Scotland's Rock Art Project

Meeting date

Dr Joana Valdez-Tullet, Historic Environment Scotland

Meeting report

Joana began her talk by saying that the Scottish Rock Art Project (ScRAP) is a five-year project to enhance our understanding and knowledge of Scotland’s rock art. It is run by a team of four, of whom two work full-time. They are assisted by several partners including The University of Edinburgh, Kilmartin Museum, local authorities and teams of volunteers and are funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Rock art at Grange, Kirkcudbright
Rock art at Grange, Kirkcudbright

Joana went on to explain that rock art is found all over the world, with the oldest dating back to Neanderthal times. Many people will be familiar with the figurative form which shows animals, but a lot is abstract and consists of geometric shapes. This is where the rock art of Scotland with its carved circles and cup-and-ring marks can be placed, but this form is more difficult to understand. It may not only have been carved, it may also have been painted, but the paint has long since been lost. It is between 6000–4000 years old, dating to the Neolithic and early Bronze Age. Dating is difficult as the remains have been exposed to the elements for millennia and are consequently weathered and eroded. Experts rely on the type of motif, the carving technique and what other monuments in the vicinity to date the art. However, this is not wholly reliable as earlier carvings are sometimes incorporated into more recent monuments and motifs are carved onto older monuments long after the latter’s construction!

Historians first became aware of rock art during the early nineteenth century, but they were less interested in the environment that it was found in, and more concerned with its meaning. The Canmore databases hosted on the Historic Environment Scotland website holds records for many panels, but not all. The locally held Historic Environment Records hold further records, as do other local organisations. All these are gradually being transferred to Canmore.

Joana described how Scottish rock art forms a third of that known about in Britain and Ireland and is part of the wider Atlantic Rock Art grouping, all showing similar motifs. Little is known about who made the carvings or why, they are understudied and undervalued. There are various reasons for this, the panels are often in remote areas so are hard to get to, covered in moss or buried in the ground so hard to find, and the marks are often hard to see.

Various theories are put forward as to their purpose, from maps of the stars to marking places for rituals to the less likely such as messages from outer space and images of cow pats! One problem with their interpretation arises from their simplicity, and it is likely that one shape has several meanings. At Kilmartin in Argyll it seems that the art has a relationship to the landscape. Excavations have suggested that the art was not carved and then left, but that it was connected to the life of the community.

Rock art at Drumtroddan, Port William
Rock art at Drumtroddan, Port William

The study of rock art is hampered by a variety of factors: there are few regions where it has been fully studied so there is no detailed dataset; records are not all in one place, e.g. Canmore; some records have images, others do not; grid references are not all accurate and not all records give information about all the features.

The Scottish Rock Art Project intends to build a better understanding by using the same methodology to improve the records, raising public awareness and protecting the rock art from development. They hope to do this with the help of local communities and by establishing teams of volunteers. Their research has three themes, to look at the relationship of the art to the land, asking why that location was chosen, how does it relate to other monuments, and what vegetation existed at the time; to look at the re-use of the carvings and to ask how we use and value rock art today. The project will train ten community teams who will visit the sites, fill in gaps in the records and create a consistent digital record. The recording form is detailed, and the teams will also use GPS, photography and photogrammetry techniques. The latter will lead to the creation of 3D models which often show up more than can be seen on the original artefact. The finished database will be available to all, academics as well as non-specialists, and the team hopes that it will encourage communities to place greater value on their rock art and perhaps inspire a creative response such as new forms of interpretation and trails.