Seaside rock

Hanging around outside a gents toilets may not seem the most obvious way to do archaeology but needs must. That’s exactly what I did on a recent visit to Southerness, a beach with benefits south of Dumfries.

In many ways Southerness is a throw back to British holiday resorts of old, with its holiday park, amusement arcade, dingy pubs and garish fish and chip shops. Super-sixed plastic ice cream cones are propped outside cafes and it is possible to buy small buckets, spades, fishing nets, flippers and multi-coloured sticks of seaside rock. So it was the last place I expected to stumble upon potentially previously unrecognised rock-art. As part of a wall outside the gents toilet behind the bins.

As Jan and I stood enjoying the sun and our ice cream cones, I noticed a red sandstone block in the wall that had multiple small circular depressions on its surface. After a closer look I felt I could not rule out the possibility that these were cupmarks and that this was part of a larger panel that had been broken up during quarrying. Thankfully I always travel with a scale!

As you can see from these photos, there are no other stones with this pattern, which one could argue suggests that this is not a common natural erosion pattern for this rock. On close inspection the ‘cupmarks’ had regular edges, consistent shape and depth, and did not look natural. Checking along the wall I came across one other piece of rock like this, which had the same characteristics.

I am no expert, and it would need someone from Scotland’s Rock-Art Project (ScRAP) to come down and visually check these two stones and ideally survey the rest of the wall (which is actually quite extensive), but my sense is that there is a decent chance that these are remnants of a prehistoric carved stone that was quarried for wall material. When the wall was built and from whence the stone came from would be interesting to find out, an avenue for future research in the council archives and old maps.

I was heartened also that when I tweeted about this discovery, Joana Valdez-Tullett, an actual rock-art expert with ScRAP, could not rule these stones out this being prehistoric. However Hugo Anderson-Whymark’s (National Museum of Scotland prehistorian) response urges caution, which is fair enough. I’m not sure however that I agree that these marks could have been made by limpets (see here for info and images) but that does not mean we can rule of a natural (or non-prehistoric) causes.

I guess the other thing that makes me confident about my identification is the similarity of the closely-spaced small cupmark design to other panels in the vicinity. In particular it immediately reminded me of High Banks, a wonderful linear outcrop near Kirkcudbright c 24km to the west.

High Banks photographed in 1970s? (c) RCAHMS and now HES

This is an absolute cracker of a rock-art panel that I last visited with Julian Thomas during a day off from excavations at the Holywood cursus monuments in 1997. Carved across a linear group of outcrops some 30m in length, it consists of scores of closely packed cupmarks, some set in parallel lines, as well as other motifs such as cup-and-rings and grooves.

This remarkable panel was replicated as plaster casts which are now propped up outside The Stewarty Museum in nearby Kirkcudbright (a town better known to some as the location of some scenes from the 1973 movie The Wicker Man), a carved stone identity parade.

In themselves these wonderful casts are an urban prehistory pleasure to enjoy, but I won’t dwell on them here as fine words have already been written about these by others such as Gavin MacGregor. Gavin describes this ramshackle collection of carved stones (real and casts) thus:

I quickly looked outside to see a nest of carved stones sheltering together through the ages: piled up in front of the casts, quern stones and fonts, Medieval cross and prehistoric rock art reworked as architectural elements of later buildings.  A glass and steel framed disparate assemblage of esoteric forms revealing : a compelling urge to collect and display over the ages?

Inside the museum is a lovely historic record to accompany the casts, again here I am indebted to Gavin from whose blog I have taken this image.

He also noted that the panel itself had close connection to the artist Edward Atkinson Hornel, who probably first found the rock-art site in 1887, two years before the museum outside the casts are now propped was established.

The aforementioned Hugo of National Museums of Scotland carried out a 3D scan of the cast and was able to compare this with the original, which had been donated to the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland in 1892 before going back to the south-west again. Once again I am prompted to note that there is a wonderful research project waiting to be done on casts (and rubbings) of cup-and-ring marked stones, the value of which has been demonstrated by wonderful research on carved stone replicas by Sally Foster and Sian Jones.

Working version of the scan, tweeted by Hugo in March 2020 (c) NMS

So the Southerness stones are not out of character for rock-art in this part of Scotland, and it is also not unique to find a carved stone built into a wall. Joana Valdez-Tullett very kindly sent me a list of such sites suggesting this practice has been going on for 2000 years. Some of these are cup and cup-and-ring marked stones built into the walls of Iron Age structures such as souterrains and brochs. These include Kildrummy, Tealing and Leckie – clearly deliberate acts of inclusion which suggest a fascination with the past in this period.

