Is art an appropriate word to describe the abstract symbols that were carved onto rock outcrops in the Neolithic and Bronze Age in Britain? I was asked this question a few times recently during a series of talks I did about the Cochno Stone and it is a question that causes us to pause and reflect on the way that contemporary discourse shapes our perceptions of the ancient past. Our vocabulary is simply insufficient to characterize activities that happened in prehistory, and inevitably we end up writing narratives about the past that are pale reflections of, or weird variants on, our own present. You do not need to be a student of archaeological theory to understand that this is both problematic and inevitable.
Art is a word that polarizes in general, and especially so in the context of prehistory (for an interesting discussion on this issue, read this). Some archaeologists see the word art in this context as useful in helping us to understand some of the complexities of pictorial and abstract carvings on rock from prehistory. Others accept that while inadequate and loaded, we are stuck with the rock-art label: it is a widely understood term that is simply a classificatory label. No classification can ever be really neutral, however, and so while rock-art cannot now be easily abandoned as a descriptor, we should use it cautiously and critically. For me, art is something that provokes creativity, stimulates critical thinking, offers a fresh perspective on the world around us, and is deeply political. For others, art is about creativity and aesthetics. Can we say the same for rock-art? Can we apply the same criteria for reading art gallery art in our readings of prehistoric rock-art? Perhaps.
We could view Neolithic rock-art such as is found across Britain as prehistoric equivalents of medieval oil paintings of kings and contemporary landscape art installations. All have the aspiration and possibility to mean many things to many people that is only partially in the control of the artist. None of these means of expression is neutral or without political, social and emotional depth, even although their context, medium, audience and reception vary hugely. On the other hand, the repetitive and ubiquitous nature of cup-and-ring marks could be viewed as restrictions on creativity, symbols of conformity and social identity carved into rocks in an almost obsessive fashion that speak more of propaganda than free-will. But looking even closer, it is in the detail that we might should we care to look find the hand of the individual, subversive riffing on the cup-and-ring mark formula, rock(art) n roll. Perhaps we might take another approach, viewing cupmarks as a prehistoric abstract movement, all weird shapes, juxtapositions and coded meaning that is meaningless. Yet we could also read rock-art as an interactive and tactile form. The landscape was no art gallery and there were no fences, glass or guards (as there are now at places like Achnabreck in Argyll (fences not guards)). The haptic qualities of rock-art speak more of sculpture than painting: sculpture that one could touch however, rather than stand back and admire as one would do with an oil painting or something hung on wall. Or……
I could go on. What I am trying to say here is that there are many ways to make sense of cup-and-ring mark rock-art, and by thinking about it as ‘art’ we open up routes to interpret such symbols in ways that make sense to us.
One thing that art is good at is inspiring more art, and in this spirit, over two posts, I want to consider artistic responses to the Cochno Stone rock-art site. In this post, I will look at art that has been applied to the surface of the stone itself, and then in the second I’ll consider art inspired by the rock-art (I’ll add a link here once this has been posted) in the form of public art, sketches, measured drawing and comics. Together I hope these posts will offer an artistic and visual history of this amazing monument but of course there is no chance I’ll settle the old ‘is rock-art art argument’…..
Part 1: Art on the surface of the stone
Let’s leave aside the prehistoric carvings on the surface of the Cochno Stone.
Whether these are art or not depends on you and ink has been spilled on these elsewhere.
These symbols were carved into the rock probably between 3000BC and 2000BC for purposes unknown, but using a huge amount of skill and expertise. These creative acts, probably spread over a period of many decades of centuries, marked this place out as somewhere special, and ever since then people have been unable to resist the temptation to add their own elements to this huge communal rock canvas, with startling different motivations and outcomes.
The images below show prehistoric symbols and twentieth century (AD) additions, almost blending seamlessly together, a palimpsest in sandstone.
The earliest artistic responses that we have to the cup-and-ring marks on the Cochno Stone were recorded by the antiquarians who first drew the complete extent of the rocky outcrop, John Donald and William Donnelly. In the 1890s they recorded two unusual symbols:
‘two new features which had not hitherto been observed, viz, a cross within an oval border, and a sculpturing resembling two pairs of footprints, which …. show only four toes each’.
Are these genuine if unusual prehistoric symbol, or were these weird feet (or hands) added at some point in the millennia since the cup-and-ring marks were carved? We may never know. The cross is not a Christian cross, and so we cannot assume this belongs to the historic period. Perhaps these are prehistoric. Such subversions of the typical rock-art forms may have been especially powerful in prehistory, perhaps as impactful and shocking as other radical new art styles and pieces that have punctuated history, the Bronze Age equivalent of Tracy Emin’s unmade bed.
Antiquarians appear to have responded to the Cochno Stone symbols in a more boring way, adding their name as was their wont. During the 2016 excavations we recorded two examples of historic graffiti that appeared to be written in bookplate text: W KERR and W CARMICHAEL, which probably date to the nineteenth century and would have been regarded as unworthy of recording by their peers.
This reminds me of extensive ‘graffiti’ left on the orthostats and lintels of Unstan Neolithic chambered tomb on Orkney, also in the nineteenth century. A different set of standards were being applied here – double standards – where it was OK to scrawl your name into an ancient megalith as long as you were well-off and educated, like Orcadian James Cursiter. (You can explore the interior of this tomb for yourself with this brilliant sketchfab model by Hugo Anderson-Whymark – all of the graffiti has been scanned for posterity.)
