Review Article

European rock art: arti-facts and fancies

John Coles
Fursdon Mill Cottage,
Devon, EX5 5JS, UK

Books Reviewed
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ÅSA C. FREDELL, KRISTIAN KRISTIANSEN & FELIPE CRIADO BOADO. Representations and communications: creating an archaeological matrix of late prehistoric rock art. xx+158 pages, 53 illustrations. 2010. Oxford & Oakville (CT): Oxbow; 978-1-84217-397-8 paperback £25.

L. BENGTSSON (ed.). Arkeologisk Rapport 7, Vitlycke Museum. Stiftelsen för dokumentation av Bohusläns hällristningar: Tossene socken [Foundations for the documentation of Bohuslän's rock carvings: parish of Tossene]. 120 pages & 190 pages of illustrations. 2009. Tanum: Vitlycke Museum; ISSN 1401-9078 paperback (see

GERHARD MILSTREU & HENNING PRØHL (ed.). Documentation and registration of rock art in Tanum / Dokumentation och registrering av hällristningar i Tanum. No. 3: Kalleby, Finntorp, Ryk. 181 pages, numerous colour & b&w illustrations, CD-ROM. 2009. Tanum: Hällristningsmuseum Underslös / Scandinavian Society for Prehistoric Art; 978-91-85245-40-2 paperback (see

Coles image

The rock art of northern and western Europe continues to attract a wide variety of enthusiasts eager to promote new, and old, approaches towards recognition, record and interpretation. Here we have three differing attitudes and presentations, two concerned with the creation of physical records and one more wide-ranging in approach.

Deriving meaning from rock art

We approach Representations and communications with positive anticipation, as this book emanates from a set of well-respected authorities and is the product of a four-year collaboration between the University of Gothenburg and the Heritage Laboratory of the Spanish National Research Council in Galicia. The nine papers presented range in subject from straight-forward excavations, physical landscapes and late prehistoric sea-level assessments, to more theoretically-based ideas about the internal spacing of rock art panels, bodily attributes of human images, the passages of time and the complexities of human approaches to sites both today and in the distant past, with glances and asides relating to wider concepts, Indo-Europeans among them. So it is a mixed bag of papers on offer, and insightful conclusions promised. The problem that arises is that we almost at once meet a spatter of slips, confusions and occasional wider difficulties so that the eager reader cannot avoid being distracted, the academic threads and themes interrupted, and the sometimes logical and interesting conclusions thereby diminished.

The very first paper, on the argument for a more aquatic-based environment and economic basis for the settlements, and rock art sites, near and around Himmelstalund in eastern Sweden, is in effect based upon a map (fig. 1.2) which has such peculiar shading as to wholly confuse this reader, and some others who also know the area well: which is which on the map, sea or land? Exactly the same map area is well set out in three works published within the past eight years, including one by the editor of this book, and all clearly separate the Bronze Age sea from the land; so it can be done with a little effort and the reader would doubtless benefit. The next figure in this paper, an aerial photograph of part of the same landscape, shows six numbered features: four are clearly marked, numbers five and six are stylistically different from these and mysteriously masked on the map, barely visible — why? The next paper, on an excavation in front of a panel of images in Galicia, has the same caption to figures 2.1 and 2.2: one is the panel, the other the excavation. The third paper, on sea levels in the Tanum area of Sweden, is a basic summary of an author's monographic thesis; no problem with the work, but in the concluding statement on a key site that was subject to direct contact with the Bronze Age seas, we are told 'The upper part of the panel was raised from the sea at EBA Period Ib. During the preceding phase — EBA Period II — it would be possible to carve on a large part of the surface'. How can this be so? Preceding or succeeding? Some of these confusions are slips of the pen, or the finger, and there is more of the same elsewhere in the book. Perhaps enough has been said here on the matter, except that the very last line in the entire book speaks wisely of a 'spatial model that is the same as that of bell-baker pottery ... although that is very much another story'; we lovers of cakes, and students of Beaker ceramics, cannot but agree with that conclusion.

