Archives and Research

Rock art

We work with communities and individuals throughout Scotland to investigate prehistoric rock art.

Photograph of prehistoric cup and ring rock art markings

1 Overview

What is prehistoric rock art?
Prehistoric rock art is more commonly known as cup and ring markings. It comprises cup-shaped depressions, often with radiating lines (grooves) and one or more concentric rings, which are compiled into different, and often elaborate, designs. These motifs are carved onto natural rock surfaces in the open air across Scotland, and are also found in certain parts of Britain, Ireland, and Western Europe.
Rock Art Image 1

The carvings date back over 5,000 years, and were created by early farming societies that lived in this landscape in the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age. We know of almost 2,400 prehistoric carved rocks in Scotland, and there are probably many more that have not yet been recorded. We know very little about why they were made or what they meant to the people that created them, and they remain one of the most fascinating and enigmatic aspects of our past.
Examples of prehistoric rock art in Scotland include:
Scotland's Rock Art Project
Scotland’s Rock Art Project is a five-year project to record and research prehistoric rock art across the country. The scheme is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and is being run by Historic Environment Scotland, in collaboration with Edinburgh University and Glasgow School of Art. We are working in collaboration with communities and individuals throughout Scotland to collect data on the rock art, and to raise wider understanding and awareness.

2 Teams

Scotland's Rock Art Project Team

The project is hosted by Historic Environment Scotland (HES) in collaboration with the School of Simulation and Visualisation at Glasgow School of Art, and Edinburgh University's School of History, Classics and Archaeology. The project team is working in partnership with Kilmartin Museum, Archaeology Scotland, and the North of Scotland Archaeology Society (NOSAS).

Our aim is to improve knowledge and understanding of Scotland's rock art through community co-production. To do this, the project team is recruiting and training local groups and individuals across Scotland to identify and record rock art. Together, we will create a comprehensive database of Scotland's rock art carvings as a basis for our research, whilst raising public awareness.

3 Partnerships and funding

Historic Environment Scotland (HES) has been awarded £807,000 by the Arts and Humanities Research Council to uncover information about Scotland’s Neolithic rock art.
The five-year project, launched in early 2017, will be led for HES by Principal Investigator Dr Tertia Barnett. Co-investigators from Edinburgh University and Glasgow School of Art will also be involved, with project partners Archaeology Scotland, Kilmartin Museum, and the North of Scotland Archaeology Society (NOSAS).

4 Projects

Together with trained community teams, we aim to locate around 2,000 of the prehistoric carvings known in Scotland, and look for undiscovered rock art.
We will gather detailed, consistent information about the carvings using a range of techniques, including:
  • photography
  • photogrammetry (3D photography)
  • Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI)
This information will enable us to analyse the rock art and its contexts, to compare carvings from different locations across Scotland, and to investigate how the carvings have been reused through time.
The information will become permanently archived in Canmore (National Record of the Historic Environment) and regional Historic Environment Records (HERs) where it will be publicly accessible for research, education, and general interest. The record will also inform conservation and management strategies to help sustain the carvings for the future.
Understanding how people perceive and value rock art today is integral to Scotland's Rock Art Project. We will be examining how the relationship between community groups and the carvings changes through the life of the project as people engage with them in different ways.
We are also in the process of developing a new website for Scotland's Rock Art Project, where you will be able to access our database containing details of all known prehistoric carvings in Scotland.

5 Get involved

We work with a number of trained community teams and individuals from across Scotland to locate, record, and research prehistoric carved rocks.
Anyone with an interest in rock art or the historic landscape can get involved!
The team will provide expert training, guidance and support, so no prior experience is necessary. An interest in rock art, photography or archaeological fieldwork would be beneficial.
Interested in participating in Scotland's Rock Art Project, or want to find out more about our talks and training sessions? You can contact us directly, via - or alternatively, get in touch with your local archaeology group or society.