The urge to decorate seems a defining characteristic of modern human populations. There are objects we classify today as ‘art’ such as the ground-and-polished mammoth tooth found in Tata, Hungary which date back tens-of-thousands of years. Rock art may well predate even the earliest artifacts, but that is difficult to determine.
So what is rock art?
…pretty much what it sounds like, it is art made on stone surfaces. Most rock art falls into one of two categories: petroglyphs or pictographs.
The first type (petroglyphs) are designs carved or abraded onto a rock surface. The second type (pictographs) are painted designs on rock surfaces.
People are curious about what rock art patterns represent and how long ago the designs were created. Both questions can be tough to answer – unless you’re just making things up. Professionals try to avoid that.
Because it’s easier, let’s start with the methods for establishing the age of a rock art sample. This is dependent on the locale, the environment, the degree of preservation, and a lot of other factors.
1. The growth of certain lichens on the surface of a petroglyph may provide a relative estimate of time. Some lichens grow extremely slow and can prove an indication of longevity. Sounds weird, eh?
2. Depending on the type of stone, exposed surfaces can appear a different color than the interior. Re-patination of the surface takes place after the stone is chipped and a relative date can be inferred based on the variance in color. I’m not making this up.
3. In rare cases the subject matter depicted in the rock art can actually help date the site to a specific moment in history. For example, the supernova of 1054 was recorded by rock art practitioners around the globe…at least for those who had a clear view of the sky.
4. In some cases rock art is found in close association with organic materials which can be dated. I’ve seen this in rock shelters in the American west where people lived at the base of a cliff, carved rock art in the cliff-face that was subsequently buried by debris. Radiocarbon results from the organic material provide an associated correllation.
5. In rare instances the pigmentation used in a pictograph might be dated, if a large enough sample is acquired (doubtful without damaging the painting). Recent technological innovations make this more probable because they require smaller sample sizes.
6. Artistry can be traced from one location to another. Designs cross over into other forms like pottery and are even found in modern derivations. How cool would it be to identify a singular artist at work? No dice…somebody wrote a novel about that already.
Relative dating methods are used most commonly with rock art, which means the resulting ages are based on comparative measures. Absolute dating is difficult because of the natural lack of organic material which can be used to produce results in a laboratory setting. Testing the rock only tells you how old it is, not when human hands manipulated it into an abstract idea.
The meaning behind the majority of rock art remains a mystery. That doesn’t keep people from assuming they can interpret it correctly. Like much of what we know about prehistory, we’ve viewed it through the lens of our own values and traditions, making sense of what seems familiar and dismissing anything that does not.
Symbolism is not easily interpreted. At least, not if you’re interested in accuracy. Descendents of the people who created surviving rock art, often provide insight into ancient forms, but styles change and grow just as culture does. Meaning is lost. None of us live the same way our ancestors did even 100 years ago. Occasionally a rock art panel or relief displays historical events that assist in placing it in a linear timeline. Most remain undeciphered.
When it comes to interpretation, if it looks like a tree we assume that’s what the maker was trying to convey. Designs that appear to represent recognizable forms and shapes are typed as naturalistic. Stylized designs are more difficult because they’re abstracted. Think of rock art as a visual language with the people who were fluent, dead and gone.
Anthropomorphic is a fancy way of saying that a rock art form exhibits characteristics that look more human; whereas zoomorphic is a fancy way of saying that a form represents an animal…and sometimes you can’t quite decide.
Rock art is not a lost tradition either, it continues to be practiced in many parts of the world. To characterize it as graffiti is to devalue the importance it likely played in the prehistoric world. Likewise, to assume it had some greater spiritual significance simply because we don’t know any different, may assign it a religious connotation it never claimed.
Protecting rock art sites is vital.
There is no universal method for managing or protecting rock art sites. Each locale has unique human, geological and environmental problems that change over time. The single most important guiding principal in managing rock art sites is to be proactive. Vandalism, graffiti, exposure, erosion, construction, and human interaction all destroy these fragile links to the past.
Prehistory is not a natural resource, it is non-renewable. Once destroyed, these remarkable bits of our collective history are gone forever. If you’re interested in learning more, visit these sites:
~ American Rock Art Research Association
~ The Rock Art Foundation
~ Rock Art Project, Tanzania
~ South African Rock Art Project
~ Bradshaw Foundation
~ Prehistoric Studies Center, Italy
~ Colorado Rock Art Association
~ Eastern States Rock Art Research Association
~ Scandinavian Society for Prehistoric Art
If there isn’t a site for the area you’re interested in, just search the web. Prehistory surrounds us. Do you know what historic delights are in your vicinity? Check it out, why don’tcha?