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Rare ancient rock art in Scotland

Rare ancient rock art in Scotland may reflect rituals, territorial markings or star mapping


Archaeologists have discovered a rare example of prehistoric rock art in the Scottish Highlands. Researchers have suggested that the large boulder, which contains numerous cup and ring marks, may reflect ritual use, territorial markings, or mapping of the stars.

The carvings in the large stone, which was found in Ross-shire, Scotland, are believed to date back to the Neolithic or Bronze Age, around 4,000 to 5,000 years ago.  However, precisely dating the art is difficult: even if the megalithic monument can be dated, the art may be a later addition.  John Wombell, of North of Scotland Archaeological Society (NOSAS), described the finding as “an amazing discovery", and explained that it is one of only a few decorated stones of its kind in Scotland.

Cup and ring marks are a form of prehistoric art consisting of a concave depression, no more than a few centimetres across, carved into a rock surface and often surrounded by concentric circles also etched into the stone. The decoration occurs as a petroglyph on natural boulders and outcrops, and on megaliths such as the slab cists, stone circles, and passage graves such as the clava tombs and on the capstones at Newgrange. They are found mainly in Northern England, Scotland, Ireland, Portugal, North West Spain, North West Italy, Central Greece, and Switzerland.  However, similar forms have also been found throughout the world including Mexico, Brazil, and India.

Typical cup-and-rings marks. These are located in Northumberland, England.

Typical cup-and-rings marks. These are located in Northumberland, England. Photo credit: Wikipedia

Susan Kruse, of Archaeology for Communities in the Highlands (ARCH), first discovered the stone with decorations on one side at Heights of Fodderty several years ago when out walking. However, it wasn’t known that a second set of up and ring marks lay on the opposite side until the stone was being moved to its original location – it was moved by crofters about 200 years ago when they used it for building a dyke. Ms Kruse said: "Finding cup and ring decoration on the opposite side has raised a number of tantalising questions. Was the decoration meant to be viewed from both sides or was one decorated side deliberately placed face down? Or was the stone carved at different times?"

Mr Wombell, who is leading a project to record rock art in the Highlands and Grampian, added: "Although some stones are decorated on different faces, I only know of a few other stones with decoration on opposite sides."

Currently the purpose and meaning of the cup and ring marks remains unclear; many theories have been suggested but no clear picture has emerged. Some general comments can be made about the siting of carved stones which may provide clues to their function. Many of the rock carvings are sited near, or actually incorporated into, cairns and burial mounds, there by linking the symbols in some way with burial practices and possibly beliefs concerning ancestors and an afterlife. The symbols are also found carved on standing stones and at stone circles – places thought to have been used for religious and ritual purposes in the past. Carvings often occur on outcrop rock where the site appears to have been specifically chosen so as to give uninterrupted views over the surrounding country. Others have said that they correspond to star constellations, or that they are records of land ownership or reflect boundaries.

The area in which the discovery was made is rich in prehistoric artefacts and ruins including a cluster of rock art, as well as a Neolithic chambered burial cairn and round houses dating to the Bronze and Iron Ages. Another major discovery in the area was the Heights of Brae hoard, the largest surviving late Bronze Age gold find in Scotland.

Featured image: The cup and ring marks found in Scotland. Photo Credit: John Wombell

By April Holloway



It could be some kind of game, the people of the area were know for having games and activities of the sort. Some times we end up getting so serious about these topics that we forget that some relics are not so serious.

Never underestimate the artistic ability of bored humans. Doodling is an ancient way of passing time, and as far as I am concerned, you post a bunch of guys in the middle of nowhere and they will invent ways to amuse themselves. This could be the remains of some ancient, lost and silly drinking game. Toss a pebble and see where it lands, chug a beer. Think of it as prehistoric beer pong.

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April Holloway is a Co-Owner, Editor and Writer of Ancient Origins. For privacy reasons, she has previously written on Ancient Origins under the pen name April Holloway, but is now choosing to use her real name, Joanna Gillan.

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