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5 June 2005
Finely decorated slabs found in a Scottish cairn

Excavations by Headland Archaeology have provided an opportunity to fully excavate the remains of a Bronze Age funerary cairn near Inverness. This has produced some unusual and unexpected evidence of megalithic rock art.
     The sub-circular cairn located in Balblair Quarry, near Beauly (Highlands, Scotland), was approximately 20 metres in diameter and survived to a maximum height of 1 metre. Although the body of the cairn had been substantially robbed in the past, a central cist was still present. Unfortunately the cist had also been robbed, although a few rim sherds of food vessel were recovered. The lack of grave goods was compensated for by the discovery of decoration on three of the internal faces of the sandstone slabs that formed the cist.
     In two instances the decoration consisted of simple shallow, pecked cup marks but one slab was far more intricately decorated. On this slab there is a perforation – worked from both faces – a cup mark and a probable third cup surviving at one edge of what was once a presumably larger stone, all seemingly pecked. Most intriguing is a deeply scored but asymmetrical linear decoration for which there are no regional parallels. A similar, albeit inverted incised design can be seen running either away from the perforation, and there is clear evidence of smaller cup marks and lighter pecking around it. This practice of the preliminary tracing of designs can be seen in examples of Irish and Orcadian passage tombs although in this instance further enhancement was not carried out.
     The deeper and more prominent incised linear design appears to have been executed with a sharp instrument and this decoration may be later than the deep cup marks. Indeed, in two instances pecking is superimposed over some of the curvilinear design suggesting re-use if not more extensive reworking of an existing stone. Both the perforations and the weathering on both sides of the two decorated side slabs of the cist suggest that both stones were once freestanding or open to the elements; their subsequent incorporation into the cist has almost certainly preserved the apparent freshness of the decoration in any case.
     Close by are the remains of a chambered cairn that incorporates similar sandstone slabs that have been imported onto the site from outcropping sources in the near vicinity and it is possible that the slabs within the cist could have come from that locality and been re-used. The perforations and large cups are perhaps of later Neolithic date; smaller motifs, shallow cupmarks for example, are not uncommon in Bronze Age cists.
     Headland Archaeology has yet to identify any direct parallels for the incised curvilinear design from Scotland or indeed with any other recorded megalithic art in the British Isles albeit there is a passing similarity to designs on the exterior of the main tomb at Knowth in Ireland. Fragments of food vessel type pottery recovered from the cist.

Source: Headland Archaeology (5 May 2005)

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