Wyman goes wild for ancient stones

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THE IRONY was irresistible. In Northumberland Bill Wyman, the former Rolling Stone, was becoming excited about prehistoric stones, and an hour away the fossilised set he is more commonly associated with were preparing for their latest reincarnation.

The Stones chose Edinburgh to launch a brief UK tour a year after they scrapped the British leg of a world tour, claiming tax reforms would lumber them with a pounds 12m bill.

Though venerable, with the baby of the group, Ronnie Wood, now 51, the Stones could not compete yesterday with the objects of Mr Wyman's interest. Fossils of the 5,000-year-old variety were the main focus as he launched English Heritage's first national survey into prehistoric rock art at Lordenshaws in the Northumberland National Park.

"This is an amalgamation of two of my great passions - archaeology and art," he said. And Northumberland is the place for prehistoric rock art, the oldest surviving form of artistic expression, says English Heritage. You will find the art, among other places, on the high land that links Northumberland's coastal plain to the Cheviot hills.

Here, on routes used to herd animals and hunt deer, the more creative Middle Stone Age man carved intricate motifs in the soft sandstone of the fells, working only in the abstract. Some images were simple, hollowed "cups" in the rock. Others were more complex, their linear grooves joining up more elaborate designs and meticulous concentric circles. Some panels of engraved stone would even be painstakingly removed from the outcrop and reused as part of burial mounds or ritual monuments.

Archaeologists believe many examples of the work are as yet undiscovered. Other finds have been in Co Durham, Derbyshire and Scotland.

"The carvings are extremely vulnerable," said Henry Owen-John of English Heritage yesterday. "Natural and visitor erosion, agriculture and quarrying are all contributing to the loss of rock art. We want to know more about why prehistoric people carved on to the rocks, what the motifs mean and we need to establish where others may exist. Not enough is known, yet this work is a priceless national asset."

For followers of better- known rock fossils, the Stones will be playing Sheffield, then Wembley Stadium. Bill Wyman and his Rhythm Kings were playing Carlisle last night.

Keith Richards profile, Weekend Review, page 5