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Our new learning resource, A Song in Stone, explores Scotland’s amazing outdoor gallery of ancient rock art – abstract designs of cup and ring marks that our Neolithic ancestors carved over 4,000 years ago.

The booklet is packed with fresh ideas, stunning photography and great illustrations. To celebrate its publication, our archaeologist Matt is calling for aspiring young archaeologists and ecologists to get creative!

Matt explains:

We took an archaeological narrative approach with our illustrations, using real examples of rock art to imagine some of the possible explanations for what it means. This narrative approach – rooting the interpretation in archaeological reality – was inspired by the work of the great American illustrator and naturalist Charley Harper. He explained some pretty complicated ecological ideas using amazing design and different perspectives. His illustrations often tell a story – or narrative – based on ecological observation. He called this approach minimal realism. We call it illustrating an ecological narrative.”

An archaeological narrative

Pale blue art depiction of cave art with green foliage

This illustration by artist and archaeologist Lizzie Robertson of the rock art at Ormaig in Argyll explores the experience of carving the rock, using this description of carving his own cupmark by experimental archaeologist Hugo Anderson-Whymark:

“The motion of the hammer stone is fast and constant, and the repetitive rhythm of pecking becomes more hypnotic and meditative with time. The sound echoes around and curiously appears to come from elsewhere, perhaps the trees but certainly not the rock.”

Lizzie imagined this rhythmic pecking as sound waves dancing in the air above the carvings. She also used photographs and the visualisations resulting from laser scanning to depict the motifs of cupmarks, cup and rings and rosettes as they were originally created.

An ecological narrative

A yellow art depiction of two wood peckers and a tree

The only sound being pecked out in these woods today is that of the great spotted woodpecker. Known as drumming, the sound is made by the woodpeckers hammering their bills against deadwood up to twenty times over two or three seconds. The sound resonates throughout the forest and carries over large distances. This drumming acts as a message to other woodpeckers that "this territory is occupied."

Great spotted woodpeckers excavate nest holes in trees, with standing dead trees being their favourite site. These standing dead trees are known as snags by our foresters. As the bark peels from these snags, the amazing galleries made by beetle larvae eating the wood are revealed. All of this ecology is perfectly captured in this linocut print by artist Liz Myhill.

Could you be a rock artist?

The original rock artists lived thousands of years ago. Today, we are looking for new original rock artists – but this time, the original means creative! We’re looking for young artists, aspiring archaeologists and eager ecologists to illustrate the archaeology of ancient rock art in the context of the ecology of the natural world. Think about what could have inspired symbols like the cup and ring – in the sky, on the land, in the water or in the patterns formed by our flora and fauna. We are looking for pictures placing the abstract designs of rock art in the natural world to illustrate our new rock-art-ology.

Two lucky rock artists (or rock-art-ologists) will be turned into a cartoon illustration and make their own appearance in the distant past. Artist Alex Leonard will professionally reproduce the best design.

Matt says:

We don’t mind if it’s drawn, painted, or a photograph put together from things found in the woods, such as sticks and stones – even feathers and bones. It just needs to show symbols from rock art as they could be found in nature. So get creative!”

Anyone between the ages of 8 and 13 who reckons they could be a new original rock artist should send a photograph of their artwork to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. by the 1st of June.

Our woodland heritage booklets are both reference material and learning resources. They use a popular communication style and bold design to align an archaeological and ecological ethos with a more subtle message of stewardship and responsibility. They are intended to share and shape values across a wide readership while preparing the practitioner with information and ideas for their learners. Read our blog, Mesolithic Map Makers to find out about a previous art competition.

Find out more