Dr Joana Valdez-Tullett: ‘This changes everything we knew about rock art in Scotland’

On Monday, Historic Environment Scotland announced that extremely rare carvings, thought to be between 4,000 and 5,000-years-old, had been discovered inside Dunchraigaig Cairn at Kilmartin Glen. The carvings, which include depictions of two red deer, are the earliest known animal carvings in Scotland, and are being treated as a major historic discovery.

This week, we spoke to Dr Joana Valdez-Tullet, a research assistant at Scotland’s Rock Art Project who went to examine the findings at Kilmartin Glen. As Joana explains in this interview, the discovery changes everything that was known about some of Scotland’s earliest art forms, and also hints at Scotland’s prehistoric connections with mainland Europe.

Find out more about the discovery at Historic Environment Scotland.

Just how rare are these newly discovered carvings?

The carvings at Dunchraigaig are the oldest animal representations of animals ever found in Scotland. Prehistoric rock art in Britain and Ireland is mostly based on a carving tradition that we call Atlantic Rock Art. The carved images of Atlantic Rock Art are geometric and abstract, mostly composed of cupmarks (small hollows cut on the rock) surrounded by concentric circles. This tradition is also found in other parts of western Europe, namely Iberia, where animals were also depicted on the rocks. Kilmartin is well known for this type of rock art and has some of the most iconic examples in Scotland.

However, the discovery of animal carvings in this context was very surprising, as these were thought to be absent from Britain and Ireland, despite there being many examples of carved animals of this period in other parts of Europe. After careful analysis we concluded that these animals were probably carved before the stone was used as a cover of the grave, and therefore they pre-date the monument. We estimate that they are 4,000 to 5,000 years old.

There a few examples other examples of animal carvings in Britain, the oldest ones being in Creswell Crags and dating to the Palaeolithic. However, the deer at Dunchraigaig are also the first clear representations of animals of this period, and with so much anatomical detail. We have no parallels for them anywhere else in the country.

Deer with antlers / Historic Environment Scotland

What do these carvings tell us about Scotland’s prehistoric links with mainland Europe?

There are several elements that are evidence for prehistoric connections between Scotland, the rest of the UK, Ireland and mainland Europe. Not only do we find artefacts of different provenances, but ancient DNA and isotope analyses have recently demonstrated that individuals from other parts of Europe reached Scotland during prehistory. The carvings of the stags really reinforce this idea, since all over Europe we see representations of deer in a number of different contexts. Clearly this animal was very special for many societies, including those who were living and dying in Kilmartin Glen at the time. The use of these images in funerary monuments is not unique to Scotland, with other examples being known, for example, in Portugal. There are some aspects of the burial practice that resemble others across Europe, beyond the use of animal carvings.

How did it feel personally to be part of such an exciting project?

The animal carvings were found by Hamish Fenton, who has a background in archaeology and does a lot of 3D modelling in various archaeological sites. He replied to a post that I wrote in Scotland’s Rock Art Project Facebook page, about the absence of Neolithic and Bronze Age animal carvings in Scotland, and shared his find with me. I could hardly believe in what I was seeing! Until then there was absolutely no idea that carvings like this could exist in Scotland.

I worked extensively in Iberian rock art in the past, and I immediately understood the importance of this find! It really changes everything we knew about rock art in Scotland, and we will now have to reassess this and look for other examples, because they must be out there. Ever since I have been researching Dunchraigaig rock art, and it has been a great pleasure to be involved in such a wonderful discovery, learning and thinking about this really fascinating site.

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