Rock Art in Cumbria: Landscapes and Monuments by STAN BECKENSALL
Tempus. 2002. 181 monochrome figures, 29 colour plates. ISBN 0-7524-2526-9 .
With his singularly dedicated documentation of rock art sites over some decades, including many sites previously unknown to scholarship, Stan Beckensall has identified northern England as the most significant rock art region in Britain, and one of the most important rock art regions in the world. The debt professional rock art researchers owe to such ‘amateur’ scholars is acknowledged by Richard Bradley in Rock Art and the Prehistory of Atlantic Europe: Signing the Land (1997) which is dedicated to two ‘amateurs’ and marks out Stan Beckensall as ‘the most devoted of amateur archaeologists’ (Bradley 1997:xiv). Bradley’s volume put Britain ‘on the map’ of rock art studies worldwide, as well as a stamp of professorial kudos on British rock art as legitimate archaeological data, but as Beckensall’s publications demonstrate, rock art research in Britain had by no means been lacking before then.
Beckensall’s work, from privately published findings on the rock art of Northumberland (Beckensall 1983, also 1991, 1992a) and Cumbria (1992b), to a more recent glossy study of sites in the counties of Durham, Swaledale and Wensleydale (Beckensall & Laurie 1998), a wider survey of British rock art (Beckensall 1999), and updated volume on Northumberland (Beckensall 2001), has been pivotal – in archaeologists taking a genuine interest in British rock art and in opening up this topic to public interest. Far from being an ‘amateur’ – which implicitly denotes a second-rate approach – Beckensall might better be described as a leading non-university based professor of British rock art, who has pushed its study forward, as evidenced by his current status as a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of England and of Scotland, membership of the International Committee on Rock Art (ICOMOS-CAR), and appointment to the English Heritage steering committee for the Rock Art Pilot Project in England.
What was once an obscure topic examined only in gazetteer-type pamphlets and site guides has grown into a problematised and theorised arena, and volumes on British rock art now demand reputable publishing houses and glossy colour photographs, hence the sumptuous Prehistoric Rock Art in Cumbria. Beckensall’s latest contribution provides a detailed overview (style, content, location, possible age) of the Cumbrian rock art. The site-guide aspect is covered as ably as ever; Beckensall can make what could simply be dry archaeological descriptions (of sites, motifs, location of motifs on rocks, etc) both enthusiastic and engaging: ‘It is the work of a born teacher…[T]his book is accessible to everyone (Bradley in Beckensall p6). Part of that accessibility is in the format of the book, with its evocative watercolour artwork, numerous monochrome photographs and stunning colour plates. Many of these photographs provide intricate details of the engravings – some images are only seen at all in specific lighting conditions. How the imagery is portrayed in this book is significant in a second way. The term ‘cup-and-ring’ art has tended to univeralise a wide range of imagery carved on rocks in Britain since the art is by no means restricted to cups-and-rings. Depicting ‘the main elements’ of cup-and-ring art, figure 1 risks homogenising the differences but figure 2 alleviates this situation with ‘examples of motifs across Britain to show variations on a theme’. Significantly, recent (re)discoveries in Cumbria, such as at Chapel Stile and Castlerigg, discussed in depth for the first time here, draw greater attention to the differences between Cumbrian imagery and that elsewhere in Britain. There may be a similarity between the Cumbrian engravings and those at the passage tombs in North Wales and County Meath, Ireland: besides slight comment (p46, 89), Beckensall chooses not to offer interpretative suggestions, yet the implications of these links for our understanding of the Cumbrian art as well as its relation to rock art in the British Isles and Ireland, should not be overlooked.
This book is primarily a glossy site-guide cum gazetteer but also offers important insights into the significance of the art in landscape and monument contexts. While there is a bewildering array of interpretations (104 have been collated by Morris  for Scotland alone: Beckensall [p13]), art in the landscape and associations with prehistoric monuments have been important interpretative foci over the last decade (e.g. Bradley 1991, 1997, 1998; Waddington 1998). The Cumbrian dataset is exciting in this regard: Beckensall examines, for example, the imagery on five megaliths at the famous stone circle of Castlerigg where no art was recorded until 1995, and we are informed of the relationships between rock art and the kerb and cist stones of burial mounds such as Little Meg. These examples are important in light of Bradley’s research on rock art and burials (e.g. Bradley 1992); beyond descriptive comments though, there is no mention of any contrasts between the funerary contexts of rock art in Cumbria and other regions.
Rock art interpretation (as with all interpretative archaeology) is subject to personal bias. Beckensall’s publications indicate a preference for recording and documentation, but if we are self-reflective in recognising our subjectivities when it comes to interpretation we should be equally reflexive when approaching the recording of rock art which also is not objective and does not take place in an atheoretical vacuum (e.g. Lewis-Williams 1990). Moreover, one can not argue that interpretation is elusive, as Beckensall does (e.g. p13), only to then present interpretations as common-sense fact thereafter. The art at Beckstones, for example, ‘confirmed the theory that marked rocks follow a route way that also provides a good viewpoint up and down the valley…The narrow valley…must surely have been the most obvious path through the mountains and a link with the rich fishing and hunting grounds’ (p32).
