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Prehistoric Rock Art of the West Riding; cup-and-ring marked rocks of the valley of the Aire, Wharfe, Washburn and Nidd, by K.J.S. BOUGHEY & E.A. VICKERMAN
West Yorkshire Archaeology Service, 2003; xii + 188 pages; 49 figures; 193 b&w plates. ISBN 1 870453 32 8. (£14 + £4.50 p&p, direct from WYAS, PO Box 30, Nepshaw Lane South, Morley, Leeds, LS27 0UG. Cheques payable to Wakefield Metropolitan District Council)

This splendidly produced hardback volume replaces and updates the Ilkley Archaeology Group’s ‘The Carved Rocks on Rombalds Moor’ (1986). I must state at the outset that I review this volume with a general interest in rock art, but without a detailed knowledge of the West Yorkshire sites, having only inspected a small sample of the sites on a couple of brief visits several years ago. I am, therefore, in no position to judge the accuracy of general or specific statements about the local archaeology, although I am happy to be able to report that the volume appears to be well researched and presented (not something that can be said about every title ever published on the subject of rock art).

Rather unusually, the volume begins with a section entitled ‘Discussion’, something one might more normally expect to find at the end of a book. The reason for this is clear as the subsequent sections consist only of a gazetteer and illustrations. I will deal first with the gazetteer and illustrations, before returning to the Discussion about which the bulk of this review is concerned.

The Gazetteer
The gazetteer fills 131 pages, representing a little over two thirds of the book. It consists of tables, scale drawings and black and white photographs. The tables detail 647 different rock art sites, and include NGRs, brief descriptions and bibliographic references. The drawings are usefully shown at a uniform scale, all with north arrows, and many are also drawn in profile. Drawing cup-and-ring marks is not a straightforward exercise. Experts can argue indefinitely over whether a particular indentation in a rock surface is natural or artificial (or perhaps an artificially enhanced natural feature), and can change their minds according to the prevailing weather conditions on a given day! I know of no really accurate way of depicting complex panels of rock art as two-dimensional images, especially in cases where varying levels of erosion suggest different phases of decoration on a single panel. That said, the drawings represent a fine archive of the local decorated rocks, especially when considered alongside the photographs provided. These photographs are generally excellent, taken under good light conditions, and the printing is of very high quality. The 193 photographs included in the book are apparently only a small selection of those in the project archive: it would be useful if the entire archive could one day be made available on a website. Commendably, the authors have included photographs which attempt to show some of the decorated rocks in their landscape settings, as well as close-ups of the decorated surfaces. This need to consider rock art in context is something to which I shall return below. In summary, the gazetteer appears well researched and is set out in a thoroughly user-friendly style for which the authors and designers are to be congratulated.

The Discussion
This occupies 47 pages, and is very wide-ranging. It includes general accounts of the cup-and-ring phenomenon and an outline history of rock art research in Britain over the past 150 years. Its main strength, as one might expect from the volume’s title, is its description and analysis of the West Riding rock art, specifically that of the Aire, Wharfe, Washburn and Nidd valleys. The descriptions are presented one moor at a time, and include the well-known rock art concentrations on Rombalds Moor (including Ilkley Moor) and Baildon Moor, along with many less well-known sites. Individually, for some unknown reason, few of these sites match the grandeur of many Northumberland or Argyll sites, but collectively they display much variety and certainly represent a recognisable regional style. The designs are invariably based on cup-marks, occasionally with rings, but include a variety of grooves which lend most sites a sense of individuality not always present in, for example, Northumberland, where panels might be more spectacular but design elements are perhaps rather more predictable. (Perhaps ‘cup-and-groove’ would be a better term than ‘cup-and-ring’ to describe the art of this region, given the relative lack of rings and the preponderance of designs based on cups and wavy grooves.) In some cases, especially those where only cup-marks are present, I sometimes wonder whether it was the act of making the cup-mark that was more important than the motifs left behind, and that perhaps they were made over an extended time period. In other cases, as Boughy and Vickerman explain, ‘there appears to be a unity suggesting a single design executed, if not at one time, then as one idea and probably by a single artist.’

