Dunchraigaig Cairn: Scotland’s 5,000 Year Old Animal Carvings | History Hit

Dunchraigaig Cairn: Scotland’s 5,000 Year Old Animal Carvings

Tristan Hughes

22 Jun 2021
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Rock art on Dunchraigaig Cairn
Image Credit: Historic Environment Scotland

In western Scotland, just north of the Kintyre Peninsula, lies Kilmartin Glen, one of the most important prehistoric landscapes in Britain. The Glen’s fertile land attracted early Neolithic settlers, but it was several hundred years later during the Early Bronze Age (c.2,500 – 1,500 BC) that Kilmartin experienced its golden age.

The Early Bronze Age was a time of great connectivity across Western Europe. Trade routes stretched hundreds of miles across land and sea, as communities and merchants sought resources such as tin and copper for bronze working. Kilmartin Glen benefited from these long distance networks, becoming a centre of trade and connectivity.

Those working in the Glen dictated the flow of goods around that area of Britain. Copper making its way from Ireland and Wales to communities in western Scotland and northern England may well have gone through Kilmartin Glen.

Having evolved into this central trading centre, significant building activity followed in the form of monumental burials. These Early Bronze Age burials were large cobble-made mounds, called cairns. Within these mounds were cists – stone constructed chambers within which the deceased’s body was placed alongside grave goods. Many of these grave goods have links to either Ireland or northern England, once again affirming how Kilmartin Glen had become this thriving centre of trade by the Early Bronze Age.

It was within one of these cists that an incredible discovery was recently made.

Prehistoric animal carvings, thought to be up to 5,000 years old, have been discovered in Scotland for the very first time. The images, which include carvings of two red deer, were found by chance on an ancient burial site in Argyll, called Dunchraigaig Cairn. Dr Tertia Barnett, principle investigator for Scotland’s Rock Art Project at Historic Environment Scotland, is on The Ancients to explain why this incredible new discovery is so significant. Find out what the carvings might mean, how they have been conserved for thousands of years, and why these images rewrite the story of prehistoric rock art in north-west Europe.
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The Discovery

The cist in question is part of Dunchraigaig Cairn. Constructed in c.2,100 BC, much of the original Cairn does not survive, exposing the cists within. It was underneath the capstone of the Cairn’s south-eastern cist that archaeologist Hamish Fenton recently stumbled upon some unprecedented animal carvings.

Dunchraigaig Cairn

Image Credit: Historic Environment Scotland

With the aid of 3D modelling, archaeologists have identified at least 5 animal carvings under the capstone. Two of these animals are clearly red deer stags, boasting branching antlers, clearly-defined rumps and beautifully-carved heads. One of these stags also has a tail. Two further animals are believed to be juvenile red deer, although they are less naturalistic in their design. The last animal carving is difficult to distinguish, but this could also be another deer depiction.

New deer art discoveries

Image Credit: Historic Environment Scotland

Why it was decided to leave animal carvings within the deceased’s burial mound is unclear. One theory could be that the stags symbolised the figure’s elite status.

The carvings were created with a technique called pecking. This involved the striking of a rock surface with a hard implement – usually either a stone or metal tool. Examples of rock art crafted by pecking can be found all across Scotland, but what makes this new discovery so extraordinary is its figurative nature. Countless examples of geometric rock art survive from across Scotland, particularly a design called the cup and ring mark.

The cup and ring mark includes a bowl-shaped depression, creating by the pecking technique, usually surrounded by rings. Some of these marks are up to a metre in diameter.

Image Credit: Historic Environment Scotland

Figurative rock art, however, is much rarer. Only in a few burials in Kilmartin Glen have other figurative depictions been discovered, showing axe heads. But never before had archaeologists discovered animal imagery on rock art north of the English border.

The unprecedented nature of deer depictions in Scottish rock art has led archaeologists to question the inspiration for these carvings. Similar carvings are known from Northwest Spain and Portugal, dating to roughly the same time. This might suggest an Iberian influence for the Dunchraigaig Cairn depictions, reflecting possible connections between the Iberian Peninsula and Scotland at that time.

Alongside being an incredible discovery, Hamish Fenton’s chance find currently holds the prestigious record of being the earliest animal carvings ever discovered in Scotland.

More information about the discovery and about rock art in Scotland can be found on the Scottish Rock Art Project’s website.

Tristan Hughes

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