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‘Enigmatic images from remote prehistory’: rock art and ontology from a European Perspective

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This chapter explores questions of ontology in rock art analysis. More specifically, it argues that the distinction between ‘informed’ methods and ‘formal’ methods reproduces some problematic dichotomies, such as the distinction between active subjects and inert objects, culture and nature, and a conceptualization of meaning as being external to the art itself. The chapter proposes a move away from such an ontologically hierarchical approach to rock art analysis to a relational approach in which there is no ontological priority between the different elements that make up the rock art assemblage. It emphasizes that placing formal methods at the heart of rock art studies, alongside analogy, shifts the questions we ask of rock art away from simple epistemologically derived enquiries to ontological questions. To illustrate this the chapter examines case studies of parietal art of the European Palaeolithic and Comanche rock art in North America.
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Abstract and Keywords
This chapter explores questions of ontology in rock art analysis. More specifically, it
argues that the distinction between ‘informed’ methods and ‘formal’ methods reproduces
some problematic dichotomies, such as the distinction between active subjects and inert
objects, culture and nature, and a conceptualization of meaning as being external to the
art itself. The chapter proposes a move away from such an ontologically hierarchical
approach to rock art analysis to a relational approach in which there is no ontological
priority between the different elements that make up the rock art assemblage. It
emphasizes that placing formal methods at the heart of rock art studies, alongside
analogy, shifts the questions we ask of rock art away from simple epistemologically
derived enquiries to ontological questions. To illustrate this the chapter examines case
studies of parietal art of the European Palaeolithic and Comanche rock art in North
America.
Keywords: ‘informed’ and ‘formal’ methods, analogy, non-representational, relational ontology, intra-action, Upper
Palaeolithic, Europe, Comanche, North America
The interpretation of rock art provides archaeologists with a vexed question: how are we
to interpret the meaning of rock art imagery? Taking a perspective on this problem on a
worldwide scale, Paul Taçon and Chris Chippindale (1998) offered a simple solution:
archaeologists could adopt formal approaches where little or no ethnographic data
survived, thereby avoiding a need for knowledge deriving from the culture of those who
produced or used the art. Alternatively, in situations where there was rich ethnographic
data, informed approaches were possible. Ever since this twofold distinction was
explicitly made in the literature, rock art scholars have readily adopted such a
commonsense approach to the interpretation of rock art.
‘Enigmatic Images from Remote Prehistory’: Rock Art
and Ontology from a European Perspective
Andrew M. Jones and Marta Díaz-Guardamino
The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology and Anthropology of Rock Art
Edited by Bruno David and Ian J. McNiven
Subject: Archaeology, Art and Architecture, Archaeology of Europe
Online Publication Date: Jul 2017 DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780190607357.013.52
Oxford Handbooks Online
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The purpose of this chapter is to call into question the familiar dichotomy between formal
and informed approaches from an ontological perspective. We begin with a critical
discussion of the Taçon and Chippindale argument. We then review the varying
approaches to indigenous ontologies taken by researchers and examine a number of rock
art projects that have addressed ontological questions. Finally, we reverse the
interpretative hierarchy between ‘formal’ and ‘informed’ and argue for formal approaches
to be placed centre stage in rock art studies, with a specific emphasis on the study of
process-based, as opposed to symbolic, analysis.
To be clear from the outset, our aim in this chapter is to firmly shift the terms of debate
away from epistemological questions of meaning towards a greater focus on ontological
questions in rock art studies. Discussions of ontology have been increasingly advanced in
the archaeological literature (e.g., Alberti 2016; Alberti & Bray 2009; Alberti, Jones, &
Pollard 2013; Brown & Walker 2008; Conneller 2011; Fowler 2013; Fowles 2013; Jones
2012, 2015; Lucas 2012; Watts 2013; Weismantel 2015). Because these debates have an
important impact on rock art studies (see, e.g., Creese 2011; Porr & Bell 2012; Robinson
2013)—which have a particular concern for the relationship between humans and the
natural world (i.e., rocks)—we feel that it is time that a wider group of rock art scholars
began to engage with them.
Beyond ‘Enigmatic Images’
‘When enigmatic images come from a remote prehistory, we can have no inside
knowledge of them; study must proceed by formal methods’, conclude Taçon and
Chippindale (1998: 8) after a long discussion of the differing approaches to rock art study
in different regions of the world. In that work, they introduce the notion of ‘informed’
approaches, by which they mean ‘those that depend on some source of insight passed on
directly or indirectly from those who made and used the rock art’ (Taçon & Chippindale
1998: 6), using ethnography, ethnohistory, or the historical record. ‘Formal’ methods, on
the other hand, are ‘those that depend on no inside knowledge, but which work when one
comes to the stuff “cold”, as a prehistorian does’. Of key importance here is the further
point that ‘the information available is then restricted to that which is immanent in the
images themselves, or which we can discern from their relations to each other and to the
landscape, or by relation to whatever archaeological context is available’ (Taçon &
Chippindale 1998: 7–8). Formal methods can include a gamut of differing approaches,
from GIS analysis and landscape survey to digital imaging and beyond.
In their seminal paper, Taçon and Chippindale also introduce another method of analysis:
analogy. They argue that analogy is a form of formal method that proceeds from the
known to the unknown by way of analogical reasoning. It is hard to imagine a rock art
researcher who has not worked analogically, whether working in regions with rich
ethnography or not. We will return to the issue of analogy at the end of this chapter.
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The importance of Taçon and Chippindale’s paper is that it crystallizes and brings into
focus a problem encountered by all rock art researchers: how to interpret the signs,
symbols, and marks painted or engraved on rocks by past peoples. In fact, this problem is
not peculiar to rock art researchers but is also a feature of all archaeology since the
arrival of postprocessual approaches, with their focus on meaning. In a sense, precisely
the same problem is encountered in Benjamin Smith and Geoffrey Blundell’s (2004)
critique of phenomenological approaches to landscape in rock art studies. While we
would argue that Smith and Blundell were quite correct to criticize the shaky foundations
of phenomenology in landscape archaeology, the effect of their devastating critique is to
once again drive a wedge between ethnographically and historically informed approaches
to rock art and theoretically nuanced formal approaches. They quite correctly point out
the Eurocentric assumptions of much contemporary landscape archaeology (Smith &
Blundell 2004: 244). Where does this leave formal approaches to rock art and landscape,
for which they argue ‘that the most convincing arguments are those that include
ethnographic material?’ Once again, we are left with a pervading sense that informed
approaches are categorically better than formal approaches to rock art.