This photo, which I took in 2015, is complex, containing the antiquarian graffiti of the aforementioned Cursiter from 1891 but also ‘FH’ from 2000. Which, if either, have the value of creativity? Is this historic graffiti or vandalism? Is it art? (And don’t get me started on the Viking graffiti in Maes Howe…). As Hugo notes in his model, however we view this, it is now illegal to deface this monument as it is a scheduled ancient monument, so FH better keep their head down.
Similar conundrums are posed by the next major intervention on the surface of the Cochno Stone. Into the twentieth century, the symbols on the Cochno Stone inspired more intensive artistic engagements, not least the work of Ludovic McLellan Mann, whose painting of the Cochno Stone in 1937 was one of the truly transformative events in the history of this monument. Aside from offering a colour-coded translation and abstract analysis of the meaning and properties of the design, Mann’s efforts could and should be viewed as a creative act.
This oil paint job was creative in other ways, with for instance two circles added to the surface of the stone, such as the red and white symbol in the image above, another layer of depth and obscure meaning as if Cochno needed any more depth and obscurity. One of Mann’s long straight yellow lines crosses the circle, almost as if he was revising his theories as he went along. Making sense of Mann’s brushstrokes is as much an act of interpretation as is needed for any artwork where we know little of the intentions of the artist.
Having used oil paints, as recent analysis by Louisa Campbell of the HES-funded Paints and Pigments In the Past project (PPIP) has demonstrated, it seems likely that Mann’s palette was the paint shelf of a 1930s ironmongery.
Even the drawing of the Stone, based on Mann spending a lot of time (perhaps more than is healthy), has an artistic quality that transcends mere recording because it is hardly an objective rendering. This image, the only drawing that Mann published related to the Cochno Stone, in 1939, is a fictional account of the meaning of the symbols, creative writing, one page from a wonderful graphic novel that he didn’t ever get round to finishing.
The grand canvas of Mann’s work contrasts with the more private and modest acts of graffiti that occurred with increasing intensity in the years leading up to the Cochno Stone’s burial in 1965. These actions did not have the facade of academic research that Mann may have hidden behind, although even his actions were frowned upon by the owners of the stone and the ‘establishment’. The memo below was written at best a couple of months after Mann painted the stone; the stone would become a scheduled ancient monument by the end of the year.
The legal protection of the Cochno Stone did not stop people making their mark on the surface, and I suspect that no-one from the Office of Works bothered to tell local people or visitors of the change of status anyway. Thus what Mann started, only the burial of the stone could stop. And frankly, if Mann could paint the stone up a storm, why could others not make their own modest additions?
Research by University of Glasgow postgraduate student Alison Douglas has shown that over 100 modern marks were made on the surface of the stone, mostly dating to between 1940 and 1965, overwhelmingly in the form of names, dates and initials.
Individual expression seems to have taken different forms, including weak attempts to replicate the prehistoric symbols, as this image from the online Cochno Stone viewer suggests.
Other graffiti showed a desire to be inventive – spirals and swirls were added to names to give a touch of class, a set of initials were displayed inside a simple depiction of a house while some names were connected with arrows, suggesting relationships were being depicted here too, stone genealogies.
This art came at a cost. I recently spoke to someone who as a child carved his name onto the surface of the Cochno Stone with his penknife, which was broken in the process. Sacrifices have to be made to make one’s mark on the world. One wonders what personal cost Mann’s obsessions had for him. And ultimately, the creative encounters discussed above culminated in the shutting down of this site, the burial of the stone beneath tons of soil for contravention of the rules in 1965.
Maybe we should charitably view the covering of the Cochno Stone itself as a grand piece of performance art that almost no-one was fortunate enough to witness.
There is no doubt that art and creative interventions on the surface of archaeological sites can be contentious. I don’t want to make light of the potential problems in site management and interpretation that paint, carvings and worse can cause and there are some horrible examples of crude painted messages added to rock-art around the world should you wish to google.
However, in the case of the Cochno Stone, there is a rich history of additions to the surface of the stone that cannot simply be written off as mindless vandalism as some other examples clearly are. Indeed, if we view one of the roles of art to inspire creativity in others, then at this level the Cochno Stone succeeds as an open air installation that was and remains a constant source of inspiration. The examples in this blog post suggest that these interventions – both permanent and temporary – have been going on for some four or five thousand years.
I will explore alternative mediums in part 2 when I consider the history of art inspired by the Cochno Stone that is not on the surface of the monument but located elsewhere – on the sides of buildings, on the trees and pavements, in the pages of journals and newspapers, and in a wonderful little comic book.
Whether you think rock-art is art or not, art sure follows it around.
Sources and acknowledgements: I would like to thank Alison Douglas for her ongoing analysis and research into the historic graffiti on the Cochno Stone, and for the community of Faifley for their indulgence and support. Thanks also to Grahame Gardner for drawing (ha ha) my attention to the Francis Hitchings’ book Earth Magic.
The Bruce and Donnelly report can be found here (free online):
Bruce, J 1896 Notice of remarkable groups of archaic sculpturings in Dumbartonshire and Stirlingshire, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 30, 205-9.
The Mann sketch of Cochno comes from his booklet:
Mann, L M 1939 The Druid Temple Explained. London & Glasgow.