During this year’s Ullswater Outdoor Fest, the Friends of the Ullswater Way organised a series of five talks on the history and heritage of the valley. The second was by Kate Sharpe from Durham University on prehistoric Rock Art in the Lake District.
Twenty years ago almost nothing was known about rock art in the Lake District fells but, as Kate Sharpe’s talk revealed, it seems that the more we look the more we find. Carved into stones and boulders, we find mysterious circular hollows known as ‘cups’, perhaps together with rings, grooves and other shapes. So when were these designs created? By whom? And for what purpose? Kate’s talk, illustrated by stunning images of rock art throughout the area, guided us step by step towards an understanding of what we know so far about Rock Art in the Lake District and highlighted the big questions that she and others are still striving to answer.
Kate first gave an overview of what we currently know about British Rock Art, using a map to illustrate that the majority of Britain’s 7000 known rock art sites are in Scotland and northern England. However, she emphasized that only a few areas have been thoroughly documented, an example being Northumberland and Durham where local communities have been in involved in the recording process. She also explained the different types of rock art, distinguishing for example between designs found on bedrock and boulders, those found on megalithic structures such as standing stones, and those on portable stones, such as cup-marked cobbles. All this rock art has been dated to the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, from about 4000 to 1500 BC.
When Kate began working on Cumbrian Rock Art, about 20 years ago, the markings on Long Meg and the Standing Stones of Shap were well known but almost nothing had been recorded from the central Lake District. However, not soon after, a local resident of Patterdale who had seen cup marks whilst on holiday in Italy, realized that there were similar designs on the rocks in his garden. Subsequently similar marks were found in other locations in Patterdale and beyond.
The more people have looked for rock art, the more has been found – at Loweswater, Buttermere, Langdale, Grasmere, Grange in Borrowdale, Thirlmere, Rydal, Ambleside – 35 sites to date. As Kate plotted these sites on a map, she began to see a pattern emerging which might help explain the purpose behind the enigmatic designs.
Kate realized that all the Lake District rock art sites are close to the head or tail of lakes, on or just above the valley floor of valleys linking the lowlands to the mountains. Perhaps our Neolithic and Bronze Age ancestors moved seasonally in and out of valleys or between valleys, following their herds, or making regular journeys to key sites such as the axe factory known to have existed in Langdale. Perhaps the valleys provided useful site-lines, perhaps lake margins were easier to move along than the higher fells, perhaps cargo and people were moved by boats on the lakes.
So were the cup-marked stones used for way-marking? Or did they perhaps mark a meeting place? Or maybe they had a commemorative or ritual purpose – a place, for example, where the solstice could be observed. If you would like read more about Kate’s work please see the attached article. You can also follow the unfolding story of Britain’s Rock Art on http://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/era/ and as you are out and about in the fells please keep your eyes peeled for new discoveries.