These ancient Scottish cave drawings may soon vanish

The Wemyss Caves house mysterious carvings from as early as 300AD. In the face of natural and human threats, archaeologists are racing to decode them before they vanish.

Hidden beneath the medieval ruins of Macduff’s Castle in Fife, Scotland, lies an even more ancient wonder: a series of 4,000- to 1,500-year-old carvings that archaeologists have yet to fully comprehend.

Inside the shadowy, red-tinged Wemyss Caves hide ancient etchings of animals, hunting scenes and what might be the first rendering of a Scottish ship. As archaeologists and historians work to unravel the meanings of these mysterious drawings, environmental and human threats are forcing them into a high-stakes race against time.

The Wemyss Caves contain several carvings that are believed to date to the Bronze Age, as well as more than 50 Iron Age symbols carved by the mysterious Pict people of Scotland between 300AD and the early 400s. When the Pictish carvings were discovered in the 1860s, there were at least 25 more, but the collection has been and continues to be threatened by erosion, deterioration and human harm. Several carvings, including one of a Pictish beast and another of a swan, were destroyed when a car was set on fire inside one of the caves in 1986, and only three of the five caves originally found to contain carvings remain today.

The Wemyss Caves’ carvings remain the oldest and largest concentration of Pictish symbols anywhere in the world. Because the Picts did not write down their own history, and accounts from other peoples have proven to be unreliable, not much is known of Pictish culture. What is remembered is their military prowess, which effectively kept the region from the Roman Empire’s rule throughout the Iron Age. In the 10th Century, after warding off the Romans for many years, the Picts vanished, leaving little other than their Wemyss Cave carvings as evidence of their existence.

Today, a small group of local volunteers called the Save Wemyss Ancient Caves Society raises awareness of the caves’ historical significance through tours and educational programs. New recording methods that use laser scanning to create models of the caves and coastline allow the public to virtually explore the Pictish art inside. While the Wemyss Caves are still in danger of deterioration, new conservation efforts and virtual models ensure that the art housed in them will live on for many years to come.

(Reporting by Amanda Ruggeri, video by Adam Proctor, text by Emily Cavanagh)

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