Amateur Archaeologist Discovers Prehistoric Animal Carvings in Scottish Tomb

The 4,000- to 5,000-year-old depictions of deer are the first of their kind found in Scotland

Deer art
The carvings show the large antlers of adult male red deer. Historic Environment Scotland

Depictions of red deer discovered inside a tomb in Scotland are the country’s first known prehistoric animal carvings, dating back some 4,000 to 5,000 years to the Neolithic or Early Bronze Age. As Tom Gillespie reports for Sky News, local man Hamish Fenton, who has a background in archaeology, chanced upon the carvings while looking inside a burial chamber at Dunchraigaig Cairn in Kilmartin Glen, a site on the western coast of Scotland that features numerous burial sites and monuments.

“I noticed a pattern on the underside of the roof slab which didn’t appear to be natural markings in the rock,” says Fenton in a statement from Historic Environment Scotland (HES), which has confirmed the artworks’ authenticity. “As I shone the light around further, I could see that I was looking at a deer stag upside down, and as I continued looking around, more animals appeared on the rock.”

Per the Guardian’s Severin Carrell, the carvings depict two male red deer with full antlers and several other animals believed to be young deer. Previously, all known prehistoric rock art in Scotland—as well as most examples found in the United Kingdom—consisted of abstract geometric markings. In particular, cup-and-ring marks are common in many sites across the U.K., including at Kilmartin Glen.

“While there are a few prehistoric carvings of deer in the U.K., the only other ones created in the Early Bronze Age are very schematic,” says archaeologist Tertia Barnett, principal investigator for Scotland’s Rock Art Project, in the statement. “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.”

BBC News notes that early communities in the area prized red deer for their meat and hides, as well as their bones and antlers, which prehistoric people used to make a variety of tools. As NPR’s Barbara J. King reported in 2017, animal images are the most common type of ancient rock art, showing up in more than 100 countries around the world. The oldest known example may be a painting of a pig found on a cave wall on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi; researchers estimate that the artwork dates to 45,500 years ago.

Barnett says Kilmartin Glen is now the only known site in Britain where ancient people carved both animal designs and cup-and-ring motifs. But the practice was common in other Neolithic and Bronze Age societies, including in Scandinavia and Iberia. Some scholars believe the cup-and-ring pattern references water, appearing like ripples created by raindrops hitting a lake. It’s unclear whether people living in different places invented the design independently or if it has a common origin.

The Kilmartin Glen area is also home to monuments known as the Nether Largie standing stones and Ballymeanoch stones, both of which were erected more than 3,000 years ago. Dunchraigaig Cairn, one of five burial cairns that form a cemetery, is about 100 feet across and contains three burial chambers. The chamber where the deer carvings are located held the remains of up to ten people, some of them cremated, as well as a whetstone, a greenstone ax and a flint knife. The grave was first excavated in the 1860s, but the carvings went unnoticed until now.

“To me, discoveries like this are the real treasure of archaeology, helping to reshape our understanding of the past,” Fenton says in the statement.

HES has closed the cairn to visitors while it continues to study the carvings and puts measures in place to protect them.