Excavating prehistoric rock carvings on Ben Lawers

Richard Bradley & Aaron Watson

Few subjects are more difficult to study than rock carvings, for those in Britain are entirely abstract. Few are associated with monuments and still fewer can be dated, although they were probably made between 3000 and 2000 BC. When they are shown on maps they give nothing away - they are described as 'cup and ring marks '. Are there any ways in which they can be investigated?

Rock art panel at Ben LawersIn a few cases these distinctive designs were used to embellish monuments, and occasionally cairns were constructed over decorated outcrops, but there is not enough evidence to shed much light on their significance. Certain designs are shared with megalithic tombs, but it is rare. Another approach is to study the relationship between the decorated surfaces and their siting in the landscape. Where were carvings made? Did the designs vary according to the local topography? Were the carvings more complex where they were close to major monuments? These questions can sometimes be answered by fieldwork.

rock panel on Ben LawersA new approach is to ask a different question. What happened at the carved rocks, and did it leave any traces behind? That requires excavation. A promising start has been the work of Blaze O'Connor in Ireland and that of Andrew Jones and his colleagues in the west of Scotland, but the sites that were investigated were in landscapes with specialised monuments. For that reason they may be unusual. What was also needed was an area in which such monuments were rare or absent.

An ideal candidate is the Ben Lawers Estate overlooking Loch Tay in the southern Highlands of Scotland. The estate is managed by the National Trust for Scotland and its archaeology has been investigated by the Scottish Royal Commission. Over a hundred carved rocks have been recorded to a uniform standard. Many survive on the high ground above the area cleared in the post-medieval period, and there are no prehistoric monuments in the vicinity.

excavation on Ben LawersOur project was located on the 400 metre contour. The work followed a simple procedure. One metre square test pits were excavated against the edges of the decorated rocks, and another ring of pits was excavated five metres away. This would be enough to show whether they were associated with deposits of artefacts and whether the distribution of finds was limited to the stones themselves. Unless that happened, their discovery might not be significant. At the same time the procedure was repeated for an equally conspicuous rock that had never been carved. Would it be associated with artefacts, or would they be absent?

This procedure soon showed that deposits of worked and broken quartz were associated with the carved rocks and were rare elsewhere, but we wanted to know more about why these rocks had been selected and how they might have been used. Here the contrasts between different rock carvings proved to be important. Concentrations of artefacts were associated with prominent decorated outcrops and were not found with those on flat surfaces that did not stand out in the local topography. It made no difference whether the motifs pecked into their surfaces formed simple or complex patterns.

Two of the decorated outcrops contrasted in subtle ways. One was a large domed rock with a set of concentric circle pecked at its highest point. Quantities of worked quartz were found around its base, and a few artefacts, including a flint flake, were associated with fissures on top of the stone itself. There was only one place from which the carving could be viewed by people visiting the site. Here there was evidence of cobbling associated with concentrations of quartz.

planning the excavated rockThe second decorated outcrop was quite different, for there was a large natural basin on its upper surface. Two sides of that basin had been embellished with complex designs, and in the sediments around them were further quantities of worked and broken quartz. In this case there were virtually no finds from the base of the outcrop.

This work raises many questions. Were these particular outcrops significant before they were carved? Was this why they were decorated, and did they receive deposits of artefacts for that reason? Why was quartz so important for the people who visited the site? It is used for making tools in regions that are poor in flint, but it also has unusual physical properties. It reflects the light and even glows when pieces are rubbed together. That may be why it is so common at cairns and stone circles. Some of the decorated rocks could have been treated as 'natural' monuments. If so, they may have been more important than archaeologists have supposed.

Our thanks to the National Trust for Scotland, the Scottish Royal Commission, Robin Turner, Derek Alexander and to everyone who worked on the project.

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