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Cup and Ring Marks

Cup and ring marks – here and there

Cup and ring marks are a form of prehistoric art that can be found in different parts of the world, including Northumberland in the UK and Alaska in the US. These marks consist of circular hollows, called cups, surrounded by one or more concentric rings, sometimes connected by grooves or channels. They are usually carved on natural rocks or boulders, but sometimes also on megalithic structures such as stone circles or burial chambers.

The origin and meaning of these marks are still unknown, but they have been dated to the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods, between 6000 and 3500 years ago. Some scholars have suggested that they may have been used for religious or ceremonial purposes, astronomical observations, territorial markings, or simply as artistic expressions. However, none of these theories can explain the wide distribution and variation of the marks across different cultures and regions.

An interesting aspect of cup and ring marks is the comparison between those found in Northumberland, UK and those found in Wrangell, Alaska.


Northumberland has one of the largest concentrations of cup and ring marked stones in Britain. Notable sites include Lordenshaws, where more than 100 stones have been recorded, and Roughting Linn, near Kimmerston, Wooler [GPS: 55°37’27.918″ N 2°1’38.25″ W].

Roughting Linn (also written as ‘Routin Linn’) is a large 20m x 12m sandstone rock with numerous cup and ring markings. According to Mazel, it is “the largest decorated rock in northern England.” I took the photos below on a visit to also see the nearby Roughting Linn waterfall.

Photo showing the large sandstone rock at Roughting Linn (aka 'Routin Linn’)
The large sandstone rock at Roughting Linn (aka ‘Routin Linn’)
Cup and ring marking showing a connecting channel
Cup and ring marking showing a connecting channel (Roughting Linn)
Two-ring rock mark at Roughting Linn
Two-ring rock mark at Roughting Linn

The marks are typically shallow and simple, with few rings and channels. They are often associated with other prehistoric monuments, such as hillforts, burial mounds, and rock carvings of animals and humans.


In contrast, Alaska has only a few sites with cup and ring marks, mostly located on the Kodiak Island and the Kenai Peninsula. The marks are deeper and more complex, with many rings and channels forming intricate patterns. They are not associated with any other prehistoric features, but rather with natural landmarks, such as waterfalls, caves, and mountain peaks. Some of the marks have been interpreted as maps or symbols related to hunting and fishing activities.

I took the photos below in 2018 at Petroglyph Beach State Historic Park in Wrangell, Alaska [GPS: 56°28’59.91″ N 132°23’38.682″ W]. At least 40 rock markings (petroglyphs) are still visible on the rocks on the shore. To date, this remains the largest concentration of rock art in Alaska, with some of the carvings claimed to be around 8000 years old.

Cup and ring marking at Petroglyph Beach State Historic Park, Wrangell, Alaska
Cup and ring marking at Petroglyph Beach State Historic Park, Wrangell, Alaska
Cup and ring marks on boulder
Cup and ring marks in Alaska showing similarities to those found in Northumberland

The similarities and especially the differences between the cup and ring marks in Northumberland and Alaska suggest that they were not part of a single cultural tradition, but rather independent inventions that reflect the local environment, beliefs, and practices of the people who made them. They also suggest that prehistoric art was not a static or uniform phenomenon, but a dynamic and diverse one that can reveal much about the past societies that created it.


Mazel, A. (undated) ‘The Rock Art of Northumberland’ [WWW] Accessed 16 February 2024.


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