On Saturday I attended the bi-annual Rock Art symposium at the University of Bristol. The theme was the underlying mechanisms of rock-art: the political, social, economic, landscape, acoustic, musical factors that affect its production; and the story and poetry associated with it. Rock art, opines George Nash, the convenor of the conference, turns space into place. In order to appreciate it fully, we need to look at the context of sites in the wider landscape.
I missed the first paper of the conference due to arriving late, but the second paper, by Jamie Hampson, was about rock-art in the Kurnool district of India. One widely-noted aspect of rock-art is the superimposition of one image on another; Hampson believes that this is because the superimposed image may be intended to draw power from the image underneath. Another frequently-occurring motif is the depiction of more than the usual number of fingers, which may be due to altered states on the part of the artist. Likewise the depiction of intermediate species is not due to poor draughtsmanship, but may be due to altered states. The nearest tribal group to the people who produced the rock art of the Kurnool district are the Chenchu forest people; it would be good to speak to them to ascertain the meaning of the Kurnool rock art, which depicts tigers, deer, humans, other animals, hands and feet, and geometric forms, using shapes in the rock surface to enhance the art. The most frequently depicted animals are not necessarily the most sacred ones - for instance, we know from San (Bushman) mythology that Mantis is very important, but he is not depicted in their rock art. It's also possible that the artists placed their art near mineral seepages in the rock, so that the mineral would run over the drawing and "absorb" it into the rock. (The spirits are usually held to dwell in the rock itself.)
The next paper was presented by Christopher Chippindale, and entitled Music, archaeo-acoustics and rock-art location in the Copper Age of Valcamonica, Italy. He made the cery important point that when looking for either acoustic properties of sites, or for astronomical alignments, one must ask whether there are more such effects at ancient sites than would arise by chance? Not all alignments or sounds arise intentionally; so one must look for more than one site with an acoustic effect or an alignment to be sure that it's not just the product of chance. He and his team examined sites in Valcamonica (a region which is rich in rock art) and found three anomalous rock art locations. Most rock art in Valcamonica is on the curving lower slopes of the valley. These carvings were on vertical cliff-faces near flat ground. The researchers discovered that all three sites had spectacular echoes.
The next paper was by Paul Devereux, and entitled Rock Art: Underlying Mechanisms. He talked about the varied functions of rock art as way markers, territorial marks, and indicators for hunters. Distinctive natural places are widely regarded as interfaces with a world of spirits, who live in rocks, cliff-faces and underground. He talked about various sites around the world where lithophones (ringing rocks) occur naturally; they are frequently associated with rock art. Places where rock art is located are distinctive for many different reasons: shape, sound, veined rocks, water, echoes, lithophones. The natural sounds produced by such places can be quite powerful and affect brainwave patterns (as outlined in Cook et al, 2008).
The next paper was by Aron Mazel; Time, Colour and Sound: exploring the rock art of Didima Gorge, South Africa. He was initially sceptical about archaeo-acoustics, but after hearing Paul Devereux's paper at the last rock art symposium in 2008, decided to investigate acoustic effects in the Drakensberg region, which he has been studying for the last 30 years. He found that there are thirty times more paintings in the Ndedena Gorge than anywhere else in the Drakensberg, and more ritual- and trance-related pictures in the Northern Drakensberg (where the gorge is situated) than in the Southern Drakensberg. Waller (2003) found that natural sound at decorated locations was at greater decibel levels than at undecorated locations. Further, according to Rifkin (2009), percussive sound is used worldwide in ritual to facilitate movement between mental states. Ndedema is related to a Xhosa word 'Dum', to call or to roar. The gorge echoes with thunder and lightning, and when the bees swarm there, the sound is amplified to a roar. There is a painting of bees swarming in one of the caves. The San were living in the gorge in the 1870s and one of their bow and arrow kits was found there in the 1920s. According to ethnographic evidence from the Kalahari, where the San still live, bee-swarming time is a good time to go into trance. Therefore there is very likely a link between the rock art, natural sounds and trance states.
The next paper was on predicting pastoral movement in South West Libya by Maria Guagnin. She is studying the rock art of Messat Sattafet in Libya, near the Wadi al-Hayat. There, due to changes in moisture levels over the millennia, the variable patination of the rock art by manganese deposits from the rising waters of the nearby lake dates the rock art into four phases. There is a high density of rock art in the bays of the former lake (now dried up). These bays could be used as hunting traps to drive animals into; and the routeways where a lot of the rock art is near could be to do with the transhumance patterns of the pastoralists of the region. Having plotted about 100km of canyon wall, the team are now in a position to predict where more rock-art is likely to be, and plan to go back to find more.
The next paper, presented by Ruman Banerjee, who is working with Ramon Viñas, was on the rock art on the Levantine coast of Spain. The representation of women in this rock art could represent the emergence of a matrilineal society during the Iberian Neolithic, as women are depicted differently, with protruding breasts and long skirts. There is also a possible shamanic scene at Cabre d'Aguilo, which contains a depiction of a man giving head to another man, possibly a god, with bulls transforming into deer either side of them.
The next paper was by Anne Eastham, and was entitled Pathways and Property: a case study in the uses of prehistoric standing stones in North Pembrokeshire, Wales. This was about the re-use of stones in new contexts, as pilgrim way markers, grave markers and Christian crosses. She used comparative data from Brittany and Ireland.
The last paper was by Mike Eastham, talking about the difference between symbolic art and depiction. He pointed out that you can get information from art that simply depicts something without any inferences from culture; for example, a picture of a mammoth is recognisable as a mammoth, but we don't know if it symbolised anything. To understand symbolic art, on the other hand, you need to know the cultural motifs it employs. People who look at cave art often assume that it depicts shamans, magical hunting scenes and so on; but it might not have any of these meanings.
All in all, a fascinating conference.