were made.
First, the turf and vegetation obscuring the rock surface was removed. This revealed a large, prominent rock outcrop with dozens of carved motifs, including cupmarks, cup-and-rings, and grooves. There was also evidence that the rock had been quarried before the cairn was built.
The excavations showed an extended sequence of activity at the site. There appeared to have been two distinct phases of carving, interspersed with an episode of quarrying, before the burial cairn was constructed on top of the carved rock surface. The earlier motifs (created before the quarrying) were considerably more weathered than those carved onto the quarried surface. The later carvings, made on the quarried surface, also appeared to have been exposed to the weather for a considerable time before they were covered by the burial cairn. Objects recovered from the burial enabled it to be dated to the Early Bronze Age. This allowed the excavators to conclude that both phases of carvings dated to the Neolithic. Other small artefacts found during the excavation included a ‘tortoise-shaped' sandstone cobble, thought to have been used to make the rock art, as well as three small pieces of red ochre (a natural pigment that may have been used to colour the rock art, or to have been used in the burial ritual), and other carvings on five small quarried stones.
Waddington, C. 2004. Rock of Ages. British Archaeology 78: 16–21.
Waddington, C., B. Johnson & A. Mazel. 2005. Excavation of a rock art site at Hunterheugh Crag, Northumberland. Archaeologia Aeliana 34 (5th Series): 29–54.
In 2003, an intense wildfire swept across Fylingdales Moor in the North Yorkshire Moors National Park. Although the incident was an ecological disaster, it had an important outcome for archaeology. The fire burnt off the peat deposits, exposing prehistoric field systems, and a large number of unrecorded rock art panels. These included two carved stone slabs poking out of the top of the remains of a prehistoric burial monument. One slab featured cup-and-ring markings, whilst the second was carved with motifs similar to those commonly found in Late Neolithic passage graves (called Megalithic art or Passage Grave art). This was an extremely important and vulnerable find, and English Heritage commissioned an archaeological excavation of the monument. The excavation revealed that the burial monument was constructed from several stone slabs placed in an ovoid ring. One of these slabs, in the south-west of the monument, was considered to be a standing stone due to its height.
The excavation uncovered the full extent of the two carved slabs, showing the contrasting nature of their motifs. The more unusual slab was covered with geometric patterns of angular designs (chevrons, triangles, zig-zags). The other slab featured a deep groove running around the oval shape of the rock, enclosong a linear arrangement of 17 cupmarks. In both cases, the motifs were carved on the flat, inner faces of the slabs, turned towards the burial in the centre of the monument. In addition to these larger stones, eight smaller, portable stones carved with simple cupmarks were recovered during the excavation.
The excavator, Blaise Vyner, suggested that the monument had experienced several different phases of construction. In the first phase, dating to the late 4th millennium BC, the geometrically decorated slab was used as a standing stone This stone was then broken and remodelled sometime in the mid-3rd millennium BC, and two other standing stones were erected 5m apart. The stone carved with grooves and cup-marks would probably have been created at the turn of the 2nd millennium, at which point the geometrically decorated slab was re-worked again. In the final construction phase, the two carved stones were then placed in an ovoid trench along with other slabs, and the interior of the monument was filled with rubble containing the smaller carved blocks.
Vyner, B. 2011. A new context for rock art: a Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age ritual monument at Fylingdales, North Yorkshire. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 77: 1-23.
Kilmartin (Argyll) has long been a focus for research due to the wealth of rock art and prehistoric features surviving in this area. These include numerous Neolithic and Early Bronze Age monuments - henges, stone circles, standing stones, stone alignments, chambered cairns, and a linear cemetery of round cairns. Kilmartin also boasts some of the most famous carved panels in Scotland, such as the immense panel at Achnabrek, and the elaborately decorated outcrops at Cairbaan.
In Kilmichael Glen, a valley to the east of Kilmartin, there are three large carved rock outcrops (Torbhlaren 1, 2 and 2a), which are aligned with two decorated standing stones (one upright and one fallen). Between 2004 and 2007, following detailed survey of the surrounding area, Andy M Jones directed the excavation of the two larger carved panels (Torbhlaren 1 and 2) and their immediate surroundings. The results were very exciting, and significantly altered our understanding of what may have happened at rock art sites in Britain.
The first excavations in 2004 discovered a clay platform with a cobbled stone pavement adjacent to Tobhlaren 1. The platform was covered by vast quantities of quartz and quartzite river pebbles. Some had worn edges, and experimental archaeology showed that they may have been hammerstones, used to make the carvings. Around 50 kg of worked and unworked quartz was recovered from the initial excavation, suggesting that this material played an important role in how the site was used. A small scooped hollow in the platform was found filled with a charcoal-rich deposit and more worked quartz.
Further excavation in 2006 identified a small, circular, post-hole structure built against the edge of the carved rock. A deposit of orange clay associated with the structure may be the remains of a floor surface, or collapsed daub from the walls. Flakes of knapped quartz were lying on this surface and the surrounding platform. The post-holes were filled with small bits of charcoal from a fire which destroyed the structure, possibly deliberately. A low stone-walled revetment was later constructed over the structure. There are similarities between the post-hole structure and wooden-built structures of Neolithic date excavated in other parts of Scotland, some of which also show evidence of having been burnt.
The analyses of charcoal from the post-hole structure gave a radiocarbon date of 2580-2340 BC at 95.4% confidence (2570-2510 BC at 68.2% confidence), placing it in the Late Neolithic, whilst charcoal from the scooped feature in the platform was dated to AD 680-890 at 95.4% confidence (AD 760-870 at 68.2% confidence). Although these dates do not necessarily tell us precisely when the rock art was made, they provide crucial evidence for activities taking place on and around the carved rocks, and they are the first dates for a British rock art site.
