British Prehistoric Rock Art by STAN BECKENSALL
Tempus, 1999. 160 pages, 82 drawings, 89 photographs (27 colour, 63 B&W), 17 maps; ISBN 0-7524-2514-5. (£16.99)

Why British prehistoric rock art should ever have been considered a subject undeserving of serious archaeological study is a question that confronts you as soon as you open this book. It is comprehensively illustrated with Stan Beckensall’s drawings and photographs of rock art from across the country – the product of many years of often solitary fieldwork – and the briefest glance is enough to explain what it was that inspired him and kept him going. Here is archaeology literally sticking out of the ground, and archaeology of the most intriguing kind – you can’t look at the illustrations in this book without your mind going into puzzle-solving mode.

Since his publication of Northumberland rock art in 1983, Beckensall has produced regular volumes, some privately printed, recording the cup-and-circle marks, spirals, concentric arcs and other motifs that were carved into natural rock outcrops, earthfast boulders and parts of cairns, cists and standing stones across northern England. This book offers an overview covering the whole country of what has by now become, belatedly in Britain compared to elsewhere in the world, a subject of mainstream scholarly research. His contribution, not only in raising awareness about the subject but also in helping to assemble a comprehensive record of British rock art, was acknowledged in Richard Bradley’s dedication of his Rock Art and the Prehistory of Atlantic Europe: Signing the Land (1997) to this ‘most devoted of amateur archaeologists’.

In his Introduction Beckensall articulates some of the questions that were raised in his mind when he first encountered rock art (who, why and when?), and he suggests that now we can at least provide some tentative answers – that the phenomenon may have spanned a thousand years from the Neolithic into the Bronze Age, and was perhaps associated with the exploitation of marginal land for hunting and pastoralism, the rock art signing the land (to adopt Bradley’s phrase) from prominent viewpoints.

There follow five main chapters (confusingly with different numbering on the Contents page). In Symbols and motifs Beckensall considers first the symbolic power of the circle, as manifested both in the shape of henge monuments such as Avebury and in individual cup marks; he is less willing, however, to consider possible ‘meanings’ for the spiral with which much of the chapter is concerned. He also presents a preliminary ‘vocabulary of rock art’ with diagrams showing suggested relationships between, and variants of, many of the most common motifs.

He suggests, however, that is not the single motifs, of which there is a quite restricted range, that are important, but their combination and arrangement on individual rock surfaces, and in Panels of Rock Art he provides a sample of these compositions recorded from West Yorkshire to Argyll. He starts the chapter giving symbol by symbol descriptions of each surface (perhaps unnecessarily given the accompanying drawings), but by the end, perhaps realising the superfluous nature of the exercise, he leaves the reader ‘to contemplate some others without any comments from the author’.

The short chapter on How the study of Rock Art began and developed starts with an account of some of the individuals who studied the phenomenon up to the point where professional archaeologists began to take a serious interest. From there, however, Beckensall appears to be less comfortable with some of the directions of current research. Archaeologists who have expanded on his recording and documenting work are commended, but many of those discussing the phenomenon within the wider context of rock art studies in Europe and around the world are (with the exception of Bradley) largely overlooked, as are many of the theoretical works on the subject – is it to the latter that he is referring when he writes of ‘long-winded papers that have little of value to contribute’? A flavour of Beckensall’s attitude to some of these more general theoretical approaches is indicated, perhaps, by his characterisation of studies associating motifs in rock art (and passage tomb art) with altered neurological states as a product of ‘our drug-obsessed culture’. Beckensall, himself, takes no explicit theoretical position (although implied stances clearly emerge from his text), looking instead, throughout the book, largely to Bradley’s work to provide some explanatory framework.

The next two chapters describe the main occurrences of rock art, firstly on natural rock exposures and secondly on rocks built into a range of archaeological monuments. Art in the landscape, comprising at least half of the book, provides overviews of the rock art in eleven regions across Britain, and relates the major sites to the local geology and topography, and to other rock art sites and archaeological sites in the surrounding landscape. It is illustrated with regional and local maps, and numerous drawings and photographs of the decorated surfaces. However, although this chapter certainly contains a mass of information, the lack of figure references in the text (this applies throughout the book), and the sometimes confusing mapping, makes following the text quite a struggle. While there is, within the text, comment on landscape differences, regional comparisons, as well as monument, settlement and economic contexts, the text is structured in such a way that it is hard to get an overall picture or understanding of each area. A more consistent approach providing general contextual information, with more coherent mapping showing the sites described, would have helped considerably in the presentation of the material.

Rock art in context is divided into two main sections – ‘Standing stones and circles of stone’ and ‘Burial monuments’ – but this is not always an useful distinction, resulting in, for instance, the Clava cairns in the Scottish Highlands being considered in both sections. Similar confusion stems from describing and illustrating one Angelsey burial monument, Barclodiad y Gawres, in this chapter, and another, Bryn Celli Ddu, in the previous Landscape chapter. As the comparisons and contrasts between the rock art on monuments and that on natural exposures would seem to be essential to an understanding of the origins and development of both phenomena, they might have been more usefully combined within the series of consistently present regional summaries.

While much of the rock art at archaeological sites is offered some statutory protection, those dispersed in the landscape are more vulnerable to damage, and Beckensall ends the book with a brief comment on the future management of this resource in the face of a range of impacts including quarrying, agriculture, erosion and acid rain, risks that have prompted welcome programmes of work by English Heritage and Historic Scotland.

There is much to commend in Beckensall’s work, and while I can’t say that I will try and read this book through again, I will certainly refer to it again, and it has made me want to know more about a subject that I, too, had largely overlooked up till now. It may perhaps be more profitably used as a general field guide, although this is a pity as it had the potential to be considerably more. The general reader looking for an introduction to this interesting subject will certainly get a flavour of British rock art from the drawings and photographs, but may find it harder, as I did, to gain from the text an understanding of the phenomenon within the contexts of the local and regional archaeology and the wider study of rock art around the world. This, too, is a shame because an accessible, authoritative and comprehensive introduction to the subject is certainly needed, and Beckensall’s extensive knowledge would make his contribution an essential ingredient.

I must say that it surprised me that the most obvious of book’s shortcomings appear not to have been identified at an early stage by Tempus, since even minor changes and editing (such as the inclusion of figure references, and tidying up the rather erratic formatting) could have resulted in substantial improvements to the benefit of all concerned (reader, author and publisher). These criticisms are, however, no reflection on the extent of the author’s expertise and enthusiasm, or on his desire to communicate his knowledge for the subject; I just feel that prehistoric British rock art, and the efforts of Stan Beckensall, deserve a better book than this.

Andrew B Powell
Wessex Archaeology

Review Submitted: March 2004

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

Home Page The Prehistoric Society Home Page