The Mystery of the Rocks

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A walk to the Weary Hill Stone.

1I looked back, gasping now for breath. There was an early morning vapour across the valley bottom, but the sun was rising above the town of Ilkley below me, the spire of St. Margaret’s pushing its way through the mist.

It was at 6.30 on a summer morning that I walked up Weary Hill on Ilkley Moor on my way to see the ‘Weary Hill Stone’.

I knew there were prehistoric carved stones on Ilkley Moor, but had not given the matter much thought before. However, I had just read an article about a local archaeological project to trace and record the carvings. This link with the ancient past had excited my interest – and I had suddenly felt the need to visit the moor when few people were about at daybreak to see one of the stones.

Weary Hill is well-named. It is a steep lane that twists and curls to the spine of the moor. It is tarmacked at the lower levels, but – as if the road builders had quickly lost interest – it suddenly transforms near the summit to a pot-holed track, accessible only to four-wheeled drive vehicles.

There was a footpath from the track onto the moor and after 100 yards or so, I saw a faint path in the bracken. This led me to the Weary Stone.


The Weary Stone

It is a triangular lump of exposed rock, about 1.5 metres long. Around 12 cup marked shapes were still clearly visible, and four of these had carved rings enclosing them. It had rained in the night and the water had pooled in the cups, which reflected now in the early sun. All around was quiet. This was my first encounter with the cup and ring markings of Ilkley Moor.

Weary Hill Stone commands wide views to the west and east of the Wharfe Valley; the ruins of Bolton Abbey were visible in the far distance, and the rising sun was striking now across the face of the stone, throwing the cups into shadow.

I knelt and felt the smooth surface of the cups and imagined a man kneeling in this position, at least three thousand years ago, chipping away with a rock or flint at the stone – this stone. But why had he done it?

The Place

4Rombalds Moor (of which Ilkley Moor is a large part) is a vast stretch of upland, approximately seven miles in length, high above the West Yorkshire rivers, Wharfe and Aire.

The moor straddles and divides both rivers and Millstone Grit rock forms its backbone. There are pockets of natural or recently developed woodland clinging to the lower slopes, but the overall impression is of a vast and largely uninhabited rock strewn area of peat, bog, bracken and heather. The main towns of Keighley and Ilkley, on the banks respectively of the Aire and Wharfe, are the nearest large centres of population.

But three thousand years ago the area would have looked very different. The valley bottoms were swampy and dense with vegetation, encouraging the inhabitants of the area to inhabit the dryer slopes above. The moor then, would have been less a ‘moor’, but a fertile area, more thickly wooded than today and abundant with game – including deer, wild boar, and rabbit.

Ancient Britons of the Neolithic and Bronze Age lived, hunted and farmed on the slopes, as evidenced by the bural cairns, stone circles – and carved rocks – found there today.

Wildness of Ilkley Moor

  • Ilkley Moor
    An amateur film that captures the scale, grandeur and desolation of Ilkley Moor. It also features a Bronze Age burial site (‘Twelve Apostle’ stones) and an example of rock art.

The carvings

5In the early years of the 19th century, historians began to record examples of abstract carvings on rocks in the North of England. In particular, the ‘cup-and-ring’ style of rock art was first recorded in Northumberland by the local historian antiquarian, George Tate.

The ‘cup and ring’ design is the most common example of man-made rock carving found on Ilkley Moor – and elsewhere in Northern Britain.

It consists, at its simplest, of a cup-shape indentation in the rock surface made by chipping away at the stone by a tool of some description – reindeer horn, flint, or other pointed stone. However, these cup markings are often found circled by carved rings, and in the more elaborate designs are connected to each other by man-made grooves, or by linking natural lines and fissures in the rock face. Particular to Ilkley Moor, and not found elsewhere in Britain, is a ‘ladder’ style of enclosed grooves, enclosing or connecting the rings (as seen in the photograph above).

Unsolved Mystery

6In Britain there are 2500 recorded sites, mainly in the North of England, with rock carvings of this nature, and new ones are discovered each year. But these cup markings have been recorded in rocks across the world, leading to speculation that they represent a collective urge, straddling cultures and countries, to produce abstract circular shapes – but representing what? That is still the unsolved mystery.

On Ilkley Moor, within walking distance of my home, there are at least 300 known and recorded stone carvings on natural outcrop rocks. It is believed that many carved stones have been destroyed in the past during quarrying operations, or have yet to be discovered – the bracken and heather that grows thick on the moor conceals many of the smaller rocks. New rocks can be revealed by the fires on the moor during a dry summer, as happened at Fylingdales Moor, North Yorkshire in 2003.

Whilst it is impossible to date the rocks on exposed ground accurately, archaeologists tend to agree that the carvings in the my home area were made by Neolithic and Early Bronze Age people between 1000 and 500 BC. Dating is done by looking at the extent of the weathering and comparison with other types of prehistoric specifically-dated objects and decorations found nearby or elsewhere.


