Inora Newsletter #42


Stan Beckensall’s archive of Northumberland rock art has provided the inspiration for the development of an interactive, database-driven, website which provides virtual access to the rock art of the area. This abstract rock art forms part of the British Neolithic and Early Bronze Age cup and ring tradition of carvings that are typically found in the north of the country. The art comprises mostly cups and grooves. The cups can occur on their own, with others, randomly scattered, grouped in patterns (e.g. rosettes or dominos), or as part of a more complex design with grooves, while grooves usually occur in the form of concentric rings surrounding a cup. Sometimes, grooves emerge from the central cup and bisect the surrounding ring(s).

Fig. 1. (left) Drawing of Old Bewick 1a by Stan Beckensall. It was here that Charles Langlands in the 1820s first realised that the carvings were ancient.

Fig. 2. (above) Drawing of Ketley Crag Rock Shelter by Stan Beckensall. The entire floor of this small rock shelter has been carved.

First recognised as ancient in the 1820s, Northumbrian rock art has experienced three main phases of study: the 1850s to the 1880s; the 1930s; and the 1980s until the present, which has been the most sustained. Beckensall’s involvement dates back to the 1960s, following a visit to Old Bewick 1a (Fig. 1). Since then Beckensall has shared his recordings (e.g. drawings, photographic images, locational information, and descriptive commentary) through numerous publications. These data have supported the work of other researchers, such as Richard Bradley and Clive Waddington, who have advanced the interpretation of British rock art in the 1990s and 2000s.

The idea to place Beckensall’s Northumberland rock art archive (now housed at the University of Newcastle) on the web followed his approach to the University for assistance to produce a CD with illustrations to support his 2001 publication on the county’s rock art. Instead, it was agreed that a website would make the data more freely available and funding was successfully sought, by Geoff Bailey, Clive Waddington and Glyn Goodrick, for an Arts and Humanities Research Board Resource Enhancement Grant, which aims to make bodies of data more readily available to scholars and a wider public.

The key aims and objectives of the project, which ran from July 2002 to December 2004, were to develop a user-friendly website on Northumberland rock art, accessible to various audiences; locate and record as many panels in the field as possible; ensure a comprehensive photographic record (including 360° bubbleworld photographs); and digitise Beckensall’s drawings and photographic material. At the outset, the challenges included assessing Beckensall’s archive and developing a list of rock art panels to determine the nature and extent of the resources; conceptualising the potential audiences, their needs, and the information required to satisfy these; developing the metadata list and a field reporting form; conceptualising the database with Horacio Ayestaran; planning and initiating the fieldwork programme; and towards the end of the first year establishing an interim website with Jess Kemp and Marc Johnstone.

With Beckensall’s participation some 90% (n = 720) of the panels that are still located in the field were found and recorded. Five hundred and sixty of these were revisited to complete panel report forms, including information relating to environmental setting, surface of panel, panel type, art, and management and conservation. The photographic archive was grown by over 8000 images; these were mostly digital, but 1800 colour prints were taken. An unexpected outcome of the project was the increase in the number of panels from 790 to 1060, chiefly through field discoveries and information supplied by colleagues, farmers, and members of the public. Complementing the fieldwork programme, work in the office focused on updating the records; cataloguing and scanning thousands of Beckensall’s line drawings and photographs (some dating back to the mid-1970s); inputting information and images into the purpose-built interactive database created by Horacio Ayestaran, who was also responsible for implementing the website; and developing an Interactive Zone and the graphic design of the website, done by Marc Johnstone and Jess Kemp.

The different components of the website were assembled in December 2004 and the website was launched in January 2005. Called Northumberland rock art: web access to the Beckensall archive, it features:

– An entry for each panel, containing information about its location, archaeology, environmental features and management. Altogether there are some 6,000 drawings and photographs and 44 bubbleworld photographs showing the panels in their landscape settings. Many photographs were included to provide a virtual visual appreciation of the rock carvings and the surrounding environment. For some panels, users will be able to see how the landscape and vegetation have changed during the last 30 years and how the carvings look at different times of the year and in different weather and light conditions.

– A browse facility where users can access the panels according to parish, map, panel type, location, access that includes suitability for wheelchairs, image type, and art motifs. The motifs have been categorised and quantified to serve as a quick and accessible guide to the different types of motifs that are represented on the individual panels. Assigning the motifs into distinct categories was not a clear cut exercise and should users want to investigate the spatial relationships and distributions of motifs in greater depth than is possible through the motifs categorization system provided on the website, this can be done by reference to the drawings and photographs for the different panels.

– Simple and advanced interactive search facilities, allowing users to search on a combination of criteria relating to, for example, location, panel and image types and management matters. A word search of the entire website is possible.

– Interactive mapping facilities, allowing users to see exactly where panels are located in the countryside, as well as the ability to view the search and browse results on a map at different scales.

– The ability to download data from the website.

– An Interactive zone that includes learning journeys about Northumberland rock art; a tribute to Stan Beckensall; video and audio clips; recommended visits to rock art panels; games with a rock art theme; photo galleries; and an extensive bibliography of Northumbrian rock art.

The Northumberland rock art project has resulted in the accumulation of the largest and most detailed body of information assembled for a rock art region in Britain. This archive is now available on an extensive interactive website, which provides unparalled virtual access to this rock art. It is hoped that the website will inspire greater enjoyment of this resource by people wanting to visit it in the countryside, as well as setting the basis for future research and the effective management of this heritage .

Aron Mazel
International Centre for Cultural and Heritage Studies
University of Newcastle upon Tyne

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