Current Trends in Rock Art Theory *
L. Callahan. Anthropology
Dept., U of MN. USA. email@example.com
paper explores the trends in northwestern European rock art theory
since World War Two. Many of the same issues and developments
that occurred generally in archaeology have been present during
this period, both in northwestern European and in international
rock art studies. As Whitley and Loendorf (1994) have noted, archaeology
during the last half of the nineteenth century responded to the
positivist program by incorporating the geological principles of
stratigraphy, uniformitarianism, Darwinian biological evolutionism,
and cultural evolutionism. Philology was displaced and rock art
research became marginal to a discipline increasingly focused on
the techniques of stratigraphic excavation (Whitley and Loendorf
1994:xi-xii). The struggle over the place of stylistic analysis
as opposed to physical approaches to dating rock art is at this
moment a fiercely contested issue due to the temporarily halted,
but threatened, flooding of the Coa Valley petroglyphs in Portugal,
claimed to be stylistically of Upper Paleolithic age (Zilhao 1995;
Dorn 1997). The body of ethnohistoric and archaeological evidence
suggesting that rock art was made by shamen after vision experiences
in many parts of the world has made David Lewis-Williams and Thomas
DowsonÕs (1988) "neuropsychological" model of rock art a predominant
one at this time. The model has been "transplanted" to a European
context in both France, Britain and Ireland. David Lewis Williams
and Jean Clottes (1996) have suggested its application to the Upper
Paleolithic caves in France, and Thomas Dowsen has physically moved
from South Africa to the University of Southhampton to teach rock
art. In Ireland, innovations on this model by Timothy Dronfield
(1994, 1996) suggest a statistical methodological approach is also
possible. Richard Bradley (1989, 1993), has "transplanted" the North
American concept of the sacred landscape (Molyneaux 1983) to northwestern
Europe and has generated a reemphasis and a renewed focus on the
reconstruction of past environmental conditions and the physical
landscape. Bradley, Valcarce and Boado (1994) have undertaken a
pilot study in Galicia, north-west Spain, viewing rock art research
as a type of landscape archaeology. An attempt at post-modern "text"
based interpretation has been undertaken with regard to figurative
rock art by Christopher Tilley (1991) with remarkably unconvincing
results. In France, spectacular finds of new parietal art have demonstrated
the importance of AMS dating for establishing chronology (Clottes
1996). WallerÕs (1993) research suggests that cave paintings may
have been deliberately placed in locations acoustically best suited
for drumming and the playing of music.
"STYLISTIC" PERIOD AND "EVOLUTIONARY" THINKING IN TWENTIETH CENTURY
ROCK ART STUDIES.
Whitley and Loendorf (1994) have argued that MalleryÕs (1886, 1893)
nineteenth century approach to rock art was very influential in
rock art studies during most of this century. Since a formal evolutionary
approach was at odds with theoretical trends in archaeology as a
whole in the twentieth century, this helped lead to the marginalization
of rock art research (Whitley and Loendorf 1994:xii).
Steward (1929,1937) adopted MalleryÕs formal and classifactory approach
in his rock art studies in the far west. Steward shunned the use
of ethnographic information for interpretation as "speculative"
(Steward 1937:405). As indicated in chapter one, Steward would later
reintroduce evolutionist thinking in archaeology in the 1950Õs and
1960Õs (Steward 1955).
and Baumhoff (1962) adopted the view that rock art followed an evolution
from simplicity to complexity and introduced "hunting magic" as
an explanation just as the French were rejecting it (Whitley and
Loendorf 1994:xii). Later faunal analysis in France by Delporte
(1984) indicated that the animals most represented in the Upper
Paleolithic parietal art were not the animals used as food (e.g.
ibex and horse). This certainly posed a problem for the persuasiveness
of the hunting magic hypothesis.