Now for more positive assessments and some selective items. A lengthy paper debates the continuity of an ideology within the north (Sweden) and the south-west (Galicia) of the European landmass, using, in an admittedly hypothetical approach, the concept of the 'Sun Deer' as depicted on two relevant sites and introducing phased evolution of the 'Sun Deer' parts of the two panels of carvings. The aim of the paper, to suggest that rock art is fruitful ground for creating and testing hypotheses, is undoubtedly acceptable (and has been pursued for over 100 years), but this paper takes a more piercing approach than usual. Falling within such investigative concepts comes a paper on 'rock art knees' and related bodily attributes, taking an Indo-European perspective; this exploration makes many assumptions and may well need a closer look at the details of bodily parts and proximal lines on suggestive images, to sort out chronological variations, accurately represented and illogically depicted elements and the numerical validity of suggested structures. Intriguing it is nonetheless, and just the sort of approach needed to move the studies on. Yet by relying upon rather basic and ill-defined representations published long ago, rather than upon more recent plans produced by more objective techniques, the authors mask the reality of the evidence (and they might also try to get the ancient references correct in their bibliographies).

Following a similar theme is a paper on the journey of the sun as expressed through Indo-European mythology, pursuing a line already well-expressed in previous publications although here restricted to rock carvings alone; well-illustrated and well-argued, this accurately builds on work done half a century ago by Sprockhoff (get the name right please). In similar fashion, a paper on excavations in front of rock carving sites in the Tanum area enlarges the pioneering work of Johansen some 35 years ago; this has greatly refined our understanding of what to expect, where to look, and how the factors of fire and water come into the scheme of things along with basic rock structures, all affecting the imagery, its position and character, and beginning the exploration of the many variables present on what we now call a site (but ewe trees are a new one on me).

The concluding papers attempt to extricate the basic structures in Galician rock art sites, looking for regularities, identifying prominent features, and thence pursuing an interpretation that wisely does not rely upon singular aspects. Landscape definitions come within the purview here, and even if somewhat contrived they open wider perspectives for debate. Final opinions express the ideal of the appearance of heroic societies, evolved from the rural dwellers of Galicia, and thence to the far wider areas of the world from where, and perhaps to where, new ideologies were adopted and transformed.

All in all, this book is overly diffuse, and unifying themes are not at all evident. Much of the exploratory and deliberately challenging approaches rely heavily upon a presumed accuracy in the reproduction of details of late prehistoric rock art imagery that is often impossible to achieve, due to decay, or not yet possible to rely upon, through inadequate recording.

Recording Swedish rock art

Here is where two current projects can, and do, make a substantial contribution to such matters and thereby allow a control to be applied, and encouragement offered, to the wider theoretical approaches that open new avenues for studies of form, content and setting.

The first of these major projects is the numbered series of Arkeologisk Rapport published from the Vitlycke Museum in Bohuslän in western Sweden. The series aims to provide accurate documentation of rock carvings from selected sites or particular parishes; its first volume appeared in 1995 and the current book, number seven, covers the parish of Tossene. It was clearly an immense task to survey, search, identify and record the images carved on the exposed surfaces, some newly-uncovered, on areas of rock deemed worthy of detailed search over a large territory. The ten maps published do not cover the entire parish, and uplands and other areas are omitted for mostly logical reasons; one map has been duplicated. About 500 rock carving sites or distinct panels of sites are presented here, with a very brief description of each, in Swedish and English, and plans of the images as black figures upon the white page. It is important to note the methods used in the recording of the sites: rock surfaces are cleaned, dried, and observed under daylight as well as obliquely by night-lights. Images are thereby identified and painted white with chalkwash; plastic sheeting is laid on the surface and the images are traced by felt-tip pens upon the sheets, black for ancient carvings, blue for modern intrusions and red for natural features. Some indication of the depths of carved images is made upon the sheets. Photographs are taken, sites described, the sheets then scanned/photographed and plans created at a scale of 1/10 wherever possible.

In this way an archive is created as objectively as possible, and, for Tossene as for other areas, presented in periodic series publications such as this very substantial book. The key element is naturally the plans, reproduced here at different scales to suit the page shape and size. This is a bit unfortunate here and there, where a detailed site with many figures appears at a small scale while a small panel with only a couple of cupmarks emerges at a larger scale (e.g. Tossene 48:1 at 1/35 scale with over 200 images; and Tossene 47:2 at 1/10 scale with three cupmarks). But let us not criticise here; these books are a key to Swedish rock carving evidence, standard in their recording and archive and available to all for as much or as little exploratory work in field or office, by brush or computer, as anyone may wish to become engaged. Catalogue it is meant to be, and Catalogue it is.

