For many thousands of years humans have expressed themselves by painting, carving and engraving on rock surfaces. People have made art in deep caves and rock shelters, on exposed surfaces in the open-air, as well as on decorated small cobbles and stone slabs that could be moved from place to place. This artistic expression takes forms such as icons, signs, and symbols. In some instances the art is representational, such as the multi-coloured painted eland from the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg mountains (South Africa). In others it is abstract, such as in the cup and ring carvings found in Northumberland and elsewhere in Britain.
The making and the subsequent use of images on rocks would have been rooted in the economic, social, ritual, and intellectual circumstances of the groups that made them. These factors would have influenced the types of images that people made and the frequency with which they made them. Rock art was not made continuously by societies, but appears and disappears through time and, in some places, does not seem to have been produced at all. Increasingly archaeologists are appreciating that rock art can provide important insights into the lives of those who made it – who they were, when they lived and, especially, what they thought (which is difficult to access from other forms of archaeological evidence).
Source: Beckensall archive
Rock art has been found on every continent in the world except for Greenland. In Britain, concentrations of rock art are known in Northern England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and the Isle of Man.
Rock art is found in many types of landscapes from high mountains to the coast, and from deserts to fertile areas with high rainfall. In Britain, it tends to be located in elevated, marginal positions in the landscape, often with extensive views, overlooking valleys, lakes, or the sea. Some carvings are part of prehistoric monuments such as burial cairns and stone circles.
There are an estimated 400,000 rock art sites throughout the world. The total number of individual images is likely to be in the tens of millions but no precise numbers are available. In Britain and Ireland we know of around 6,000 rock art panels; a quarter of which are in Northumberland and County Durham in North East England.
It is difficult to know when the first rock art was made. The earliest known example may be cup marks and a meandering line in a cave in India believed to be about 200,000 years ago fund. Following this, eight pieces of engraved ochre were recovered from cave deposits in South Africa dated to about 80,000 years ago. Ochre ‘crayons’ are known from Australia from about 55,000 years ago. The earliest dated paintings are from around 35,000 years ago in France. Thereafter, there is an increasing amount of rock art in different parts of the world, including engravings from caves in Britain which are just over 10,000 years old.
In terms of cup and rings rock carvings in Britain, it was once thought that these were made during the Early Bronze Age, which dates to between 4000 and 3500 years ago. We now know that they were first made by Neolithic people probably sometime between 6000 and 5000 years ago. An indication that carvings were done before the Early Bronze Age derives from the fact that some of the carvings on the cist burial slabs recovered from Early Bronze Age cairns showed signs of erosion, suggesting that they had already been exposed for many years before being incorporated into burials. The last phase of cup and ring carvings belongs to the Early Bronze Age (4000 - 3800 years ago) when the carving tradition was associated with burial.
The process of cup and ring making has been clearly described by Stan Beckensall (2001: 13) in his book Prehistoric Rock Art in Northumberland:
‘Where rock art has been recently uncovered or has resisted erosion particularly well, individual pick marks that produce cups and rings are visible, especially in low light. The size of the ‘picking’ or ‘pecking’ shows that a variety of tools was used, some with a fine nail-like point and others with a broad chisel, with other varieties in between. The basic requirement is that the pick should be made of a rock harder than the surface being decorated, such as whinstone or andesite. Although it is possible to use a sharp pointed piece of andesite held in the hand, it is more likely that a mallet was used to impact the tool against the rock.’
The majority of carvings in Britain were made on sandstone.
There is no clear answer about why the cups and rings were made and what they mean. This is an area which people are still thinking about, but some ideas have been proposed. Some of these ideas relate to the relationship between people and the landscape with the suggestion that the carvings define territories or act as route markers. Another possibility is that these are sacred or religious places perhaps used to indicate the links between the present and the past, the dead and the living, or between real and spiritual worlds. It is also possible that the rock art signified the changing relationship between people and the landscape as their way of life changed from that of hunting and gathering (i.e. Mesolithic) to farming (i.e. Neolithic). These are all intriguing possibilities; however, there is still much research that is required to give us a deeper understanding of why the carvings were made and what they mean.
There are several museums in the North of England which display rock art. The Great North Museum in Newcastle houses a dedicated rock art display. In other museums there are carved rocks on show, including Fulling Mill and The Bowes Museum (County Durham); Tullie House Museum, Penrith Museum, Senhouse Museum, and Dean Church (Cumbria); Alnwick Castle Museum and Chillingham Castle Museum (Northumberland); Yorkshire Museum, Weston Park Museum, Manor House Museum, St Mary's Church, Whitby Museum; and, Arbeia Roman Fort & Museum (Tyne & Wear).
Rock art is a vulnerable heritage resource which needs to be treated with respect and care. It is for this reason that the Northumberland and Durham Rock Art Project (NADRAP) developed a Rock Art Code to guide people on how to behave at places with rock art. We ask that you please observe this code when visiting rock art.