radiocarbon revolution and dendrochronology combined to marginalize
rock art as an area of archaeology which fell out of the dateable
record (Whitley and Loendorf 1994:xii). For most of the past fifty
years rock art has been dated stylistically and that is still the
primary means available in many areas of the world. For example
Johnston (1993) has pointed out that in Ireland:
broad date range for rock art in Britain and Ireland which is generally
accepted is based on stylistic affinities between rock art and various
motifs in other, dateable contexts such as megalithic tombs and
cist burials. . . . Over 90 % of motifs are circular, either simple
cupmarks or cupmarks surrounded by concentric rings. Less than 10
% of motifs are based on single, or in combinations of, straight
lines. . . . Irish rock art is generally considered to be later
Neolithic in date, though perhaps extending into the earlier Bronze
Age. This places it somewhere between 2500 - 1500 b.c." (Johnston
As Paul Bahn (1993) has noted, in 1940 after the Upper Paleolithic
cave of Lascaux was discovered, the stylistic dating of the cave
was done by the abbe Breuil and Denis Peyrony. When both reached
the same conclusion that it was Perigordian, Breuil said to Peyrony
"Topez-la" (its a deal), they shook hands, and the cave was Perigordian
for 20 years. This period in rock art studies is in many respects
analogous to the culture-history period for archaeology in general.
Stylistic studies using the precedent of ceramic analysis, lithic
analysis, and seriation, described and then dated rock art to different
relative time periods based upon stylistic criteria. These stylistic
chronologies were sometimes built on superficial characteristics
and the assumptions and accuracy of some of that eraÕs work have
been called into question by "absolute dating" developments since
then (Clottes 1996), and a reexamination of the assumption that
style necessarily reflects chronology (Johnston 1993:143). Proponents
of the neuropsychological theory have pointed out that ethnohistorical
sources indicate that different styles are made contemporaneously
to reflect the different experiences encountered during altered
states of consciousness (Whitley 1994:87-8). For example, incised
and en toto styles may both be used by contemporary rock artists.
Whitley has urged caution regarding using a stylistic approach generally,
and he has observed that studies of altered states of consciousness
predict imagery that:
change as an individual progresses through the three stages of trance.
We should then expect a corpus of shamanistic art that may combine
iconic and geometric motifs; incorporate polychromatic and monochromatic
paintings, or fully pecked, outline-pecked, and fine line engravings;
vary from simple to complex graphic imagery; exhibit considerable
variation in graphic conventions (for example, solid outlining versus
dotted borders); and include a relatively wide range of subject
matter (for example, from "nonrepresentational" through zoomorphic
and anthropomorphic themes). Instead of signaling different cultural-historical
styles, that is, attributes such as these may be expected as the
internal variation within a specific rock art style" (Whitley 1994:8889).
Whitley (1992:58-59) has advocated a realist, rationalist approach
to scientific method for rock art studies instead of the mid-century
logical positivist approach (Whitley and Loendorf 1994:xiii). In
the 1980Õs and 1990Õs chronometric dating of rock art was developed,
mostly in North America, by Ronald Dorn and David Whitley for petroglyphs
(Dorn and Whitley 1983, 1984), and Chaffee, Hyman, and Rowe (1993)
North America, the stylistic approach to rock art resulted in large
areas being divided into stylistic regions (Grant 1983). Minnesota,
for example, was placed at the center of three large rock art regions,
the northern Woodlands, the Great Plains and the eastern Woodlands.
The stylistic dating of petroglyphs and correlation with datable
excavation artifacts (where carbon 14 dating is available) still
stands as the only means available for chronological classification
in Minnesota because the bedrock has been tested, at least at the
Jeffers site, and is not amenable to the absolute dating techniques
used elsewhere (Whitley 1996; Lothson 1976). Using the presence
or absence of copper age tanged projectile points, lunate forms,
and atlatls with finger loops and banner stones, is still the most
reasonable dating method for this area.
New Archaeology in the 1960Õs with its emphasis on technology and
environment did embrace the view that ideas and society were part
of cultural processes but the study of processes over time and evolutionary
process needed the control of chronology. Rock art was not able
to provide exact dates and so a perception of the study of rock
art as unscientific or unstudiable by scientific means seems to
have been adopted by some (Whitley and Loendorf 1994: xii).
