In the British Isles, known examples of later prehistoric rock art are concentrated mainly in the upland areas of northern England, north-west Wales, the Isle of Man, and the central lowlands and west of Scotland. This collection is estimated to number at least 5,000-6,000 sites, based on inventories held by the various county and regional Historic Environment Records (HERs) and online databases. Elsewhere in the British Isles, however, these ancient artworks are much less frequent, with only around 20 examples documented on the English/Welsh border. These include engraved cupmarks found within the curtilages of Eddisbury Hillfort in Cheshire, and Caer Alyn Hillfort, west of Wrexham, as well as the Plas Maen Stone – marked with cupmarks and cup-and-ring motifs, this latter example was discovered by Dr Rachel Pope and verified by me last June, near the village of Cymau in Flintshire, north Wales. Together with examples from 15 more sites, these engraved stones are all found within an area known as the Dee-Mersey-Severn Catchment, and nearly all are associated with other extant later prehistoric sites, such as burial cairns, hillforts, and landscape monuments.
Over in neighbouring Shropshire, however, the local HER lists just two later prehistoric rock-art sites, with a third – a recent discovery of a sandstone outcrop carved with bowl-like depressions and cupmarks within Nesscliffe Hill Camp – awaiting its own entry. As far as I am aware there is no other engraved open-air rock art from this period in prehistory in the county – or so I thought until a landowner residing within the Whixall area of North Shropshire discovered a large sandstone block during the creation of a trench to support fencing. Bearing motifs including a concentric circle and a cup-and-ring design, both connected by a single grooved line, its imagery is fairly standard for later prehistoric European rock art – but given the scarcity of examples known in Shropshire and the surrounding area, it was undeniably a significant discovery.
Setting a prehistoric scene
In terms of location, the Whixall stone was found within a slightly undulating landscape, on a slope that runs from east to west, with the wetland peat area of Whixall Moss lying to the west. This watery landscape has already yielded a number of important archaeological discoveries, including several coin hoards, as well as the rare Bronze Age gold bulla that featured on the cover of CA 349. The more immediate area around the stone’s findspot comprises post-medieval fields bounded by hedging, though in later prehistory it probably looked very different. Based on regional palaeoenvironmental evidence, by the Middle Bronze Age the local climate had changed significantly, becoming much wetter and resulting in extensive peat-formation around the Whixall area and more widely across the North Shropshire Plain. It is probable that this peat area at one point extended to within a kilometre of where the stone was found, though due to various historic land-reclamation schemes, including the cutting of the Llangollen Canal in the late 18th century, the eastern edge of Whixall Moss now stands some distance away.
I first became aware of the Whixall Stone in May 2019, when I was contacted by a local family and asked to inspect a possible engraved prehistoric stone. It had been discovered by the landowner almost a year previously, but its markings had only just been spotted. After examining photographs taken by the family, and a subsequent site visit accompanied by Shropshire’s HER Officer, the stone was confidently verified as being later prehistoric in date.
According to the landowner, the trench that had uncovered the stone had been dug c.1m below the existing ground level, and at its base was a probable peat deposit. Unfortunately, the stratigraphy of the trench was not recorded, and it is not clear if the stone had been found below or within this peat deposit. The excavated material from the trench had formed a considerable spoil heap on which the stone lay for a considerable amount of time, until its markings were eventually noticed by a member of the family, and reported to me, the Historic Environment Team at Shropshire Council, and the Portable Antiquities Scheme.
As for the carvings themselves, they have been broadly dated to the late Neolithic period or early- to-middle Bronze Age, based on the style of similarly engraved stones that have been found within stratified sites that could be securely dated. They had been engraved on a lump of fine-grained sandstone of a type found across much of the North Shropshire and Cheshire Plains, measuring c.66cm by 55cm, and 20cm thick. Closer inspection revealed no tooling marks across the external edges of the stone, although the lower section does show possible damage, and much of the surface area is covered by an olive-green lichen, the result of exposure to the air following its excavation and outside storage. Since then, the stone has been allowed to dry in controlled conditions, and in 2020 I was given permission to record it using various photogrammetric and traditional tracing techniques. What, then, can we say about its markings?
The Whixall Stone’s rock art is present on only one surface, roughly pecked using a percussive tool such as a hammerstone or stone chisel, probably in a single episode of engraving. To summarise its various components, the main artistic element is a large concentric circle constructed of a central pivot and four roughly shaped circular rings radiating outwards, collectively measuring 23cm in diameter. At the tapered end of the stone we then find a second motif: a small cupmark measuring 2.5cm in diameter, nestled within a pecked half-circle some 8cm across. These markings are linked to the concentric design described above by a single, slightly deeper pecked line or groove measuring 26cm in length. As this line cuts through the circuit of the concentric circles and the cup-and-ring marks, it must have been created after them.
Rather less distinct are a number of isolated peck marks, randomly dispersed across the engraved face of the stone. These pecks may have originally formed some form of motif that has long since disappeared due to surface weathering. There are also several areas of pecked marks located to the right and lower left of the concentric circle; the form of each is unclear but one area may reveal a weathered cup-and-ring mark or a two-ringed concentric circle with a central pivot.