Our aim in this chapter is not to decry Taçon and Chippindale’s efforts at solving this
fundamental question—nor indeed Smith and Blundell’s—but to argue that their analyses
highlight some important philosophical problems. There are two points we want to
question here: the symbolic character of art and the nature of rock art as a form of
material evidence about the past.
Art and Meaning
It is commonplace to assume that rock art imagery should be understood as symbolically
encoding information, both through overt, conscious messaging and subliminal cultural
conventions. Inés Domingo Sanz and colleagues succinctly express this view in the
introduction to Archaeologies of Art: ‘visual arts are filled with significance and encode
many levels of information about the identity of the artists and their sociocultural
context’ (Domingo Sanz, Fiore, & May 2008: 15). Visual arts encode information: art
consists of signs and symbols. We believe this view can be questioned. Tim Ingold (2000)
discusses the same problem in relation to the depiction of animals in totemic and
animistic societies. He is at great pains to argue that these depictions are not
representations of animals. Instead, he highlights the activities of painting and engraving
as skillful activities meant to reveal the properties of the animals and the relations among
animals, people, and landscape. The effect of the view of art as encoding meaning, as
Ingold (2011: 204) puts it, is to ‘turn the relation between art and its meaning inside out’.
It is to suggest that meaning, rather than being immanent in the art, is somehow external
to and been implanted into the art (Ingold 2011: 204).
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It is on precisely this issue that Taçon and Chippindale’s distinction between ‘informed’
and ‘formal’ methods turn. Remember that Taçon and Chippindale’s distinction between
the two methods depended on the degree of access to insider knowledge. How can we get
at the meanings of the signs and symbols painted or engraved on rock when that meaning
is conceptualized as external to the art itself? Their solution to this problem is to
distinguish between ‘informed’ methods that have direct insight to meanings as they are
passed on by ethnographic informants. The pale underside of informed approaches are
‘formal’ methods, where access to meaning is indirect and partial and only accessible
through methods systematically applied some time after the meaning of the art has been
forgotten.
At this juncture, we also need to sound a note of caution regarding the attribution and
reliability of ethnographic knowledge. Nicholas and Markey (2015: 295–299) note a
number of case studies where a lack of congruence occurs between indigenous
knowledge and empirically derived knowledge, the most apposite here being the
interpretation of the Stein River pictographs in south-central British Columbia, Canada,
by Annie York, a Nlaka’pamux elder. In this case, there was a distinct lack of congruence
—and of reliability—relating to the interpretation of the pictographs when compared
against other forms of knowledge. Nicholas and Markey conclude that archaeologists use
much indigenous knowledge very selectively and that the proper evaluation of indigenous
knowledge and meanings by archaeologists is a complex business that involves careful
judgment (Nicholas & Markey 2015: 300–303). Coupled with this, we should also recall
anthropologists’ debates concerning the partial construction of anthropological
knowledge (Clifford 1988). All of this should lead us to be cautious concerning the
applicability of ethnographic knowledge. We should not expect that ethnography provides
a golden ticket to the singularly ‘true’ meaning or significance of art.
These issues relating to ethnographic or indigenous knowledge are a particular problem
because we treat meaning as external to or distinct from the image. This is a very narrow
view of meaning, one that assumes that the only meanings that anthropologists and
archaeologists may be interested in accessing are cognitive meanings. Ingold argues, by
contrast, that art is a practice of revealing meaning (Ingold 2011: 204). In arguing this,
he is emphasizing the point that meanings are an outcome of art practice and are not
somehow external to the making of art. Here, meaning is characterized not solely in
terms of cognition, but also as a form of practical knowledge. We share this point of view,
and our aim here is to pursue the implications of this point.
Rock Art as Material Traces
‘Isn’t there still a problem?’ we hear you cry! If meanings are revealed by processes of
making and working, we are no nearer to understanding them as archaeologists because
these processes of making are long over. The makers are dead and gone. Yes, that would
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be a problem if making art were solely a human process. However, making art also
involves materials, and we do have access to these as archaeologists.
The question, then, is to how to think about the materials of art-making. For rock art
production, these consist largely of the rocks themselves and occasionally the tools used
to work them or pigment them. This is a question that one of the authors has recently
addressed, specifically in relation to rock art (Jones 2015).
We tend to think of the past as dead and gone. All that remains to us are fragments of
materials worked on by past peoples, and the task of the archaeologist is to extract
meaning from these. Most archaeologists might subscribe to the view expressed by Chris
Tilley (1993: 20), that: ‘without the interpretative work of the archaeologist the past
would be dead and gone.’
We believe that this view is false. One of the reasons for this is that it is predicated on a
classic dualism between nature and culture, materials and society. This is a dualism that
has its roots in the philosophy of Descartes and Kant (see Jones 2015; Thomas 2004).
Strangely enough, this is a dualism that, in other guises, most archaeologists would
readily question and reject yet it dominates how we perceive and carry out our discipline.
Needless to say, it is this very dualism that animates Taçon and Chippindale’s (1998)
distinction between formal and informed methods. Formal methods relate to the analysis
of the inert and natural component of the archaeological record, while informed methods
relate to animate human sociocultural evidence.
One of the reasons we must reject this dualistic approach is that it offers a poor
description of what we do as archaeologists. It also offers a poor description of the
material world. Drawing on recent work in material culture (Coole & Frost 2010),
political theory (Bennett 2010), geography (Anderson & Harrison 2010), and archaeology
(Conneller 2011; Lucas 2012), we argue that it is more appropriate to think of materials
not as inert and static, but as vibrant and full of potential. If this is the case, following the
philosopher of science Karen Barad (2007), it is better to think of our encounters with
past materials as processes of intra-action, of ‘meeting the past halfway’ as we
archaeologists reckon with the dynamic and changeable materials previously worked on
by past peoples. Jones (2015: 330) argues that this is an especially appropriate
perspective for European rock art researchers in regions like Britain, Scandinavia, and
Iberia, particularly those dealing with later prehistoric carved rock art traditions (as
opposed to painted rock art traditions, where touching is discouraged):
Rock art research involves a particularly tactile and immediate form of
archaeological research, as researchers crawl over rocks, touch them to sense the
presence of difficult-to-see motifs, lie on them to record them; rock art
researchers are especially sensitive to the changing character of rocks as they
examine them. Intra-activity appears to lie at the heart of rock art research.