Scotland and northern England where the symbolism of Neolithic and
early bronze age rock art consists mostly of variations on the geometric
themes of cup and rings and radial grooves, a primarily descriptive
and almost culture- historical focus on recording, describing, and
producing distribution maps was maintained (Morris 1977, 1979; Beckensall
1983). Morris was understandably concerned that there had been one
hundred and fifty years of speculation about the meaning or function
of this ambiguous rock art style and a plethora of suggestions had
been made. No sustained theory or interpretation was attempted beyond
the listing of over 100 possible explanations, weighted as to his
own view of their plausibility. Little interpretation or explanation
was undertaken and little ethnohistoric information was reviewed.
Morris made an excellent effort to compare the relationship and
distribution of the rock art to the environment and landscape as
it would have existed during in Neolithic Britain.
surprising recent discovery of "Cheddar Man," as well as a direct
descendent who was still living in the same location some 8000 years
later, indicates that the people and perhaps the ethnohistoric memories
in Britain have not been totally obliterated by repeated invasions
the 1980Õs and early 1990Õs Ian Hodder (1992), as a postprocessualist,
pointed out that although science might be appropriate in the analysis
of the material side of "material culture," it was entirely inappropriate
and ineffective for the analysis of the cultural side of "material
culture" (Hodder 1992:8) Some processualists like Binford (1987)
agreed that science was inappropriate to symbolic analysis, but
then dismissed symbolic analysis.
major advance in interpreting rock art, and in rock art theory and
method, was made in the 1980's with the development of David Lewis-Williams
and Thomas DowsonÕs (1988) interdisciplinary neuropsychological
model. This is an ethnographically informed "middle range" theory.
They proposed that the neuropsychological model, which had been
developed in South Africa, could be applied to Upper Paleolithic
European rock art. Unlike the discredited idea of "sympathetic hunting
magic," which Lewis-Williams argued was based on anthropologistsÕ
"vague and misguided notions of Ôprimitive mentalityÕ rather than
reliable ethnography," the neuropsychological model was an explicitly
anthropological model based upon ethnography, medical science, laboratory
findings, and Homo sapiens shared neurology (Lewis-Williams 1982:430;
1988: 201-204). As a scientific model it made empirical predictions
that could be tested against a rock art site, which gave a means
of adjudicating between competing interpretations. Rationalist science
and scientific methodology were thus applicable to the study of
archaeological cognition. The ethnographically informed interpretation
of the San rock paintings as the product of shamen who later depicted
their visions and hallucinations during altered states of consciousness
(ASC) designed to obtain power, turned out to have unexpectedly
broad and global application. Ethnographies from around the world,
frequently neglected by archaeologists in the past, now could be
seen to refer directly or through metaphorical references to the
connection between shamen, vision quests, and rock art. The issues
of epistemology, ontology, and metaphysics in archaeology that were
the subjects of lengthy debates between processualists of the new
archaeology like Binford (1987) and the post- processualists like
Hodder (1986), and Shanks and Tilley (1987) were viewed as resolvable
by Whitley (1992) if the post-processual criticisms of processual
methodology were acknowledged as mostly correct, the need for scientific
rigor and explanation sought by the New Archaeology was preserved,
and a realist, rationalist approach was taken to analysis using
scientific methodology to "achieve interpretive and symbolic explanations"
(Whitley 1994:xv). Whitley viewed the neuropsychological and ethnohistoric
approach to rock art studies of Lewis-Williams and Dowson (1988)
to be at "the methodological forefront of archaeology in general"
since it "has conjoined the opposing positions in this increasingly
rebarbative debate" (Whitley 1994:xv). A cognitive archaeology which
is to be scientific and hermeneutic "suggests that archaeology fundamentally
is an interpretive endeavor, but one in which scientific method
and heuristic play their part" (Whitley 1992:59).