However, there are closer parallels to Southerness in Scotland in terms of inclusion in post-medieval and modern walls. Here are the five examples identified by Joana; all images are from the ScRAP website. In four cases these are large stones that must have acted as wall foundations, so there is pragmatism at work here but perhaps also some stone dyker aesthetics.

Kinmylies, near Inverness, Highland: a stone with 26 cupmarks and three ‘dumbbells’ set near the base of stone dyke.

Glasvaar 4, near Ford, Argyll & Bute: built into a garden wall, a stone with multiple carvings. Nice! One of several carved stones in this location, but the only one wall-bound.

Others are similar. Kilmahumaig 1, near Kilmartin, Argyll and Bute, is a stone with a large carved basin set into a wall in the grounds of a fancy house, while Druim Mor 2, north of Dingwall, Highland, consists of a cracking block with 24 cupmarks on it near the base. The wall denotes the edge of a Christmas tree plantation, so paganism is alive and well in this location.

Helmsdale, Highland: a rather different – urban – setting, and this one reminds me a lot of Southerness. The cupmarked stone is part of a wall, a former building, on Stittenham Road. It is a stone that has been broken from a larger panel, with 16 cupmarks, some of which may be natural. I’ve driven through Helmsdale many times over the past few decades but not stopped to look at this before; I will next time.

As it happens, I was fortunate enough to document a stone with a single cupmark built into a garden wall at Auchnacraig 1, West Dunbartonshire, during my excavations there in 2019. This was spotted by Gavin MacGregor during a visit to the site and is another aspect of the connection between 20th century garden landscaping and rock-art in this locale.

Joana also included in a list she sent me rock-art on gateposts, sitting beside walls, and stones found on estates that may once been included in walls. The latter case is Kirkdale House, Dumfries and Galloway, where a small shack has been constructed that contains six carved stones of various sizes and forms. This collection is located west along the coast from Kirkcudbright.

Wonderful sketch of the Kirkdale group, from the ScRAP record for this site.

So being moved and stuck into a wall is a rare but not isolated phenomenon in other words so on this basis we cannot rule out Southerness being genuinely prehistoric in origin.

What is seaside rock? Wikipedia defines it as ‘a type of hard stick-shaped boiled sugar confectionery most usually flavoured with peppermint or spearmint’ but perhaps the most notable thing about this tooth-breaking sweet is the presence of words that run along the entire length of the sticky stick. There is something magical about this, and the process by which this happens is remarkable and surprisingly physical (although I guess this is now probably all done by robots and machines).

Of course rock does not have to be bought or branded at the seaside, although it often is. Rock-art is the same of course, sometimes located on the coast but not always. The writing that runs through the heart of a stick of rock – SOUTHERNESS – tells us something of the character of this product and where it came from (even if it were not made there). In the same way, the crowded cupmarks evident at High Banks and Southerness 1 and 2 (as I will now grandly call them) speak of the character of the region, symbols of such power and tenacity that they ran through the heart of communities like words in a stick of rock. They are distinctive, and deeply embedded.

The two sandstone blocks at Southerness may contain hollows made by people in the third millennium BC, or they may simply be strangely eroded rocks that fortuitously look like they are artificial. If rocks do erode like this along this coastline then perhaps this was what inspired the distinctive look of High Banks? If rocks with this erosion pattern were spotted in the Neolithic, would it have been possible (or even necessary) to see them as either cultural or natural? This distinction was probably not as clear in prehistory if it existed at all.

I am content for these two stones located outside a holiday camp toilet block to be retained in the ‘possible’ file for the time being, and perhaps some future research or fieldwork will shed more light on their origin. Regardless of whether these are prehistoric carved stones or not, they are very much urban prehistory. Go and have a look for yourself and let me know what you think.

Sources and acknowledgements: I am deeply indebted to Joana Valdez-Tullett for her comments on the Southerness stones and also for providing me with a list of rock-art with wall associations in Scotland. The data in that list was brilliant and much appreciated. Thanks also to Hugo Anderson-Whymark for his thoughts.

This blog contains images and details from the work of Scotland’s Rock-art Project, the National Museums of Scotland, and Gavin MacGregor – due credit for these have been included in the text or captions. These images are reproduced with much appreciation and admiration to my talented colleagues.