Despite the best efforts of a team of enthusiastic volunteers, this mysterious 5,000 year-old carved boulder still retains most of its secrets!
In early November 2011, Altogether Archaeology volunteers under the direction of Blaise Vyner and Steve Sherlock completed an investigation of the Neolithic cup-and-ring marked boulder known as the Tortie Stone, on the RSPB Geltsdale Reserve near Hallbankgate. This work formed module 7 of the Altogether Archaeology pilot project, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and English Heritage.
The Tortie Stone is an example of a cup-and-ring marked boulder, sometimes referred to more generally as ‘rock art’. Cup-and-ring marks occur in many places throughout upland northern Britain, and have been much studied over the past couple of decades. However, they remain very poorly understood. They are thought to be about 5,000 years old, and may have been made over a period of several centuries. Several examples are known in Upper Teesdale, and in the Eden Valley, but few others are known in the North Pennines. Exactly why cup-and-ring marks were made, and what the symbols meant to the people who made them, will remain forever a mystery, but there are various ways in which they can be studied in order to attempt a better understanding of them. One possibility is to investigate monuments that contain rock art, rather than just looking at decorated rock surfaces in isolation. The Tortie Stone, with an apparently associated stone setting, fell into this category, and therefore offered considerable potential to inform us about rock art in general as well as adding to our understanding of prehistoric times in this corner of the North Pennines.
Despite the slightly chilly weather, about 30 volunteers took part in the excavation, and the results were fascinating, if a little frustrating. The potential artificial stone setting adjacent to the Tortie Stone proved to be natural, but important questions about the original form of the site arising from earlier excavations were resolved, and several flint tools recovered. The flints range in date from c7,000 – 2,000 BC, proving that people were here, albeit probably intermittently, throughout this period. However the results do not tell us why these people were here, or whether their presence links in any way to the carvings on the Tortie Stone. During the work, some volunteers undertook an exploratory walkover survey of the surrounding landscape, finding, amongst other things, a previously unknown 3,500 year-old Bronze Age settlement and thus demonstrating the huge potential for more exciting discoveries in this beautiful landscape.
A full report on the results of the Tortie Stone project has been published in the Transactions of the Cumberland & Westmorland Antiquarian & Archaeological Society (vol XIII, 2013). A copy of this will be available for download here in due course.
For further information about this work, or any other aspect of the Altogether Archaeology project, please contact the Project Manager, Paul Frodsham: firstname.lastname@example.org