Ancient Britons left trail of secret Picassos of Stone Age left

IT IS a visual language lost to us. Are they boundary signs? Are they religious warnings? Are they maps?

The intriguing abstract shapes of Britain's prehistoric rock art - rings and hollows, zigzags and arcs - are indecipherable now, and largely unknown to the public.

The Stone Age people who carved the designs on sandstone slabs and granite boulders left a large number of them across the country, with about 2,500 sites currently known.

And now a major effort is under way to catalogue the drawings, find more of them and learn how to conserve them. It is hoped also to bring them to the public's attention.

Britain cannot boast the wonderful prehistoric cavepaintings of wild animals found at Lascaux and other sites in southern France and Spain. We have but a few representations of animals, such as the goats or deer carved on the face of what was an ancient rock shelter at Goat's Crag in north Northumberland.

But we do have an extraordinary amount of mysterious, carved and scratched abstract shapes that would not look out of place in a late-period Picasso, and which clearly once held an important meaning.

"This stuff was created between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago by the first farming communities in Britain, and as far as we can see we've got something quite remarkable," said Professor Tim Darvill, head of archaeology at Bournemouth University.

"These are the people who built Stonehenge and Avebury - they also signposted their landscape in subtle ways by engraving symbols and images on to rocks."

With his colleague Professor Peter Ucko from London University's Institute of Archaeology, Professor Darvill is leading a research project funded by English Heritage, which will eventually produce a catalogue raisonne of all Britain's rock art.

It will take a long time, perhaps five years, and be expensive - even the six-month pilot study, now under way, to explore what techniques to use will cost pounds 80,000.

But the eventual objective is to create a gazetteer of every design, which will be put on CD-rom and made available to universities, schools, and the public. It is also hoped that computer analysis will allow the meaning of the designs to be understood.

There are about 30 abstract motifs commonly used, the most widely seen being the "cupmark", a teacup-shaped hollow between two and three inches across that is "pecked" - chipped with another stone - into the rock.

Cupmarks may have been used to trap water, and could have represented the sun, moon or stars. The next most common design is the "ring-mark", a spiral set of lines. Between them, these two motifs appear in 70 per cent of designs.

The rest are zigzags and chevron patterns, which some archaeologists think may be representations of a human trance.

"They come in different combinations and there seems to be a `grammar' in the way they've been used," Professor Darvill said. "We will analyse them on computer like you would an early script. My guess is that we will find a patterning, and I hope we get close to an understanding."

His own view is that the motifs are saying something about the landscapes in which they occur. "They seem to be about marking the landscape, perhaps marking ownership, perhaps to mark what kind of things you're coming to.

"Perhaps they tell you what's going on in a valley - if it was a secret valley, a burial area. Maybe you're going into a grazing area, as if they were signposts to what's going on, `Camp here!' That sort of thing."

Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
peoplePamela Anderson rejects ice bucket challenge because of ALS experiments on animals
Arts and Entertainment
tvExecutive says content is not 'without any purpose'
A cleaner prepares the red carpet for the opening night during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival May 17, 2006 in Cannes, France.
newsPowerful vacuum cleaners to be banned under EU regulations
newsChester Zoo have revealed their newest members
sportLeague Managers' Association had described Malky Mackay texts as 'friendly banter'
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
tvSpielberg involved in bringing his 2002 film to the small screen
peopleCareer spanned 70 years, including work with Holocaust survivors
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Data Insight Manager

£40000 - £43000 Per Annum plus company bonus: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Hydrographic Survey Manager

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Structural Engineer

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Structural Engineer Job...

Commercial Litigation

Highly Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: CHELTENHAM - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - A...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape