What is Rock Art?

The term ‘rock art’ is used to describe prehistoric markings on stone surfaces. Rock art is found around the world and may be painted, engraved, incised, or ‘pecked’ onto outcrops, boulders or megaliths. Whilst songs, stories, dances, and gestures are unrecoverable, these enduring residues of ancient cultures demonstrate the spiritual abundance of our oldest ancestors and provide direct evidence of their presence in the landscape. 

In Northern Britain, rock art consists of pecked abstract motifs commonly known as ‘cup and ring marks’.  These curious marks vary from simple, circular hollows known as ‘cups’ to more complex patterns with cups, rings, and intertwining grooves. Around 6000 examples, known as ‘panels’ have been documented. Many are in spectacular, elevated locations with extensive views, sometimes overlooking fertile valleys, natural harbours, or lakes, and others are found on monuments such as standing stones and stone circles, or within burial mounds. The carvings were made by Neolithic and Early Bronze Age people between 3500 and 6000 years ago. The original meaning of the symbols is now lost but they provide a unique personal link with our prehistoric ancestors.

The Idol Stone, amongst the heather on Ilkley Moor. Image credit: Richard Stroud

 If you would like to find out more about rock art in Britain, the following references are recommended:

British rock art – general
Barnett, T. & Sharpe, K. (eds) Carving a Future for British Rock Art. Oxbow: Oxford.
Beckensall, S. 1999. British Prehistoric Rock Art. Tempus: Stroud.
Beckensall, S. 2006. Circles in Stone. A British Prehistoric Mystery. Tempus: Stroud.
Bradley, R. 1997. Rock art and the prehistory of Atlantic Europe: signing the land. London: Routledge.
Mazel, A. Nash, G. & Waddington, C. 2007. Art as Metaphor. The Prehistoric Rock-art of Britain. Archaeopress: Oxford.
Shee Twohig, E. 1981. The Megalithic Art of Western Europe. Oxford: Clarendon
Simpson, J. Y. 1867. Archaic Sculpturings of cups, circles and c. upon stone and rocks in Scotland, England and other countries. Edinburgh.

British rock art – regional
Beckensall, S. 2001. Prehistoric Rock Art in Northumberland. Tempus: Stroud. 
Beckensall, S. 2002. Prehistoric Rock Art in Cumbria. Tempus: Stroud.
Beckensall, S. 2005. The Prehistoric Rock Art of Kilmartin. Kilmartin Trust: Kilmartin.
Beckensall, S. &  Laurie, T. 1998. Prehistoric Rock Art of County Durham, Swaledale and Wensleydale. Durham County Books: Durham.
Brown, P. & Chappell, G. 2005. Prehistoric Rock Art in the North York Moors. Stroud: Tempus.
Brown, P. & Brown, B. 2008. Prehistoric Rock Art in the Northern Dales. The History Press Ltd: Stroud.
Morris, R. W. B. 1979. The Prehistoric Rock Art of Galloway & The Isle of Man Poole: Blandford Press.
O’Kelly, M J. 1982. Newgrange: Archaeology, Art and Legend. London: Thames and Hudson.
Walker A. & Smith, B. 2008. Rock Art and Ritual. The History Press Ltd: Stroud.

West Yorkshire
Boughey, K. J. S. & Vickerman, E. A. 2003. Prehistoric rock art of the West Riding. Cup-and-ring marked rocks of the valleys of the Aire, Wharfe, Washburn and Nidd.  West Yorkshire Archaeology Services; Leeds.
Cowling, E. T. (1946) Rombald’s Way. A Prehistory of Mid-Wharfedale, Otley: William Walker.
Ilkley Archaeology Group (1986), Hedges. J.(ed.) The Carved Rocks on Rombalds Moor, Wakefield: West Yorkshire Archaeology Service.


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