Scientists analyzing “ancient rock art sites” around the city of Glasgow on the west coast of Scotland have concluded that prehistoric man was likely to have lived “in a ring” of settlements around the area occupied by the city.

The west of Scotland offered ancient people highly-fertile farmlands and access to fish-rich inland waterways and coastal routes. As such, the River Clyde was settled from at least 3,000BC, according to a recent article in The Scotsman. With the creation and expansion of Glasgow city destroying most of the Neolithic sites and artifacts, archaeologists deem Faifley housing estate on the north side of Clydebank, West Dunbartonshire, as the Holy Grail of Scottish Neolithic art.

Faifley Housing Estate in Clydebank, Scotland (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Faifley Housing Estate in Clydebank, Scotland ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

A park on the edge of Faifley contains 14 examples of ancient rock art which are dated to at least 5000 years old. The markings leave a “tantalizing trail of evidence of how the country was populated in the distant past” according to Dr Tertia Barnett, principal investigator of Scotland’s Rock Art Project. Barnett told reporters at the Scotsman:

“It is likely the Clyde was an important artery, connecting different areas to the sea and to the islands. People would have travelled by water instead of through the wooded interior of the country and people were generally concentrated in the coastal regions.”

Ancient Whispers from Neolithic Artists

The most famous Neolithic artifact discovered at Faifley is unquestionably The Cochno Stone , described in 2016 by a researcher from the University of Glasgow as the “most important Neolithic cup and ring marked rock art panel in Europe.” Located next to Cochno farm, Auchnacraig, Faifley, this enormous Bronze Age ‘cup and ring marked rock’ measures a whopping 13 meters (42 feet) by 7.9 meters (26 feet) and features about 90 individual carved symbols.

Map of the petroglyphs on the Cochno Stone. Image: The Modern Antiquarian

Map of the petroglyphs on the Cochno Stone. Image: The Modern Antiquarian

The Cochno stone was first excavated in 1887 by the Rev. James Harvey and re-excavated and buried in the 1960s to protect it from vandalism. It was last re-excavated in 2015 and 2016 by Dr Kenneth Brophy, a senior lecturer in archaeology at Glasgow University, and according to a Live Science article published last year the 60’s excavation revealed “19th and 20th-century graffiti etched alongside the swirls, as well as painted lines intentionally made by an archaeologist named Ludovic Maclellan Mann, who worked at the site in 1937.”

The Cochno stone, Faifley. Some have argued the Cochno Stone is a calendar of some sort or a map showing the other settlements in the Clyde Valley. Source: Historic Environment Scotland

It was generally understood that Mann had intentionally painted white lines into the grooves of the carved symbols on the Cochno Stone to assist in measuring the prehistoric artwork, but according to archaeologist Kenny Brophy in a  video released  by the university, Mann was also “trying to prove that the symbols could predict eclipses and were marking movements of the sun and moon in prehistory.” Mann attempted to create a “mathematical grid to prove his notions” and ironically, Brophy added, “Mann’s own data ended up disproving the archaeologist’s theory” but they never made “any sense in reality” anyway.

The Cochno Stone at Faifley was excavated in 2015 and 2016 and then reburied to protect it from damage. Image: John Devlin/TSPL.

The Cochno Stone at Faifley was excavated in 2015 and 2016 and then reburied to protect it from damage. Image: John Devlin/TSPL.

The Rock art Network

The Cochno Stone is 1 of 30 rock art sites in West Dunbartonshire with a further 36 listed in Inverclyde and Dr Barnett said “analysis of the style of carvings found in different geographical areas could also help to determine the significance of the sites and whether some identified meeting points where people gathered to share news and exchange artifacts, reported the Scotsman.

Including a concentration of rock art discovered at Rouken Glen in East Renfrewshire, Dr Barnett said, “The rock art sites are to be mapped out in relation to other Neolithic remains in a bid to build a stronger understanding of how the markings fitted into the wider landscape of the time.”

The Devil’s Plantation

Dr Barnet, however, is not the first archaeologist to have plotted out and mapped the ancient sites of Glasgow and it would be unscholarly not to mention the enigmatic Harry Bell (1935-2001). During the 1980s this Glaswegian archaeologist obsessively searched for an “ancient network of aligned prehistoric sites” around the Glasgow area and eventually found a pentagram shape defined by connected sites. Bell’s work appealed to Glaswegian writer and director May Miles Thomas so much so that in 2010 he released a feature film called The Devil’s Plantation , based on Bell’s findings, which won a Best Interactive BAFTA 2010.

Typical cup-and-rings marks. These are located in Northumberland. (CC BY 2.5)

Typical cup-and-rings marks. These are located in Northumberland. ( CC BY 2.5 )

Bell was greatly influenced by Alfred Watkins (1855-1935), the amateur English archaeologist who observed that prehistoric sites in Herefordshire formed an interlocking network of straight communication lines dotted with church yards and burial sites, ruined castles, old mounds, Bronze Age forts and Neolithic settlements. These alignments would later be called ‘leylines’ by 70’s and 80’s New Age authors. Beginning at a 2000-year-old burial mound in Devil’s Woods, 7 miles (11 km) south of Glasgow city center called “the Devil’s Plantation”, Bell “dowsed the lines” and “archaeo-orienteered” himself around the ancient landscape.

Critics of Watkins “old straight track” theory and Bell’s later findings in Glasgow point out that the high density of prehistoric sites in Britain mean that alignments and triangles can always be ‘conjured’ out of the random. The skeptical archaeologist Richard Atkinson demonstrated this by plotting telephone boxes and drawing leys based on the incoherent positioning of phone boxes.

In a project that might see old Harry Bell turn in his grave with excitement, the Scotland’s Rock Art Project now aim to build a comprehensive database of images and information of around 2,000 different sites around Scotland. This project is being funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and led by Historic Environment Scotland, with departments from Edinburgh University and Glasgow School of Art also working on the research.

Top image: The Cochno stone, Faifley. Some think the Cochno Stone is a map showing the other settlements in the Clyde Valley. Credit: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland.

By Ashley Cowie





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