Chance Kilmartin discovery changes our view of prehistory

Dr Tertia Barnett, principal investigator at Scotland's Rock Art Project, Historic Environment Scotland

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Prehistoric animal carvings, thought to be between 4,000 and 5,000-years-old, have been discovered for the first time in Scotland in Kilmartin Glen.

The animal carvings, hidden inside Dunchraigaig Cairn, are the earliest known in Scotland and the first clear examples of deer carvings from the Neolithic to Early Bronze Age in the whole of the UK.

This is also the first time ancient animal carvings have been discovered alongside cup and ring markings in the UK.

Discovery of the 4,000 to 5,000-year-old artwork shatters long-held perceptions about prehistoric cultures and adds to the reputation of Kilmartin Glen as a site of global significance.

The carvings were discovered by chance by Oxfordshire man Hamish Fenton, who has a background in archaeology, while visiting Kilmartin Glen.

The carvings are located inside the cairn on the capstone of an Early Bronze Age burial cist.

Kilmartin Glen has one of the most important concentrations of Neolithic and Bronze Age remains in Scotland, including some of the finest cup and ring markings in the country.

Dr Tertia Barnett, principal investigator for Scotland’s Rock Art Project at Historic Environment Scotland (HES), said: ‘It was previously thought that prehistoric animal carvings of this date didn’t exist in Scotland, although they are known in parts of Europe, so it is very exciting that they have now been discovered here for the first time in the historic Kilmartin Glen.

‘This extremely rare discovery completely changes the assumption that prehistoric rock art in Britain was mainly geometric and non-figurative.

‘While there are a few prehistoric carvings of deer in the UK, the only other ones created in the Early Bronze Age are very schematic.

‘It is remarkable that these carvings in Dunchraigaig Cairn show such great anatomical detail and there is no doubt about which animal species they represent.

‘This also tells us that the local communities were carving animals as well as cup and ring motifs which is in keeping with what we know of other Neolithic and Bronze Age societies, particularly in Scandinavia and Iberia.

‘Until now, we did not know of any area in Britain with both types of carvings, which poses questions about the relationship between them and their significance to the people that created them.’

Following Hamish’s discovery, experts from Scotland’s Rock Art Project examined the carvings to confirm their authenticity.

This included utilising innovative technology in their analysis.

A structured light scan was carried out by HES digital documentation experts to create an accurate and detailed 3D model with photographic texture, and various visualisation techniques were then applied to the model in order to reveal more details of the carvings than would have been visible to the naked eye.

Dr Barnett added: ‘Digital techniques are being used more and more frequently to create precise 3D models of rock art and reveal details that were previously unknown to us, or that we only suspected.

‘Digital technology is becoming increasingly important for archaeology, and particularly for rock art, and is a key to unlocking the hidden secrets of our past.

‘This incredible discovery in Dunchraigaig Cairn makes us wonder if other animal carvings previously unknown to the UK are hidden in unexpected places in our ancient landscapes, waiting to be uncovered in the future.’

The cairn, which is in care of HES, is 30m wide and contained three stone burial chambers, or cists.

The third cist, where the carvings are located, was dug directly into the ground, lined with drystone cobbled walls and capped with an unusually large stone over 3.5m long.

The remains of up to 10 individuals, some cremated, were also discovered here when the site was initially excavated in the 1860s, as well as artefacts including a whetstone, a greenstone axe and a flint knife.

Hamish Fenton said: ‘I was passing Dunchraigaig Cairn at dusk when I noticed the burial chamber in the side of the cairn and decided to slide inside with my torch.

‘As I shone the torch around, I noticed a pattern on the underside of the roof slab which didn’t appear to be natural markings in the rock.

‘As I shone the light around further, I could see that I was looking at a deer stag upside down, and as I continued looking around, more animals appeared on the rock.

‘This was a completely amazing and unexpected find and, to me, discoveries like this are the real treasure of archaeology, helping to reshape our understanding of the past.’

The cairn is currently closed while HES carries out further evaluation and puts measures in place to protect the extremely rare, and delicate, ancient carvings.

Kilmartin Museum curator Dr Sharon Webb MBE said: ‘The archaeology of Kilmartin Glen is extraordinary, and every new discovery adds to its international importance.

‘Future research will help us to understand how this amazing and unique art fits into the story of the glen, which is really exciting.

‘We’re in the process of rebuilding the museum with a £7.5 million redevelopment and we’ll be including interpretations of this rock art in the new exhibitions when they open in 2023.’


Deer antlers can be seen carved into the rock. no_a23PrehistoricCarvings01

An impression of the rock art by Hamish Fenton. no_a23PrehistoricCarvings03_HamishFenton

Dr Joana Valdez-Tullett, research assistant at Scotland’s Rock Art, investigates the site at Dunchraigaig Cairn. no_a23PrehistoricCarvings04

Dr Tertia Barnett, principal investigator at Scotland’s Rock Art Project, Historic Environment Scotland. no_a23PrehistoricCarvings05