We now come to another archival-based series of books, produced by Tanums Hällristningsmuseum Underslös/Scandinavian Society for Prehistoric Art. This privately-funded organisation is the outcome, in effect, of a small museum established in 1952 by a pioneering archaeologist called Fred Gudnitz, whom this reviewer met many years ago. From the preaching of Gudnitz we all learned much, mostly on the artistic qualities of the rock art of the Tanum area. In 1969 the Society was founded, and from 1978 a project was initiated to document the carving sites in western Bohuslän.

A series called Documentation and registration of rock art in Tanum is one of the key elements in the Society's work, and three volumes have so far been published, the first two concerned with specific sites in the immediate area around the Vitlycke Museum. With volume three, the coverage has expanded a little, and we now have the sites in the districts of Kalleby, Finntorp and Ryk to contend with. The presentation of these areas with their numerous sites is entirely unlike that adopted for the Tossene volume noted above. About 90 sites or distinct panels are introduced, but nowhere is there a black-on-white plan. Instead, we seem to have a compilation of the existing records of known sites, with a reproduction of the newly-created overall view of the sites made of rubbing sheets fitted together. This method, carefully conducted on sites, allows a full record of surviving carved lines to be created; each sheet of paper fits the next one so in theory a total coverage is achieved. One problem apparent in the rubbing technique is that the joints of the sheets tend to blur or mask any lines at their precise junctures (e.g. site Tanum 409.1), although in this book there has clearly been the greatest care exercised to avoid such a problem by careful projection of the rubbing to the extreme edges of sheets. The question of variable carving depths is in part answered by archival records rather than by the rubbings.

The first site thus published here has reproductions of special images of one of the Kalleby sites, with the famous lur-blowers shown six times, in a series of antique-to-modern recordings, as well as the entire site's 13 rubbing-sheets (with one gap near the base). More useful to the student is the next site in the book with a 12-sheet rubbing, a site view, a photograph of the images chalked white, and a photograph of the main images with oblique lighting. The work underway is illustrated throughout the book, with photographs of clearance, sheets in place, rubbing operations and landscape views, the latter extremely useful for those who seek to visit the sites, some of which can be difficult to locate amidst the field edges, ridges and woodlands. The book is therefore not an archival catalogue with drawn plans as is the Tossene volume. It is more a scrapbook, a useful one it is stressed, that can serve to signal the character of each site and, with the utmost care, allows the reader to trace the location and relation of images one to another. The rubbings themselves can be more clearly studied on an accompanying disc, and it is important to acknowledge their value today and without doubt in the future when physical changes to rock surfaces, and perhaps local environments, may well have taken place.

There is more in the book than site pictures. A brief history of the recording of Scandinavian carvings is provided by G. Milstreu, who describes the rubbing technology which, he claims 'is still the primary method, as no other method shows the surface of the rock including the carvings more precisely'. This may be a comment on the method used for the Vitlycke volumes noted above. Painting with polysaccharide and chalk, and suspended quartzite, are also used on occasion, and photographic work is also pursued. Somewhat surprisingly, and encouraging, is to see a couple of sites with complete rubbing sheets showing surface damage areas with very faint traces of surviving portions of carved images; yet the accompanying chalk-based paintings do not include such survivals (e.g. Tanum 95.1, Tanum 405.1), unless this reviewer is deluding himself.

As part of the introductory section of the book, there are some descriptive comments and statements of things underway, things done, things to do, much concerned with archival matters which doubtless are well-intentioned, and for us the text here requires some nifty brainwork. Who among us knows what the abbreviations — RANE, SHFA, ATA, ABM, FMIS and more — are? The worthy discussion here, about the development of systems for recording and managing sites and archival procedures, is illustrated by some photographs and plans, although the sites chosen to illustrate this important section are not from the study area at all; a frontispiece in the book shows a well-known image from Bro Utmark near Vitlycke, which is described as severely weathered, but I believe it was an ancient chemical attack on the overlying vegetation that caused such dramatic deterioration.

Overall, the two archival books noted here aim to fulfil different concepts, one a pure and precise record of sites and images thereon, the other presenting an alternative method of obtaining an accurate record, and providing a visual comment upon the images and their settings. They succeed: both are impressive documents of identification and are encouragements for future preservative methodologies to be developed and applied to a threatened resource. Such works also provide a solid basis upon which the exploration of themes such as those featured in Representation and communications can be undertaken in the future.