Bronze Age Yorkshire – rock art
Scattered around the moors in West Yorkshire and on the North York Moors are many examples of rock bearing mysterious ‘cup-and-ring’ carvings. Unlike other more familiar forms of prehistoric rock art, cup-and-ring carving does not include anthropomorphic elements, i.e. recognisably human figures, nor does it include depictions of animals, weapons or boats. It is a tradition of rock carving that relies on purely abstract symbols or geometric figures for its design: predominantly the cup, the ring and the groove. Characteristically a ‘cup’ is a small shallow semi-circular depression ground out in the surface of the rock usually no more than 5-6 cm in diameter, though they can be smaller and are sometimes larger, but the overwhelming majority are about the average size. A ‘ring’ is a shallow encircling groove pecked out around the entire circumference of the cup at a short distance from it. Many sites also carry linear grooves linking individual cups or groups of cups in an attempt to bring a higher level of order to the overall design. The majority of rocks in our area carry only cups and so perhaps should more correctly be called just ‘cup-marked’ rocks, but the term ‘cup-and-ring-marked’ rocks has come to be applied to them all.
Cup-and-ring-marked rock: Stanbury Hill, Bingley Moor, W. Yorks. (Early Bronze Age c. 2500 BC)
Association of such ‘cup-and-ring’ carvings with other dateable archaeological evidence, in particular burials, suggests that they date from the Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age, i.e. c. 2500 BC or even earlier. Rocks bearing cup-and-ring designs are distributed across several areas of NW Atlantic Europe and a number of geographically related island regions and would appear to be largely confined to these areas. The Balearic Islands, Malta, Portugal, NW Spain (Galicia), Britanny, the E side of Ireland, and regions of the N, W and NW British Isles all carry cup-and-ring carvings.
There is not surprisingly a suggestion, to some extent supported by dating evidence from related sites, that the tradition of cup-and-ring carving began further south towards the Iberian peninsula and the Mediterranean, slowly moving north until it finally arrived in Britain – so that Yorkshire examples in a very real sense may represent the final phase of the tradition.
Cup-and-ring-marked rock: Roxby, N. York Moors (Early Bronze Age c. 2500 BC)
Familiar examples on Ilkley Moor in West Yorkshire, such as the ‘Swastika Stone’, ‘Badger Stone’, ‘Hangingstones’ and ‘Panorama Stone’, have fascinated local archaeologists for over a century and may well be known to you, but the fact is that similar carvings have a much wider distribution in the county. The number of confirmed carvings in the county currently stands (as of December 2017) at nearly 1400: 826 in the former West Riding (largely in the Southern Dales), over 200 in the Northern Yorkshire Dales, and over 360 on the North York Moors. What is more, new examples continue to come to light.
However, the example from Fylingdales Moor,revealed after the disastrous fire of 2003, appears to represent an entirely different carving tradition, and is more akin to the designs on Neolithic Grooved Ware pottery or to the carvings that decorate the famous Neolithic passage grave tombs in the Valley of the Boyne in Ireland, such as Newgrange. This suggests that this might be an altogether earlier carving, and its flat-sided shape that it was possibly used as a lid or slab from a now vanished Neolithic tomb.
Carved rock: Stoupe Brow, Fylingdales, N. York Moors (Early Bronze Age c. 2500 BC)
Of course, for most people the big question is what do the carvings mean? Are they some kind of early code or language? A form of art or decoration? Are they some form of map of the prehistoric village, of the stars in the heavens, of where to find metal ores or water? Are they ritual pits cut into the rocks for sacrifice? Do they mark off the boundaries of territory for settlement, agriculture or burial? Are they route markers? The simple fact is that we really cannot be sure.
But that they meant a huge amount to the people of the time there can be no doubt. Sandstone is quite a tough unyielding rock and yet there are literally thousands of carvings scattered across prehistoric landscapes and found in prehistoric contexts right across NW Atlantic Europe. It is clear that they acted as symbols of both life and death, even perhaps of people’s ancestors. They have been found linked to or included in burial structures, yet at the same time in open landscapes of occupation where people lived and worked.