The Prehistoric Rock Art of Kilmartin by Stan Beckensall
The serious study of prehistoric rock art is one of the fastest growing and arguably one of the most fascinating parts of archaeology: as Bradley has observed, carved rocks represent some of the earliest attempts in the UK at any form of open-air ‘sculpture’ or ‘art’ (for want of a better term), notwithstanding the recent remarkable discoveries at Creswell Crags and Cheddar. The work of dedicated amateurs in particular has totally transformed the subject over the last twenty-five years or so. Foremost among these has been Stan Beckensall. With a well-established national reputation, Beckensall, a retired Northumbrian headmaster and writer, is generally acknowledged as the foremost amateur authority on the prehistoric rock art of the United Kingdom. He has spent over half a lifetime discovering, documenting and explaining these enigmatic reminders of our Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age past with great success to both the general public and the professional archaeological community. This has been accompanied by a stream of good regular publications on the subject, covering most parts of the United Kingdom where such rock art is found, and this latest offering on the prehistoric rock art of the Kilmartin Valley in Argyll, Scotland, is no exception.
The book opens with a preface by Christopher Chippindale, curator of the Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology at the University of Cambridge and himself the author of a number of books on prehistoric rock art and its significance, which neatly sets the scene for the reader by defining in broad terms what prehistoric rock art is and describing the Kilmartin landscape where it is found.
The Kilmartin Valley and its immediate environs in southern Argyll is extraordinary for its concentration and variety of spectacular prehistoric sites in one region, including the Nether Largie cairns, the Ballymeanoch complex (cairns, standing stones, carved rocks and a henge), the Temple Wood complex (stone circles, carved rocks and cists), and the stunning rock art at Achnabreck – simply the largest piece of decorated outcrop in the British Isles. These sites were first systematically brought to the public’s attention by the pioneering work of Ronald Morris, a retired Glasgow solicitor, with publications of his own back in the 1960’s and Beckensall is quick to acknowledge his debt to him. What Beckensall has been able to do is to revise and enrich Morris’ original account, add freshly-discovered sites, and above all to set them in their proper archaeological context in an attractive and handy volume that brings them and our understanding of them bang up-to-date.
Whether you define a site as a location where several carved rocks are found, or as each separate rock, the book describes well over 100 such ‘sites’ within the greater Kilmartin Valley area - many of them published and described here for the first time - stretching from Lochgilphead in the south, past Kilmichael Glassary, through the Kilmartin Valley itself and on to sites at the western end of Loch Awe. The sites are treated systematically area by area within the larger Kilmartin Valley, each area meriting its own location map and chapter in the text. Each chapter includes detailed information on how to locate each site, accompanied by first-class colour photographs and black-and-white illustrations by the author, as well as a valuable description of any nearby sites such as cairns which help to set the site into its wider prehistoric context. However, one problem found by this reviewer in attempting to link individual sites from the location maps with the relevant text and illustrations was the numbering system for sites established on the initial location maps: e.g. Ford 1, Ford 2, etc., which was not always followed in the text or with the illustrations. The book, too, would have benefited from a map locating the Kilmartin Valley within either the UK or Scotland as a whole, particularly for readers less familiar with the regional geography of Argyll. However, having said that, the text is well supported by excellent location maps in full colour produced by Roddy Regan.
