England's Rock Art
Scattered across northern Britain are obscure and mysterious symbols carved into stone outcrops on moors and uplands. They were made by the people of the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age, between 6,000 and 3,000 years ago.
This new site explains what is known about them and where to see them, and suggests short walks to some of the best. The most famous are at Roughting Linn in Northumberland, where there is also a picturesque waterfall.
The oldest known example of figurative art in Britain is a cartoon-like drawing of a horse's head engraved scratchily into a piece of bone, thought to date to about 8,500 BC. It was found at these caves in Derbyshire, which were used as homes or shelters by hunter-gatherers shortly after the end of the last ice age and are now open to visitors.
Cresswell cave art
In just the past five years, a number of stone-age paintings and carvings have been discovered in the caves at Cresswell, particularly on the ceilings. Nobody had previously imagined that Britain had any stone age art to rival the cave paintings of France and Spain. For more information, see news.bbc.co.uk, search for "Creswell Crags" and read the stories from BBC Notts dated July 13, 2004 and BBC Bristol dated April 25, 2005.
Cheddar cave art
Although it is known that the caves in Cheddar Gorge were inhabited, the caves flood frequently and have been damaged by Victorian excavations, so there was little hope of finding paintings there. Recently, however, someone spotted what may or may not be a carving of a mammoth (search for "Cheddar Gorge" and read the story entitled "Rare Ice Age rock art found in Cheddar Gorge"). For visits to the caves, see cheddarcaves.co.uk.
The same people of the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age who created the enigmatic rock art of Northern England also produced the dramatic tombs, like tunnels into the underworld, which are our most intriguing ancient monuments. Many have carvings on their walls, and the best examples are concentrated on the western, Atlantic fringes of Northen Europe: Barclodiad y Gawres and Bryn Celli Ddu in Anglesey, North Wales (www.cadw.wales.gov.uk); Newgrange, Knowth and Loughcrew in Ireland (www.heritageireland.ie); and the extraordinary Gavrinis in Brittany, France (click "By periods" and choose "Megaliths in Morbihan").
Scotland's premier location for anyone interested in ancient art is a small valley on the west coast, west of Inverary and south of Oban. Grouped together in just a few square miles are "cup and ring" markings on rock outcrops; tombs with depictions of bronze axes carved into their walls; and, to bring us into the Christian era, a collection of carved grave slabs from the 800s and 900s.
Uffington White Horse
Carved on a Berkshire hillside just beneath the ancient road called the Rigeway, the Uffington horse was recently dated at about 3,000 years old - far older than anyone had imagined possible. It also appears to be in pretty much its original form. (Under "Conservation, heritage & learning" click "Countryside & environment" and choose "Archaeology", then "Places to visit".)
An enormous wealth of small examples of the decorative arts - Iron Age cloak pins, Roman brooches, Saxon pendants - has been found over the years, but most of it is squirrelled away in dusty archives in the back rooms of museums. The digital era means that some of this stuff can be brought back into the light, a good example being the National Education Network's Gallery website. Try, for example, the "Norfolk Heritage Explorer" (click "Culture and Heritage" and see the second page), which features lots of small finds from the county. Also see the website of finds made by metal detectorists at detego.co.uk.
Sutton Hoo ship burial
The outstanding works of art of pre-Christian Britain are the treasures found in the grave of an East Anglian king who was buried in his ship under a mound of earth at a location on the Suffolk coast in about AD600. Visitors to the British Museum, where the treasures are kept, should head straight for them: the most finely wrought is an enamelled purse, but what really catches the imagination is the replica sword, light dancing on the intricate patterns of its blade (click "Explore" and "Online tours", then choose "Britain" and "Our Top Ten British Treasures").
Pictish symbol stones
Carved stones and stone crosses of the early Christian era are found through the British Isles, the obvious examples being the "Celtic crosses" of Ireland, which were much copied as gravestones in Victorian times. In eastern Scotland, however, carved stones had a distinct character, being decorated with peculiar symbols - a comb, a mirror, the "crescent and z-rod" - as well as figures of people and animals. The Aberdeenshire council website has a useful introduction (click "Site Directory" and under "Leisure, Culture and Tourism" click "Archaeology" then "Sites to Visit"), but the best stones are found a little further south, around Dundee, at Aberlemno and Meigle (see www.historic-scotland.gov.uk).