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Exploring Northumberland's Rock Art

by Teri Foster Gray

Northumberland Rock ArtWe climb a sheep-dotted hillside, past bluebells and dandelions, our destination a gray boulder indistinguishable at a distance from the dozen or so others in view. A closer inspection, however, reveals why this rock is worth a 3000 mile journey, plus a stiff walk up the hill. On it, carved half an inch or so deep, is a cup-like hole, surrounded by a series of concentric rings, carved, it is believed, between 5000 and 7000 years ago by members of a Mesolithic hunter-gatherer culture, or perhaps early Neolithic farmers.

"We don't know for certain. We can only date these carvings by looking at the context in which they occur and comparing them to other known sites." Tertia Barnett is coordinator for the Northumberland and Durham Rock Art Project, funded by a two-year grant from English Heritage.

Although Rock Art has been a part of the English landscape for nearly as long as England has been inhabited, and the first specimens were collected nearly two centuries ago by archaeologists under the patronage of Algernon, 4th Duke of Northumbria, it has only attracted serious academic attention within the last 30 years. Unlike the higher profile henges and burial markers, these carvings literally blend into the landscape. (One piece was found underneath when a farmer moved the winter feeding station for his cattle.)

"Everyone working on the project," which includes 80 volunteers from local communities, "has their own theory -- religious symbols, territorial markings, burial markers, Ley lines, trail markers," says Tertia. "Carvings have been found in locations that could allow us to use any of these interpretations, and many more." Fifty of the volunteers have been trained in field recording and survey techniques; the remainder work at data entry and other, more sedentary, tasks.

The carvings extend from the south Durham area through Northumberland and Cumbria, into Scotland and as far west as the Isle of Man. They occur at elevations where the local gray sandstone appears as outcrops. Northumberland is the best-documented region, due in great part to the efforts of Dr. Stan Beckensall, an expert in prehistoric rock art.

Northumberland Rock Art

In December of 2002, Mr. Beckinsall donated his collection of photographs and documentation of more than 600 sites to the Museum of Antiquities at Newcastle University, so that they could be posted to the Internet and everyone could learn about British Rock Art. So far they have succeeded brilliantly. The resulting site received 2 million hits in its first week. The Project's first goal was to identify and catalog these sites and create the website. Future projects will build on this one. As the database grows, it will become possible to compare the design grammar of various sites and try to determine the relationships among them. It will also be possible to work out the relationship of the carved rocks to the natural landscape and to other archaeological features.

Tertia leads us over the hilltop to the concentric ruins of an Iron Age fort that overlooks miles of northwest-facing valley. Two RAF fighter jets thunder overhead -- fitting, in a strange way -- as cutting-edge technology now may find answers to the questions, "Who made them?" and "For what purpose?" "The Mesolithic is really a very fascinating period, and one that we only recently have begun to pay attention to. The remains are very subtle and easily destroyed. It's only recently, due to modern technology, that we have we been able to pick up data from the Mesolithic and begun to realize that it's such an important time." Make no mistake -- viewing rock art is not for the couch potato. Stone is the most common building material in this part of England and the more easily accessible specimens disappeared long ago into fences, houses, churches, castles, and outbuildings. Most sites are on private land and a pre-visit phone call to the farmer is expected. (And, no, he is not expected to show you about.) Other essential equipment includes an Ordnance Map, GPS device, and footwear compatible with mud. Prehistoric Rock Art is not tourist-friendly.

Northumberland Rock ArtThe Project hopes to change that when it teams with the Beckinsall Archive to post photos drawings and access information (including farmers' phone numbers) on the Web. In addition, by the end of the grant's term in September 2006, Tertia hopes to determine the two or three best sites for public viewing, clear trails, and create flyers for distribution at local Tourist Information Centers. "Best" will be determined by a combination of factors including land ownership, proximity to established hiking trails, and the quality of the site. "We don't plan to have buildings with car parks and dioramas. We want to keep the art within its context as part of the landscape," says Tertia. The next phase of the project will bring the carvings within the reach of even the most house-bound. Laser scanning, remote sensing, and photogrammetry will provide 3-dimensional recordings of selected sites that will be publicly accessible on the Web. "You will be able to turn them round, zoom in, and change the direction of the lighting," using existing computer technology. In addition, exhibits are planned for the Newcastle Museum of Antiquities within two years.

