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Cup and ring marks in lava rock, Hawaii (by 'Netherzone', CCASA 4.0 licence)

Ancient ‘Cup and Ring’ Stone Carvings: Who Made Them, and Why?

Variations of the prehistoric carvings commonly called “cup and ring marks” have been discovered on every continent of the world save Antartica, and yet their meaning remains a mystery.

In his 1979 book, The Prehistoric Rock Art of Galloway & the Isle of Man, amateur archaeologist Ronald W.B. Morris listed 104 theories about the curious rock carvings which, he writes, are “still strongly held and believed in by at least one archaeologist of note, amateur or professional.”

Historical researcher Jeff Nisbet notes that these 104 theories could be grouped under the following broad categories of use:

  • In burials, having some sort of unknown symbolic use to the dead on their final journeys.
  • In religious or magical ceremonies.
  • As astronomical timekeepers.
  • Various other more individual (and sometimes bizarre) theories, including, but not limited to: encoded messages from outer space, early masons’ marks, musical notation, pilgrims’ marks, gaming tables, boundary markers, primitive lamp bases, and even just meaningless doodles.

And in the 40 years since Morris published his book, Nisbet writes, “many more theories have been proposed that similarly run the gamut from the fantastical to the mundane”. And yet, “since there is no written record in prehistory” it’s likely that no theory ever will provide a fully satisfactory answer to the mystery.

But that won’t stop us for continuing to search for answers – and Nisbet has his own offering, which came to him when looking at an old photo of the 5000-year-old Cochno Stone in Scotland:

The carved stone shown in the 1937 B&W photo, as emphasized by Mann’s paint,looked very similar to something I remembered well from my schooldays — the classroom blackboard.

As a graphic designer with an abiding interest in the role art has played in our understanding of the past, I had been captivated by a 2015 news story about several old blackboards discovered hidden behind the walls of an Oklahoma City school. The old blackboards dated from 1917, and still contained,according to one of the many news reports of the find, lessons “on music, math, and even the history of the Pilgrims.” The discovery was, the report said,“a fascinating little time capsule from an earlier era, particularly since it was one that was always meant to be wiped away.”

When I thought about the transitory nature of those early-20th-century classroom chalk marks versus the durability of ancient stone carvings, it occurred to me that the vastly different lifespans of the two mediums are not mutually exclusive, and that the one may actually serve to tell us a lot about the other.

In a paper titled “Cup & Ring Marks: Who made them, and why?“, Nisbet ponders the different ways in which the evidence for learning processes would have survived in prehistory: while many skills, such as hunting, leather-working, and weaving would have been learned using organic materials that quickly decayed, leaving no permanent record, the teaching of making rock carvings would entail a near-permanent record being left in the medium being used: stone.

“Unlike the products of early butchery and weaving,” Nisbet notes, “the ancient efforts of aspiring stoneworkers would still survive for us to see.”

Those of us of a certain age will recall the individual hand-held slates on which we practiced our alphabets, over and over, or the nibbed pens and inkwells which made our cursive writing sing with delicate upstrokes and heavier downstrokes. Later on in our schooling we might have taken a touch-typing course, learning the QWERTY keyboard layout by repeatedly tapping out “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” until we could type it, error-free, without looking down. As the old Latin proverb goes — Repetitio mater studiorum est — Repetition is the mother of all learning.

And so it might likely have been in prehistoric times, too, when a craft would be practiced and practiced until the necessary motor skills had become second nature. Unlike the early work of prehistoric weavers and grooved-ware potters, however, the classwork of student stone carvers would not end its life in either bonfire or midden. Carved into solid bedrock, it would still be in place for us to see.

While Nisbet’s theory of a didactic purpose for these mysterious stone carvings is similar to his suggestion regarding the enigmatic carved stone balls of Scotland, it’s worth noting that he is not simply trying to ‘disenchant’ the past with such pragmatism. Instead, he notes that while he is quite taken with ‘magical’ explanations about the past, he feels that “placing a mantle of undocumented superstition on the shoulders of our ancestors, no matter how pleasing the thought, runs the risk of doing them a disservice”:

Such preconceptions may blind us to a simpler path of investigation paved with the view that there is much about the way we live our day-to-day lives that likely has not changed over the millennia — a path that might better enable us to discover some commonsense truths about our ancestors by inviting us to look more inward, at our present-day selves, than backward, at distant strangers.


Feature image: Cup and ring petroglyph in lava rock, Volcano National Park, island of Hawaii, by ‘Netherzone’. CCASA 4.0 licence.

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