Scotland’s Rock Art Project: Community Co-production in Rock Art Research

by Tertia Barnett (Historic Environment Scotland (HES), Joana Valdez-Tullett (HES), Linda Marie Bjerketvedt (HES), Stuart Jeffrey (Glasgow School of Art), Guillaume Robin (University of Edinburgh)

Rock art has the power to fascinate, engage and inspire people of all ages, while the search for its meaning has occupied archaeologists for centuries. Rock art is integral to the archaeology of all European countries and, for some, it is a defining feature of their cultural heritage and an international tourist attraction. Scotland’s rock art is less celebrated, however. Despite its abundance – over 3000 prehistoric carved rocks recorded across the country – it remains poorly understood, undervalued, and virtually unknown beyond Scotland (Figure 1). This account describes how the Scotland’s Rock Art Project (ScRAP) is changing our perspectives on prehistoric rock art in Scotland, and situating it within the wider context of European archaeology. As the project enters its final year, we review its challenges, its contributions, and its legacy.

Figure 1. Distribution and density maps of prehistoric rock art in Scotland. ScRAP ©HES

Issues with Scotland’s Rock Art

Thousands of abstract 'cup-and-ring' type carvings were created on rocks and boulders in the Scottish landscape during the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age (c.4000- 1800 BC) (Figure 2). They form part of a shared tradition of Atlantic Rock Art common to other areas of Britain and Atlantic Europe, predominately Ireland, Spain and Portugal (e.g. Beckensall 1999; Bradley 1997, 2020; Morris 1989; Shee Twohig 1981; Valdez-Tullett 2019). Scotland’s rock art represents one of the most alluring and enigmatic aspects of our historic environment and research in recent years has provided important new insights (e.g. Bradley 1997, Bradley et al 2012; Jones 2006; Jones et al 2011; Jones and Díaz-Guardamino 2019; Valdez-Tullett 2019), but there are still many questions and gaps in our understanding. Public awareness of the rock art is very low and generally restricted to a few important regions such as Kilmartin (Western Scotland) and Dumfries and Galloway (South West Scotland). Only a small proportion (6%) of rock art sites are protected at a national level as Scheduled Monuments, while the vast majority are exposed and vulnerable to erosion, damage and destruction (Figure 3). There are many underlying and inter-related reasons for this neglect, not least the challenges of physical, visual and intellectual access to the carvings. A significant issue is the nature of the rock art data. Reliable and accessible data are essential not only for research, but also for management, conservation, education, and wider appreciation.

Figure 2. ‘Cup and ring’ type motifs at Cairnbaan, Kilmartin, Scotland, typical of Atlantic Rock Art. ScRAP ©HES

The official database of Scotland’s rock art, curated by Historic Environment Scotland (HES) as part of Scotland’s national record of the historic environment, is an invaluable resource, but it contains many inconsistencies and errors because the records have been compiled over two centuries by multiple authors with varying techniques, experience and objectives. Many records lack detail, few have publicly accessible images of rock art, and over 20% have inaccurate grid references, which can lead to unwitting damage.

Figure 3. One of several prehistoric carved rocks at Knock, Dumfries and Galloway, South West Scotland, in the process of being buried or broken up during the development of pasture land. ©Julia Muir-Watt, The Whithorn Trust

About Scotland’s Rock Art Project

Scotland’s Rock Art Project (ScRAP) was established in 2017 for five years with funding from the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council to address some of these key issues. Run by a small team based at Historic Environment Scotland, Edinburgh University and Glasgow School of Art, the project’s overarching aim is to enhance understanding and awareness of Scotland’s prehistoric carvings through community co-production and research. ScRAP is an ambitious and innovative project, working with local people to undertake the first ever large-scale analysis of Scotland’s prehistoric carvings. It provides a model for community collaboration in research that has potential for wider global application and benefits.

Assembling a comprehensive and consistent rock art database for research and public knowledge is a fundamental dimension of the project. Since 2017, the ScRAP Team has trained and supported over 200 people from local communities across Scotland to record prehistoric rock art using a standardised methodology (Figure 4). Training resulted in the formation of 11 Community Teams, operating in different parts of the country. Each Community Team works autonomously, with constant support from the ScRAP Team. Before Covid-19, regular review meetings and joint fieldwork days to enabled Community Teams to share their progress and experiences.

