22 December 2004
Out of the flames, a work of art from 4,000 years ago
A carved stone dating back 4,000 years to the early Bronze Age could be an early example of decorative landscape art. The relic, unique to England, was uncovered when a forest fire consumed a large swath of heather moorland on the North Yorkshire Moors. Searchers, who found the metre-wide slab of sandstone half buried in the ash, immediately recognised its potential significance, but it was only when it was rotated through 90 degrees and photographed with a laser scanner that the image of a landscape became apparent. Across the top are a series of jagged peaks or waves with undulating lines like clouds above them. Below are a series of intersecting lines, resembling field boundaries, a series of triangles to the right in a cross shape and what could be a hut with an extra triangle representing the doorway. Neil Redfern, an inspector of ancient monuments for English Heritage, said that the decorations were unlike anything else known of the period.
The stone is the most valuable of more than 2,400 artefacts (including 185 carved rocks: three times the previous recorded number) uncovered last September by the blaze which exposed a 2½ sq km section of Fylingdales Moor, west of Ravenscar. The site, which shows evidence of human habitation across four millennia, is to be designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest and will become the focus of a project to restore the ecology of the moor. Mr Redfern said: “When we stepped over the scorched terrain and reviewed aerial photographs, we were confronted by a vast number of features we had no idea existed before. To find such well-preserved signs of settlement and human activity over such a long period in such a small area is amazing. We expected to find up to 500 artefacts exposed by the fire. In the end, we found almost 2,500 from Stone Age arrow heads to bullets from Second World War training exercises.” Graham Lee, archaeologist for the North York Moors National Park, added: "The fire revealed a whole series of features from different periods, and a lot of them seem to be early prehistoric, and some of them are so subtle we could never have appreciated them without losing all the peat."
Archaeologists believe the stone to be unique among examples of late Neolithic/Bronze Age rock art. Mr Redfern said: "There are many rock carvings in this part of the world, but they are all of the cup-and-ring type, small circular depressions and circles cut into the stone. This was so different. It is incised with straight lines that criss-cross the surface forming a strange pattern. If this is what we think is it is, it is going to turn our view of the culture of this period upside down."
The stone, similar to local rock, is not thought to have been in its original location and may have been either dumped or re-used. "It had never been moved; it is still in its original context. It is part of the landscape, and we wanted to preserve it in situ," said Mr Redfern. "There is also the potential for more stones like this on the moor, and where would you stop taking things away?"
The stone, although examined, photographed and laser scanned, was left in situ in the ground along with many of the found items. The unusual step of leaving it in place is part of an ambitious project to restore the rich ecology of the moor, which is part of a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). “Where else should it go?” said Mr Redfern. "We have recorded its image. Why should it go to, say the British Museum? It was found here, so should remain here."
Sources: article by Richard Moss for 24 Hour Museum, BBC News The Scotsman (20 December 2004), The Guardian, Telegraph.co.uk, The Times, This is the North East, Yorkshire Post Today (21 December 2004)