Prehistoric Art Reveals Skills of Britain’s Cave Dwellers

January 15, 2005
By Ian Herbert North of England. Correspondent
UK Independent

One of the world’s finest prehistoric “art galleries” has yielded more than 250 new works, underlining the extraordinary creativity of the cave artists.

The historic works, hacked out of rock on moorland settlements near the Scottish border in Northumberland, were unearthed during a 30-month search by archaeologists.

The experts are still grappling with the origins and meaning of these abstract carvings, believed to be the work of Neolithic and Early Bronze Age people between 3,500 and 6,000 years ago, although theories abound. One says they are symbolic expressions of the changing relationship Neolithic people had with the landscape and past societies. Another suggests the carvings fulfilled a human need to mark their landscape.

Like all UK rock art, most Northumberland specimens are in the “cup and ring” style, typically featuring cups and circles of various sizes, though a relatively recent 300-year-old carving of a face, heart and foot has proved more baffling. The British Museum and English Heritage have been drafted in to the quest to explain the carving.

Among the latest discoveries made by the archaeologists from Newcastle University is a collection at Goatstones, near Wark, Northumberland, where 14 carved stones were found.

Elsewhere, a farmer showed the team seven panels on his land, which had not been previously recorded. The archaeologists have compiled a website database of 6,000 images. The website ( also includes old favourites such as the country’s largest collection in one place at Roughting Linn. Inspiration for the project came from Northumberland rock-art specialist Stan Beckensall, who donated his archive of books, photographs, drawings and rubbings to Newcastle University.

Project leader Aron Mazel, of the university, said: “The Beckensall archive gave this project a head start but we’ve also been very excited to find new specimens of this very special art. There are likely to be more carved stones under the undergrowth so we’re sure this is not the end of the story.”

One group of carvings, at Ketley Crag on the edge of Alnwick, was “discovered” by cattle that chose the same half-cave to shelter in as the rock artists had 4,000 years ago. It is among a handful to escape destruction by erosion or quarrying.