7The rocks with known carvings tend to be located on the middle to lower slopes, rather than the most elevated positions, of the moor and are often found near burial cairns, streams, or in positions that command extensive views across the valley or surrounding moor. Some stones bear just a few simple rings, whilst others are covered with complex markings.

The ‘Badger Stone’, for example (see illustration below) has over 90 cup, ring, and other markings on its southwest facing side, including what looks like an incomplete swastika-style symbol. This stone is over a metre high and three metres long and stands commanding views over the Wharfe valley, and in sight of other carved stones. It has the appearance of a ‘communal’ or ceremonial stone, in that it may have been worked by a number of people for a particular symbolic purpose.

The ‘Badger Stone’


‘Swastika’ symbol on the Badger Stone?

9There is an incomplete Swastika-style carving on the ‘Badger Stone’. There is a complete Swastika symbol carved on another rock half a mile away to the north (see photograph in the Introduction to this article).

The commanding position of the Badger Stone may have some significance. The rising morning sun strikes the stone on the Southwest surface of the rock where most of the carvings have been made.

Did this have any bearing on the apparently prolific, perhaps communal, range of markings on this prominent stone?

Recording the images

10Many of the carvings on exposed stones are now badly eroded. However, photogrammetry allows 3-D models to be recorded, which in turn allows other visual images to be generated, including line drawings, contour plots, and 3D surface models. The images show in fine detail the relationship of the markings to each other on a particular rock, and the connections made between them (see examples in the photographs, right and below).

11The rocks in the photograph, left, were found in close proximity to each other. The drawings show the position of markings. But is it a pattern, or just a collection of random chippings in the stone?

Tools used

Simple stone tools were most probably used to make the markings, such as the one illustrated here, which was found near a rock art carving.

The rock would have been chipped or ‘pecked’ at until a cup, usually between 3-10cm in diameter and 2-3cm deep had been made.


Photo credit: British Rock Art Group

In many cases, connecting grooves and circular lines were added to complete the desired design. A simple cup would have taken just a few hours to make, but the more extended patterns represent days of work.

A search for meaning

Meanings: Pragmatic, Spiritual – or Both?

As mentioned earlier, there is no agreed interpretation of the meaning of rock art. However, the occurrence of the same symbols across a wide geographical area – and across countries – suggests that the markings represent a shared way of communicating some pragmatic or spiritual message to others.


These recurring cup and ring symbols also spanned a long time period – archaeologists argue that the oldest are 6,000 years old – which suggests that there was a persistent and enduring significance to the markings, in terms of what they represented.

In Britain, whilst the cup and ring markings are common, there are regional variations on the other rock motifs found – and where they are found. In my home area, for example, the stone markings are all on elevated moorland, whilst elsewhere in Northern Britain rock art can be found in both lowland and coastal areas.

On Ilkley Moor some rocks, which might seem obvious for their distinctiveness on the landscape, were left untouched, whilst others, fairly undistinguished in size, were chosen for often quite elaborate and prolific attention by the stone carvers.

Five Theories


Photo credit: Chris Collyer

So whilst there is no one convincing explanation of their ‘meaning’, a major study of rock art in Northern Britain (The Northumberland and Durham Rock Art Project) does offer five hypothesis based on the extensive research done so far by the Project team.

(1) The markings define territory in some way. This might be a settlement close by, or as a way of recording affinity or association with the area in general. On Ilkey Moor, for example, many of the stones prominently overlook the valley below, and the markings may be a way of saying ” this is our land”.

(2) The markings may be ancient signposts, indicating routes to other settlements nearby.

(3) The markings may be sacred in their significance, in much the same way as the cross is to Christians today. The cup and ring markings may represent a cycle (circle) of life and death, that ran parallel to the circle of ever changing seasons – of which these ancient people would have been closer to, physically and emotionally, than most of us today.

(4) The markings may be a form of art or decoration, in much the same way as we would decorate our living spaces or gardens. Rocks would have been chosen for their visual or aesthetic appeal, or for their natural hollows and cracks – allowing these to be incorporated into the design chosen for the rock. Rocks too, on a place like Ilkley Moor, would provide partial shelter from the elements, so decorating a rock that formed the backdrop to a home, may have had a recreational as well as decorative purpose.

(5) Following on from (4) above, the more prominently located stones could have had some communal and social purpose – with individuals contributing their own markings, perhaps as part of seasonal rituals. This may well be the case with the Badger Stone mentioned above.

In the foreseeable future, despite all our technology and science, it is unlikely we will learn what these carvings meant to our Bronze Age predecessors – which for me is part of their appeal and mystery.

More information

Ilkley Moor rock art

  • Ilkley Moor
    Excellent localised site with background information on the rock art found specifically on Ilkley Moor, including photographs of many of the main stones.


Header image courtesy Luca Giarelli

Colin Neville is a retired university teacher, author of four non-fiction books (on education and local history topics), online seller of art & design-related fine and limited edition books, gardener, chef, granddad.He lives in West Yorkshire, near Ilkley. Currently working on developing an information database of Bradford (Yorkshire) born artists, past and present.

Author: Jackie Jackson

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