STAN BECKENSALL. Prehistoric rock art in Northumberland. 192 pages, 244 figures, 30 colour photographs. 2001. Stroud & Charleston (SC): Tempus; 0-75241945-5 paperback 16.99 [pounds sterling] & $27.50.
This first-rate book gives a comprehensive descriptive account of the rock art of Northumberland, richest of English counties in these singular remains. It is written from Stan Beckensall's great knowledge with an inviting charm, splendidly illustrated with his photographs and drawings, well produced in a manageable size, and not expensive for what it offers.
Northumberland was amongst the first areas in Britain where prehistoric rock art was noticed when John Charles Langlands grasped the significance of two carved rocks at Old Bewick in the 1820s. Ever since, it has been hard to study. Dated now well back into prehistory, and allocated to the Neolithic rather than Bronze Age where it was formerly placed, it is far beyond any direct insight from ethnohistory which might allow approaches by `informed methods'. When it comes to the other approach of `formal methods', those that depend only on the material evidence and its archaeological context, British rock art is also recalcitrant. There is no painting. The engravings are limited in their enigmatic repertoire: most often quite deep cup-marks resembling the cupules found in so many rock-art regions; circles, singular or concentric; lines, straight, curved or wavy; and then more elaborate figures which combine these primary elements in varied ways. All these Beckensall calls, conventionally, `abstract', when in truth they may or may not be. All we can actually say is that we do not recognize what natural things they are images of -- save only for a handful of little animal figures at Goatscrag (but are these certain to be prehistoric? or do they go with the rare animal depictions of later date, like those at Wemyss Bay, on the Fife coast of Scotland?). They may be abstract, or they may be naturalistic images of which we have simply failed to recognize the subject depicted (stones, sticks, the marks made in water when stones and sticks are dropped in pools?). I do not myself like the words Beckensall uses to describe the main elements. He calls the small units -- cup, circle, line -- symbols, and the combinations they make when compiled together motifs. But why choose to call them symbols when we do not know whether they are symbols; and, if they are abstract as he says, then surely they are not symbols!
The book first sets the scene in an inviting introduction, beginning with a single panel, Lordenshaw, to explain by example what the study of British rock art involves. It is vivid, as if one were guided by the author in person, a genial companion with the virtues of an enthusiastic senior schoolmaster. Then more about the images and how they were made, ending in a sketchy geological map to make a key point: all bar three of the few hundred Northumberland sites are on sandstone, which occurs on a belt meandering across the higher part of the county, and covering only a tiny portion of its area. …