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

Ben Lawers Season 1 (2007)

The project began in July 2007. On a rather wet 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. The rocks were 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)

Alongside the excavations, it was also important to familiarise ourselves with the wider landscape in which the carvings are located. On one of my first walks across the mountainside I encountered a pine tree which had been recently struck by lightning.

Above: A lightning strike created this distinctive damage to a pine tree (Photos: Aaron Watson, 2007)

Above: As well as the trenches against Rock 01, and additional arc is excavated further from the rock (Photo: Aaron Watson, 2007)

Above: Rock art afficionado, and volunteer on the project, George Curry inspects the motifs on Rock 01 (Photo: Aaron Watson)

Above: Richard Bradley looks on as Diana Coles and Ronnie Scott excavate alongside the large cup and ring motif upon Rock 01 (Photo: Aaron Watson)

With rapid progress being made upon the trenches around Rock 01, we begin work on Rock 02. At the outset we knew there were cup marks and some rings upon this rock, but I was especially interested in a large hollow which was filled with soil and turf. From my experience of working at Torbhlaren I knew that this was a location where we might find artefacts. This proved to be the case, but there was also a big surprise...

Above: National Trust for Scotland archaeologist Derek Alexander breaks the turf within the hollow upon Rock 2.

As we began to excavate the hollow upon Rock 2 more carefully, using trowels, we uncovered two hundred and seventy five pieces of deliberately broken local quartz. The was also a flake of volcanic glass which had to have been brought here from the Isle of Arran. The buried surface of Rock 2 was very fragile, so we were amazed when careful cleaning began to reveal a complex pattern of unrecorded cups and rings. We may be the first people to see these markings for over four thousand years.

Above: The cup and ring in the middle foreground were known, but the elaborate frieze of faint carvings beyond is a new discovery (Photo: Aaron Watson, 2007)

Above: Richard Bradley, Derek Alexander and Ronnie Scott look on as the freshly revealed motifs are animated by changing sunlight (Photo: Aaron Watson, 2007)

Above: We are treated to a spectacular rainbow.

Above: We extend one of the trenches on Rock 01. This reveals very distinctive geological banding upon the rock which was previously covered in peat and turf. There also appears to be a collection of placed stones at the base of the rock. These will require further investigation.


Above: Ronnie Scott begins to record the details of Rock 02.


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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