In its undeveloped landscape of high moorland in the north east of England, Northumberland harbours well over a thousand examples of ancient occupation in the form of rock art, made by Neolithic and Early Bronze Age people between 6,000 and 3,500 years ago. Now seventeen of its mysterious cup and ring carvings have been scheduled as Ancient Monuments by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport following advice from English Heritage.
Carved into rocky outcrops, boulders, standing stones, or within burial mounds, Northumberland’s rock art varies from simple, circular hollows known as ‘cups’ to more complex intertwining patterns with cups, rings, and intertwining grooves. “The abstract motifs, often referred to as ‘cup and ring marks’, provide a tangible and iconic link to our prehistoric ancestors which extends beyond the basic activities of everyday survival, to hint at a much richer, creative, and potentially spiritual dimension to their lives,” writes Dr Aron Mazel on the Bradshaw Foundation website.
Although the original meaning of the symbols is now lost, many theories have been put forward to suggest what their purpose may have been. Hypotheses range from an ancient form of writing, to markings with religious or spiritual significance, boundary markers, star maps, or simply decorative markers.
One of the designated prehistoric rock art sites at Ketley Crag, near Chatton
The 17 newly designated sites are considered to be particularly well preserved examples, displaying a wide range of motifs. The recognition is also reward for decades of effort by retired Hexham headmaster Stan Beckensall who recorded hundreds of rock art examples on numerous trips into often remote countryside.
“These examples of rock art from the Neolithic and Bronze ages have been scheduled because they are reasonably well preserved and studying their individual carvings and motifs will enhance our knowledge of prehistoric society,” said Designation team leader in the North, Nick Bridgland.
Cup marks. Dod Law Main Rock A, Northumberland
“The scheduling is good news because it marks the increasing recognition of the importance of these carvings to the ancient history of Britain,” said Dr Aron Mazel, director of the International Centre for Cultural and Heritage Studies at Newcastle University. “The rock art is hugely important as a physical manifestation of the people who lived here thousands of years ago.”