UP a Land Rover track streaming with water I slosh, to a line of shooting butts on a Pennine moor; then a hundred and sixty paces east through blackened heather to a patch of grass in the middle of nowhere; and now kneeling down as cold rain falls barely noticed, I peel back turf from a grey slab that shines briefly as the sun finds cracks between clouds. And here it is, naked, glistening and strangely unsettling – the elusive carved stone of Barningham Moor, festooned with rock art dating back to the Bronze Age . . .
The carved cups, rings and grooves brim with water. Their significance is lost. We have no way of knowing exactly what was going on up here 3,000 years ago. This carved stone is a mystery in a mysterious place.
The rain spatters and a cold wind blasts across the Pennines from Cumbria. But in this world of gloom a rainbow slices into the bracken at the foot of the slope. Perhaps it’s marking another hidden stone. Perhaps not.
So I’m kneeling here in the heather, marvelling at this relic and thinking: just how did the artist chip away at that solid stone? What sort of tools did he possess? And what sort of bloke was he – a tangle-bearded, low-browed caveman dressed in ragged furs and wielding a big hammer?
Or was he more sophisticated than that? Let’s explore this further because it might take us somewhere. Let’s conduct an experiment with a bit of Bronze Age role play.
Right. I’ve been given a job as a Bronze Age stone carver. Yes, me. I’ve been told to carve a few holes and some squiggly lines. Nothing fancy. I can take my time. There’s no rush.
Hang on. I’d better put that B&Q tempered steel cold chisel and two-pound masonry hammer back in my bag because iron won’t be along for about another 1,000 years. I need authenticity. What I require is a material that’s harder than the limestone and gritstone lumps that lie scattered across this Pennine ridge, but something that was available in the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age period.
Now there are a couple of things that fit the bill, and I’ll explore the oldest first because it had such an impact on how our part of the world developed. What is it? Greenstone tuffs from the Borrowdale volcanic series of rocks, quarried by Neolithic man from certain beds high in the Langdale Pikes for the production of stone axes.
What I’m going to do is root through a pile of stones collected randomly from the Langdale Pikes. Can I tell which ones are suitable for the production of axes, bearing in mind I don’t possess a petrographic microscope to determine their mineralogical structure? No, I jolly well can’t. Neolithic man was a sophisticated bloke and has the edge on me in more ways than one. Not only did he discover some of the hardest rocks in Europe, he developed the means to quarry and shape them by hand – and alter the course of history. Hats off to Neolithic man. Hey-up, that stone needs carving and I still haven’t got a chisel.
We’re in the early Bronze Age so there are new, super-hard materials on the market that can be lumped into a category called metal. Chief among them is copper. But these ancient guys have learnt, from techniques developed in the Near East, that when you mix a small amount of tin to copper you end up with a super-super-hard alloy called bronze. So I need some bronze for my chisel.
Off I trundle in my ox cart for some copper and tin ores. But I haven’t a clue what I’m looking for or what to do when I find them. I know that the ore of copper is chalcopyrite – but I also know that, to the naked eye, it’s identical to iron pyrite, which is absolutely no use at all. Yet those Bronze Age chaps were experts in this sort of thing. They knew what they were looking for and they knew how to mine it – which they did at several locations across England and Wales.
And I’ve a feeling that for tin ore, cassiterite, which I wouldn’t recognise in a month of solstices, I’ve got to drive my ox all the way to Cornwall. And frankly I haven’t got time. Nor, if the truth be known, do I possess an ox.
But what if I managed to trade some goods, perhaps some cabbages off my allotment, for a few sacks of tin and copper ore? How do I make bronze? Do I mix the ores together to smelt them? Or do I smelt them separately and mix the resultant metals? There’s a right and a wrong way, apparently. And will these Bronze Age chaps go for my cabbages – which won’t be introduced to Britain until the Celts swarm across the Channel in a few hundred years’ time? Now there’s a thought. My Ormskirk Savoys will seem like exotic vegetables.
Is this getting a bit too complicated and longwinded, just for the sake of some grooves in a rock?
What has become apparent is that our Bronze Age carvers weren’t low-browed cavemen; they were sophisticated, talented and knowledgeable people. The carvers didn’t mine and smelt their own metals, of course, but they were part of a society that certainly did – and on an industrial scale. Britain, with its unique reserves of tin, was a Bronze Age powerhouse. And for a society to flourish and an industry to grow, there has to be trade, social movement and a market for goods. There has to be structure and the exchanging of ideas. There has to be education. And one of the products of a blossoming and successful society such as this is its art – the remnants of which we see around us on this moor.
And art it most certainly is. Cup and ring carvings dating from the late Neolithic period, through the Bronze Age and into the Iron Age, have been found across Europe in caves, on rock faces and on standing stones. In recent weeks, six wooden Bronze Age boats – perfectly preserved in peat – have been excavated in Cambridgeshire, some with extensive carvings along their sides. So it wasn’t just stones these blokes were decorating. Art found its outlet on many items, including tools and weapons.
So this is where we’ve ended up with our little experiment. I’m standing on an empty moor with a scattering of carved stones and a line of grouse butts. It’s a bleak place on a wet and windy day, I can tell you. But it wasn’t always like this. Three-thousand years ago, or thereabouts, it was an important location overlooking one of the major routes across the Pennines.
The people who frequented this ancient place possessed the ability to craft precision tools from minerals dug from the earth. Like us, they had knowledge and possessed skills. They were chemists, metallurgists and technologists as well as warriors and farmers. They had a complex society not unlike our own, a society that advanced through scientific discovery and the development of industrial processes – and they valued art as we value art. In fact, the only thing that separates us from them is 3,000 years and a language.
But what do the cup and ring markings represent? Dunno. I don’t have the answer to that. What does the Angel of the North represent? What do the gargoyles on York Minster represent, or the lights on Blackpool Tower? Or Blackpool Tower itself? Man’s exuberance, perhaps? His need to create for the sake of creating? His desire to express himself? If so, why are cup and ring markings found across many countries? Are they, as some archaeologists have suggested, among the earliest attempts at a written language? Or do they symbolise gods, wells, planets, ownership, social standing, birth, death? Again . . . dunno.
What I do know is that the men – or the women – who carved these stones were living, breathing, sentient beings, every bit an integral and important part of a functioning and successful society as we are of ours. And that’s what stirs me about this place. That’s what provides the link with the past.
There’s a smaller carved stone a few feet from the big one. Another lies on the bank of a stream about thirty paces to the south-east, and I find a flat slab with fine cup and ring markings a hundred yards to the west near the grouse butts above Washbeck Gill.
About half a mile to the north-west, above the steep banks of Scale Knoll Gill, is a group of boulders, one of which has been carved. Further to the west again, above a fork in another gill and not far from the edge of The Stang forest, is a small boulder with three or four cup and ring markings carved into it.
This is as far as I get. According to my research, another two stones lie on the very edge of the forest. And god knows how many are hidden in the mossy ground beneath the trees. Only the Bronze Age folk know where they are. I might have to consult them.
And now I’m off home because I’ve found what I wanted to find. It’s taken some time, but what’s a couple of weeks out of 3,000 years? And I still haven’t made that chisel.