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We have argued two major points then: first, that meaning is not external to imagery, but
is revealed through practices of making. Second, that the materials with which both
people in the past and archaeologists work are vibrant and dynamic and that our
engagement with them involves a process of intra-activity (irrespective of the nature of
those engagements)—a coming to terms with materials as loci and locales of engagement.
We have also discussed the point that meaning needs not be thought of solely in terms of
cognition, but also in terms of practical knowledge and embedded and contextual
practice.
Rather than viewing the recovery of meaning in rock art research as a process that
involves retrieving the meanings only accessible to us from ethnography, instead, if we
are concerned with how meanings are revealed and produced through making, our
concerns really are with understanding these processes of making or working and,
moreover, understanding how these approaches relate to other practices of making and
working (including our own, given how we select the kinds of meanings we are interested
in—part of the hermeneutic process). These processes of making may leave traces on the
materials we study. Our engagements with these materials involve a careful process of
intra-action as we evaluate the qualities and properties of these materials: how were they
worked in the past, how is this meaningful? We are no longer interested in examining
meaning as fixed packets of cognitive data, but instead are concerned with the unfolding
of embodied and practical meanings and knowledge.
We have shifted the focus of rock art research away, then, from epistemological concerns
with assigning meanings to a recognition of the relational, fluid, and embodied character
of meaning more closely associated with ontological concerns. We now want to review
how questions of ontology have been addressed in rock art studies.
Before we do this, it is important to discuss what we mean by ontology. By ontology, we
simply mean a theory of reality or being. On this basis, ontology provides the ground from
which we interpret the world and, indeed, how we interpret the past. Ontological
questions have taken multiple divergent paths over recent years (Alberti 2016 provides a
good overview of these). We want to stress here that discussions of ontology are not
simply a replaying of processual versus postprocessual questions about objective versus
subjective interpretations: these are questions firmly based in the realm of epistemology.
As Gavin Lucas (2012: 25) argues, the current debate does not concern whose
interpretative apparatus is correct, but instead questions archaeology’s underlying
metaphysical assumptions.
For the purposes of this chapter, we will divide discussions of ontology into two distinct
groups: (1) approaches that search for an improved metaphysics and (2) approaches that
investigate indigenous ontological concepts and examine how these may relate to
archaeological material. Ben Alberti (2016: 2) outlines the important distinction between
these approaches:
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One can conceptualize ontology either as a people’s ‘beliefs about’ reality or as a
people’s reality, their actual ontological commitments. These are quite distinct
positions. The former can be assimilated into a cultural or discursive construction
argument where baseline ‘reality’ is untouched; the latter requires us to
investigate the ground on which we and our theories stand as well.
The specific aim of this chapter is to investigate the ground on which rock art studies
stands. For the most part, we are therefore concerned with the metaphysics of the
archaeological record and how it relates to rock art studies. However, in the next section,
we briefly examine people’s ‘beliefs about’ reality (indigenous ontological concepts).
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Shamanism and Animism: Questions of
Ontology in Rock Art Research
Archaeologists have recently raised questions about the ontological nature of the ancient
(or non-Western) cultures they stud, and about how the ways we understand the world
have influenced our interpretations of those past (or ‘other’) cultures (e.g., Alberti et al.
2013; Lucas 2012; Watts 2013). The influence of the anthropologist Phillipe Descola
(2013) has been especially important in these discussions. Some archaeologists have
readily deployed Descola’s division of ontological categories—animism, totemism,
naturalism, and analogism—although it is also noteworthy that, for many
ethnoarchaeologists, what has been of greater interest has not been Descola’s ontological
categories, but the fact that for many indigenous peoples today and in the recent
(ethnographic) past, the world is animated by beings who transcend the human–animal,
and even animate–inanimate divide. Yet Descola all along intended these categories to be
treated as heuristic devices: ways of dividing up the spectrum of possible ontological
perspectives. Instead, some archaeologists have viewed these categories as ideal types to
be discerned in the archaeological record, as attested by several of the contributors to a
recent edited volume on relational archaeology (Watts 2013). For example, Dušan Borić
(2013) examines the decorated stone pillars of Göbekli Tepe, Turkey, and argues that they
result from a totemic ontology, while Andrew Shapland (2013) is concerned to chart the
ontological categories defined by Descola as they unfold in the art of the Aegean Bronze
Age. These approaches to ontology in archaeology are mistaken on two counts: first, they
assume that ontologies are fixed and well-defined categories, as opposed to fluid
descriptions devised by anthropologists as an aid to understanding. Second, they assume
that these fixed categories can be excavated and defined by archaeologists—that each is
a fundamentally different way of perceiving the world, each with its own material
correlates, and thereby each with its own archaeological expressions. This is simply
delusional. Tim Pauketat (2007) provides a thoroughgoing critique of such archaeological
delusions. Pauketat (2007: 1) warns against archaeologists accepting the ‘sophisticated
delusions’ of sociocultural anthropologists. We should not expect to excavate kinship
systems, cultural evolutionary stages, or indigenous ontologies precisely because they are
anthropological constructs: they do not exist as entities to be grasped in the real world
because they are models created by anthropologists as devices for defining and
comprehending a complex and messy reality.
The same mistakes have arisen in rock art studies. A good example of this would be the
emergence of shamanism as an explanatory model for South African, North American,
and European Palaeolithic and Neolithic rock art (Bradley 1989; Clottes & Lewis-Williams
1998; Lewis-Williams 2000, 2001; Lewis-Williams & Dowson 1990; Lewis-Williams &
Pearce 2009; Whitley 2000). The problem here is not altered states as an explanatory
device for understanding rock art imagery (contra Bahn 2010), but the fixed and unitary
category of ‘shamanism’ as an overarching approach to swathes of global rock art. How is
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shamanism distinguished from animism or totemism? Shamanism becomes an all-
encompassing category and device for explanation that tends to flatten other potential
relational ontologies. It is for this reason, amongst others, that Dowson (2009) has
recently drawn our attention to the animist attributes of certain rock art traditions, such
as those of Upper Palaeolithic Europe.
