Rock art – a term which usually refers to prehistoric human carvings on natural stone – is one of those ancient practices that captures the imagination. In Britain the most common form are swirls, spirals, dots, and circular depressions known as cup marks, and such markings are usually associated with later Neolithic and Early Bronze Age monuments.
Traditionally, rock art is usually divided into two categories. Firstly, petroglyphs; rock engravings or carvings; and secondly pictographs (paintings or drawings). Petroglyphs and pictographs can be found on the walls of caves or on exposed outdoor sections of rock or boulders. However, the earliest rock art to survive in Europe comes from subterranean caves such as Chauvet Cave or Le Placard Cave. Graffiti inscriptions on rocks and caves forms a third category which is currently receiving a lot of media attention – not least because of new discoveries of post-medieval markings in the prehistoric caves at Cresswell Craggs in Derbyshire.
The Manchester city region is notable for its lack of prehistoric caves, and although they do occur elsewhere in North West England rock art has, until recently, remained absent from this area.
Only two certain examples are known from the lowlands of the North West. The first is the Calderstones, a grouping of six stones that today lie in the park of the same name in Allerton in Liverpool. These are all that survive of the burial chamber of a Neolithic tomb, largely destroyed in the 19th century and subsequently moved close by to the park. These stones vary in height from 0.6m to 1.4m. Most are covered in carved spirals and circles of types common on later Neolithic tombs in Ireland and north Wales and also on monuments and stones from the early Bronze Age (see Beckensall S, 2009, Prehistoric Rock Art in Britain, Amberley Publishing). The nearby Robin Hood stone also has cupmarks at its base, though it’s possible this stone was originally part of the Calderstones tomb (for further details see Cowell R, 2008, The Calderstones, Merseyside Archaeological Society).
The second is a more recent discovery of a decorated sandstone boulder. This was excavated in 2010 from the backfill of the entrance area at Eddisbury hillfort (Garner et al 2016, Hillforts of the Cheshire Ridge. 184-5). This irregular shaped boulder, of local course-grained sandstone, was 560mm by 420mm by 280mm. Its upper face contained multiple cupmarks of the late Neolithic to Late Bronze Age style. Three deeply gouged cupmarks, 50mm to 60mm across were arranged into a triangular pattern with a shallower fourth cupmark located between the tri-group and a larger cupmark c. 160mm across. Its size classifies the piece as portable art, and a use as a portable shrine has been suggested. Such decorated boulders are common in northern Britain.
Its worth noting that there is a large boulder close to the northern edge of the Smithills Estate in the Rossendale uplands that is covered in what looks like cup marks. This might be a third instance of prehistoric rock art in the region, although it needs further research and recording.
So why this interest in prehistoric rock art? Well, this was sparked when the Urmston and District Local History Society brought to my attention a stone found in a garden off Cumberland Road in Urmston in the spring of 2018. Weighing 4.643Kg, and roughly 230mm long, 165mm wide and 80mm high, this broadly rectangular piece of rock has a worn, shiny lower surface and a rough upper face suggesting a use as the upper grain rubber for a saddle quern. This was exciting in itself for late prehistoric activity and settlement in the immediate area remains scarce. However in the rough upper face are two circular indentations, one c. 35mm deep and 60mm wide at the top and one 15mm deep and 25mm wide at the top. Manchester Museum confirmed that the stone was of Shap granite and examination of the two indentations shows that they were pecked and identical to examples of late Neolithic and early Bronze Age cupmarks.
This of course opens up all sorts of questions as to how the item came to this part of the Mersey valley in Urmston, whether there is any evidence for early settlement close by, and might there be more such rock art in the city region? The Manchester area might be short on late Neolithic burial tombs but it has plenty of early Bronze Age burial sites. Moreover, the recent fires on the moorlands to the north and east of the city may also provide the opportunity for new discoveries of this type – as happened on the North Yorkshire around Fylingdales Moor after fires in 2003. The Urmston discovery at the very least should raise awareness about the potential for the discovery of such prehistoric objects in this part of the North West.