Saturday 21 February 2009

Landscapes of Meaning: Northumbrian Prehistoric Rock Art

 northumbrian rock art at ketley Crag

  northumbrian rock art rockshelter floor at ketley crag















northumbrian rock art at roughting linn

The cup and ring marks you see in the photographs are between 7.000 and 5,000 years old. They were probably carved by Mesolithic hunter-gatherers and early Neolithic farmers.

The meaning of these mysterious symbols is lost in the deep past. We have no way of knowing why they were carved and the significance of the designs and motifs is irretrievable, enigmatic and puzzling.  Theories and conjectures abound, but the truth is permanently elusive.

Whatever their original purpose, what is clear is the power of these carvings in the landscape. Many are set on high ground overlooking river valleys, carved into exposed rock outcrops in what must have been significant vantage points. 

northumbrian rock art at WeetwoodThe repeating patterns of concentric circles make for a striking artform. Looking at these carvings in situ you have the strongest  sense that the circle is somehow deeply embedded within human psyche and culture. To my eyes these designs are hauntingly beautiful and evocative. To touch them is to feel connected to our ancestors. It is to ponder what they might have meant to those who knew them to be special. It is to reflect on mystery and eternity.

In an age such as ours it is good to sit with that which is always going to be ultimately beyond our grasp, no matter how clever and inventive we are. Perhaps that is why I like this rock art so much. It cannot be confined by reason. Existing as it does in a cloud of unknowing, such art has to be encountered on its own terms.

The motifs invite our imagination to respond. Like modern, abstract art, I rather think that this ancient, prehistoric artform has a lot to teach us about faith. Sometimes it is enough simply to be present to the mystery. And then to let the mystery engage with us at the deepest levels of our being.


Stan Beckensall is the acknowledged expert on British Prehistoric Rock Art and it was his superb book on Northumberland which helped me to explore the sites that you see represented here. England's Rock Art is a superbly comprehensive resource to browse too. You can also read a short online article about some of these sites here.

  northumbrian rock art at  chatton park hill













 northumbrian rock art at Buttony






  1. Beautiful photography! Thank you for introducing me to this very fine rock art. I hadn't known about it until now. This is worth a trip.

    I am also interested in the rock art of NW Australia, dated at 50-60,000 years old! (Bradshaw Art of the Kimberley) Something of a long trip. The sad thing is this art is politically a hot potato and is being destroyed, pick-axed, and painted over.

    I am an art psychotherapist, and am interested in interpretation and meaning of imagery.

  2. Hi Chris, thanks for stopping by. Its always good to get feedback. I would be interested to know more about the art and image resources you use in your work. best wishes,