Rock art is a physical remnant of prehistoric behavior related to
subjective experiences and products of the human mind such as myths,
institutions, beliefs, etc. (Whitley 1992:61-62) PositivismÕs emphasis
on "immediately perceived" sense data was criticized by postpositivists
or realists as too narrow since many material phenomena can only
be indirectly observed, all sense data are theoretically informed,
and science should not be defined as simply empirical or methodological
since by necessity our senses incorporate presuppositions and generalities
(ibid:64). Once it is acknowledged that humans fundamentally tend
to perceive what they are looking for and frequently do not perceive
what they are not educated to see, it becomes important to make
presuppositions consciously explicit and subject to debate, or the
unspoken and unexamined presuppositions become "embedded" into "the
fabric of the field" e.g. the data (ibid.:65; Reed 1981:477). The
positivist idea that one crucial falsifying or verifying test is
possible has also been criticized as simplistic and therefore a
method or means of validation based upon "inference to the best
hypothesis" is needed since many ideas have evidence both confirming
and disconfirming them (ibid.:65). If paradigm shifts occur when
a new theory matches the empirical evidence better, implicit theoretical
disputes may be masked by what appears to be an empirical and methodological
A post-positivist philosophy of science does not "imply only a single
approach to research" (ibid.:66). Rationalist cognitive archaeology
has a goal and a set of principles for comparing rival theories
and recognizes that ontological theories are "true or false by virtue
of how the world actually is, independent of ourselves," but that
scientific truth is "only progressively approximating the real truth
per se" (ibid.:66-67). The set of principles for comparing rival
theories include observational nesting or preserving past observational
success of prior theories while improving upon them, fertility or
guidance for future development, track record or the record of accumulated
success of the theory, inter-theory support, smoothness or accounting
for observational anomalies, internal consistency, compatibility
with well-grounded metaphysical beliefs, and simplicity (Newton-Smith
1981; Whitley 1992:67).
art theorists like Whitley, Lewis-Williams, Dowson, Clottes, and
Dronfield have been ahead of archaeology as a whole in using anthropological,
testable, rock art theories that model the relationships between
human neuropsychology to rock art sites using good "middle range"
theory that is grounded in the post- positivist, realist, and rationalist
philosophy of science. The renewed focus on ethnohistoric sources
is also a part of this "theory based" form of anthropological archaeology,
and so the post-modern crisis of confidence in social-cultural anthropology
about the problem of doing ethnographic fieldwork is of some concern.
Anthropologists have long recognized the problems of ethnography
and the difficulties of obtaining accurate and understandable information
about beliefs, values, and meanings directly from informants who
may not be able to articulate meaning or beliefs, may use metaphoric
language, may themselves misunderstand cultural symbols, may be
disinclined to articulate them, or may intentionally mislead and
make false statements (Whitley 1992:76). Geertz has even taken a
position favoring observation of public events as a means of accessing
cultural symbolic systems (Geertz 1973:17). Viewing ethnographic
accounts critically and as a raw data set containing multiple sources
can alleviate some of the concerns regarding the construction of
truth that has caused the current crisis of confidence in post-modern
ethnography. Ethnohistoric accounts exist in Scotland, northern
England, Finland, Norway, France, etc. that address the meaning
of cupmarks. Up to this point they have been largely ignored and
have rarely been used even by the anthropological archaeologists.
STYLISTIC ANALYSIS VS. ABSOLUTE DATING
entry of desert varnish, carbon 14, Accelerated Mass Spectrometry
(AMS), thermoluminescence, and chlorine 36 dating has been heralded
(perhaps prematurely) as causing a "Post-stylistic" era in the study
of rock art, with conferences and publications (e.g. Bahn 1993)
that discuss the effect of absolute dating techniques on the primary
place that stylistic analysis has had in the study of rock art.
In stating his opinion that the Coa Valley petroglyphs, "discovered"
in November 1994, were of recent age, Robert Bednarik (1995) even
entitled his article in the journal Antiquity: "The C™a petroglyphs:
an obituary to the stylistic dating of Palaeolithic rock-art." The
obituary may have been premature however because Jo‹o Zilh‹o (1995)
who wrote the opposing article entitled: "The stylistically Palaeolithic
petroglyphs of the C™a valley (Portugal) are of Palaeolithic age:
a refutation of their 'direct dating' to recent times" got the dam
that would have flooded the paintings stopped, at least temporarily.
