Case Study 40: The Cochno Stone: the contemporary archaeology of rock-art

Kenny Brophy

Is there value in studying the modern history and contemporary meaning of carved stones? The example of the Cochno Stone, in Faifley, West Dunbartonshire, demonstrates that there is, with the study of the complex modern biography of this prehistoric monument opening up opportunities for meaningful public engagement and adding depth to our understanding of this site.

A black and white photo of two young men sitting on a large flat stone. Cup and ring marks and other motifs have been highlighted on the stone using paint.

Figure 1: Two young men sitting on the Cochno Stone before its burial in 1965. Ludovic Mann’s paintjob is very clear. © West Dunbartonshire Council

The Cochno Stone is one of the most extensive Neolithic rock-art sites in Britain, a domed gritstone outcrop with over 100 cupmarks and cup-and-rings marks spread across an area almost 100 square metres. It is one of over a dozen rock-art sites in the area, but by far the most extensive. This prehistoric resource is worthy of study, but the Cochno Stone’s periurban location offers another opportunity. Since 2015, I have been researching and working with the local community to understand the changing meanings and use of the Cochno Stone from rediscovery by antiquarians in the late 19th century until the present day, the contemporary archaeology of prehistoric rock-art.

The Cochno Stone was first identified and recorded in the latter years of the 19th century by James Harvey, John Bruce and William Donnelly. The site became something of a tourist attraction after Ludovic McLellan Mann painted the surface of the stone with oil paints in 1937. The prehistoric symbols (and natural marks) were painted white and green, and Mann covered the stone with an elaborate yellow, blue and red grid based on megalithic measurements and cosmological tales of his own devising. This led to the site being scheduled — given legal protection — immediately. However, as more and more visitors came to the site, and urbanisation brought big populations to the area, so the Cochno Stone became an increasing focus for new markings – graffiti – with names, initials and dates scraped onto the surface of the stone. After decades of trying to manage the site, finally it was decided to bury the stone for its protection without any consultation or warning in Spring 1965 on the order of the Ancient Monuments Board.

A colour photo of a close up of a persons name carved into a flat stone with a colour photography scale alongside it

Figure 2: Historic graffiti on the surface of the Cochno Stone, recorded in 2016. © University of Glasgow

In 2016, Glasgow University, Factum Arte and the local community uncovered the Cochno Stone for ten days to allow the surface of the stone to be recorded by laser scanning and photogrammetry (excavation summary here). This event was important because it opened up a dialogue with the local community, many of whom visited the excavations and shared their memories of playing on the Cochno Stone as children. Now, we have a powerful dataset to share with local people, visitors and schools which has led to public meetings, workshops and an exhibition. School materials and even a comic book have been produced. However, local people also have a powerful dataset to share with us – oral testimonies, memories, photographs and a deep understanding of the location and nature of rock-art in the area. The contemporary archaeology and value of the Cochno Stone is as important to the community as the ancient past; as archaeologists our focus therefore needs to be on all aspects of site biographies, at Cochno and other carved stones (Brophy 2018).

A photo of a fireman with a hose, washing the surface of a large flat stone surface with other people helping to clean it

Figure 3: Cleaning the surface of the Cochno Stone during excavations in September 2016. © University of Glasgow

You can watch a video of a May 2017 lecture about the Cochno Stone here.