The large natural cracks and fissures on the carved rocks at Torbhlaren were also excavated. Many of these contained worked lithics (mostly quartz) and possible hammerstones. One fissure seems to have experienced two phases of lithic deposition, separated by a layer of clay. The main fissure on Torbhlaren 2 contained a flint pebble and quart flake deposited beside an area of cup-and-ring motifs. Similar patterns of lithic deposition in fissures have been discovered through excavation of carved rocks in Denmark.
In 2009, excavation of a long fissure on Torbhlaren 2 recovered large quantities of quartz which had been used as hammerstones to create the carvings. The dating of this deposit to the Late Bronze Age (1320-1110 BC at 95.4% confidence, or 1270-1120 BC at 68.2% confidence) demonstrates that the rock art was created and used for a considerable period of time.
Jones, A. M., D. Freedman, B. O'Connor, H. Lamdin-Whymark, R.Tipping, & A. Watson. 2011. An Animate Landscape. Rock art and the prehistory of Kilmartin, Argyll, Scotland. Oxford, Windgather Press.
Jones, A. M., & B. O'Connor. 2007. Excavating art: Recent excavations at the rock art sites at Torbhlaren, near Kilmartin, Mid-Argyll, Scotland. PAST 55: 4.
The Ben Lawers Estate in Loch Tay, managed by the National Trust of Scotland, was the focus of a research project led by Professor Richard Bradley from the University of Reading, in collaboration with Aaron Watson and Alex Brown. Over a hundred carved rocks had previously been recorded here to a consistent standard by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, providing an ideal dataset for detailed investigation.
One of the main aims of the project was to assess the relationship between the carved rocks and the distribution of artefacts. The approach was to excavate a series of square test- pits next to the carved rocks and five meters from them, as well as next to a conspicuous, uncarved rock. In this way, it should be possible to determine whether or not artefacts were only deposited beside carved rocks.
Interestingly, the excavation revealed similar results to those from Torbhlaren (see above). Large quantities of worked quartz were recovered from around the base of one panel, carved with concentric circles. In addition, a few artefacts, including a flint flake, were associated with fissures on the rock surface. Remnants of cobbling and concentrations of quartz at the base of the panel suggest that there may have been a platform similar to the one unearthed at Torbhlaren. The cobbling was positioned in exactly the place where the carvings could be best viewed.
On the upper surface of a second panel, significant amounts of worked and broken quartz were excavated from sediments around a natural basin, whose sides were carved with complex motifs, also produced. Very few finds were recovered from the base of this outcrop.
The research clearly showed that artefacts were only associated with carved rocks, and were not found in other excavated contexts.
Pollen analysis was carried out on soil samples taken from above and below the cobbled structure. This analysis allowed reconstruction of the environment at the time when the structure (and possibly the carvings) was made. It indicated that the carvings were situated in a landscape similar to today, comprising open grassland, presumably upland pasture, with extensive views along and across Loch Tay.
Bradley, R., A. Brown, & A. Watson. 2010. The archaeology and environment of prehistoric rock carvings on Ben Lawers. PAST 65: 11-14.
Bradley, R. & A. Watson. 2009. Excavating prehistoric rock carvings on Ben Lawers. The Archaeologist 74: 34–35.
Stanbury Hill is a low-lying hill on the south slope of Rombalds Moor, overlooking the Aire Valley in West Yorkshire. In 2008-2012, a Heritage Lottery Funded project, led by Bingley and the District Local History Society in collaboration with the University of Bradford, set out to investigate the context of the carved rocks within the landscape.
The area was investigated through walk-over survey, metal detecting, and geophysical methods. As a result, over 200 sites were identified. These included prehistoric cairns, cists, and linear boundaries, through to 20th century shooting butts, and structures relating to World War II activities. Some of these features were then excavated, including three cairns, a linear boundary, the area around a carved rock, and what was thought to be a “double penannular feature/hut circle”. One of the cairns contained two stones decorated with cup-and-ring motifs. Of these, one featured a cupmark with a complete ring and a gapped ring. The second stone was broken with a truncated cup-and-ring, and found facing upwards in the northernmost part of the excavated area. There was a significant spread of quartz pebbles associated with the cairn, but absent from other excavated features.
Excavation of the area around the carved rock revealed that the rock had been brought to site, probably from the nearby stream (Fenny Shaw Beck), and placed deliberately in order to form a rough circular line with other carved stones on a prominent part of the hill.
Three samples from various parts of the excavated area enabled the site to be radiocarbon dated firmly within the 2nd millennium BC. Although the carvings are likely to have been made earlier than this, these dates tell us that the carvings were being reused, and still important to people, in the Bronze Age.
Brown, L.D., K. Boughey, D. Paley, D. Spencer, J. Croasdale, D. Hallam and J. McIlwaine. 2013. Stanbury Hill Project: Archaeological Investigation of a Rock Art Site. Bingley: Bingley and District Local History Society
Scotland's Rock Art Project is working with communities to co-produce rock art data for research. Follow this link for an overview of our work, and rock art research in Scotland.
Prehistoric carvings are one of Scotland's greatest mysteries. During the project, we will be exploring three main research themes to help improve understanding of our rock art.
Carved stones of all periods are a priceless and vulnerable part of Scotland's heritage. How should we best research, conserve, protect, and engage them? The Carved Stones Research Framework provides informed answers!
Scotland's rock art is a unique part of our historic environment. During this project we shall be exploring what it means to people, and how we value it today.