Several of the most important people in rock art studies have given
opinions on whether or not the petroglyphs are from the Paleolithic
period. Those indicating that they are stylistically Paleolithic
in age include Bahn (1995); Clottes et al. (1995); Zilh‹o (1995);
and ZŸchner (1995). On the other side of the argument are the radiocarbon
results of Watchman (1995; 1996) and the microerosion arguments
of Bednarik (1995a; 1995b; 1995c; 1995d) suggesting a more recent
age. One might ask whether or not the dam should not be stopped
anyway, even if they are of a more recent age, but the era the paintings
were made seems to be a determinative factor in whether or not the
dam will be built.
accuracy of various dating methods has been a subject of heated
and public controversy. For example, Ronald Dorn (1997), who pioneered
desert varnish dating, has recently taken the position that microscopic
carbon 14 dating of the Coa petroglyphs in Portugal is not reliable
because the layer of silica that forms over the trapped carbon is
permeable. He and Alan Watchman produced similar dates based upon
carbon 14 based tests of small samples but Dorn has argued that
the dates are not reliable because of this newly discovered fact.
In his 1997 article he indicates the technique is not reliable because
of, "evidence for the addition of younger carbon in an open system,
and evidence of contamination from older sources of carbon." (Dorn
1997). Using another approach based upon a different technique Phillips
et al. (1997) have concluded that the "panel faces in the C™a valley,
Portugal, were available for engraving during the Upper Palaeolithic,
according to 36Cl exposure ages of 16,000 to 136,000 years."
ART STYLE AND EVOLUTIONARY THEORY
early assumptions of a linear stylistic evolution in Paleolithic
art was already being criticized by Garcia (1993) before the recent
dateable finds at Chauvet of early advanced artistic techniques.
Garcia pointed out that:
stylistic method ÔobligesÕ the figures being studied to be constrained
by hypothetical, evolutive Ôformal rulesÕ whose credibility is the
basis of the fundamental methodology. Any alteration, variation
or undervaluation of these formal rules invalidates the method completely,
as it destroys the framework supporting the whole deductive-chronological
process of the relationship betweenstyle and date (Garcia 1993:37).
CHAUVET, AND THE USE OF AMS DATING TO COUNTER CLAIMS OF FRAUD BASED
UPON STYLISTIC ANALYSIS.
very significant Upper Paleolithic caves have been found in southern
France during the past few years including, the now famous, Cosquer
and Chauvet caves. AMS dating techniques have been used at both
of these sites by Jean Clottes et al. (1995) with great effect to
verify the age of the caves and refute persons who claimed the paintings
were fakes on the "stylistic" ground that the artists were too sophisticated
and therefore had to be modern. At Chauvet cave three AMS samples
were taken from animal paintings and were dated to around 31,000
BP (Clottes et al. 1995). It was initially argued, for example,
that no Upper Paleolithic artist could have done the paintings at
Chauvet because they show an understanding of perspective. AMS dating
of many paintings and the circumstances of the finds conclusively
established their Upper Paleolithic age (Clottes et al.1995). The
AMS technique involved physicists removing about half a milligram
of charcoal directly from the painting. Since 1990, twenty-five
dates from paintings in five caves including Chauvet, Cosquer, Cougnac,
Le Portel, and Niaux have been taken and several caves dated to
other time periods by other methods have been corrected. The French
are also refocusing their studies from the paintings to the context
of the cave and environmental questions which have often been overlooked
in the past (Clottes 1996:184-185). Examination of the paintings
by ethologists, or animal specialists, have given new insights into
the degree of familiarity Upper Paleolithic people had with the
animals they lived with e.g. conceptually these are not broadly
generic bison but show, for example, "the aggressive male bison,
the young bison playing, the dead adult," etc. (Clottes 1996:188).
For Clottes: "Shamanism provides a framework which makes more sense
of this art (Lewis-Williams & Dowson 1988) than any of the previous
explanatory theories" (Id.).