The latter part of this statement assumes a passive relationship between these communities, their art, and their economic strategies, which I find disconcerting. Given that communities past and present are not sufficiently summarised through their economic strategy alone, this interpretation-presented-as-truth is misleading. The former part of the statement deals with the ideas, first popularised by Bradley (e.g. 1991), that rock art is located along route ways through the landscape and/or marked significant viewpoints. Both interpretations have been important in broadening our scope away from simply recording and examining specific images/specific panels, to embedding the art in landscape contexts. In the Ullswater Valley, for instance, rock art may be linked to route ways in the valley from Lake Windermere to the mountain-top axe-quarrying/procurement sites of the Pike o’ Stickle. The connections are compelling, and in a similar vein, Waddington (e.g. 1996, 1998) has examined the location of rock art as a demarcation of ‘natural’ pastoral boundaries, and phenomenologically the ways in which different audiences consumed the art (e.g. Waddington 1996, 1998).
It is important, however, to not approach rock art as a passive marker – of ‘territory’ or a route way. While the rock art in the Ullswater Valley may signal a route way, the rocks on which it appears are not isolated but surrounded by other undecorated outcrops. If the engravings here and elsewhere were meant as markers or offered viewpoints, then we might expect them to have been more obviously visible. Further, it is likely that today’s landscape differs markedly from that in the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age (pp17-18) and we do not know whether views were obscured by ‘natural’ and or ‘human-made’ features, such as trees and megaliths. Just as we see the intentional manipulation of Neolithic and Bronze Age monument architecture (and likely rock art) over time, we might also expect to see changes in the orchestration of views between rock art sites. That the imagery is often located in out of the way places and is visible only at close range, may suggest the relationship between art and landscape was rather more complex and nuanced, perhaps related to social relations and hierarchies of knowledge and power. It might be profitable to examine specific rock art/landscape contexts to elucidate idiosyncratic landscape histories and the active role of imagery in socio-political human and other-than-human relations. The Cumbrian material may prove significant when examined in this and other interpretative ways, but Beckensall is content to repeat rather than problematise Bradley’s earlier ideas (but see Beckensall 1996 for some critical commentary) – indeed he misleadingly represents these ideas as common-sense facts, rather than interpretations.
Greater orientation is required in this volume regarding competing interpretations and the significance of Cumbrian art within Britain and beyond. The bibliography is rather limited, being restricted to Britain, with Bradley (1997) and Nash & Chippendale (2001) alone on Europe; many readers, particularly those new to the topic, may benefit from suggestions for wider reading. At the very least, I would expect more on the wider British Neolithic/Bronze Age of which the Cumbrian art is so significant a part, beyond Bradley works. In the final analysis, this may reflect a reluctance to engage with other issues affecting British rock art; it is not, for instance, only walkers, rock climbers and archaeologists, at whom this book is aimed, who have interests in rock art sites. On the one hand, it is refreshing that Beckensall incorporates the approach of an artist into the Endpiece and his own poetry elsewhere; on the other, recent work (e.g. Wallis 2003; Wallis & Blain 2003 & www.sacredsites.org.uk) evaluates the increasing significance of such prehistoric sites as ‘sacred’ to contemporary Pagans and other ‘alternative’ interest groups. Pagans impact these sites in many ways, from solstice ceremonies at Castlerigg and neo-Shamanic rites at Long Meg, to leaving votive offerings (aka ‘ritual litter’) and taking an active part in site management.
In recognising these issues as significant rather than fringe (Beckensall dismisses Druids out-of-hand: p70), it is imperative that scholars examine self-reflectively the effect our work has on the subjects we study. Beckensall’s book, with its publication of the engraved spiral, lozenge and other art at Castlerigg, may increase Pagan attentions at this ‘sacred’ site and the art may be perceived as a further indication and accentuation of its sacredness. Beckensall is more concerned with issues of discovering and documenting sites, but I wonder whether this is enough: conservation and preservation are evidently important to him, hence any study of British rock art is incomplete without engaging with alternative archaeologies. Indeed, where archaeologists tend to approach landscape as a natural palimpsest which becomes cultured by the making of rock art (and other aspects of material culture), some Pagan approaches to sites as already ‘alive’ with spirits, wights or other non-human-persons aligns closely with that of some indigenous communities – here we may find a useful direction for interpreting British rock art.
Reluctance on the part of scholars to interpret cup-and-ring art may derive from the abstract nature of the imagery – Westerners find figurative imagery easier to approach and identify with – but this does not mean interpretation should not be attempted. If cup-and-ring art provides avenues for better understanding the archaeology to which it is related (and vice versa), as the discussions of landscape, megalithic and burial contexts in this volume (see also Beckensall 2002) make plain, then in addition to the interpretations offered to date by Bradley and Waddington, I anticipate that such issues as gender, personhood and altered consciousness addressed in rock art research more generally, as well as wider issues in Neolithic and Bronze Age archaeology such as the Neolithic–Bronze Age transition, will be problematised and theorised in the context of British rock art. Towards this end, Evans (2003; see also Evans & Dowson 2003) proposes a move away from producing gazetteers and reproducing the interpretations of Bradley alone, in an effort to take British rock art research into the self-confident interpretative position found elsewhere in the world (e.g. Lewis-Williams & Dowson 1993, 1999; Dronfield 1996; Dowson 1998; Whitley & Dorn 1999; Chippendale et al 2000; Rozwadowski & Kosko 2002; Wallis 2002). The ways in which scholars of British rock art choose to research and publish their research in coming years will be crucial in this regard.
Dr Robert J Wallis
Review Submitted: June 2003
The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.
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