Tertia Barnett and Joana Valdez-Tullett, Historic Environment Scotland
Scotland’s Rock Art Project is a five year programme to record, research and raise awareness of prehistoric rock carvings across the country. Established in 2017 with funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the project is run by Historic Environment Scotland in collaboration with Edinburgh University and Glasgow School of Art.
During the Neolithic, thousands of outcrops and boulders in Scotland were carved with abstract motifs, ranging from simple cupmarks to arrangements of multiple cups, rings and grooves (Figures 1 and 2). Most carved rocks are scattered in the open landscape, but some are built into Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments such as the Nether Largie standing stones in Kilmartin and Cairn Ban Chambered cairn in Bute, or reused in later structures like the field wall at Glasvaar in Kilmartin (Figures 3 and 4). Similar prehistoric rock art is found elsewhere in Britain and western Europe, including Ireland, Spain and Portugal, highlighting the long-term connections between these regions (e.g. Bradley 1997; Hadingham 1974; Shee Twohig 1981; Valdez-Tullett 2019). However, despite numerous theories put forward in the last 150 years (e.g. Morris 1979), we still know little about who created the rock art and why.
There are around 700 carved rocks in Argyll and Bute – almost 20% of all rock art in Scotland – with high concentrations in north Bute, western Kintyre, and the Kilmartin area, and smaller clusters in parts of Cowal and north-east Kintyre (Figure 5). Conversely, almost nothing is recorded in Argyll north of Ford and some areas appear to lack rock art entirely, although current distribution may be biased by patterns of discovery and survival. The rock art varies considerably within Argyll and Bute, from mainly cupmarked outcrops and boulders in Bute, Cowal and Kintyre to elaborately carved rocks in Kilmartin (Figures 6 and Figure 7). The relative density and complexity of rock art around Kilmartin has caught people’s imagination since the early 19th century and the area has been an important focus for research in recent decades, including excavation of carved rocks at Torbhlaren (Bradley 1997; Campbell and Sandeman 1962; Currie 1830; Greenwell 1866; Jones 2001, 2005, 2006; Jones et al 2011).
Community rock art recording
Since 2017, Scotland’s Rock Art Project (ScRAP) has been collaborating with communities across the country to enhancing our understanding and sense of value of prehistoric carvings. The project has trained ten community teams to use a standardised methodology for creating detailed records and 3D models of rock art, and to make these publicly accessible on ScRAP’s website.
Three community teams, based in Bute, Strachur and Kilmartin, are working with ScRAP to record Argyll and Bute’s rock art, and ScRAP has run two summer field schools for archaeology undergraduates in Kilmartin (2018 and 2019) in partnership with Kilmartin Museum (see link to short video) (Figures 8 and 9). Thanks to the enthusiasm and dedication of community participants, over half of all rock art in this region has now been recorded in detail, including more than 70% of that in the Kilmartin area.
Researching Scotland’s rock art
For the remainder of the project, until December 2021, the ScRAP project team are using the large volume of data generated through community-led fieldwork to carry out spatial and statistical analyses of the rock art at different scales. The level of detail in the database enables close scrutiny of the rock surface and motifs, including assessment of superimposition and attention to material qualities of the rock, as well as investigations of the environmental and archaeological contexts of the rock art, and its inter-regional variability. In particular, the team are examining how and why the character of rock art differs across Scotland, how it is associated with other archaeological monuments and artefacts, and what this can tell us about the nature of connections and transmission of knowledge in prehistory.
By situating rock art within a wider archaeological understanding of Neolithic society and connectivity, ScRAP will address key issues about its role and significance in prehistory. The project legacy, including a digital database with over 1500 detailed records and thousands of images and 3D models, will provide an invaluable resource for future research, management and awareness to enrich our understanding of these fascinating and enigmatic carvings, and safeguard them for generations to come.
You can find out more about the project and search the rock art database on the ScRAP website. You can also view 3D models of Scotland’s rock art on the Sketchfab accounts for ScRAP and Community Team Rock Art.
Scotland’s Rock Art Project (ScRAP) in Argyll and Bute Bibliography
- Bradley, R. 1997. Rock Art and the Prehistory of Atlantic Europe. Signing the Land. London and New York: Routledge.
- Campbell, M. and Sandeman, M.L.S. 1962. Mid Argyll: a field survey of the historic and prehistoric monuments. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 95 (1961-2): 1-125.
- Currie, A. 1830. A Description of the Antiquities and Scenery of the Parish of North Knapdale, Argyleshire, by Archibald Currie. Glasgow: W. R. M’Phun.
- Freedman, D. 2011. Kilmartin in context I: Kilmartin and the rock art of prehistoric Scotland. In A.M. Jones, D. Freedman, B. O’Connor, H. Lamdin-Whymark, R. Tipping and A. Watson (eds) An Animate Landscape: Rock art and the prehistory of Kilmartin, Argyll, Scotland. Oxford: Windgather Press, 282-311.
- Greenwell, W. 1866. An account of excavations in cairns near Crinan. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 6: 336-51.
- Jones, A.M. 2001. Enduring images? Image production and memory in Earlier Bronze Age Scotland. In J. Brück (ed.) Bronze Age Landscapes: Tradition and transformation. Oxford: Oxbow, 217-31.
- Jones, A.M. 2004. By way of illustration: art, memory and materiality in the Irish Sea and beyond. In V. Cummings and A. Pannett (eds) Set in Stone: New approaches to Neolithic Monuments in Scotland. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 202-13.
- Jones, A.M. 2005. Between a rock and a hard place: rock art and mimesis in Neolithic and Bronze Age Scotland. In V. Cummings and A. Pannett (eds) Set in Stone: New approaches to Neolithic Monuments in Scotland. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 107-17.
- Jones, A.M. 2006. Animated images: images, agency and landscape in Kilmartin Argyll, Scotland. Journal of Material Culture 11: 211-25.
- Jones, A.M. 2007. Memory and Material Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Jones, A.M., Freedman, D., O’Connor, B., Lamdin-Whymark, H., Tipping, R. and Watson, A. 2011. An Animate Landscape: Rock art and the prehistory of Kilmartin, Argyll, Scotland. Oxford: Windgather Press.
- Morris, R.W.B. 1979. The Prehistoric Rock Art of Galloway and the Isle of Man. Poole: Blandford Press.
- Valdez-Tullett, J. 2019. Design and Connectivity: The case of Atlantic rock art. BAR International Series 2932. Archaeology of Prehistoric Art 1. Oxford: BAR Publishing.