Down Memory Lane, July 2 2021

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Chance Kilmartin discovery changes view of prehistory

Prehistoric animal carvings in Kilmartin Glen, thought to be between 4,000 and 5,000-years-old, were recently discovered for the first time in Scotland.

The animal carvings, hidden inside Dunchraigaig Cairn, are the earliest known in Scotland and the first clear examples of deer carvings from the Neolithic to Early Bronze Age in the whole of the UK.

This is also the first time ancient animal carvings have been discovered alongside cup and ring markings in the UK.

Deer antlers can be seen carved into the rock.
Deer antlers can be seen carved into the rock.

Discovery of the 4,000- to 5,000-year-old artwork shatters long-held perceptions about prehistoric cultures and adds to the reputation of Kilmartin Glen as a site of global significance.

The carvings were discovered by chance by Oxfordshire man Hamish Fenton, who has a background in archaeology, while visiting the area eight miles north of Lochgilphead.

The carvings are located inside the cairn on the capstone of an Early Bronze Age burial cist.

‘It was previously thought that prehistoric animal carvings of this date didn’t exist in Scotland, although they are known in parts of Europe,’ said Dr Tertia Barnett, principal investigator for Scotland’s Rock Art Project at Historic Environment Scotland (HES), ‘so it is very exciting that they have now been discovered here for the first time in the historic Kilmartin Glen.

‘This extremely rare discovery completely changes the assumption that prehistoric rock art in Britain was mainly geometric and non-figurative.

‘While there are a few prehistoric carvings of deer in the UK, the only other ones created in the Early Bronze Age are very schematic.

‘It is remarkable that these carvings in Dunchraigaig Cairn show such great anatomical detail and there is no doubt about which animal species they represent.’

Following Hamish’s discovery, experts from Scotland’s Rock Art Project examined the carvings to confirm their authenticity, using innovative technology in their analysis.

A technical illustration of the engraved slab by Guillaume Robin from the University of Edinburgh.
A technical illustration of the engraved slab by Guillaume Robin from the University of Edinburgh.

A structured light scan was carried out by HES digital documentation experts to create an accurate and detailed 3D model with photographic texture, and various visualisation techniques were then applied to the model in order to reveal more details of the carvings than would have been visible to the naked eye.

The cairn is currently closed while HES carries out further evaluation and puts measures in place to protect the extremely rare, and delicate, ancient carvings.