Other studies have argued for animistic approaches to rock art. For example, working in
the Kilmartin region of western Scotland, Andrew Meirion Jones and colleagues (Jones et
al. 2011) explore relational capacities of rock art. How do motifs relate to the features of
the rock? How do they relate to their wider landscape? How do the motifs relate to the
movement of light in that landscape? Here, the intention has been not to pin down the
precise ontology that animated the rock art production, but to examine relational
ontology in a more fluid sense.
Ontological questions also arise in the ways that we imagine people related to rock in the
past and the ways in which we record the evidence of those relationships. This is
demonstrated by work at two major sites, Chauvet Cave, France, and Nawarla
Gabarnmang, Australia. Jean-Jacques Delannoy and colleagues (2013) record large-scale
manipulations of the cave environment at the striking rock formation known as ‘The
Cactus’ in Chauvet Cave. Here, fallen blocks were moved into position around this
unusual rock formation to give it structure and augment it. Arrangement of the cave
environment is also observed elsewhere at Chauvet Cave, such as where a cave bear
(Ursus spelaeus) skull was found resting on a large block of stone. This deposit, dating to
between 32,600 ± 490 and 31,390 ± 420 BP, was intentionally placed on a prominent
block and is part of a complex configuration that includes dozens of other cave bear
skulls nearby (Delannoy et al. 2013: 15).
The activities at Chauvet Cave are in some general ways comparable to activities
documented at Nawarla Gabarnmang rock shelter, albeit only in the sense that they both
involve the construction of social and ontologically arranged space. Nawarla Gabarnmang
is one of many rock art sites in Jawoyn country, Arnhem Land, northern Australia. It is
marked out both by its spectacular rock art and its unusual geological formation. This
large double-ended rock shelter contains impressive rock art panels covering large areas
of the ceiling. Even more striking is the geology of the rock shelter, which consists of a
gridded network of pillars supporting a thick, multilayered quartzite ceiling. The
dissolution of the bedrock was formed by a ‘phantomization’ of the rock, causing a
regular grid-shaped structure of underground cavities and pillars (Delannoy et al. 2013:
20). The floor of the rock shelter is ashy with scattered blocks; within the floor fill are
rich archaeological deposits that include stone artefacts and animal bones (David et al.
2011). Human occupation at the rock shelter goes back more than 45,000 years.
The team of researchers documenting Nawarla Gabarnmang were especially keen to
investigate links between the rock art and rock formations of the cave. Several rock
pillars (numbers 1–8) to the southwest of the painted ceiling are particularly significant.
This space had several blocks on the floor of the rock shelter that originally came from
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the ceiling and former pillars. Analysis of these blocks indicated that some had been
reduced by flaking around the edges; others had been moved a few metres from their
original locations, creating empty spaces deep in the shelter along the way. Also, blocks
of hard layers of quartzitic sandstone were harvested for making flaked stone artefacts.
Analysis of stone artefacts at the site indicated that all stages of manufacture were
represented, suggesting on-site manufacture of stone tools from this local raw material.
Some of the moved blocks had ground surfaces, indicating they had been used to grind
ochre, stone artefacts, and other materials (Delannoy et al. 2013: 23). Smaller collapsed
blocks from the ceiling were fragmented by percussion, with large fragments being
removed to outer parts of the site, opening up space between the remaining pillars.
Immediately outside the site, on the slope of the northern entrance especially, lie
hundreds (and possibly thousands) of blocks that had been removed from inside the site—
either dumped, or perhaps stored for future use? In the southwestern corner of the site,
the last traces of breaking apart stone pillars that are still standing could still be seen:
one pillar is vertically sectioned, with the upper part of the pillar showing the scars of
unfinished stone working; nearby, the upper rock layer of another pillar is extensively
flaked, and only a remnant can now be seen; a third pillar nearby again has its upper
parts entirely removed. Jean-Jacques Delannoy and team concluded that the rock shelter
was not solely a geological formation, but that it also had been fashioned by people in the
course of stone quarrying, clearing collapsed blocks, and painting the ceiling.
Delannoy and his colleagues describe these manipulations using the French term
aménagement. Aménagement ‘concerns how people are actively engaged in the
construction of a given place through dwelling and inhabitation. Here aménagement is
more than “management” or “refurbishment”, for unlike these latter concepts, it
foregrounds the active social configuration of place as construction’ (Delannoy et al.
2013: 13, emphasis in the original). The archaeological observations that Delannoy and
colleagues make at Chauvet Cave and Nawarla Gabarnmang are peerless, though we are
not sure the term aménagement helps us to fully understand this activity. The notion of
aménagement creates a false sense of a distinction between active human agents
asserting themselves on an inactive or passive material environment. Instead, as
Conneller (2011: 38) explains for Magdalenian cave art, ‘these material interactions
depend upon a complex, contingent interplay between the properties of particular
materials, particular forms and understandings’. Although the reason for using the word
aménagement in their work was precisely to dissolve the distinction between an ‘inactive’
‘natural’ world that Aboriginal people actively (and ‘culturally’) engaged with, we need to
be wary about importing dualisms into our otherwise nuanced analyses of the working
that occurs at rock art sites—in this case, the nuance of the message is, paradoxically,
compromised by the distinction that the imported word causes, animating and reiterating
the duality in the process!
A particularly sophisticated understanding of the relationship between rock art and the
rock surface is provided by Norwegian scholars working in Arctic Norway and Russia. In
a series of publications, Knut Helskog (1999, 2004, 2014) has discussed the Mesolithic
and Neolithic rock art of Alta, Arctic Norway. He argues that the rock engravings
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Perspective
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depicting scenes of reindeer herding and corralling, bears, and wildfowl are visual
narratives that signify events occurring at specific times of year. This is exemplified by
the rock art panel at Kåfjord, where the corralling of reindeer and the hibernation of
bears both relate to autumnal activities. In other scenes, bears emerge from their dens at
springtime and make their way across the surface of the rock, their movement marked by
engraved pawprints. Helskog’s insight is given further weight by the way in which the
carved images interact with the rock. These are not merely rock surfaces: they are
landscapes and, indeed, lifescapes. Helskog’s approach has been extended to other sites
in northern Scandinavia, such as Nämforsen, Sweden, and Vyg, Karelaia, Russia. The
connection among rock engravings, rock surface, and landscape has been similarly
explored in the work of Jan Magne Gjerde (2010a, 2010b). Gjerde offers us a particularly
subtle understanding of the dynamic relationship between rock art and landscape. For
example, at the site of Leiknes, the depiction of swans—with one swan engraved over
another—is comprehensible when we note the position of the site at the waters edge: the
engraving depicts the movement of the swan as it bobs on the water (Gjerde 2010a: 172).
Of note also, a large fissure in the rock surface at Peri Nos, Onega, Russia, becomes a
‘river’ when it is filled with water. It is for this reason that the only rock engraving in the
fissure is a boat sailing in the river-fissure (Gjerde 2010b: 169). Micro-landscapes and
macro-landscapes are dynamically interrelated, and each gives meaning to the rock
engravings (Figure 1).
The work of Helskog and
Gjerde does not explicitly
address ontology.
Nevertheless, ontological
questions lie at the heart
of their work. The notion
of rocks as landscape
features and the dynamic
interaction between micro-
and macro-landscapes
offer a seamless
understanding of the way
in which past communities
interacted with their
worlds. Similarly, while not
explicitly discussing
specific relational
ontologies, they offer a
nuanced view of the
interactions that took
place between humans and
animals in Arctic Europe
Click to view larger
Figure 1. The river in the rock at Peri Nos, Onega,
Russia. Upper: A single rock art motif is engraved in
the rock at the centre of this river (positioned
roughly centre of upper image). Lower: photo of the
boat motif.
Photographs: Jan Magne Gjerde.
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and Russia. No dualisms are evident in their work; rather, we are given a seamless
picture of the relationships among people, animals, rocks, and landscapes in the
circumpolar North.
The work of these two Norwegian scholars provides an excellent example of how
ontological questions might be addressed through detailed observation of rock art sites,
of the details of rock surface, and the positioning of rock engravings on that surface.
Finally, they also address the relationship between rock art sites and their wider
landscape. Interestingly, these rich and detailed accounts are derived not from direct
ethnographic informants, but from ethnographic analogy. This is a point we will return to
later.
From Recording Motifs to Understanding
Processes of Making: Ontology in Rock Art
Fieldwork and Practice
Our overview of approaches to ontology in rock art studies (and archaeology generally)
argued that our aim should not be to impose indigenous ontological categories on bodies
of rock art imagery. This kind of approach only deadens understanding and produces
coarse-grained knowledge of rock art traditions.
In fact, we showed that detailed observational analysis of rock art should yield valuable
insights into the significance of rock art. Analyses that address the relationship between
rock art and rock surface, and rock art site and landscape are particularly valuable.
We argued earlier that meanings are an outcome of art practices. We want to explore this
now with an example from North America. A rock art survey project examining the Rio
Grande gorge, New Mexico, has recently documented a remarkable group of Comanche
rock art imagery. One of the reasons these rock art images were unknown until recently
is because they are so difficult to see; this is a huge problem for the field archaeologist
attempting to record and document them in the bright sunlight of New Mexico. The
imagery was lightly scratched on very hard basalt boulders, most likely with a knife or
some other metal tool (Fowles & Arterberry 2013: 72).
Severin Fowles and Jimmy Arterberry offer us an instructive discussion of the process of
documenting these images:
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Once a boulder is scrutinized and found to have faint scratches, it must be gridded
off; then each line, each individual scratch, must be traced across the rock
surface, reenacting, as it were, the specific hand movements of the Comanche
artist three centuries ago. Quite often, distinct icons are not identified until the
end of the documentation process, at which point one realizes that one had been
tracing the lines of a parfleche (a ceremonial hide container) or a horse without
realizing it. In other cases, the iconographic content never does reveal itself; all
one walks away with is documentation of patterned gestures, traces of obscure,
centuries-old hand movements back and forth, faintly swirling across a rock
surface.
(Fowles & Arterberry 2013: 73)
In their investigation of the rock art images recorded in the Rio Grande gorge, Fowles
and Arterberry discuss several examples of narrative scenes, such as a depiction of an
encampment with a series of horses and riders, and elsewhere in the gorge depictions of
a series of horse raids. While narrative is an aspect of this rock art tradition (it is a
component of a wider Plains Indian tradition known as Biographic Tradition; Keyser
1996), the depiction of scenes is not the major reason this rock art was executed. Instead,
it was the act, or gesture of depiction, that was significant.
Fowles and Arterberry (2013: 74) argue that the performed gesture was likely more
important than the icon produced. An image of a horse produced by pecking may look
‘like a horse in the end, but the process of pecking—of repeated staccato impacts—does
not have the quality of a horse about it. The Comanche horse icon, on the other hand, was
composed of arcing lines that move in a very horse-like way across the rock surface’. It
was the repetitive hand movements that would have signified the movement of horses.
Recall here Ingold’s point that it was not the representation of animals that was
important in totemic and animistic societies, but that art was meant to reveal the
properties of animals through acts of depiction.
Fowles and Arterberry link this practice of making with the tradition of sign language,
known as the Plains Sign Language (PSL) tradition, of which the Comanche were
renowned participants. For example, in the sign language of the Plains, the Comanche
were known as the Snakes, mimed by placing the right hand palm downward, with
forearm across the body, and wiggling it to the right.
They argue that this logic of mimetic gesturing is replicated in battle imagery in which
unmounted warriors with headdresses are depicted holding lances that appear as
meandering lines that reach out to touch other warriors. They link this with the tradition
of ‘counting coup’, in which ‘men demonstrated their courage in battle by riding forth
among the enemy and boldly touching an opponent in the midst of battle’ (Fowles &
Arterberry 2013: 76). They go on to argue that Comanche warriors will have built their
reputation from military actions, but those actions needed to be stabilized and given
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reality through artistic actions. The rock art images of battles could then be considered
as decorations, both in the sense of military honours and as depictions on rocks and other
media (Fowles & Arterberry 2013: 79).
We are aware that Fowles and Arterberry’s analysis appears to be a textbook example of
an informed approach very much in the sense meant by Taçon and Chippindale (1998).
We would argue that, in fact, Fowles and Arterberry’s reasoning is analogical (more of
this later). However, the important point we want to derive from this case study is the
significance of embodied knowledge, of an understanding of gesture, rock art imagery,
and rock surface as opposed to the cognitive question of ‘what it means’.
We argue that an understanding of gesture and of processes of working and making are
more than possible using ‘formal’ approaches common to many rock art researchers.
Here, we will convey our recent experience using reflectance transformation imaging
(RTI). RTI is a computational photographic method for surface data capture and the
interactive representation of the three-dimensional shape of surfaces (Cultural Heritage
Imaging 2011, 2013a, 2013b; Malzbender, Gelb, & Wolters 2001). The capabilities of RTI
make it a very valuable asset for rock art research (Díaz-Guardamino, García Sanjuán,
Wheatley, & Rodríguez Zamora 2015; Mudge, Malzbender, Schroer, & Lum 2006, Mudge
et al. 2012). It is a low-cost, noncontact, and robust method for the documentation and
interactive visualization of rock art. It enables the visualization and examination of very
subtle surface details that may be invisible to the naked eye or that have proved
challenging to record by means of other established three-dimensional surface data
capture methods such as laser scanning or digital photogrammetry (Díaz-Guardamino &
Wheatley 2013).
It is precisely its ability to reveal surface detail that makes RTI an invaluable resource for
rock art research. Rock surfaces are in constant flux. They transform as they interact
with a broad variety of agents, from air, water, and acids, to living organisms, including
micro-organisms, animals, or people. RTI does not only allow us to monitor change in the
short and medium term, which is especially relevant for conservation, but also to
elucidate sequences of long-past change and to assess the roles of different agents,
including the rock’s surface, in the crafting of its current configuration. Features such as
subtle human- or animal-made marks and the layering and texture of different substances
such as pigments or calcite deposits, as well as their eventual superimposition, can be
robustly documented and better understood through RTI.
Current understandings of rock art are generally broad. They may include an
appreciation of spatiality, performance and (human) bodily movement, and the
topography of the rock surface. Yet debates aiming to subvert human–animal divides do
not seem to have permeated deep enough into rock art research, as Dowson (2009)
recently noted. When studying human–animal relations through European Palaeolithic
rock art, for instance, most specialists adopt a humanly detached perspective, focusing on
human-made marks—representations of animals or human–animal hybrids—or patterns of
human consumption of animals and use of animal by-products in a variety of activities,
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including art-making, and the contrast of these patterns with those of animal
representation (e.g., Lorblanchet 1989; Sauvet, Layton, Lenssen-Erz, Taçon, &
Wlodarczyk 2009). Far less attention has been devoted to animal activity and its direct
intersection with human ‘art-making’ (but see Lorblanchet 2009).
The ongoing interdisciplinary study of the exceptionally well-preserved environment of
Chauvet Cave in France sets an empirical precedent in this terrain. The activities of cave
bears have been carefully mapped (Clottes & Geneste 2012: 599). This is important
because bear claw-marks feature in some of the most outstanding art panels of the cave,
either on top of or below human-made drawings (Fritz & Tosello 2015). While this fact
could have wide-ranging implications in the interpretation of human–animal relations and
the significance of parietal art-making in this context (cf. Dowson 2009: 383–384), Fritz
and Tosello seem to establish a clear-cut differentiation between human-made marks as
culturally significant and bear claw-marks, which are considered ‘natural’ elements and
are merely used as proxies for establishing the relative chronology of specific drawings
(Fritz & Tosello 2015: 285, 287).
But marks made by cave bears, which were periodic visitors to these environments, may
have played a key role in the creative process of the earliest hunter-gatherer rock art in
Europe. El Castillo cave (Cantabria, Spain), yielding the oldest dates for European
parietal art recorded until now, may offer some clues in this respect. The cave shows a
long-term occupation that began at least 150,000 years ago, and it holds one of the
richest collections of Palaeolithic art in Western Europe (Alcalde del Río, Breuil, & Sierra
1911; González García 2001; Groenen, Groenen, Ceballos del Moral, & Gonzalez
Echegaray 2012). Recent U-series dating of calcite deposits overlaying red disks provided
minimum ages of 41,400 ± 570 years (sample O-83 in the Panel of the Hands) and 34,250
± 170 years (sample O-69, also a maximum age of 35,720 ± 260 years from sample O-87,
in the Gallery of the Disks), situating their creation in the Aurignacian (Pike et al. 2012).
Disks and hand stencils are thought to be broadly contemporaneous in El Castillo cave,
constituting the earliest phase of human cave wall marking known to date in Europe
(García-Diez et al. 2015: 11). In El Castillo, blowing red pigment directly from the mouth
or indirectly by means of a hollowed instrument makes both motifs. Hand stencils and
disks are rather numerous in the cave (approximately 60 and 150, respectively), and
while the former are located in the initial and middle parts of the cave, the latter are
mostly concentrated in the Gallery of the Disks, located in its inner depths. Research
carried out in the cave by Pettitt and colleagues (Pettitt, Castillejo, Arias, Ontañón
Peredo, & Harrison 2014) suggests that the positioning of hand stencils responds to the
shapes and fissures of the cave walls and that, probably, tactile exploration, jointly with
vision, played a key role in the selection of locations for hand stencils.
The recent application of RTI to document a selection of hand stencils and disks in El
Castillo cave has produced a record of the shape and surface details of the walls on
which these motifs exist. Fissures framing hand stencils literally gripping walls can be
1
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clearly visualized, illustrating the hypothesis proposed by Pettitt and colleagues (2014)
(Figure 2).
RTI analysis of the Gallery
of the Disks also revealed
intriguing details. Here,
there are almost 100
blown disks in horizontal
and vertical rows at
different heights (between
1.2 and 1.9 metres above
ground level) on the
undulating surface of the
wall. The placement of the
disks seems to follow
predetermined patterns.
This impression diminishes when we take a closer look at the surface of the wall using
RTI. The disks recorded by means of RTI were blown on a variety of subtle topographic
features (concavities, convexities, fissures) and, importantly, directly over or in close
proximity to bear claw-marks (Figure 3A-2, A-3, B-2, B-3). The sample of disks
documented with RTI is limited but seems to expand the hypothesis proposed by Pettitt
and colleagues (2014). Bear claw-marks—seemingly present in other areas of the same
wall in association with disks—along with wall shape and fissures may have played a
significant role in the creation of disks.
Human visitors to the cave
were clearly aware of the
shape and texture of the
walls, as well as of prior
bears’ claw marks, and the
act of blowing red pigment
on the walls appears to
have been intimately
related to these features.
Furthermore, if we focus
on the relevance of the
physical exploration of the
cave and the interplay
between bears and
humans as both early
explorers and recurrent
visitors of the cave, and we
deter ourselves from treating caves, bears, and humans as self-contained entities, a
Click to view larger
Figure 2. Stencil of a left hand in El Castillo cave
(Puente Viesgo, Cantabria, Spain). RTI snapshots: to
the left an image without transformation, to the right
an image of the same location generated through the
application of Specular Enhancement.
(Photograph and RTI: M. Díaz-Guardamino).
Click to view larger
Figure 3. Disks in the Gallery of the Disks, El
Castillo cave (Puente Viesgo, Cantabria, Spain). RTI
snapshots: A-1 and B-1 images without
transformation, A-2 and B-2 images of the same
locations generated with the application of the filter
Difusse Gain, A-3 and B-3 same view with the
application of Specular Enhancement
(Photographs and RTI: M. Díaz-Guardamino).
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different picture emerges. Here, marks on cave walls, regardless of their human, animal,
or geological origin, intersect and are indicative of fluid intra-actions among caves,
animals, and people, and the working of ontologies different from our own.
The discussions in this section have dealt with the analysis of gesture. We began by
discussing Fowles and Arterberry’s (2013) analysis of Comanche rock art in the Rio
Grande, New Mexico, and then discussed an RTI project in Spain. The latter involved an
analysis of the palaeolithic art in El Castillo cave. In the case of the Comanche rock art,
we argued that gesture was key to understanding the execution of the rock art; although
the analysis was augmented by approaches informed by ethno-historic records,
comprehension of the significance of the imagery was not completely shaped by informed
methods. In our latter example, dealing with RTI analysis, we purely relied on formal
approaches. The aim was to digitally document the rock art motifs, but a key aspect of
the analysis involved understanding how the execution of the motifs interacted with
aspects, or qualities, of the rock. In El Castillo, we discussed how the red dot motifs
related to cave bear claw marks and protuberances in the cave wall.
Some important things have shifted in our analyses here. We are not aiming to discuss
the meaning of this imagery, but instead we are focusing on the significance of the
process of making. Another important point is that we are not discussing the stones
engraved or painted upon as inert substances that simply bear the imprint of cultural
markers; instead, we are discussing the dynamic intra-action between stone and mark-
making. This is an ontologically nuanced methodology that takes account of all aspects of
rock art: qualities of the stone, stone surface and shape, previous marks (made by other
agencies such as animals), manner of carving, and shape and form of motif. Such an
approach is to treat rock art production as a process of assembly in which the assemblage
consists of a multitude of components, each working in concert with another (see also
Hamilakis & Jones 2017; Jones & Alberti 2013; Lucas 2012). In doing so we have moved
away from an ontologically hierarchical approach to rock art analysis, as is evident in the
distinction between culture and nature or ‘informed’ and ‘formal’ methods, to a relational
approach in which there is no ontological priority between the different elements that
compose the rock art assemblage.
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Conclusion
This chapter has explored questions of ontology in rock art analysis. We have argued that
the approach to rock art offered by Taçon and Chippindale’s (1998) reproduces a series of
unhelpful dichotomies. The distinction between ethnographic, ethnohistoric, or historic
informed methods and formal methods relies on the distinction between ‘inside’ and
‘outside’ knowledge, which itself rests on an assumed distinction between active subjects
and inert objects. We questioned this ontological hierarchy and argued that meaning is
not external to art making, but that art is a practice of making meaning. To understand
this, we examined a series of case studies that focused on gestural analysis in rock art
production. Each of these highlighted the importance of other aspects of rock art making,
including prior marks made by animals, the qualities of stone, and the gesture or act of
mark-making itself. From this we argued that rock art production is best considered as a
process of assembly; a process in which each component of the assemblage has equal
weight (Hamilakis & Jones 2017; Jones & Alberti 2013).
On this basis, we would suggest that dismissing formal approaches as inferior to
understanding the meaning of rock art is a grave error. Quite the contrary, we argue that
formal approaches play a critical role in exploring rock art significance, as long as we
understand that art is a practice that reveals meaning. We need, then, to pay particular
attention to practices of making.
All of this is not to dismiss ethnographic, ethnohistoric, or historic approaches. Taçon and
Chippindale (1998) also include analogy as a key approach to rock art studies. If we
understand rock art production as a process of assembly in which various components
are drawn together and work in concert, we can equally consider the process of rock art
analysis and interpretation as a process of assembly (see Fowler 2013; Jones & Alberti
2013; Lucas 2012 for an expansion of this concept) in which a series of methods and
approaches operate in concert alongside each other. Analogical approaches based on
ethnographies therefore have an equal role to play alongside formal approaches.
Importantly, as Nicholas and Markey (2015) point out for ethnographic analogy, each
strand of evidence must be critically evaluated against others.
Finally, we need to emphasize that our approach to rock art studies—placing formal
methods at the heart of rock art studies, alongside analogy—shifts the questions we ask
of rock art away from simple epistemologically derived enquiries (what does this motif
mean?; how do we know this?) to ontological questions (how are rock art motifs
composed?; what is involved in their composition?; how are rocks, pigments, and people
engaged in the process of meaning-making?). We believe that this approach offers
important and fruitful lines of enquiry, whether rock art researchers are studying the
parietal art of the European Palaeolithic or San rock art in South Africa.
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Acknowledgements
M. D. -G. would like to thank A. M. J. for his immense patience! We would like to thank the
volume editors who have been extremely patient over the long gestation of this chapter.
M. D. -G. thanks the Department of Education, Culture and Sport of the Government of
Cantabria (Spain) for permission, as well as Roberto Ontañón Peredo, Director of the
Museum of Prehistory and Archaeology of Cantabria, for his support, and the British
Academy/Leverhulme (Small Research Grant, SRG 2013-14 Round) for funding to
undertake RTI recording in El Castillo cave.
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Notes:
(1) RTI recording in El Castillo cave was carried out by M. D-. G, jointly with A. Pike and
P. Pettitt, within the British Academy/Leverhulme-funded project ‘Promoting digital
solutions to rock and cave art research’, co-directed by A. Pike and M. Díaz-Guardamino.
The results of this project, which assessed the contribution of RTI to cave and rock art
research, are currently being prepared for publication.
