Rock Art and Prehistoric Archaeology  
Considerations on an underestimated source of information
Dr.Christian ZÜCHNER
Institut fur Ur--und Fru hgeschichte
Uniwersität Erlangen-Nurnberg



The title of this article implies a contrast which actually should not exist, as rock art is as much a part of prehistoric cultures as are all the other kinds of sources with which prehistoric archaeology usually deals: stone tools, bronzes, pottery, artefacts from settlements etc. Despite this, research in the field of rock art and archaeological research in its usual sense go their own ways. This is even true of those countries where numerous rock art sites exist, e.g. in France, Spain and Italy. It is hardly ever seen and recognised as source of great importance. Certainly, this has a lot to do with the influence of some outstanding scholars of the post-war era, for in the generation of M. Hoernes, O. Menghin, H. Obermaier and H. Kühn – just to mention some Germans– this separation really did not exist yet. Especially in Germany the study of rock art is rejected by professionals as more or less exotic or even dubious, with scant regard for the possibilities of new cognition about prehistoric cultures and cultural interrelations offered by this kind of source. At best, they are handled with a few, trivial remarks on the religion of our ancestors. In the field of rock art – for the most part still a domain of laypersons – artefacts in turn are at best regarded as a means to identify and date the objects represented. Comparing analyses between pictures and archaeological finds and evidences are rather the rare exception.

It is the intention of our article to raise interest in an underestimated kind of archaeological source and to show by means of a few examples how many information could be gained from it especially for the cultures of the Copper and Bronze Age.The possibilities for cognition considered in this paper apply to different levels, going from the simple study of facts to the understanding of cultural and religious relations. Of course, a critical reader will complain about premature conclusions and comparisons and demand more precise information. This would, however, require to discuss numerous objects and observations on very different material, like grave and hoard finds, pottery decorations, objects of jewellery etc., in its development in space and time. This cannot and will not be done here by obvious reasons.


Reconstruction of the prehistoric reality

When we talk about the typology of prehistoric tools we actually only discuss fragments of fragments. This means: our sources – stone tools, bronzes, pottery fragments from graves, hoards and settlements – provide only a tiny, random excerpt of the richness of a former culture whose value for their users we do not know. And even these testimonies handed down to us are still incomplete. We talk about objects of which only the durable parts were conserved and which have little to do with what people really held in their hands. This means we categorize the durable remains of items that existed once and try to find out what they can tell us about history, social history or religion (Eggert, Veil 1998). Rock art often can provide much more precise information about what they really looked like and about their formal variety because it does not show objects as fragments but in their real appearance. A few examples may illustrate what we mean.


”Crook” (Scimitar) (Figure 1)

A typical example of the fact that rock art can help to recognize and understand nearly lost objects and its distribution are the so-called ”crooks”, a sort of scimitars (sabres) of the Copper Age. Only a single original made of copper has been preserved in Zaerzentmihály (Hungary) (Csalog 1960). However, this weapon must have been widely used and been of great significance in Ancient Europe. The ”God of Szegvár Tüzköves” (Csalog 1959, Idole 1973) shoulders a scimitar – not a sickle as Gimbutas (1974) presumes because the cutting edge of the blade is on the outward side – as a sign of his power. Among the objects of gold jewellery of Varna grave 36 is a miniature which served as a pendant (Varna 1988, fig. 36). While in Central Europe any evidence seems to be missing so far, in Western Europe ”crooks” appear as a central motif in rock art and in portable art although an original, i.e. a usable weapon of this type does not exist there, either. Made of slate, they are a characteristic votive in the megalith tombs of Portugal (e.g. Almagro Gorbea 1973). A number of Breton menhirs bear one or more engraved or carved representations (Shee Twohig 1981, fig. 173 etc.). Thus they qualify the aniconic steles as male warrior statues in the widest sense. The huge back stone of the ”Table-des-Marchands” roughly shaped like a human stele shows a great number of them arranged in bundles(Shee Twohig 1981, fig. 102). They seem to refer to belligerent powers. At the same time, the worship of weapons, and equally of warlords and war gods becomes evident, which dominates the thinking of European peoples even today. ”Crooks” obviously were known throughout Ancient Europe. If they hardly ever appear in the original, this may depend on the burial customs of their time. Another reason may be that they were mostly made of (hard) wood and thus were not conserved. At least in Gran Canaria there still exist some wooden specimens – however old they may be.