As far as I am aware, there are no examples of this type of prehistoric rock art found in the West Midlands or along the Welsh Marches, although cupmarked stones, cup-and-rings, and a figurative engraving have been found in excavations from several hillforts nearby and within four Neolithic chambered monuments: on the Liverpool Calder stones (CA 347), and on Bryn Celli Ddu, Barclodiad y Gawres, and the Llwydiarth Esgob Stone, all on Anglesey. By comparing the Whixall Stone’s motifs to similar panel designs elsewhere, it is possible to narrow down their likely date range to between 2750 and 1500 BC.
Of those mentioned above, it is the Llwydiarth Esgob Stone that bears the closest artistic parallel to the Whixall Stone, although it is slightly larger and (based on fractures across several motifs) is arguably only a fragment of a highly decorative capstone belonging to a Neolithic chambered tomb – although it currently stands away from its original context, displayed along a farm track. Like the Whixall Stone, only one of its surfaces is decorated, bearing three concentric circles, cup-and-rings, cupmarks, and intersecting grooves or lines. Its reverse has no obvious carvings but is covered by pitting.
Meanings behind markings
The three motif types on the Whixall Stone and Llwydiarth Esgob Stone – concentric circles, cupmarks, and lines – are also found in numerous locations in northern Britain and along the Atlantic façade, usually engraved on landscape monuments, such as standing stones (menhirs), and other constructions associated with death, such as burial and ritual monuments that include Neolithic chambered tombs and early-and-middle Bronze Age cairns and barrows. It is probable that the motifs on the Whixall Stone fall within the generic style of this Atlantic façade rock-art tradition, which includes engraved abstract and geometric motifs that are found along much of the coastal fringes of Atlantic Europe, from the Iberian Peninsula to northern Scotland, usually on open-air rock outcrops. This motif repertoire usually includes chevrons, concentric circles, cupmarks, cup- and-ring marks, grooves, lines, and spirals, occurring both as single motifs or in combination. If the Whixall Stone does fall within this class, its motifs would have had a similar, if not identical meaning to those monuments that occupy the coastal regions of North Wales and the uplands of the northern British Isles, in particular engraved art that appears on standing stones and some burial ritual monuments.
What was the stone for? Weighing in at approximately 35kg, it is too large to be considered a portable rock-art boulder – indeed, close inspection reveals that one of its edges has angular fracturing, which could suggest that it was once even larger. It has been considered by prehistorians that some form of political crisis may have occurred during the Neolithic/Bronze Age transition across most of north-western Europe (as evidenced by the changes in social organisation, architecture, and burial deposition that took place at this time). Although this pan-European crisis event cannot be evidentially linked to the fate of the Whixall Stone, one can certainly speculate that Neolithic monuments may have been destroyed or abandoned during this time, and replaced by a new order of monumentality that was closely aligned to the elites of the Bronze Age. Equally, abandonment following use may have resulted in the slow degradation of this stone and other monoliths within the North Shropshire landscape, sometime later to be reused as gate posts or incorporated into buildings. For the Whixall Stone, its demise may have been merely abandonment and long-term neglect, followed by slow sediment deposition over at least three millennia, resulting in this stone fragment becoming buried a metre below the current land surface.
If this is a fragment of a larger stone, its original shape and height are near-impossible to determine – although, tantalisingly, there were other stone fragments found within the 2018 trench that might prove to belong to it. As for its purpose, there are parallels across northern Britain and Wales which suggest that some standing stones acted as markers within a proscribed ritualised landscape, and the Whixall Stone may be one of these. It is probable that, during later prehistory, the area where the stone was found formed part of a ritualised landscape and somewhere close by, awaiting discovery, are other associated monuments.
Although the Whixall Stone’s precise combination of motifs is currently unknown anywhere else, taken individually they form part of a much wider artistic repertoire that is found within the Irish Sea Province, usually ascribed to the passage-grave tradition and the landscape monuments that were organised around them. Another possible interpretation of the stone is that it originated from a burial-ritual or a landscape monument context, such as a standing stone, and may have been closely associated with the Neolithic or Bronze Age burial-ritual traditions in western Britain – although I should state that, so far, little evidence for any such burial tradition of this period exists within this part of the borderlands between England and Wales.
Indeed, there are no clear parallels for the stone within this part of western Britain except for the Plaes Maen Stone that I mentioned before: the recent discovery in Flintshire where a small sandstone block was found incorporated into an historic field boundary, bearing up to 21 cupmarks, cup-and-rings, and several interconnecting lines. Based on research surrounding the Whixall Stone, and given its rarity within this part of the British Isles, I consider it to be of regional, if not national importance.
Postscript: going once, going twice, gone!
The history of the Whixall Stone took a dramatic turn, however, in September 2021, when the owner of the stone decided to retrieve it from the Portable Antiquities Scheme laboratory and place it in an online auction house. Listed as Lot 0452, in the auction catalogue it was described as ‘The Whixall’ Early Bronze Age Cup-and-Ring Monolith, and assigned a reserve price of £7,000. It was eventually sold for £15,240 to an overseas bidder, reportedly based in California. Following the auction, negotiations began to allow Shropshire Museum Service to have the stone on a long-term loan so it could be displayed to the public – but, at the time of writing, this was still unresolved.