Northumberland's Oldest Art: A student-led heritage project

"Newcastle Students design a new interpretative panel designed to take you on an adventurous journey through time to learn more about ancient rock art in the North East."

Marina Jung Wang
17th May 2021

Northumberland’s Oldest Art, a Newcastle University student-led heritage project in collaboration with the Great North Museum.

Newcastle Students design a new interpretative panel designed to take you on an adventurous journey through time to learn more about ancient rock art in the North East.

Northumberland is known for its prehistoric rock art, mostly dated to the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age. This rock art is predominantly found on outcrops, boulders and portables, with abstract motifs carved onto them whose meanings remains a mystery. All we can be certain of is that these might be some of the oldest human-made art in the UK.

This year, a group of Heritage Studies postgraduate students from Newcastle University are teaming up with the Great North Museum: Hancock to highlight Northumberland’s awe-inspiring rock art heritage. As part of this collaboration, students were tasked with creating an interpretive panel and a concurrent learning event focused upon a piece of rock art found in Birney Hill, Ponteland near Newcastle in an archaeological excavation in 2014. 

(Image 1, The Birney Hill Stone by Ian Hobson)

Fittingly named the Birney Hill Stone, this example of Northumberland rock art has around 30 “cups and rings” shaped markings on it, and it is estimated to be the works of the people living in the late Neolithic period (5200-4000 years ago). The initial aim of the project was to introduce Northumberland rock art to a wider audience, to spark the general public’s imagination towards ancient rock art, and to hopefully assist with the conservation and protection of this art.

(Image 2, moving of the Birney Hill Stone)

The Birney Hill Stone was originally placed at the back of the Museum in 2014, where few people were able to see or experience it. Now, the stone has been moved to the front of the museum for all to see. As part of the “Northumberland’s Oldest Art” project, an interpretive panel will be installed next to the rock, where visitors to the museum will be able to learn the fascinating story and facts behind this piece of ancient rock art.

The process of working together as a team to create an interpretive panel for the Birney Hill Stone has been a rewarding yet challenging experience for the students involved, especially during a pandemic. This involved a huge number of Teams meetings, and many emails which as students many of us have begun to accept, if begrudgingly, as part of our daily lives. Whilst stressful, the project turned out to be a rewarding experience which made the students focus on their strengths and work effectively as a team to ensure that the project got completed within a strict series of deadlines. 

We also have some statements from the students and the lecturer reflecting on their experience working on the project:

Student Jenny Banton from the panel and graphic design team comments on their experience working on this project: “I would say the most rewarding part of the process was seeing all our research, hours spent in meetings and teamwork become something real for other people to enjoy. I'm really pleased with the panel and it will be exciting to see it outside the museum.”

A statement from Ellen Wiltshire, who worked on the learning aspect of the project comments on their experience: “Working on this project has been extremely rewarding. I love the Great North Museum, having spent a lot of time there throughout my time in Newcastle, so I am really grateful to have had the opportunity to have worked on something that will become a permanent feature of the museum. It has been a challenging and insightful introduction to working on a project within the heritage sector.”

A statement from the social media team: “It has been an overwhelming but enjoyable journey launching the project’s online presence and using social media platforms to engage with a broader audience on the topic of ancient rock art and share our enthusiasm towards heritage management with everyone.”

Charlotte Orr, project manager of the team expresses “Managing the Birney Hill rock project has been a really enjoyable and interesting experience for me. I’m looking forward to seeing visitors engage with the rock and learn more about our local heritage. I’d like to say thank you to the team for their hard work and motivation throughout. On behalf of the team, I’d like to thank Dr Aron Mazel and the staff at GNM: Hancock museum for supporting us through this excellent opportunity.”

Newcastle University Heritage Studies lecturer and module leader Dr Aron Mazel also comments on the success of the project: ‘I greatly enjoyed working with the heritage students on the project. Not only was it gratifying to work with a well-organised and motivated group of students, but the project dealt with the topic of ancient rock art, which is close to my heart, being something that I’ve researched since the late 1970s.” 

This project began in February 2021 and will be completed on the 18th of May 2021when the project will be unveiled and celebrated. We would highly recommend visiting the Great North Museum: Hancock following this date to see the hard work of the students and to learn more about Northumberland’s Oldest Art. Meanwhile, you are welcome to check out @OldestArt Instagram page for more information on the Birney Hill Stone and a look behind the scene of the making of the project.

Written by Sam Jepps and Marina Jung Wang

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