1996, Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams wrote a short piece
explaining their collaboration and explicitly stated the elements
of their theoretical approach in interpreting some of the Upper
Paleolithic caves in France.
accept that ethnographic analogy is unavoidable. Refusal to use
any ethnographic analogy merely forces researchers to fall back
on unacknowledged Western notions of art and artists. But we certainly
do not suggest that any single analogy will illuminate 20,000 years
of the making and meaning of Upper Palaeolithic art. Instead, we
are developing multiple analogies that will build on the San analogy
and piece together a complex hypothesis to account for the diversity
and historical progression of Upper Paleolithic art. New interpretations
deriving from this work are being judged by their internal consistency,
the quantity and diversity of data they explain and their heuristic
potential. Above all, our interpretations are linked to the Upper
Palaeolithic by human universals and what philosophers call strong
relations of relevance (Wylie 1988) (Clottes & Lewis-Williams 1996:138).
and Lewis-Williams are looking for images that are broadly shamanic
and are trying to separate those from images "that may be better
explained by some other hypotheses" (Id.). They are also "studying
the different uses to which parts of the caves may have been put"
(Id.) In their view, a moratorium on interpretation of the Upper
Paleolithic caves occurred after structuralist approaches collapsed
following the death of Leroi-Gourhan in 1986. As they put it: "Researchers
had already begun to doubt the philosophical foundations of his
work and also its empirical content. Understandably enough, a new
wave of research emphasized a need to return to the data, and interpretation
took a back seat" (Clottes & Lewis-Williams 1996:137). Clottes and
Lewis-Williams are now attempting to renew interpretation of the
The history of interpretation of the Upper Paleolithic caves has
undergone many transformations during this century. Before cave
art was accepted as authentic, near the turn of the century, portable
art objects in the 1860Õs et seq. were considered leisure time aesthetic
"art" objects (Jolly and White 1995:389). Solomon Reinach (1903)
drew ethnographic analogies to living groups and beliefs such as
Australian "totemism," and hunting magic. ReinachÕs idea was taken
up by Abbe Henri Breuil (1952) who viewed the caves as settings
for rituals about increase, hunting, and adolescent initiation.
Leroi Gourhan attempted to eliminate all ethnographic analogy and
instead turned to "internal analysis," and the model of a binary,
symbolic mythogram, and sexual structuralism. Ucko and Rosenfeld
(1967) maintained that monocausal explanations were probably too
simplistic and that the images may have had multiple meanings and
a complex significance. Delporte (1984) pointed out that, if the
art was for the purpose of hunting magic, it was surprising that
the species painted bear so little relationship to the animals shown
by faunal analysis to be the oneÕs eaten. Following Leroi GourhanÕs
death in 1986 there was a kind of cessation of interpretation and
a new focus on reexamining empirical data without interpretation
(Clottes & Lewis-Williams 1996:137). Alexander Marshack (1972) contended
that some portable objects incised with notational dots and markings
were records to keep track of lunar time. His assumptions have been
criticized by several researchers (White 1982; DÕErrico 1989; OÕFarrell
and White, 1994). Pfeiffer (1983) suggested that the cave experience,
with its three dimensional paintings, sensory deprivation, fearful
setting, flickering lights that made the paintings appear to move
(and the animals appear to breathe), all caused the visitor to have
a heightened sensory experience. Lewis Williams and Dowson (1988)
suggested that entoptic imagery existed in these cave sites which
suggested that they may have been made by shamen recording their
vision experiences. Others have tested those pigments that were
chewed and then spit onto the wall to make negative hand prints
and observed that the substances used could cause neurological damage.
Waller (1996) has reported research results suggesting that the
location in the caves where the paintings are located are also the
locations where the caves are most musically resonant. Bird flutes
have been found at the base in the dirt suggesting the possibility
that this was the first "chamber music." It would not be surprising
if the current collaboration between Clottes and Lewis-Williams
(1996) yielded another interesting theoretical model. They have
written that: "Researchers are realizing that empirical work without
some explicit guiding theory or hypothesis is problematic" (Clottes
& Lewis-Williams 1996:137). Clottes has recently traced the history
of theoretical models and current trends in methodology with regard
to the French caves during the twentieth century (Clottes 1996).
In addition to the paintings the soft cave materials have become
an object of study because they preserve footprints (and the speed
of walking or running), hand prints, remains from "fires, torches,
bones discarded after meals, [and] lost tools." (Clottes 1996:187)
Also "various deposits of objects on the ground or in cracks of
the walls, such as teeth of bear or other animals, . . . shells,
flints or antlers, may sometimes testify to ritual practices" (Id.).
