This week I will be opening up a trial trench to examine a prehistoric site, on the fringe of Glasgow, that was buried 51 years ago beneath a 1m layer of soil and turf.
The site is called the Cochno Stone and it is one of the most spectacular and extensive panels of prehistoric rock-art in Britain. It is located in the lower reaches of the Kilpatrick Hills, in an area with dense rock-art concentrations on small outcrops and boulders.
In 1964 it was sealed, put beyond use and rendered inaccessible.
For its own good.
This rock-art splattered outcrop, rich with cups, cup-and-rings marks, spirals and two four-toed footprints was deemed, in the 1960s, to be under threat from the urban expansion of Glasgow. The Council-built estate of Faifley, now in West Dunbartonshire Council, encroached almost to the Cochno Stone itself. Too close apparently.
Houses were built. Infrastructure was constructed. Power towers and electricity cables were added.
5000-year-old Cochno Stone carving may be revealed
A set of mysterious, 5,000-year-old rock carvings could see the light of day again, after being buried 50 years ago to protect them from vandals.
The Cochno Stone in West Dunbartonshire bears what is considered to be the finest example of Bronze Age “cup and ring” carvings in Europe.
The stone, which measures 42ft by 26ft, was discovered by the Rev James Harvey in 1887 on farmland near what is now the Faifley housing estate on the edge of Clydebank.
It is covered in about 90 carved indentations, or “cups”, and grooved spirals, along with a ringed cross and a pair of four-toed feet.
Because of the array of markings on it, the Cochno Stone has been recognised as being of national importance and designated as a scheduled monument.
In 1964, Glasgow University archaeologists recommended it should be buried under several feet of soil to protect the carvings from further damage by vandals. The stone has been covered ever since.
Straddling the garden of a private property and parkland owned by the local council, it is now covered by vegetation and surrounded by trees.
In his book The Prehistoric Rock Art of Southern Scotland, archaeologist Ronald Morris, an expert in ancient rock carvings, described the stone as “one of Scotland finest collections of petroglyphs”.
History researcher Alexander McCallum, who has lobbied to have the stone uncovered, said there were multiple interpretations for the carvings.
He said: “Some people think that the Cochno Stone is a map showing the other settlements in the Clyde Valley – that’s one of the theories. I think it was probably used for lots of things; it was never used for just one thing and over hundreds of years it changed use.
“As far as the symbolism goes, some believe it’s a portal, of life and death, rebirth, a womb and a tomb – people believed in reincarnation, so they would go into the earth and then come out again.”
He said it was also possible the stone had been used in sacrificial ceremonials, with milk or water poured into the grooves and channels as offerings, or that the markings were astronomical maps, showing constellations that guided prehistoric farmers’ crop sewing.
Mr McCallum said similar carvings had been found around the world, including in Hawaii, India and Africa, while in Scotland they tended to be found along the west coast near the sea or rivers, often close to copper mines.
Changes in the options available to heritage bodies for the conservation of ancient sites and a shift in the attitude towards how they should be treated have led to the possibility of the Cochno Stone being uncovered.
A spokeswoman for West Dunbartonshire Council said it would “seek professional advice on the implications of uncovering the area”, adding: “Our priority is to ensure this renowned site is preserved and protected in a sustainable way.”
A spokeswoman for Historic Scotland said: “We have had no recent approaches with specific proposals.
“In the 50 years since it was covered over, there have been significant advances in recording techniques and our understanding of conservation, and we would be happy to support any considered and adequately resourced proposals to uncover it, in conjunction with the local authority and the landowner.”
The stone was featured in Scots film maker May Miles Thomas’ critically acclaimed feature The Devil’s Plantation, which traces ancient landmarks that link modern Glasgow to its prehistoric past. The film was based on 1980s archaeologist Harry Bell’s book Hidden Geometry, which includes the carvings in its history of the city and its surrounding landscape.
THE SAD TALE OF THE COCHNO STONE
NMRS Number NS57SW 32
The Cochno Stone is one of the most extensively decorated and most interesting rock art sites in this part of Scotland.
The good news is that the rock still exists in its original location; the bad news (for some) is that, around 50 years ago, it was covered by about a metre of soil to protect it from further vandalism.
The worse news is that it does not seem to have been properly recorded before it was covered. Morris refers to several drawings of the site which are consistent in recording the main features but contain many differences on the minor ones.
As well as a splendid array of cup and ring-markings, there are spirals, a circled cross, two four-toed feet and a lot more.
He produced a drawing for The Prehistoric Rock Art of Southern Scotland (posted) incorporating as many features from the different drawings as he thought reasonable but this can be no substitute for a proper recording.
If you visit the site, you can get an impression of its immense size from the surrounding wall which remains.