or the outcome of a process: erosion, river-washed
the slow accumulation of the archaeological record
drifting until discovery
on the riverbank
beside the cricket ground
by Mick Aston off the Time Team.
Notes: on the 30th June 1974 Mick Aston, then a field archaeologist with Somerset County Planning Department, found the butt of a Neolithic polished stone axe on the spoil heap of a trench that had been dug beside the River Tone, in the centre of Taunton, for sewage works. The broken axe was green in colour, had been bashed around by the river, and was broken. Analysis by the Petrology Implement Committee identified the possible source of the axe raw material as Cornwall. The axe is now, I assume, in a local museum collection.
The location of this discovery is now a pathway running along the eastern bank of the Tone, passing close by the Somerset County Cricket ground. The location is not marked by any formal notification. Nearby is a setting of three megalithic eggs in a wooden compound.
Sources and acknowledgements: thanks firstly to Andrew Watson for flagging up the axe discovery for me in the Somerset HER. Andrew also kindly took me to the location and gave me a guided walking tour of central Taunton.
The axe has site reference number 44418 in the local HER database. The discovery of the axe was published by Aston here: Aston, M 1975 A stone axe from Taunton. Somerset Archaeology and Natural History 119, pages 70, 71. The axe drawing comes from that publication, and the photo of Mick Aston and colleagues was sources from the Somerset HER.
In my first post looking at art and the Cochno Stone, I considered the 5,000 year-old tradition of using this domed sandstone surface as a canvas for various creative acts in the form of shallow scratches, deeply incised hollows and painted lines. These surface alterations are ambiguous in meaning, each with their own aesthetic qualities and values, either reducing or adding to the monument, all of them inspiring passionate opinions.
In this second post, I would like to consider the art of the Cochno Stone from another perspective, through the medium of sketches and drawings, specifically those drawn from life (ie before the stone was buried in 1965) over a period between the 1880s and 1930s. No doubt there will be some who will argue that some of these drawings are not really works of art and creativity. For instance, can we regard ‘measured’ depictions of something, technical drawings as part of an archaeological study, as being creative or simply reductive? And what is the archaeological value of studying archive material or newspaper clippings with old drawings when we know with the benefit of hindsight that the drawings are either inaccurate, or incomplete, or both? More fundamentally – and this gets to the roots of much debate on the nature of archaeological narratives – to what extent are these objective renderings of the Cochno Stone? Is such a thing even possible? There are layers of art entangled with art here, the art of art, about art, for art.
Regardless of the motivation, medium, and intended audience, I would argue that there is a deeply artistic strand running through the history of attempts to capture the spirit of Cochno and I hope that this story of four decades worth of drawing and sketching the Cochno Stone will persuade you of this. Before getting to the real stuff, however, I want to reflect a little more on the art of depicting rock-art, and this also has resonance for part 3 of this sequence of posts, which will focus on art inspired by the Cochno Stone, so please take notes! 😉
The art of rock-art
Prehistoric rock-art lends itself well to contemporary variations in unusual locations, with the simple form and shallow depth endlessly replicatable. Wherever it occurs, if offers a juxtaposition, a curious time slip. Palaeolithic rock-art – cave paintings to you and me – work especially well in this respect, with otherwordly effects as standard.
More abstract Neolithic and Bronze Age rock-art works is equally portable. This lovely image is in Umea, Sweden, photographed by Lorna Richardson (and reproduced here with permission). This was part of a campaign by the local authorities to promote cycling and draws on the local rock-art repertoire which is a little less abstract than the Scottish equivalents.
Many artists have been inspired by the simplicity and concentricity of cup-and-ring marks. Gavin MacGregor wrote about one such artist, Edward Atkinson Hornel (1864-1933), a landscape painter who lived most of his life in and around Kirkcudbright in southwest Scotland, and one of the famous ‘Glasgow boys’. Gavin notes that Hornel consorted with antiquarians and was himself a keen amateur archaeologist, and as it happens, Kirkcudbright happens to be a real hotspot for rock-art (as well as being the location of some shooting for The Wicker Man movie).
MacGregor, and the biographer of Hornel, Bill Smith, both draw attention to the echoes of cup-and-ring marks in the depiction of the moon in painting such as The Brownie of Blednoch (1889) and The Druids: bringing in the mistletoe (1890, with George Henry). Gavin notes the former (see above) is dominated by a ‘Gallovoidian shepherd beast, beard of circles and cup-marked eyes … manifestation of the living rock….’. Hornel went as far as to search for new cup-and-ring marked stones and some of his discoveries were recorded in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.
It is in the work of the polymath-antiquarian-artist-archaeologist that we find the first recorded artwork associated with the Cochno Stone, with the earliest engagements mediated by various characters of this ilk as well as clergymen. The earliest drawings we have of rock-art in the pages of antiquarians books of the nineteenth century emerged form such a melting pot of influences and interests, blurring the lines between art and objective record, in fascinating ways. Hornel was himself involved in the process of the creation of a series of black and white engravings of Kirkcudbrightshire rock-art, which MacGregor notes were collaborations between a small team and were based on photographs taken of casts made from rock-art panels.