This trend towards looking more closely at the soft preserved materials
inside caves has resulted in new terminology. Faulkner and Simek
(1996) reported on a series of caves in east Tennessee that were
discovered with rock art from the Mississippian culture that are
now called "mudglyphs." These are images drawn with fingers on mud,
clay and other soft material. The imagery was recognizable from
other sources and demonstrated the possibility of finding "art"
in materials, softer than rock, that are well preserved deep in
caves. Their cave was also referred to as "1st Unnamed Cave" because
there is nothing blocking the entrance or protecting the site yet.
Locatoring information was therefore deleted or generalized and
seems to be a current trend.
DRONFIELD AND THE ROCK ART OF IRISH PASSAGE GRAVES
Dronfield who is working in Ireland with the neuropsychological
model has added a statistical component to the theory using associational
and distributional indexes of characteristics such as the position
of circles and entoptic related phenomena found in the rock art
(Dronfield 1993; 1996). Dronfield has explicitly turned to the "vortex
or tunnel experience" commonly encountered in altered states of
consciousness and described in near death accounts to explain the
appearance of circles found in association with the dead in Irish
passage tombs (Dronfield 1996). Neurological research suggests the
spiral or vortex phenomenon occurs in human beings with spontaneous
firing of specific neurons in the V5 or medial superior temporal
area of the visual cortex (Dronfield 1996:40). The tunnel experience
is also obviously a physically real experience for those charged
with bringing the dead down the narrow tunnels to the back of the
passage tomb-a physically tangible underground realm of the dead
that was still accessible through a tunnel allowing access and reemergence
from a real underworld of oneÕs ancestors. The passage tombs may
be an attempt to physically reconstruct a mental journey or experience.
Based upon the distribution of the concentrics, Dronfield concluded
that the concentrics inside the Irish passage tombs were not simply
representations of past passages but "signified the locations of
points of access to other worlds" (i.e. for the living and the dead)(ibid.:54).
In DronfieldÕs view this would make the tombs more than just bone
repositories or places for "ritually enacted communication with
the dead. They were places where, through myth, ritual and manipulation
of the central nervous system, people were able to travel between
dimensions, interact with ancestors and other spiritual beings and
witness firsthand the making of their contextually constructed worlds"
(Id.). Richard (1992) working in Orkney, Scotland has suggested
that the passage down the passage tomb structure symbolized the
journey towards the otherworld and the back stone was the portal
which could only be passed through after death. Having personally
crawled through several of these tunnels, I would have to say that
it is an experience not easily forgotten and it seems reasonable
that these tombs phenomenologically invoked feelings and perceptions
which are reconstructable today. A more phenomenological approach
focused on envisioning the landscape as it would have been during
the Neolithic has also been suggested by Richard Bradley working
at rock art sites in north-west Spain, and the British Isles (1989,
1994). The concept of a sacred landscape is an old conception of
the landscape in North American rock art studies (Dewdney 1975,
Tilley (1991) has attempted a post-modern textual reading of the
rock art at Namsforsen with rather unpersuasive results. Some of
the anthropomorphs he interpreted look to me like they match well
known postures in metal art that have known myths and stories attached
to them that Tilley was apparently unaware of. As Lewis-Williams
has pointed out, the literary text metaphor also should not be taken
too far, and may even be misleading just as the similar secular
metaphor of reading an archaeological "record" may be misleading.
Literary texts can have more than one reading and records often
do not, but even literary texts do not have an infinite number of
readings. As the South African ethnographies reveal, the relationship
of rock art is not just to other rock art beside it (as in a "textual"
grammatical sentence) but has a three dimensional relationship to
the rock. The San rock artist sometimes indicated that they were
commemorating a journey into the rock itself. This three dimensionality
is not particularly encompassed in the metaphor of text (Lewis-Williams
1995:3-4). Lewis-Williams eschewed the relativist textual metaphor
and instead turned to Bernstein (1983) and WylieÕs (1989) metaphor
of reinforcing strands of evidence as opposed to the positivist
chain of evidence. San rock art, ethnography, and medical research
on neurologically generated mental imagery make up the three strands
of his argument which both reinforce and constrain the explanation
that can be given of a painting.
