Several animal carvings, thought to be between 4,000 and 5,000 years old, have been found inside Dunchraigaig Cairn in Kilmartin Glen, Argyll. They are the earliest-known animal carvings in Scotland, and the first clearly identifiable depictions of deer from the Neolithic or Early Bronze Age in the whole of Britain.
Dunchraigaig Cairn is 30m wide and contains three stone cists, the third of which is capped with a large stone, approximately 3.5m long. During excavations in the 1860s, the remains of up to ten individuals were uncovered, as well as a few artefacts. It is on the capstone of this cist that the carvings were discovered by Hamish Fenton. While passing the cairn at dusk, Hamish looked inside the chamber with a torch and noticed that several of the markings he could see did not appear to be natural. After contacting Historic Environment Scotland, a team from Scotland’s Rock Art Project (ScRAP) examined photographs of the find.
On the stone, the ScRAP team was able to identify images of two male red deer by the fully grown antlers clearly depicted on both animals, as well as the short tail that can be seen on one of them. Three other four-legged creatures are also visible, two of which may be carvings of juvenile deer. The choice of animal is not unexpected: red deer were the largest deer species in Scotland during prehistory and would have been prized by Neolithic and Early Bronze Age communities as a valuable source of meat and hides.
The next step was to confirm these carvings as prehistoric. First, to examine them in more detail, Historic Environment Scotland’s Digital Documentation and Innovation Team carried out a structured-light scan of the capstone, which they used to create an accurate 3D model of the carved surface. This allowed the researchers to use different visualisation techniques to reveal even more features of the images. ScRAP has previously used these digital techniques, working with trained community teams, to create precise models of over 1,000 examples of rock art throughout Scotland, including over 150 from Kilmartin Glen – an area particularly known for its cup and ring markings (see CA 344). After thoroughly analysing the figures and comparing them with carvings from the Continent, the team is confident that they date back 4,000-5,000 years.
What makes this discovery particularly exciting is that, even though animal carvings from this period are known from continental Europe, such realistic prehistoric depictions were not thought to exist in Scotland before now. As Dr Tertia Barnett, the Principal Investigator for ScRAP, explained: ‘While there are a few prehistoric carvings of deer in the UK, the only other ones created in the Early Bronze Age are very schematic. It is remarkable that these carvings in Dunchraigaig Cairn show such great anatomical detail and there is no doubt about which animal species they represent. This extremely rare discovery completely changes the assumption that prehistoric rock art in Britain was mainly geometric and non-figurative.’
You can explore the 3D models of the cairn on Historic Environment Scotland’s Sketchfab site: https://sketchfab.com/HistoricEnvironmentScotland/collections/kilmartin-glen.