The view across Loch Tay from one of the excavated rock art panels on Ben Lawers.

Ben Lawers: a visit in 2006

We first visited the Ben Lawers cup and ring marks in August 2006, guided by Derek Alexander (National Trust for Scotland). The first site we visited was spectacular, but the carved rocks were closely associated with shielings (post-medieval summer farms). This meant that the ground around them had been disturbed. This was not the place to dig.

Above: Panoramic views from a cup and ring marked boulder on Ben Lawers in 2006. This location was not suitable due to more recent disturbance (Photo: Aaron Watson)

The next site we visited was much more suitable. Each rock had been carved to a varying extent, and there even boulders which had no cups or rings at all. There appeared not to have been any activity in this location since the carvings had been made. We had found the setting for the project.

Above: Towards the eastern edge of the Ben Lawers Estate we found a group of cup and ring carvings which were ideal (Photo: Aaron Watson, 2006)


The project began in July 2007. On the first day we visited all the carved boulders to discuss where we were going to locate our trenches. The plan was to dig a series of metre square pits around each rock. One group of pits was placed directly against the rock. A second group was further away. This would enable us to determine whether any prehistoric activity was associated with each rock, and potentially connected with the rock art. We also identified a rock which appeared not to have been carved. Each rock was numbered from one to six.

Above: Rock 01 before excavations began on 22 July 2007. There is a large motif on the highest part of this rock: a cup mark surrounded by many rings (Photo: Aaron Watson)


Above: Two views of excavations around Rock 01 on 23 July 2006, showing rapid changes in the light over Loch Tay (Photos: Aaron Watson)


Above: Three views of Rock 01. The image at the top was taken on the first day of the project. The others were taken during excavations on the second day,


The aim of the project was to test whether rocks that were decorated were treated in special ways. Excavations around outcrops with cup and ring marks revealed substantial evidence of broken quartz and a fragment of flint. There were also exotic materials such as volcanic glass from Arran and a beach pebble, possibly from the Atlantic coastline. In contrast, undecorated rocks revealed none of this evidence at all. Previously unknown images were also revealed.

The broken quartz most likely resulted from hammerstones breaking during the act of making the rock art. Some of the rocks contained large quantities of mica that caused the carvings to glisten and sparkle, very similar to the shimmering surface of the loch below. One outcrop even had compacted ground in the optimal area to view a complex motif set against an impressive view of Loch Tay. This might have been where a Neolithic audience stood to view the image, or even to witness some kind of performance upon the rock.

Alongside working on the excavations, a touring exhibition of photography was staged by National Trust Scotland. We were also interviewed by the BBC Alba television documentary, Talamh Trocair.

Further reading

Ben Lawers: Carved Rocks on a Loud Mountain, by Richard Bradley and Aaron Watson. 2012. In Visualising the Neolithic: abstraction, figuration, performance, representation, edited by Andrew Meirion Jones and Andrew Cochrane. Oxford: Oxbow.
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Excavations at Four Prehistoric Rock Carvings on the Ben Lawers Estate, 2007-2010, by Richard Bradley, Aaron Watson and Hugo Anderson-Whymark. 2012. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 142, 27-61.
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Four Sites, Four Methods, by Aaron Watson. 2012. In Image, Memory and Monumentality, edited by Andrew Meirion Jones, Joshua Pollard, Julie Gardiner and Michael J. Allen. Oxford: The Prehistoric Society and Oxbow, 307-27.
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