Patterdale Rock Art

by Kate Sharpe

Banner Image © K. Sharpe

When, in 1998, Tim Cook acquired an old quarryman’s cottage tucked beneath Place Fell in the hamlet of Rooking, he set about clearing the overgrown garden. In the process, he exposed a serious of strange markings on an area of bedrock: several circular depressions and some shallow grooves. Tim recollected seeing similar hollows, known as ‘cup marks’, in Northumberland.

Made during the Neolithic period around 5,000 years ago, these abstract marks are part of a tradition of Atlantic rock art extending from Scandinavia to Iberia. Further investigations led Tim to contact Stan Beckensall, an independent researcher who had published several books on the subject. He learned that, although relatively common on the fells of neighbouring counties, the ‘rock art’, made by Neolithic and Early Bronze Age communities, was unknown in the Central Lake District although examples were recorded on the megalithic monuments in the nearby Eden Valley.

Tim began to explore the area around Rooking, asking his neighbours to check their own gardens and fields. Four additional decorated rocks were soon uncovered, along a ridge of fine-grained Borrowdale Volcanic Series stone that outcropped along the valley as far as Beckstones. Perhaps the most incredible discovery was at Green Rigg, where a substantial rock forms a prominent feature of the (private) garden. The glacially smoothed upper surface of the outcrop was found to be completely covered by hundreds of cups, with long, horizontal grooves carved across vertical natural fissures to form a grid pattern. Following visits from Stan, from local archaeologists, and from English Heritage, the rock art at Patterdale was formally recognised to be of major archaeological importance, and officially scheduled ensuring future protection.

Interpretation of rock art at Green Rigg by kind permission of Stan Beckensall
Cup-marks at Beckstones. Image © K. Sharpe
Cup-marks at Crookabeck. Image © K. Sharpe

Although this important group of carvings was the first to be found in the Lake District, it was not the last. The discovery inspired further surveys and, together with a few more chance finds, these have resulted in the identification of around 30 new rock art sites. These include the unusual vertical panel at Copt Howe in Great Langdale with its complex multi-ring motifs, but most have simple scatters of cups ranging in number from half a dozen to more than a hundred. None quite match the extensive, distinctive arrangement of natural and carved marks at Green Rigg, with its rows of cups enclosed by grooves and fissures.

As more examples have been recorded, patterns have emerged regarding their setting in the landscape. As at Patterdale, many are located at the end of one of the long, finger lakes that radiate from the Central Fells. Most are at low elevations, often close to the valley floor, and many are located at the foot of a route leading through the mountains – just as the Patterdale group lies at the base of Kirkstone Pass, Boredale Hause, and several other upland routes. This suggests that the rock art may have had a role in the movement of prehistoric people around the landscape, perhaps marking a transition from travelling on the water to more mountainous environments, and vice versa.

by Kate Sharpe


Beckensall, S. 2007. Prehistoric Rock Art in Cumbria. Landscapes and Monuments. Stroud: Tempus.

Cook, T. 1999. Rock carvings in Patterdale: a Neolithic puzzle. Matterdale Historical and Archaeological Society Transactions 6: 38-42.

Sharpe, K. 2007. Motifs, monuments and mountains: prehistoric rock art in the Cumbrian landscape. Unpublished PhD Thesis, Durham University.

Sharpe, K. 2015. Connecting the dots. Cupules and communication in the English Lake District. Expression 9: 109-16.

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