The Riddle of the Nessglyph - Can you Help Solve it?
16 Jan 2023

Archaeologists are appealing to members of the public to help solve the riddle of the 'Nessglyph' a curious rock carving found at Nesscliffe Hillfort dig last summer

A strange rock carving unearthed during excavations at Nesscliffe Hillfort has left archaeologists scratching their heads. 

The Iron Age hillfort dates back to 500BC and has seen three recent digs involving teams from the University of Oxford and University of Southampton. In 2019 and 2021, excavations were centred around the entrance to the fort and revealed a spectacular gateway with 'guard chambers'. Last summer, new trenches were opened up to reveal the gigantic front face to the ramparts and a vast ditch alongside the entrance causeway. The teams also began to explore the hillfort's interior, where a geophysical survey had suggested the existence of houses. 

It was within the guard chamber that archaeologists discovered a most curious carving, which they are calling the 'Nessglyph', in a block of red standstone. A circular cup shape can clearly be seen etched into the stone, which has been embellished with straight lines, to depict a horned figure holding something in its grip. 

The Nessglyph pictured right

The teams have found several rocks with curious 'cup mark' rock carvings, including the 'Nessglyph' pictured right. Archaeologists want to know if the figure etched into the stone is a later addition, possibly by someone involved in the 1950s excavations at Nesscliffe. 

Because the site had previously been excavated in the 1950s, however, it is difficult to date the carving; it is possible it may be a later addition. Archaeologists are appealing to local people who may have been involved in previous excavations to get in touch, if they are able to shed any light on the mystery. It is known that these older digs involved staff and pupils of the Priory School for Boys in Shrewsbury. The staff in charge were CR Hume and GW Jones. 

There are many theories about Stone Age 'cup marks' - some say they were used by Druids for blood-sacrifices, or marked the rising and setting of the sun - or they may have been meaningless doodles. 

An archaeologist working at the site in 2021

An archaeologist working at the Nesscliffe hillfort dig 

Paul Reilly, a visiting fellow in archaeology at the University of Southampton, said: “The circular cup shape and the straight lines are indicative of two different types of technology, grinding and carving.

“We can speculate that the Nessglyph is figurative, with the cupmark being the head. It has two long horns and two small horns, a central body line and two arms, one held up and the other down, the upward one showing a possible hand holding a pipe or a weapon.

“It is difficult to find Iron Age parallels, but the carving has similarities with Late Bronze Age carvings of figures in horned helmets. It is also worth noting that Nesscliffe lies within the putative territory of the Cornovii, a name that has been suggested to reference to the ‘horned ones’. There is the possibility of a connection to a horned deity cult in the Roman army as depicted at several military sites across Britain.

“Because the Nessglyph was not found in a secure context but in the backfill of a 1950s excavation trench within the guard chamber of the inturned entrance, it is more difficult to identify, and we are inviting people to help us solve the puzzle, or tell us if they have seen other similar carvings.”

A volunteer at the dig in 2021

A volunteer demonstrates the scale of the ditch alongside the entrance causeway

At the 2022 dig, Gary Lock, Emeritus Professor of Archaeology, University of Oxford, leading the excavations, said he thought the hillfort was likely built for display and for community use - for celebrations and ceremonies - rather than for defence. However, due to the acidic nature of the soil, few finds remain. The teams have discovered an amount of Roman domestic and military pottery, suggesting subsequent Roman occupation of the fort. 

Nesscliffe Hills and the Cliffe Countryside Heritage Site, managed by Shropshire Council, covers two wooded hills and a heather covered ridge, and gives expansive views over the Shropshire countryside and Welsh hills.

Rob Gittins, Shropshire Council's Cabinet member for culture and digital, said: "This is an opportunity for people with an interest in our history to get involved and help solve the mystery of the Nessglyph. Nesscliffe Hillfort has been giving up interesting finds for a number of years and it is fascinating learning about our county’s rich history, especially when it leads to a puzzle such as this.”

The archaeologists taking a break in 2021

The archaeologists on a tea break in 2021!

  • To read more about the 2021 excavations and the discovery of the guard chambers read My Shrewsbury's blog HERE
  • And to find out about the 2022 dig and the discovery of the gigantic entrance causeway visit HERE
  • Anyone with information or knowledge to help solve the 'Nessglyph' puzzle should contact Paul Reilly at or Gary Lock at gary.lock@arch.