Dig Deeper: Rock art and symbol stones

Rock Art found at Traprain Law in 2004 ©National Museums Scotland

Rock Art found at Traprain Law in 2004 ©National Museums Scotland

Rock art is found all over the world.  Some of the oldest is found in the cave paintings of France and Spain, which are around 40,000 years old!  The oldest art found in Scotland is thought to be around 5000 years old and date to the Bronze Age.

Prehistoric rock art

Cup and ring marks are found mainly in Northern England, Scotland, Ireland, Brittany, Portugal and Galicia (North West Spain) and Mediterranean Europe (North West Italy, Thessalia Central Greece, Switzerland).   The marks are pecked into the rock surface and are often surrounded by concentric circles.  They are mostly found on natural rocks and boulders but are also found on stone circles, burial cists (stone ‘coffins’) and passage graves.  They date to Neolithic or sometimes the Bronze Age. 

Lots of suggestions as to the meaning of the symbols have been made including fertility symbols, messages, maps, boundary or route markers. There is also the belief that since most of the art is found on horizontal surfaces facing the sky the simple shapes such as cupmarks may have had astronomical significance and represented the moon, sun and stars.

Recent discoveries of rock art have been found in Ross-shire http://www.ross-shirejournal.co.uk/News/Ancient-rock-art-uncovered-in-Evanton-31012013.htm

And there also a number of sites in Kilmartin Glen http://www.historic-scotland.gov.uk/propertyresults/propertydetail.htm?PropID=PL_171


Scandinavian rock art

In Scandinavia there are two types of art – hunter’s carvings, which include pictures of animals and Bronze Age art, which includes pictures of people and boats and is thought to be related to fertility.

Rock art from Tanum, Sweden

Rock art from Tanum, Sweden

The hunter’s rock carvings are often found in places with striking natural features, such as below steep cliffs, by waterfalls etc. This was part of what led to the original hunting-magic-interpretation: supposedly the carvings were made in places where animals could easily be hunted.   The Bronze Age-sites are often found in places with farmland that could have been used for fields and grazing, and were probably quite close to the original settlements and farms.

Pictish symbol stones

Pictish stones are carved stones mostly found in Eastern Scotland north of the Forth, especially in Angus and Aberdeenshire.  They are the most visible remaining evidence of the Picts and are thought to date from the 6th to 9th centuries.  During this time the Picts adopted Christianity.  The earlier stones contain mysterious Pictish symbols, whose meaning is unknown.  The later ones include Christian cross symbols.  One interpretation is that the symbols may represent names or clans or mark territories.

Many of the sites in Aberdeenshire and Angus can be visited –http://www.aberdeenshire.gov.uk/archaeology/sites/pictish/ 

Viking runes

Rune means “Secret knowledge and wisdom”. Odin himself was regarded as “Father of the Runes”. Among the illiterate Vikings the rune-masters were held in high regard.

The runic alphabet (called a futhark) was known from the first century AD among all Germanic tribes around the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. The oldest version of the runic alphabet had 24 runes. It was used for writing on wood, bone and stone and was regarded as sacred.

The Viking rune-masters used the runes in connection with trade, on weapons to give them more power, on jewellery to bring luck and happiness, and on gravestones to ease the passage for the dead on their way to Valhall.  Towards the end of the Viking Age the knowledge of runes became more widespread because in many places everyday messages from ordinary people and “Viking graffitti” have been found written on wood or bone.  There is even Viking graffiti in the Neolithic burial chamber at Maes Howe on Orkney!

The Viking futhark

The Viking futhark

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