Prehistoric deer carvings in Argyll are a first for Scotland

One of the carved deer from the interior of Dunchraigaig Cairn at Kilmartin, Argyll. (HES)

We’re no strangers to Neolithic art at the Ness of Brodgar, but our examples are either circular cupmarks or geometric designs.

Historic Environment Scotland (HES) has confirmed yesterday that prehistoric animal carvings, thought to be between 4,000 and 5,000-years-old, have been discovered in Scotland for the first time.

The carvings, thought to date to the Neolithic or Early Bronze Age, were hidden inside Dunchraigaig Cairn in Kilmartin Glen, Argyll – some 345 miles, as the crow flies, to the south-west of the Ness of Brodgar.

They include depictions of two male red deer, with full-grown antlers and anatomical detail including a short tail can be seen on one. Three other quadrupeds are also visible, two of which are thought to be juvenile deer.

The carvings were discovered by chance by Hamish Fenton, who spotted them on the capstone of an Early Bronze Age burial cist.

He explained: “I was passing Dunchraigaig Cairn at dusk when I noticed the burial chamber in the side of the cairn and decided to slide inside with my torch. As I shone the torch around, I noticed a pattern on the underside of the roof slab which didn’t appear to be natural markings in the rock.

“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.”

Detail of the deer carvings. (HES/Scotland's Rock Art Project)

Detail of the deer carvings. (HES/Scotland’s Rock Art Project)

Kilmartin Glen has one of the most important concentration of Neolithic and Bronze Age remains in mainland Scotland, including some of the finest cup-and-ring markings in the country.

Dr Tertia Barnett, principal investigator for Scotland’s Rock Art Project at HES, said: “It was previously thought that prehistoric animal carvings of this date didn’t exist in Scotland, although they are known in parts of Europe, so it is very exciting that they have now been discovered here for the first time in the historic Kilmartin Glen.

“While there are a few prehistoric carvings of deer in the UK, the only other ones created in the Early Bronze Age are very schematic. 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.

“This also tells us that the local communities were carving animals as well as cup and ring motifs which is in keeping with what we know of other Neolithic and Bronze Age societies, particularly in Scandinavia and Iberia.

“Until now, we did not know of any area in Britain with both types of carvings, which poses questions about the relationship between them and their significance to the people that created them.”


Following the discovery, experts from Scotland’s Rock Art Project examined the carvings to confirm their authenticity. A structured light scan was carried out by HES digital documentation experts to create an accurate and detailed 3D model with photographic texture, and various visualisation techniques were then applied to the model in order to reveal more details of the carvings than would have been visible to the naked eye.

Dr Barnett added: “This incredible discovery in Dunchraigaig Cairn makes us wonder if other animal carvings previously unknown to the UK are hidden in unexpected places in our ancient landscapes, waiting to be uncovered in the future.”

The cairn is 30m wide and contained three stone burial chambers, or cists. The third cist, where the carvings are located, was dug directly into the ground, lined with drystone cobbled walls and capped with an unusually large stone over 3.5m long.

The remains of up to ten individuals, some cremated, were also discovered here when the site was initially excavated in the 1860s, as well as artefacts including a whetstone, a greenstone axe and a flint knife.

Click here for more details and a link to a downloadable information sheet.

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