Atlantic rock art

Rock art in the form of carving on rock outcrops is distributed widely throughout the world, but in Europe the greatest concentration is along the Atlantic coast in Scotland, Ireland, England, Brittany and north-west Spain. Stylistically, there seems to be a link between these areas though there are local differences. In some areas there is an obvious link with motifs carved on the stones of passage graves, known as Passage Grave Art, but this seems to be a distinct and separate style.


There has been some dispute over dates because actual carvings cannot be directly dated with any physical means yet except by association, but it seems likely that outcrop art was produced in Britain for most of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th millennia BC. This dating evidence is important because between the 4th and 3rd millennia the vegetation changed dramatically on the upland regions where much outcrop art is to be found, greatly influencing our interpretation of its use and purpose. Some sources (e.g. Shee-Twohig 1988) suggest an Early Bronze Age origin for outcrop art, a period when the upland areas were open moorland much the same as they are today. Waddington (1998) makes a case for an earlier date in the 4th millennium for the open-air carvings, placing their origin in a time when most upland areas were clothed with scrubby oak, birch, and hazel woodland.


The extent and type of vegetation cover is very significant for the interpretation of the functions of outcrop art. The most significant carvings seem to occur on larger outcrops, often at the edge of the upland area overlooking the valley bottoms. If the area was wooded, large outcrops would have been surrounded by thinner soils unable to support large trees so the carvings would most likely have been in clearings or glades within the wood. Such a situation might suggest a spiritual or religious function, as open glades with distant views within dense woodland could have a special significance to the people living there. If the upland region was open moorland, a function related to land 'ownership' or grazing rights seems more likely. The visibility and intervisibility of large boundary or marker stones and their position within the topography might now be of greater importance. These two scenarios lend themselves to visualisation with Desktop VR techniques and form one of the main strands of practical work undertaken so far.


The most common motifs of outcrop art are simple cup marks surrounded by one or more rings, hence the commonly used name 'cup and ring marks'. More complex patterns are rarer but are found in most areas. Bradley (1997) has shown that in some regions there is a variation in the relative distributions of the simpler motifs and the more complex carvings that seems to depend on local factors. Generally the greater concentrations of motifs seem to relate to larger and more prominent outcrops which also often have more complex motifs. Very few representational motifs are found in Britain, and generally, throughout Atlantic rock art distribution, abstract motifs predominate.


A large number of sources for the specific motifs of the style have been suggested (Morris 1979), some of which do seem to explain some motifs (the circular plans of stone monuments, henges and buildings for example). At present, however, the most comprehensive source seems to be the relationship of the motifs with patterns experienced in altered states of consciousness suggested by Lewis-Williams and Dowson (1988: 1993), Bradley (1989), and Dronfield (1995). I have started work on visualising the relationship between these patterns and rock art using VR techniques in the form of 'artistic' representations displayed in gallery situations. This forms the second main strand of practical work undertaken so far.


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Last updated: Mon Sep 25 2000