Lewis-Williams, Colin Renfrew (1993:249) has also been "deeply sceptical
of the claims by some non-processual archaeologists to reach the
meaning, in a specific context, of individual symbols" and the interpretive
or hermeneutic approach "sometimes offers supposed insights which
cannot readily be distinguished from entirely imaginative and unbridled
It is not clear what methodology Renfrew supports, although he has
suggested a listing of traits that are indicators of ritual and
religion at archaeological sites (1993).
archaeology is also a concern of those working with hominid evolution
and the reasons for the Upper Paleolithic "symbolic explosion" of
art, song, dance, and ritual. Chris Knight, Camilla Power and Ian
Watts (1996) have used neo- Darwinian theory to approach questions
of when our hominid ancestors became symbolic. They postulate that
every human has internalized a copy of a communal map learned "through
exposure to ritual, art, and other external stores" and that archaic
Homo sapiens females found cosmetic menstrual signaling to be of
value "to attract and retain male support" (Knight et al. 1996:81).
Females used a "sex strike" against those males not returning home
with meat. In their neo-Darwinist view the significance of red in
rock art and the use of ochre as the species evolved was then related
to blood, hunting, and menstruation as a signal of upcoming female
AUSTRALIA AND THERMOLUMINESCENCE DATING OF ROCK ART
the December 1996 issue of Antiquity, Fullagar, Price and Head published
the results of their thermoluminescence (TL) dating on cupmarks
and other artifacts at the base of a sandstone rock shelter at the
Jinmium site in northern Australia. The lowest pecked mark was found
97 cm below the ground surface on a piece of sandstone that had
spalled off and was buried. Other artifacts and human occupation
in the area were dated to at least 116,000 BP +/- 12,000 years.
The rock engraving or cupmarks were dated to earlier than 58,000
years. Besides rewriting the dates for the earliest occupants of
Australia, this research showed the possibilities of obtaining early
dates at the base of rock shelters (or boulders) and the applicability
of TL dating to sites where C14 dating would not be able to go back
far enough in time because of the length of its half-life. TL dates
are still controversial and are considered somewhat experimental
by some archaeologists.Christopher Chippendale, the editor of Antiquity,
who had taken some criticism for publishing the Jinmium, Australia
findings, wrote extensively in his December 1996 Antiquity editorial
how the long, medium, and short chronologies for Australia had all
been published in Antiquity and he was doing his job in publishing
the report from Fullagar, Price, and Head. Fullagar, Furby, and
Hardy (1996) reported that after the SAA meeting in New Orleans
there was a growing consensus with regard to the possibility of
obtaining useful information from residues on stone artifacts such
as identifying blood, plant material, DNA residues and identification
of the species that made up the residue. This would have obvious
implications for rock art sites with stone artifacts, paint and
pigments, brushes, etc. and in the future should increase the number
of techniques available for dating rock art sites.
current dominant trends in rock art theory in northwestern Europe
suggest continuing development and refinement of a multi- strand
evidentiary approach with a realist rationalist underlying philosophy
of science that is dubious of extreme post-m odernist relativism
or the literary metaphor of reading rock art simply as a "text."
Improvements in the use of ethnography, statistics, and the incorporation
of research from other fields, such as research in medicine and
ethology, suggest a theoretical approach that promotes testable
hypotheses and a middle range theory grounded in anthropology. On
a theoretical level, this approach respects and incorporates both
the universal neurological and biological elements that humans share
as the last of the hominid species, and the "culturally specific
perceptions of those elements, as mediated by individuals in specific
historical and political circumstances" (Lewis-Williams 1996:19).
This theoretical approach is not pessimistic about recovering broad
meanings in rock art, and is optimistic about being able to discriminate
against interpretations that are outside the restraining influence
of the evidentiary strands that produce the testable predictions.
With DronfieldÕs refinement to the Lewis-Williams and Dowson "middle
range" methodology, motifs and symbols can be described statistically.
Further refinements to this dominant theoretical model can be expected
as it is applied and tested against more rock art sites in northwestern
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