The Discussion includes a section entitled ‘statistical analysis’. I have hated statistics ever since being forced to take it for A-level, but accept that the detailed statistical analysis of the nature of the decorated panels, and of their distribution within the landscape, are very important aspects of modern research. That said, I do wonder whether such analysis has really taught us much over and above the general observations made by various mid-nineteenth century antiquarians. And I doubt whether our Neolithic ancestors would have thought much of such ‘scientific’ research – sometimes just a feeling for a place is enough to make it special, without having to prove its ‘specialness’ using mathematics.

The authors also consider the recording and conservation of rock art. Accurate recording is, of course, essential, as all carvings left open to the elements will continue to erode. (A recent moorland fire in North Yorkshire has caused serious damage to several decorated panels, all of which had fortunately been recorded by local rock art experts. Similar damage could occur anywhere: should it occur in the area covered by this book then at least we will have good records to fall back on). Many decorated outcrops in this area have been lost or damaged through various causes: hopefully the availability of this book and its associated archive will help to minimise such events in future. I agree wholeheartedly with the authors’ observations regarding the dangers of alienating farmers and landowners through excessive red-tape. It is, in my experience, far more profitable to allocate resources to the education of such individuals than to worry about the need to legally protect every rock art site and other ancient monument through scheduling or other means.

The Discussion closes with a consideration of the ‘meaning’ of the carvings, which is naturally what many people buying and reading the book will most want to learn about. This section covers familiar ground to those involved in rock art studies, offering a variety of possibilities but no firm opinions. The ‘meaning’ behind the cup-and-ring marks is something that has intrigued me for a couple of decades, and I do not necessarily subscribe to the ‘we will never know for sure, so there is little point in wasting time thinking about it’ attitude which most professional archaeologists seem to have adopted. As I have tried to show in my own work (eg Frodsham 1996; in press) there is enormous scope for informed speculation about the thinking behind the motifs within frameworks provided by ethnographic studies. The decorated rocks occur within landscapes that were occupied by people, and there are many different approaches to the study of these people in addition to speculation about their rock art. Just a few years ago, no professional archaeologists were very interested in British rock art. Today the subject has become very trendy in its own right. But it should not be a subject in its own right as the rock art never existed in isolation. Walking round a moor studying rock art alone has been described to me as like walking round a great cathedral studying nothing but floor-tiles, or round an art gallery studying paint rather than paintings! There is a sensible balance to be struck here. We must give due weight to the study of rock art, but must also remember that rock art sites often have complex contexts which are open to many different techniques of investigation. Serious progress in understanding of cup-and-ring marks should not be sought through ‘rock art studies’, but through integrated, multi-faceted studies of the Neolithic world. Books like ‘Prehistoric Rock Art of the West Riding’ have a crucial role to play in informing such integrated studies.

In summary
This volume summarises countless hours of dedicated and meticulous fieldwork by its authors and others over many years. Those with a professional interest in British rock art must obtain it as an essential addition to their library. Anyone with a just a passing interest in the subject would also do well to obtain a copy, if only to spend some time studying the splendid photographs. Having recommended it, almost without reservation, I will end with a plea. Please will those with involved with the rock art of West Yorkshire now turn from discovery and classification to serious archaeological study of the decorated panels. I know that there is always a fear of committing speculative opinions to paper, but we really have now reached the stage when local experts are going to have to start thinking about how to progress the study of rock art. There is much to do, ranging from the study of anthropological literature of potential value, to the excavation of sites to try and develop local and regional chronologies and relate these to the wider Neolithic world. I really do not wish to read any more discussions of rock art which end with observations about ‘fascinating questions which must for now remain unanswered’. The authors of this volume are no less guilty than many others – but come on, you’re the experts - at least have the courage to tell us what you think!

Paul Frodsham
Northumberland National Park Authority

Frodsham, P. 1996. Spirals in Time: Morwick Mill and the spiral motif in the British Neolithic, Frodsham, P. (ed.), Neolithic Studies in No-Man’s Land: Papers on the Neolithic of Northern England from the Trent to the Tweed. (= Northern Archaeology 13/14). Newcastle upon Tyne: Northumberland Archaeological Group.
Frodsham, P. (in press). The phallic explanation: A late nineteenth century solution to the cup-and-ring conundrum, in Burgess, C. & Topping, P. (eds), Beyond Stonehenge. Essays on Archaeology and the Bronze Age in Honour of Colin Burgess. Oxford: Oxbow.

Review Submitted: June 2004

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

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