Figure 4. ScRAP community training session in rock art recording. ScRAP ©HES

A model for rock art recording and research

At the outset of the project, the ScRAP Team developed a specific recording methodology for Scotland’s rock art, building on previous work in England and Ireland (Barnett 2010; O’Connor 2006; Valdez-Tullett 2019). For every carved rock (or ‘panel’), recording involves gathering detailed quantitative, spatial, descriptive, and visual data, including 3D model data using the Structure from Motion (SfM) photogrammetry technique. This approach has the benefit of enabling the expression of individual ‘voices’ of multiple authors, whilst promoting objectivity and consistency in the collected data. Combining 3D modelling with conventional photography, sketch plans, and other techniques captures detail at different scales, from the carved motifs and character of the rock, to the landscape setting and archaeological context of the panel. There are many other benefits that make this methodology ideal for large-scale, community-led rock art recording: it is relatively straightforward and quick to use, allowing considerable ground to be covered; there is negligible impact on the rock surface; equipment is minimal, inexpensive and light-weight, so can be used by everyone and easily carried to remote locations. Although no specialist equipment or techniques are needed in the field, processing the 3D models requires some technical aptitude and bespoke software. To handle their 3D modelling, each Community Team self-selected one or more members, who we provided with Agisoft Metashape licences (various OpenSource 3D modelling softwares are also available).

The Community Teams upload their field data to the ScRAP website using a bespoke online form, and 3D models are uploaded to the online platform Sketchfab, then linked to each panel record. After the records are validated by the ScRAP Team, they become publicly accessible on our website. Although fieldwork in 2020 was severely constrained by the covid situation, at the start of 2021 over 1400 panels had been recorded across the country – half of them documented by our Community Teams – and more than 200 new sites had been discovered (Figure 5). As it takes, on average, at least one day to locate, document, process and upload data for each rock art site, the time contributed by our Community Teams has vastly expanded the volume of data that could have been collected by the ScRAP Team alone. Community co-production has also ensured a greater scale of geographical coverage, as well as bringing fresh knowledge, perspectives and many other benefits to the project and to the rock art record.

Figure 5. An elaborate cup and ring marked boulder found near Edinburgh in 2020, one of over 200 new rock art discoveries by ScRAP Community Teams since 2017. ScRAP ©HES

Our on-going research is based on the data co-produced with our Community Teams, and benefits from the breadth and depth of this information. Multiscalar analysis is enabling us, for the first time, to develop an informed understanding of Scotland’s rock art as a whole – its detailed character, contextual associations, regional variations and connectivity. Each scale of analysis (carvings and rock surface; type of rock; local contexts; regional contexts) comprises a number of categories and variables that characterise the individual motifs, their interactions with each other and with the rock surface, as well as the relationship between the rock art and other natural features (such as vegetation, geology, land use) and cultural features (such as funerary monuments, standing stones, artefact find spots) within the landscape.

By visually enhancing the 3D models, we are able to conduct a detailed study of the motifs, the way they are made, their behaviour, and the treatment of the natural rock surface. We can see that cracks, fissures, solution hollows and even the edges of the rocks are often enhanced, carved over or around, transformed into motifs, and integrated into the overall composition. Our close scrutiny of the models is also confirming that some motifs are superimposed or encompass sequences of carving – a phenomenon only recently identified for this carving tradition (Valdez-Tullett 2019) (Figure 6). In addition, our study is revealing the extent of subtle variations within different motif categories – variations which are repeated in other regions of Atlantic Europe – reinforcing the idea that the Atlantic Rock Art tradition was shared and adopted by discrete communities with a common ideology (Valdez-Tullett 2019). These new insights that are proving pivotal for interpreting Scotland’s rock art and situating it within the wider frame of Atlantic European archaeology. Our research findings will be published in a series of journal articles and conference presentations over the coming months.

Figure 6. Cup and ring marked rock from Castleton, Stirlingshire. Visual enhancements of the 3D model reveal several small cup and ring motifs superimposed by a larger cup and ring motif with radial grooves. ScRAP ©HES

Enhancing awareness and social value

The project’s contribution extends well beyond our research outputs. We are doing much to raise awareness in Scotland through talks to special interest groups, guided walks, and the local and national press, and internationally through research workshops, social media and our website. Many of our Community Teams have also initiated awareness-raising events and publications, and featured in the local media. In this final year of ScRAP, we are organising a series of online events to celebrate and promote Scotland’s rock art to an international audience, including our online conference, monthly webinars by rock art experts from around Europe, and a round table session (#503) at EAA focusing on developing an inclusive strategy for rock art research, management and social value.

Aside from the relatively short-term achievements during ScRAP, the real litmus test will be the project’s longer-term impact on awareness, value, sustainability and understanding of Scotland’s prehistoric carvings. Our digital database, comprising hundreds of detailed records and 3D models, and thousands of images, will be deposited with national and regional databases of the historic environment where it will be publicly accessible in perpetuity, and an invaluable resource for future research, management, education and interest. However, more is needed in the future to actively alter and embed concepts of value in our wider community. So far, our studies of how social value changes through community co-production clearly demonstrate that informed engagement with rock art enriches people’s sense of appreciation and ‘ownership’. This legacy has potentially far-reaching implications, and there would be immense benefits to extending the notion and practice of informed engagement to other audiences, especially to schools and young people, in order to establish a grass-roots strategy for enhancing social value of rock art.

You can find out more about the project and search our rock art database on our website:

You can view 3D models of Scotland’s rock art on our Sketchfab accounts: and

Further details of our events can be found on our website Events page:

You can find out more about our on-going activities and research on our Facebook page:


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