Currently, the site allows you to search by panel type, location, map, art motif, and wheelchair accessibility, among other criteria. The Location search includes both those on-site and those collected in museums with full descriptions, photographs, and access information, including GPS coordinates and, where necessary, the phone number of the landowner. For an example of the completeness of this information, click on the link to the Hare Law Crags, below.

Back on the hilltop, Tertia leads us to a flat rock surface in the center of the fort. She points out several sets of cup-and-ring design with serpentine lines emanating from them. Others have several short rays, like a child's depiction of the sun. Some of them have been incised with straight lines, in theory drawn centuries later -- this revealed by their relative crispness and lack of erosion. These designs, along with spirals, are the most common rock art patterns. Was the hill fort placed here because of the carvings, or in spite of them? Did the new residents carve the straight lines in an effort to deface the originals, perhaps in order to destroy their magic, or to indicate that this land no longer belonged to those who had marked it as theirs? Was there a change over the time the hill fort was occupied, and symbols originally perceived as powerful and desirable became regarded as evil? No one knows.

Northumberland Rock Art

"The transition between Mesolithic hunter-gatherers and Neolithic farming is a fascinating time, and one which we have only begun to study," says Tertia. "The Mesolithic people initially moved northward as the Ice Age glaciers receded. Recent finds demonstrate that they were more sophisticated than previously imagined." Although they did not farm, they built stone houses, with beaten earth or occasionally irregular flagstone floors, the oldest in Britain dating to 8000 BCE. Artifacts, such as flint arrowheads and spear points reveal craftsmanship beyond the level of utility and entering the realm of art. The shift from Meso- to Neolithic culture is considered to have begun approximately 5000 BCE. "Actually, the boundary between the Mesolithic and Neolithic is not well-defined," says Tertia. Evidence shows that the move to farming came earlier in the South and worked its way northward, but its impetus is not clear. Did the deer become over-hunted? Were natural food sources, fruits and the like, over-harvested? Did the successful Mesolithic lifestyle carry the seeds of its own destruction in the form of overpopulation, or did the farmers and herdsmen migrate from elsewhere, pushing the older culture back as they cut the forests for farmland and grazing? (Incredibly, sheep are not native to Britain.)

Part of the impetus may have been the acceptance of the concept of private property, which underlies agriculture (as opposed to gathering) and animal husbandry (as opposed to hunting.) In addition, as metalworking skills developed, the use of stone as an artistic medium declined in favor of the more portable -- and tradable -- metal goods. During the later portion of the Mesolithic, one also sees the beginning of trading networks and social hierarchies based upon wealth and power. "By the Iron Age [ca. 800 BCE onward] people were very much into shiny, glittering objects," according to Tertia. "We also see an emphasis on ritual that the earlier periods seem to have lacked." She leads us down the hillside, toward Scotland. The Cheviots stand sentinel in the distance. We descend the slope, angling downward toward an outcropping protruding from the hillside. Another flat surface lies beneath the outcrop, sheltered from wind and rain, and entirely covered in spirals. She points to faint staining at the base of the outcrop. "There may have been a spring here, and we know that springs were worshiped in early cultures. If water seeped across this rock, the carvings would have channeled it into spirals." Is this the roots of religion? Magic? A good scientist, she replies, "We don't know."

At this date, that is the definitive answer to most questions regarding the Mesolithic in general and Rock Art in particular. As more data accumulates and the carvings are analyzed, they will become part of a great archaeological jigsaw puzzle that may provide a window into the deepest roots of British civilization.

Northumberland Rock Art

More Information:

Northumberland Rock Art Site

Hare Law Crags

Rock Art on Mobile Phones
A site designed to enable people to access information about the rock art on mobile phones while visiting the actual sites.

Stone Pages
A great site for everything to do with stones, prehistory and archaeology; they also have an excellent weekly newsletter on archaeological discoveries.

Teri Foster Gray lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and Labrador Retriever. A mild-mannered banker by day, she writes novels and travels whenever possible. Her journeys have included two years in Hawaii, six months in Europe, and the British visit that resulted in this piece. She has recently completed a novel, The Shadow Empire.
Article © 2006 Teri Foster Gray
Top and bottom photos by Tertia Barnett; all other photos by Teri Foster Gray


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