Over 100 Neolithic Stone Carvings Found In Northumberland

By 24 Hour Museum Staff | 31 July 2008
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a photo of a ring carved rock surface underneath a dramatic sky

© English Heritage

(Picture) Chatton Northumberland: Photographer B.Kerr.

Volunteers working in Northumberland and Durham have unearthed a remarkable collection of intricate rock art formations dating back 5,000 years.

Over 100 of the extraordinary Neolithic carvings of concentric circles, interlocking rings and hollowed cups were uncovered in the region by a team of specially trained volunteers working on a four-year English Heritage backed project called the Northumberland and Durham Rock Art Project (NADRAP).

Their findings have now been recorded and published online via a website called England’s Rock Art (ERA), which was launched today, Thursday July 3 2008, at

a close up photo of carved rock with ring carvings set within a peaty surround

© English Heritage

(Above) Barningham Moor County Durham: Photographer R. Stroud.

One of the most interesting new discoveries is a large and elaborately carved panel on Barningham Moor, Co. Durham.

The flat sandstone panel features numerous complex abstract carvings – interlocking channels and hollowed cups with surrounding circles. Our prehistoric ancestors used stone tools to carve these mysterious symbols and the ‘peck’ marks are still visible on the Barningham panel.

Richard Stroud, one of the specially-trained volunteers involved in the project and part of the team which discovered the Barningham carvings, explained:

“We expected to discover just one or two simple carvings. Instead we found a breathtaking panel, probably one of the most complex discovered in County Durham.”

a close up photo of carved rock with ring carvings

© English Heritage

(Above) The Ringses Northumberland: Photographer A. Mazel.

“There is a gulf of time and civilisation between the society that carved this stone and ours,” added Richard, "its true meaning is something we’ll possibly never understand. I am proud that our work has helped preserve this fragile link to our ancestors.”

Elsewhere the project uncovered a range of impressive and large-scale works that included patterned rock carvings with perfectly imprinted circles that would have taken an astounding level of skill – and a lot of time – to complete.

The volunteers used low impact methods to carefully reveal these examples of rock art, which they then captured via stereo-photographs (pairs of photographs) using low cost 5mpixel resolution digital cameras.

a close up photo of carved black rock with ring carvings

© English Heritage

(Above) Old Bewick Northumberland.

Images were then used to create virtual 3D representations accurate to within 1-3mm that can be moved and rotated on a computer screen to allow detailed analysis of the carvings from all angles.

As well as allowing a detailed analysis of the rock art formations, the technique requires no direct contact with the rock surface and is less harmful than some other traditional recording methods.

“Our volunteer recorders have worked alongside experts in the field to develop new techniques to produce stunning 3- dimensional computer models of rock art for display,” said Sara Rushton, Northumberland County Archaeologist and manager of the Project.

“These models can be manipulated to show some carvings which are now almost completely invisible to the naked eye and will be a fantastic tool for managing these ancient sites for the future.”

a photo of a carved rock set within a larger rock formation on the edge of a moorland

© English Heritage

(Above) Ketley Crag Northumberland.

The practice of carvings rocks flourished during the Neolithic period (about 4,000 to 6,000 years ago). There are many theories as to what rock art carvings mean. Some experts believe they may have played a role in fire, feastings and offering activities, or been used as ‘signposts’, or to mark territory.

Others point to a spiritual significance. For hunter-gatherer communities high mountains or seashores were often considered the domain of supernatural ancestors and the vast majority of rock art is found in these areas.

Today, many carvings have been lost to natural erosion and human activities such as quarrying and field clearance.

However, around 2,500 rock art panels have been recorded to date in England and further examples almost certainly await discovery. English Heritage is hoping the pioneering work undertaken as part of NADRAP will be continued in other counties to create a nationwide record of this link with our prehistoric past.

a photo of a standing stone with ring and cup carvings in it

© English Heritage

(Above) Baildon Moor Yorkshire.

“The British landscape is thickly scattered with these fascinating and enigmatic works of ancient art,” said Edward Impey, Director of Research and Standards at English Heritage.

“The online record of the Northumberland and Durham examples will serve as the starting point for a national survey, and, we hope, help us understand their meaning and lead to the discovery of others.”

Find out more about the our rock art at the England’s Rock Art website

For members of the public who may encounter rock art in the landscape, English Heritage have issued a Rock Art code:

· leave the carved rocks and other archaeological features as you find them
· seek permission to visit sites that are not on publicly accessible land from the relevant owner or manager
· respect the environment and follow the Countryside Code

· remove turf from buried rock art panels (the freshly exposed surface will be especially vulnerable to erosive processes)
· remove lichen from rock art panels (you may remove part of the rock surface and the tiny root fissures left behind will fill with water and be susceptible to freeze-thaw erosion, weakening the surface matrix)
· attempt to remove graffiti, chalk, or any anything else on the rock
· use any substances (including water) to ‘clean’ rock surfaces
· use brushes with stiff bristles (plastic or wire) to clean the rock (if you wish to remove leaf detritus or animal droppings from the carvings for your photographs then use a soft brush)
· add chalk or enhance the carvings using any other substance (this may interfere with accurate dating of the surface)
· undertake any recording technique that involves direct and/or repeated contact with the surface (e.g. wax rubbing)
· scratch your name or messages on or close to the carved panels
· walk or drive over carved panels
· make fires close to rock carvings
· light candles on the carved panels

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