Looking across Loch Tay during the excavation of a rock art panel on Ben Lawers (Photo: Aaron Watson, 

Ben Lawers: excavating rock art

I co-directed this project with Richard Bradley between 2007 and 2012. Our objective was to investigate some of the highest panels of rock art in the British Isles. They are situated high upon the slopes of Ben Lawers mountain range in the southern Highlands of Scotland.


Above: The location of the Ben Lawers project. The lower map shows the overall distribution of cup and ring marked rocks on the Ben Lawers Estate. The area we investigated in detail is outlined in red (Illustration: Aaron Watson)

In previous years, excavations undertaken by Southampton University at the rock art site of Torbhlaren in Argyll had uncovered distinctive deposits of chipped stone and hammerstones. This raised an interesting question. Did these findings reflect the location of Torbhlaren in the midst of the extraordinarily rich archaeology of the Kilmartin area? Would similar evidence occur at rock art sites which were not so closely associated with chambered cairns or standing stones?

One of the reasons we chose to work at Ben Lawers was because relatively few Neolithic or Bronze Age monuments seem to have been constructed around Loch Tay. Since ***, however, over one hundred and fifty panels of rock art have been discovered on the southern slopes of Ben Lawers, many within the Ben Lawers Estate and cared for by the National Trust for Scotland.


Before any fieldwork could begin, we needed to choose where to excavate. In August 2006 we were given a guided tour of the Ben Lawers Estate by Derek Alexander of the National Trust for Scotland. At the first location we visited there were complex cup and ring markings, but the ground around these carved rocks had been disturbed by the construction of shielings (post-medieval summer farms).

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 second location we visited was more promising. Near to a burn known as Allt Coire Phadairlidh were a cluster of rock panels which had been carved to varying extents. Some had cup marks only while others displayed multiple rings. There were also boulders which had no markings at all. This was promising, since it would allow us to explore the relationship between the complexity of rock art and the kinds of deposits associated with each rock. Furthermore, there did not seem to have been any medieval or recent activity nearby. 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)


We returned to Ben Lawers with a small team in July 2007. On the first day we visited all the carved boulders to talk about where we were going to place the trenches. Our plan was to dig a series of metre square pits around each rock. One group of pits was to be placed directly against each rock with a second group a few metres away. This would enable us to determine the extend of any depositions. As a control, we also identified a rock without carvings. Each of the chosen rocks was numbered from one to six.

Above: Rock 01 before excavations just began on 22 July 2007. On the highest surface of the rock is a cup mark surrounded by many rings (Photo: Aaron Watson, 2007)


Above: The team digging metre square pits around Rock 01 on 23 July 2006. The contrast between these images reveals how the view was constantly changing (Photos: Aaron Watson, 2006)

The focus for excavation was focused upon a small area, but we also began to explore the wider landscape context of the rock art. 


Above: A short walk to the west of the excavation site I encountered a pine tree bearing the scars of a recent lightning strike.


Above: Excavations continue at Rock 1 with the excavation of a wider ring of pits in progress. Rock art aficionado George Currie inspects the motif upon the rock (Photo: Aaron Watson, *). 


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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