Excavating rock art in Strath Tay day 1: Deciding where to dig

The results of excavations at rock art sites have been variable. Some sites which have complex art, such as Ormaig near Kilmartin, revealed very few artefacts. Other locations, including Torbhlaren and Ben Lawers, displayed simpler designs and yet were rich in material. There have been so few excavations that we do not know whether these examples are representative. In the late summer of 2017, I had another chance to find out during two weeks of excavation at a remote cup and ring marked outcrop near Strath Tay, in the southern Highlands of Scotland.

Heavy skies over Strath Tay, our first day at the site. The first thing to do was to walk over the location carefully to determine the location of out trenches. There are a number of distinct features. The first is an intriguing outcrop of stone which is decorated with other thirty cup marks.


Above: The decorated outcrop viewed from below (Photo: Aaron Watson, 2017)


Some of the cups are isolated, while others have grooves leading away from them. A few are joined together to create dumbbells while at least two are surrounded by rings.


Above: A reference photo of the decorated outcrop prior to excavation, showing the cup marks (Photo: Aaron Watson, 2017)


The outcrop is situated at the crest of a domed natural mound, itself the likely result of glacial processes. The higher areas of the mound rise in series of steps crowned by a raised area which looked intriguingly like a cairn. There was also a distinct level area which was an excellent viewpoint to view the motifs. Were these features artificial? If so, were they associated with the creation of the rock art. Only one way to find out…we began immediately to mark out where our trenches would be located.


Above: Looking from the top of the natural mound towards the decorated outcrop, showing intriguing terraces and level terraces (Photo: Aaron Watson, 2017)


This project took place in collaboration with Richard Bradley, Amanda Clarke, Ronnie Scott, Maria Cowie and Moyra Simon. Many thanks to the landowner and estate staff for their support.