Andrew M. Jones
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Archaeology, Faculty of Humanities, University of Southampton, Avenue Campus,
Highfield, Southampton SO17 1BF, United Kingdom
Marta Díaz-Guardamino
Archaeology, Faculty of Humanities, University of Southampton, Avenue Campus,
Highfield, Southampton SO17 1BF, United Kingdom
Article
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Artworks at Lascaux and other late Palaeolithic caves integrate geological features or “relief” of the cave wall in a way that suggests a symbiotic relation between nature and culture. I argue this qualifies as “receptivity to a situation,” which is neither fully active nor merely passive and emerges as a necessary element of the intentions made apparent by such cave art. I argue against prominent interpretations of cave art, including the shamanist account and propose a structural interpretation attentive to particular cases. Seen in this way, cave art displays intentions that are analyzable as having a tripartite structure: mentally directed, embedded in actions and receptive to a situation. Moreover, the latter is the medium through which the other two elements are conjoined. Drawing on a range of archaeological and philosophical resources from both analytical philosophy and phenomenology, I argue that what I call cave art’s “intentional story” is important for the philosophy of intentions more generally.
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The study of rock art production has been traditionally focused either on the tools used in the process and/or in the components of rock paintings. In this paper we consider the role of fire and soot as substances that participated in the dynamic process of rock art making by Late Holocene hunter-gatherers from the Limarí River Basin (North-Central Chile). Through Optical Microscopy, Raman Spectroscopy and SEM-EDS analyses, together with traditional strategies of rock art recording and radiocarbon dating of paintings, soot and materials recovered from a stratigraphic excavation, we study how fire and soot structured the practice of rock art making in Alero Cachaco. The results show that the deposition of soot on the walls and ceiling of the rockshelter, produced by fire associated with daily activities of the communities that inhabited it, covered paintings, leading people to re-paint the rockshelter for almost 3000 years.
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How can rock art signal contact between different social groups and cultures? In this special collection of papers for Australian Archaeology, we find several different answers to this question, based on a number of Australian and International case studies first presented at The Second International Contact Rock Art Conference in Darwin, September 2013 and further developed in the years since. In this introductory paper, we set these important depictions in a global context, and explore some of the information that contact rock art offers in studying past, present and emerging societies.
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In this paper, we explore the ‘Preservation/Heritage Values/Management’ triptych, and we propose a new method for addressing the values attributed to cultural heritage sites. Combining multidisciplinary and cosmopolitan approaches, we propose a way of moving beyond the traditional lens of assessing significance within the imposed categorical framework of ‘aesthetic, historic, scientific, social or spiritual values’. We provide an example of our new approach through a worked case study in the Maloti-Drakensberg Park World Heritage Site (South African section). Our case study concerns the values associated with the world famous San (Bushman) rock art of this mountain area. Through a thematic analysis of data collected in this area from 2009 to 2017, six cross-cultural interest points are identified and are discussed. Building upon the history of values-based heritage management, we argue that our multidisciplinary and cosmopolitan method is transferable and can be applied to heritage sites around the world. It can militate the construction of heritage management plans that are more in tune with local actors and that will therefore prove to be more effective and sustainable.
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This paper is based on rock art sites of the Maloti-Drakensberg massif (South African part), where more than 600 decorated shelters have thus far been identified. Being both institutionalised heritage sites open to the public and living heritage sites associated with various social practices and utilizations, their preservation requires us to consider the complexity of the values attributed to them. Combining a multidisciplinary and empirical approach, our paper highlights the processes of hybridization between attributed values, which therefore do not adhere to a strict category approach. Being strongly linked to the contexts in which they are articulated, their identification is coupled with a consideration of the macrodynamics in which rock art sites are integrated, as well as an analysis of the links between these different contexts and the value systems identified. In conclusion, the operational dimensions of such a methodology is questioned and some initial possibilities for action are proposed.
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Introduction to special section of Cambridge Archaeological Journal on 'Archaeology and Assemblage'. Assemblage is a concept common to a number of academic disciplines, most notably archaeology and art, but also geology and palaeontology. Archaeology can claim a special link to the term assemblage, though novel approaches to the concept of assemblage have recently been adopted from the fields of philosophy and political theory. These approaches, bracketed under the term ‘new materialism’, are discussed here. The introduction to this collection of papers outlines these approaches and evaluates their usefulness for archaeological practice and interpretation.
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In spite of a long-standing research tradition, the study of Late Bronze Age Iberian stelae has been severely limited by a very fundamental shortcoming: the inaccuracy of the methods and techniques that have been employed to record, examine and reproduce these stones and their engravings. This paper will describe the recent application of two innovative techniques, namely Reflectance Transformation Imaging and 3D laser scanning, to record various Late Bronze Age stelae found in the South of the Iberian Peninsula. It will then comment on the preliminary results of this undertaking and their implications for current research on Late Bronze Age Iberian stelae. Finally, it will assess the potentials and limitations of these techniques for recording and interpreting Late Bronze Age Iberian stelae in particular, and prehistoric Rock Art in general.
Book
The following chapters respond to a set of archaeological conversations about premodern religion that have been intensifying and show no sign of weakening in the years to come. Generally speaking, these conversations are themselves a collective response to a congeries of late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century stimuli, some located within the narrow intellectual currents of archaeological debate, others impacting the discipline from the outside as archaeologists respond to changes in the weather of their wider political surroundings. © 2013 by the School for Advanced Research. All rights reserved.
Book
Humans occupy a material environment that is constantly changing. Yet British archaeologists of the twentieth century have overlooked this fact in their search for past systems of order and pattern. Inert materials were treated as distinct from past societies, and as the outcomes of social ideas and processes. As a result materials were variously characterised as stable entities such as artefact categories, styles or symbols in an attempt to comprehend them. In this book Andrew Jones argues that, on the contrary, materials are vital, mutable and creative and archaeologists need to attend to the changing character of materials if they are to understand how past people and materials intersected to produce prehistoric societies. Rather than considering materials and societies as given, he argues that we need to understand how these entities are performed. He discusses various aspects of materials including their scale, colour, fragmentation and assembly in a wide-ranging discussion that covers the pottery, metalwork, rock art, passage tombs, barrows, causewayed enclosures and settlements of Neolithic and Early Bronze Age Britain and Ireland