We’re very pleased to be able to bring you, in serialised form, a paper courtesy of Dr Euan MacKie regarding the Sheep Hill hillfort and associated rock carvings, which are currently under a long-running threat of destruction. Please read the Introduction before we look closer at the Greenland rock carvings.

The Greenland rock carvings

The recording work for Historic Scotland undertaken in 1984 involved de-turfing the outcrop and was the first time that the full extent of the Neolithic cup-and-ring carvings had been exposed, although much of the turf had been rolled back by John Bruce in 1895 (Bruce 1986, 205-08: MacKie 1991 Plate 1) who found them while examining the nearby vitrified fort (then called Ardconnel Hill. He also commented on the fresh appearance of the double-disc symbol which contrasted with the weathered condition of many of the others. The late R WB Morris exposed many carvings probably in the 1970s; indeed his map of the site is very similar to the one made in 1984 (Morris 1981, Fig. 64; MacKie 1991, Fig. 3). Details of the kinds of symbols present, and their numbers, are in the latter report. A statistical study of the sizes of the carved rings was carried out and it appeared likely that a unit of length of 2.07cm had been used to lay out the symbols of both phases of carving (Davis 1991). This study was based on tracings of the carvings and on the assumption that most of the rings consisted of a number of carefully drawn arcs rather than true circles.

Illus. 3. The two phases of carving on Greenland 1. The left view is of the double disc symbol with, on the right, one of the rock surface immediately to its right. The slight overlap between the pictures can be seen in the appearance in both of the rather rough cup-and ring mark immediately to the right of the double disc. The much fresher appearance of the double disc is apparent, as is the more weathered condition of the symbols to its right. Likewise the surface on which the double disc is carved is flat and has clearly been exposed by the splitting off of slabs; the more rounded and uneven glaciated original surface is clear on the right. Slight damage to the double disc was caused later, evidently by more slab removal 

Illus. 3. The two phases of carving on Greenland 1. The left view is of the double disc symbol with, on the right, one of the rock surface immediately to its right. The slight overlap between the pictures can be seen in the appearance in both of the rather rough cup-and ring mark immediately to the right of the double disc. The much fresher appearance of the double disc is apparent, as is the more weathered condition of the symbols to its right. Likewise the surface on which the double disc is carved is flat and has clearly been exposed by the splitting off of slabs; the more rounded and uneven glaciated original surface is clear on the right. Slight damage to the double disc was caused later, evidently by more slab removal

The most important feature of Greenland 1 was not appreciated for some months after the fieldwork had been completed – namely that the carvings had been done in two distinct phases; this is a good example of how orthodox views – and deductive reasoning based on them – can subconsciously prevent even an archaeologist who prides himself on being unorthodox when necessary from seeing what is right in front of him. The general view of the sandstone raft in Illus. 2 shows the two phases clearly. The original surface of the rock, on which most of the symbols occurred, had been smoothed and rounded by glacial activity, presumably during the last ice age; the symbols on this surface were somewhat weathered.

At an unknown later date the rock was subjected to extensive quarrying which removed some of that primary surface and exposed, flatter fresher surfaces, reflecting the horizontal stratification of the sandstone. A few carvings were found on these later surfaces, including the finest on the site – a large double disc symbol which had presumably come into fashion after the first phase of carving (Illus. 3, left). But that was not the end of the story; a further episode of damage took place which opened up an even lower rock surface next to the double disc and removed a small part of it . Several clear illustrations of the two phases of carving have been published (MacKie 1991 Plates 4a and 4b, Plates 6 & 7), and the first two are reproduced here (Illus. 3: the original captions were reversed.

Illus. 4. General view of Greenland no. 1 being de-turfed in 1984 with the quarry in the background.

Illus. 4. General view of Greenland no. 1 being de-turfed in 1984 with the quarry in the background.

As far as I am aware this is an unique situation among the cup-and-ring carved rocks of Britain, and it immediately raises the question of when the quarrying, and the second phase of carving took place. The obvious solution is, assuming the original carvings to be of Neolithic age (Burgess 1990), is that the arrival in the area of the fashion for single grave burial in the Early Bronze Age created a demand for a large number of flat slabs from which to make the short, lidded cists (stone boxes) which the new rite required. This explanation has the advantage of not needing the secondary carvings to be much later than the primary ones. This option was considered in the report but there are no such cists close to the Greenland rock carvings; the nearest known (poorly recorded because of destruction) were in a sand quarry at Knapper’s Farm about 5km to the SSE (Davidson 1935). This hypothesis could of course be tested by examining the composition of the cist slabs of any other reasonably near single graves but as far as I am aware this has not been done.

There is a more obvious alternative explanation for the damaging of the carvings which is that it coincided with the construction of the timber-framed dun on Sheep Hill about 200m to the south. A timber framed drystone wall needs skilful construction anyway but the availability of the hardened sandstone nearby may have led the chief for whom the stronghold was being built to require the certain parts of the wall – around the entrance passage perhaps – were built particularly neatly. The implications of this hypothesis, if correct, are profound, not least because the secondary carvings have to be many centuries later than the primary one..

Next: The Sheep Hill forts