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Kilmartin Glen Rock Art

23 Jul

Kilmartin Glen is name familiar to many archaeologists; it is described as Scotland’s richest prehistoric landscape. But what is there to see? I spent two days walking and driving about the glen, exploring the prehistory. This will be the first of several posts exploring the different types of archaeology to be found there – let’s start with rock art.

Rock art at Achnabreck

One of the panels of rock art at Achnabreck

There is an incredible concentration of Neolithic and Bronze Age rock carvings in and around Kilmartin Glen. At the southern end of the valley is the site of Achnabreck (more photos here), where there are four large panels of spectacular rock art. Although sited amongst trees today, these were clearly positioned to overlook the valley which today runs down to the town of Lochgilphead. The most common motifs are cups, surrounded by up to seven rings, but there are also zig-zags, lines and an unusual horned spiral.

Close up of rock art rings at Achnabreck

Detail of rock art symbol at Achnabreck

Overview of the rock art outcrop at Achnabreck

Overview of the Achnabreck outcrop

This is perhaps the most spectacular rock art in Kilmartin, but there are other earthfast panels at Baluachraig, Kilmichael and Ormaig, where the relatively recently exposed rock art is clear and unweathered. It is difficult to date this type of rock art carved onto earthfast natural rocks in the landscape, but simple cup marks have been used since at least 4,000 BC in Scotland. We don’t know what the symbols mean, but the carvings often appear to have been located in places overlooking lower ground, marking routeways or special places in the landscape.

Rock art also occurs on several of the standing stones in Kilmartin Glen. Two of the stones at Ballymeanoch are carved with cup marks and some simple rings. The position of this decoration, on opposing sides of the two central stones in a row of four, makes me think it was some kind of entrance facade. The rock carvings would always have been on the left side whichever direction you were walking through the central gap.

One of the standing stones at Ballymeanoch

Rock art on one of the standing stones at Ballymeanoch

Three of the standing stones at Nether Largie also have similar rock art. We don’t know if these rocks were decorated as earthfast boulders or after their erection as standing stones. At Temple Wood, one of the standing stones has an unusual spiral carving, which later appears to have been extended when an outer bank was added to the stone circle.

The spiral carving at Temple wood stone circle

The spiral carving at Temple Wood stone circle

Lastly, rock art is also found within cairns, usually on the inside faces of burial cists.  Again, these carved stones might have previously been earthfast or standing before being incorporated into these Bronze Age monuments. Sometimes it appears that older cup marks were overlain with more elaborate later symbols. This certainly appears to be the case at Nether Largie North cairn, where the cist cover has metal axe carvings, overlain on cup marks. The position of these carvings, facing inwards towards the dead person, perhaps suggests some association with understanding the afterlife at this time.

Bronze Age axe carving at Ri Cruin cairn

Bronze Age axe carving at Ri Cruin cairn

Three of the cairns at Kilmartin (Nether Largie North, Nether Largie South and Ri Cruin), all part of a linear cemetery along the vallery floor, have carvings depicting metal axes. Like the carvings of metal axes at Stonehenge, they show the impact of, and importance attached to, the new technique of metalworking technology. Were the people buried in these cists involved in metal trading? Or were the new metal objects seen as magical? Certainly the metal axes demonstrate the wide ranging connections of Bronze Age people in this area – tin would have been brought from Cornwall and copper from Ireland to make these objects.

Other more unusual carvings include a strange linear carving interpreted as a boat or some sort of ceremonial mace at Ri Cruin (now destroyed) and a cist slab from Badden, near Lochgilphead, with lozenges similar to Irish passage grave art (now in Kelvingrove Museum).

We can’t leave this brief overview of rock art in Kilmartin within mentioning the famous outcrop at Dunadd (more info on excavations at this site here). Rising out of the flat drained peatland of Moine Mhor at the southern end of the valley, this place has a magical feel to it. Used as a fort between the 6th and 10th centuries AD, there are still some walls remaining, and also enigmatic rock carvings – a bowl, a boar, some ogham writing and a footprint, thought to have been used in early inauguration ceremonies for Scottish kings.

Rock carvings at Dunadd

The famous footprint at Dunadd fort

One can’t help but think that this outcrop must have been important in earlier periods too. Maybe these early Christians, the historic Scotti, were a little bit inspired by their prehistoric surroundings.

Next time: Kilmartin Glen’s standing stones.

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