As with all of Beckensall’s works, The Prehistoric Rock Art of Kilmartin is written in a clear, direct, and friendly style which at once expresses both the author’s passion for his subject and his intentions to the reader. The book, therefore, is not intended as a major contribution to the academic debate about the possible meanings to be ascribed to prehistoric rock art, rather it is essentially a detailed gazetteer with a few relevant observations of the author’s own on the rock art ‘debate’. Not surprisingly, in spite of the excellence of much of the work in discovering and recording the many thousands of rock art panels in the UK, the chief criticism of amateur work has been the reluctance to offer up convincing theories as to their meaning for prehistoric people. Unlike the more familiar cave art from the Palaeolithic or the contemporary rock art from parts of Scandinavia that clearly depicts boats, UK prehistoric rock art for the greater part consists of entirely abstract motifs and this has made them especially difficult in the past to interpret. Traditionally, therefore, the search for the ‘meaning’ of rock art occupied itself with attempts to interpret the symbols themselves, following on from the suggestions first made by Abbé Breuil in the 1930’s. More recently, identified in particular with the published work of Richard Bradley and others on the subject, there has been a shift towards explanations in terms of their broader cultural context and especially in terms of their place in the prehistoric landscape. Beckensall consistently has always been wary of accepting such theories uncritically and has been careful to distinguish between fact and speculation, however persuasive. Thus it is that following on from the purely factual gazetteer of sites, he includes a lengthy chapter on the significance of rock art. This ends with a revealing section headed Coping with theories: a warning. Dealing with the all-important and vexed question of what all this rock art ‘means’, it focuses on one of the more recent theories that marks a return to attempt to understand the origins and purposes of the symbols themselves: the possibility that the motifs in rock art have their origin in trance-induced entoptic images (i.e. produced by the internal action of the nervous system itself in the eye). With his characteristic honesty and directness, Beckensall admits that the question, like so many of the theories devised to ‘explain’ rock art, while persuasive, remains unproven. While it may be frustrating to some readers that Beckensall refuses to reach any firm conclusions, he still leaves the reader with plenty to think about. In the study of British prehistoric rock art, intriguingly, there are still more questions than answers. Appropriately, the final chapter deals with the future of rock art studies: with the recording, vulnerability, conservation and management of so many all-too fragile rock art sites – each and every one a unique part of the archaeological record and a celebration of the landscape.
The book finishes with a short but useful bibliography listing the more prominent and contemporary publications on prehistoric rock art, as well as advice on where to find the more academic offerings. However, the section dealing with journals would have been easier to read if an explanation of the abbreviations for journals used had been given first. It is a great pity, too, that the book lacks an index.
Sadly, for a book of this otherwise high quality, there are rather too many typographical errors which should really have been picked up at the proof-reading stage, as well as a slightly confusing layout at times. Accordingly, the book includes an erratum to guide the reader through the more glaring errors. To deal with the more prominent examples: on the location map on p. 34, Site 1 Torradh na Fienne is identified as Torradh na Feinne in the text (p. 35), Site 5 Carnbaan is Carn Ban (p. 38) and the site simply identified as Dunamuck (Site 8) is Dunamuck 1 in the text (p. 44), while Dunamuck 5 and Dunamuck 6 are completely missing from the map. In Fig 49 (p. 38), the Ballymeanoch stones have been left unidentified. Kilmichael Glassary 1 is identified in the text (p. 51) as per the location map on page 50 but not Kilmichael Glassary 2. The site at Meall a’Bhraithain (p. 63) is Meall a Braithain on the location map (p. 57). Figures 95 (p. 67) and 97 (p. 68) are repeats of each other, while Simpson’s illustration of the Ballymeanoch stones (p. 89) has no figure number. On the location map on page104, Torran 3 is missing, Site 9 should be Ford 6 and I could find no information in the text on either site 27 at Glennan or site 28 at Tigh a’Charman. Finally, and more seriously, for some reason, in the reviewer’s copy, every instance of the letters “fi” and “fl” has been transposed with the letters “ö” and “u’” between pages 128-138, e.g. “ögurative” for “figurative” (p. 131) and “inu’ence” for “influence” (p. 136).
A few minor points of layout: the illustration of the Torbhlaran outcrop comes in the text after the Torbhlaran standing stone (p. 56), when the relevant text and map it comes before it. Simpson’s illustration of the Ballymeanoch stones comes at the end of the section on Temple Wood, when it would perhaps have been better placed (for comparison) alongside the author’s own fine illustrations of the same (Fig. 121, p. 82).
The book is very reasonably priced, softback and comes at a handy size for carrying into the field: 16.5mm x 23.5mm. Whatever the book’s shortcomings, it at least stands as an important record of the prehistoric rock art of the area – a sufficiently important task in itself. On balance, in spite of the problems with typography and layout, the book is an attractive and worthy contribution to our published knowledge of UK prehistoric rock art and as such is to be welcomed both for the general public and as an essential addition to the library of any serious scholar of the subject.
Review Submitted: October 2005
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