This is a period when the first drawings as a matter of record were being produced for cup-and-ring marks, and there was no rulebook, no style guide, no best practice conventions to follow. Artists used licence and produced evocative and memorable images, which often used unusual perspectives and were, for a time, concerned with context and not metrical accuracy.
It was also around this time that a young Ludovic Mann became obsessed with cup-and-rings marks near the rural family holiday home, according to Katinka Dalglish, an obsession that would reach its feverish conclusion on the surface of the Cochno Stone to which we now turn. Before going any further in this post, I must also offer the debt of gratitude I owe to Jim Mearns for doing much of the archive research which underpins the history of early drawings of Cochno.
Sketches and symbols
Several drawings or sketches of the Cochno Stone were undertaken before 1900, each with a very different style, scope and ambition. (A cast was also taken although the nature and fate of this remains unknown.) These wonderfully capture the emergent understanding of Cochno, presenting only symbols that were initially visible, sometimes selectively so. The gradual reveal of the removal of grass from the stone was played out in these artistic renderings and associated accounts.
A partial drawing, defined within a box, was published with the first detailed account of the Cochno Stone, by Rev James Harvey, in 1889. This may well be the earliest drawing we have of any part of the Cochno stone, certainly the first to be published, and it focuses on the only area of the stone cleared when Harvey encountered it. This is a rather plain drawing, with cupmarks represented as dots and dashes, and lacking depth. Harvey himself did the drawings in 1887, but also took rubbings, which he was then able to use to correct his field sketches. The end product has a sense of immediacy, a work in progress, megalithic notations in a sketchbook. Looking at this sketch now for me is slightly disorientating as east is to the top, but is a welcome break from the tyranny of the north. However, this is also a drawing of some authority, having been published in that august organ the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (PSAS).
The wonderful little sketch below was drawn by another minister, the Rev Robert Munro at the latest in 1890. It shows edited highlights of what must have been visible at that time. Two slightly different versions of this drawing were reproduced, the earliest, remarkably, in The Illustrated London News on 6th September 1890. A slightly amended version was then included in John Bruce’s History of Old Kilpatrick (1893). (A further version of this was reproduced in Harry Bell’s 1980s book Glasgow’s Secret Geometry but wrongly attributed to William Donnelly.)
When compared with what we know of Cochno now from our excavation of 2016, some of this drawing is quite fanciful, but it is also an image that has real depth. (The version published by Bruce even has the feel of a rubbing, a nice observation made by Grahame Gardner.) However, unlike Harvey’s drawing, there is no scale here, thus giving the drawing a sense of being more of an artistic and interpretive depiction rather than a document of precise record. This is perhaps the case, as elements of this depiction of the stone are spatially impossible, with symbols simply in the wrong place relative to one another and so this is an image of cup-and-ring mark density, not accuracy. The use of a sharply defined diagonal line allows symbols from another part of the stone – in this case the south-western extent, several metres from the other symbols to be shown in the same drawing, making this a sort of ‘Cochno Stone greatest hits’ compilation.
This emphasis on selected bits of the Cochno Stone was countered by the clearing of vegetation, and drawing of the whole monument, by William Donnelly in the mid-1890s, working with John Bruce. Illustrator Donnelly’s drawing of the whole of the stone was published in PSAS in 1896, but a slightly earlier and different version was printed in an edition of Bruce’s History of Old Kilpatrick and includes the artist’s signature and the date – 1895. The slightly earlier drawing, the upper of the two versions depicted below, is notable for its inclusion of a north arrow and some landscape detail that are inexplicably absent from the more widely circulated ‘authoritative’ PSAS version.
Donnelly himself was an interesting character, and his illustrations showed an equally bold approach to cup-and-ring mark symbols found elsewhere.
His depiction of symbols of these hoax items found during his excavations (with John Bruce, him again) have echoes of what he saw and drew at Cochno just a few years previously, and suggest a hankering towards the weird and esoteric which he was also able to satisfy at Cochno with his recording of a cross in a circle and two four-toe footprints, neither typical prehistoric motifs. On the cusp of archaeological professionalism, but with visibility and access to archaeological sites still somewhat limited, at the turn of the century such drawings had to be taken on trust.
Yet the rise in interest and participation in rambling and hikes in the early decades of the twentieth century allowed less authoritative accounts of archaeological monuments to be composed and disseminated. The only two sketches of the Cochno Stone that I know of from between 1900 and 1965 were both drawn by non-professional archaeologists.
The earliest of these was published, firstly in the Glasgow Evening Times newspaper in 1909, and then in the book Some Sylvan Scenes near Glasgow by T C F Brotchie in 1910.
