Britain's first works of art really rock

You don't need to go all the way to Australia to see stunning examples of rock art. Mark Rowe found plenty to explore right here in our own back yard

Sunday 23 October 2011 03:06

It has been described as a Palaeolithic condominium, with all the mod cons that were required 13,500 years ago – running water, abundant food, shelter, warmth, and, to cap it all, an artist in residence.

The discovery of cave art at Creswell Crags in 2003 caused a sensation, revolutionising archaeologists' views on the spread of early man. The figures include a stag, a bison and an ibis carved in bas- relief, a panel either of women, or of birds stretching their beaks towards the sun, and a series of triangular figures, generally interpreted as fertility symbols.

A museum has now opened at the limestone gorge, honeycombed with caves and smaller fissures. Visitors can see how Creswell, on the border between Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, evolved from the gorge's creation 260 million years ago to the last Ice Age and to the first Victorians to start its exploration.

You'll find most of the drawings within five metres of the opening to the Church Hole cave. Informed guides explain the work and allow you to examine it at close quarters. Groups fall silent at this time: gazing at the images, you can almost see the artists brought to life. The art appears to be more decorative, but what was the preoccupation the day they were drawn? Fending off a scavenging spotted hyena? Or were they simply classy artists showing off? The work is believed to be 13,500 years old but the site was occupied long before that – Neanderthals settled here between 60,000 and 40,000 years ago, and left behind tools made from quartzite and flint.

"Creswell was a Palaeolithic condo," said Paul Bahn, an archaeologist involved in the discovery of the drawings. "It had running water and plenty of game to hunt. The new museum is the place in Britain to learn about the Ice Age.

"Some cave art is clearly decoration, with very talented artists expressing themselves in different ways," said Dr Bahn. "A lot of them involve passing on information, telling stories, perhaps creation myths."

Creswell is the only known example of cave art in the UK, but rock art, perhaps unexpectedly, is extremely common. It's generally associated with Aboriginal culture in Australia but the British Isles have thousands of examples of rock art. Most of it is found in the north of England, Scotland and Ireland, partly because of the underlying geology: rock art in England tends to be found on sedimentary rocks – the Millstone Grits of Yorkshire and the Fell Sandstone of Northumberland, though it can be found on granite in Cumbria.

Old Bewick

Northumbria is the capital of rock art in the UK, with more than 1,000 carved panels identified in the county. The stone patterns of Old Bewick comprise two major boulders and other stones. Carvings etched into the weathered stone reveal a delicate pair of cups with multiple rings that form an almost interlocked figure of eight, a pattern found nowhere else in the country. First identified in the 1820s, the stones enjoy an atmospheric setting on Bewick Moor, beside the scarp slope overlooking the River Till, above the village of Old Bewick. The stones are not signposted from the village but directions can be found at http://myweb. Northumberland/old_bewick.htm.

Archaeologists have dated the stones to between 3,500BC and 2,000BC but are divided on their meaning. Perhaps they were maps of ancient settlements, or the cups may have represented the Sun while the wavy lines were an attempt to outline the Milky Way; other experts reckon they may have simply been the work of a talented and imaginative artist, skilfully using rock as his or her medium.

Roughting Linn

Around eight miles north of Old Bewick is Roughting Linn, considered to be the main rock art site of northern England. Named after a waterfall, this domed sandstone ridge is the largest decorated rock in the region and the motifs include horseshoe forms and concentric arcs. The site is around eight miles north of Old Bewick. Again, good directions can be found at celynog/Northumberland/roughting _linn.htm.

Long Meg standing stone, Cumbria

The red sandstone monolith known as Long Meg stands with a circle of standing stones, and features cup and ring marks, a spiral and concentric rings. Located near Penrith, its provenance is uncertain but it is thought to have been named in the 17th-century for a local witch.

Fylingdales Moor, North Yorkshire cup-marked boulder

Around 200 rock art panels can be found on Fylingdales Moor, up to 80 of which were revealed after a fire in 2003 burnt away heather over a wide area. The fire uncovered a 5,000-year-old Neolithic stone featuring a geometric or zigzag pattern that may reflect a map with mountains and sky.

Ilkley Moor

Doodles by an early Bronze Age shepherd, or examples of sun worship? Nobody can say with certainty what the complicated cup-ring patterns of Ilkley Moor signify. Before exploring the moor visit Ilkley Museum which has some examples of rock art and where you can find instructions on finding the stones.


Two key rock art sites can be found on Anglesey. The first is Barclodiad y Gawres, located on the Anglesey Coastal Path at Porth Trecastell cove on the west coast. It involves a series of highly decorated stones with abstract designs including spirals, lozenges and zigzags. The site is open to the public at weekends but you need to obtain a key from Wayside Stores in Llanfaelog, one mile north of the chamber.

The second site, Bryn Celli Ddu, features a Neolithic passage grave with an upright stone carved on two sides and on top with zigzag and spiral lines. The carving is a high-quality replica; the original is in the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff. Both sites have interpretation boards.

For more information visit: .uk/era/; and

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