Prehistoric deer carvings made between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago have been discovered by chance in a tomb in Scotland.
The pictures – which include two adult male red deer with full-grown antlers and three smaller animals – are thought to date back to the Neolithic or Early Bronze Age.
Historic Environment Scotland (HES) said they are the earliest known animal carvings in the country and the first clear examples of deer carvings from this period in the whole of the UK.
They were spotted by Hamish Fenton, who has a background in archaeology, on the capstone of burial cist inside Dunchraigaig Cairn in Kilmartin Glen.
“I was passing Dunchraigaig Cairn at dusk when I noticed the burial chamber in the side of the cairn and decided to slide inside with my torch,” he explained.
“As I shone the torch around, I noticed a pattern on the underside of the roof slab which didn’t appear to be natural markings in the rock.
“As I shone the light around further, I could see that I was looking at a deer stag upside down, and as I continued looking around, more animals appeared on the rock.
“This was a completely amazing and unexpected find and, to me, discoveries like this are the real treasure of archaeology, helping to reshape our understanding of the past.”
There are over 3,000 prehistoric carved rocks in Scotland but most are mysterious “cup and ring” markings – a central cup mark surrounded by concentric circles.
The deer carvings found in Kilmartin Glen “completely change the assumption that prehistoric rock art in Britain was mainly geometric and non-figurative”, said Dr Tertia Barnet of HES.
“While there are a few prehistoric carvings of deer in the UK, the only other ones created in the Early Bronze Age are very schematic.
“It is remarkable that these carvings in Dunchraigaig Cairn show such great anatomical detail and there is no doubt about which animal species they represent.
“It was previously thought that prehistoric animal carvings of this date didn’t exist in Scotland, although they are known in parts of Europe, so it is very exciting that they have now been discovered here for the first time in the historic Kilmartin Glen.”
Experts from Scotland’s Rock Art Project confirmed the authenticity of the carvings with the help of digital visualisation techniques to reveal details that were not visible to the naked eye. A detailed 3D model of the burial chamber, which was lined with drystone cobbled walls and capped with a 3.5m long stone, can be viewed online.
When the tomb was first excavated in the 1860s the remains of up to 10 people, some cremated, were discovered along with items including a whetstone, a greenstone axe and a flint knife.
Dr Barnett said: “Digital technology is becoming increasingly important for archaeology, and particularly for rock art, and is a key to unlocking the hidden secrets of our past. This incredible discovery in Dunchraigaig Cairn makes us wonder if other animal carvings previously unknown to the UK are hidden in unexpected places in our ancient landscapes, waiting to be uncovered in the future.”