This lovely sketch captures a very small fragment of the Cochno Stone focused on a ‘dumb-bell’ motif, sketched at the end of a good ‘Saturday afternoon ramble’. This is a truly artistic rendering, taken from an oblique angle rather than depicting the plan view, with no scale, no north arrow, no conventions – but a sufficiency of dynamism. The rings around the cup have a real sense of mobility, almost as if the symbols were spinning in front of Brotchie’s eyes. There is also a synechdotal quality to this sketch, a gutter running off the right-hand side of the drawing hinting at more to be discovered (and drawn) beyond the frame.
Such dynamism is also evident in another Cochno Stone drawing, one which I have reproduced before, notably in the excavation summary report. Ludovic Mann’s audacious attempt to explain the cosmological meaning of each ring of a cup-and-ring mark complex is as mind-blowing now as it must have been when published in the late 1930s as part of a consideration of the Knappers site he had been excavating in nearby Clydebank.
This ‘dialectogram’ (for the wonderful work of Mitch Miller is one of the best parallels I can think of here) is an amalgam of all the other Cochno drawings to that date. There is convention. There is artistic licence. There is narrative. There is a focus on the giant cup-and-ring mark motifs on the upper reaches of the Cochno Stone that also featured prominently in the drawings of Munro, Harvey and Donnelly. There is passion. And there is wonder.
And there are more questions than answers. Always more questions than answers.
All of these Cochno Stones drawings, produced over a period of forty years, offer a series of dynamic and creative attempts to document and make sense of the cup-and-ring marks, using the conventions and styles of their time and channeled through the personal motivations and passions of the artist-recorder. In their own ways, each of these drawing is a version of the Cochno Stone that captures some of the character of the rock and its symbols and taken together they form a compelling biography of this place, another chapter of a story that began to be written (before there was writing) 5,000 years ago.
What I especially find alluring about this collection of drawings is that they were drawn from life – by actually standing at the site and looking at the stone. This is where Morris’s much reproduced drawing of the stone falls short – it was cobbled together from the plans by Harvey and Donnelly, and some photographs from the 1930s. While it was (until our photogrammetric and laser survey of 2016) the most comprehensive drawing of the Cochno Stone produced, it creaks at the edges with the slightest bit of scrutiny especially when compared with earlier, more dynamic, drawings. It is clinical, transactional, flat.
Morris, a solicitor, was a lateral thinker. To really start to make sense of rock-art, concentric thinking is required.
One of the most common questions that I get asked about the Cochno Stone regards the meaning of the symbols, and regardless of how accurately we record and draw the cupmarks and the cups-and-rings and the gutters, that meaning cannot be revealed to us. Therefore, despite the formal and technical shortcomings of some of the earlier drawings of the Cochno Stone, these are no more or less likely to help make sense of the symbols than any image we could generate now that was mediated through digital technology. In this case at least, the pencil is no more or less mighty than the pixel.
The joy of the art of the Cochno Stone – and indeed any abstract rock-art – is not about accuracy, or precision, but about mediation, dialogue, spending time with the stone, tracing the contours of the prehistoric depressions with our fingers. There is much merit in standing back and letting a laser scanner do its thing, or viewing the stone through the lens of the camera. But drawings and sketches involve a powerful intimacy that mirrors the acts that created the rock-art in the first place.
Forget the scales. We don’t need north arrows. Making sense of rock-art is about thinking concentrically, not metrically.
In the final part of my series of posts looking at the art of the Cochno Stone, I will consider art and creative acts that have been inspired by the Cochno Stone, but that exist spatially somewhere else. In some cases they have only had a brief existence or do not exist at all. A mural, a comic book, Chalkno stones and inspired architectural design all attest to the power of Cochno to provoke a response and empower.
Sources and acknowledgements: as noted in the post, the story of the antiquarian and early drawings of the Cochno Stone could not have been told without the research and diligence of Jim Mearns. Thanks also to Katinka Dalglish, Gavin MacGregor and Alex Hale for the input that their research has had on this post and I have linked to their work where possible. For more on Donnelly and Dumbuck, you can download for free Alex and Rob Sands’ book Controversy on the Clyde: archaeologists, fakes and forgers from here. The biography of Hornel alluded to is Bill Smith’s 2010 book Hornel: the life and work of Edward Atkinson Hornel. I’m also very grateful to Lorna Richardson for both allowing me to use her Umea photograph, but giving me some background context for the image.
The High Banks rock-art drawing came from Hamilton’s paper in PSAS 23 (1888-9) ‘Notice of additional groups of carvings of cups and circles on rock surfaces at High Banks, Kircudbrightshire’. The Stronach rock-art sketch comes from Somerville’s PSAS article, ‘Notice of cup- and ring-marked rocks on the Stronach Ridge, near Brodick, Arran’ (volume 35, 1900-1901). All PSAS articles can be downloaded free.
Ronald Morris’s drawing of the Cochno Stone comes from his 1981 BAR volume The prehistoric rock art of southern Scotland (except Argyll and Galloway).
Other image permissions have been included in the captions, or the text accompanying the images