Daggers of the Copper and Bronze Age (Figure 2) (Figure 3)

As a rule, early daggers consist of a triangular blade which may be strictly triangular, slightly arched or, more seldom, lanceolate. They have a broad, more or less rectangular handle (e.g.Mont Bégo: Lumley 1995), or a stick-shaped handle with a mushroom-like pommel (e.g. Sion, Valtellina, Valcamonica: Anati 1967, 1968, 1972, Priuli 1985). Occasionally rivets and two-coloured inlays made of different materials are indicated. The representations suggest that the rich decoration of the dagger handles, which are known from Brittany (Gallay 1981) and Wessex (Gerloff 1975), was in fact much more common than is normally assumed and that the actual concentration on a few sites is mainly due to special conditions of conservation. Sometimes the dagger handles are formed extremely like an hour glass so that the upper end can be interpreted as a broad pommel. These types are so similar to the miniature daggers of Central Europe (Gandert 1957, Bcichácek, Moucha 1993) that they can easily be associated with each other. Rock paintings thus provide effortlessly the interpretation of these small object discussed controversially in literature.

As a rule, daggers were depicted without its scabbard. Of course there may have been types of strictly triangular shape, so that a decision about whether the weapon was bare or not would be impossible. However, this was probably rather the exception. In Valcamonica and Valtellina there are representations of daggers which are put so deeply in a scabbard, which is triangular at the lower and rectangular at the upper part, that only the arched pommel or the rivets are visible (e.g. Cemmo 1: Anati 1967, fig. 16). Precisely this type was found in the hoard of Kozí Hrbeti (Neustupny 1961, pl. 45, Böhm 1928, pl. III). Although it may have impeded quick use of the dagger it seems to have been widely used in Europe during the Early Bronze Age.


Halberds (Figure 4)

Excavated halberds consist of a triangular blade made of copper or bronze with a strong rib in the middle, and of a straight handle of wood or, especially in Central Germany, of bronze (ORíordaín 1937, Lenerz-de Wilde 1991). However, the examples of Mont Bégo (Bicknell 1913, Lumley 1995) and Valcamonica (e.g. Luine: Anati 1982, Montecchio: Anati 1976, fig. 82) prove that this was not the only form that existed. There is a great number of types with different blades, handles and forms of hafting that are unknown among archaeological finds.

Halberds are regarded as a key form of Early Bronze Age. However, rock art shows, by its combination with other weapons, that they already existed in the Copper Age. It is highly probable that they can be traced back to Neolithic bone artefacts like those known from the Swiss lake dwellings (Corboud, Pugin 1992). That means the controversial debate about the origin of halberds – Ireland, Central Germany, Italy or Spain – is meaningless, for it only refers to a few mostly late forms. At the same time, rock art proves that halberds were much more widely used than distribution maps pretend (Lenerz-de Wilde 1991). In Valcamonica and at Mont Bégo hundreds of halberds were depicted which figure only marginally in archaeological literature. If all engraved examples of the Iberian Peninsula are taken in consideration then what results is a much more regular spreading than the bronzes suggest. It seems to be mostly unknown that at Oukaimeden in the Atlas mountains (Morocco) there are numerous, very precisely drawn halberds so that this region should not be disregarded (Malhomme 1959-1961, Chenorkian 1988, Züchner 1998, Rodrigue 1999). Metal finds only reflect special customs of depositing but not the prehistoric reality.

The view was taken that halberds did not serve as real arms but rather as a kind of sceptre. One of the reasons may be that they mainly come from hoards and only occasionally from graves. Fact is that daggers, halberds, ground plans of houses, maps etc. are depicted on Mont Bégo, in Valcamonica and in the High Atlas without any difference being noticeable between the individual motifs. On a stele in Arco at Lake Garda (Italy) (Bagolini et al. 1992) halberds are as much part of the warrior´s equipment as are its daggers and other objects.


Shields (Figure 5)

Original shields from the Copper and Early Bronze Age are more or less unknown. However, rock art of Italy and Spain shows a great number which provides an idea of what it looked like. A lot of them can be seen in Luine (Valcamonica) (Anati 1982, figs. 144-146) and in Northern Spain (e.g. Idolo de Peña Tu: Hernández Pacheco et al. 1914, see also: Almagro Basch 1972, Bueno Ramirez 1990, Bueno Ramirez, Balbin Behrmann 1992, Züchner 1998). They are always of the same type. Surprisingly, there are none of them among the thousands of weapons of Mont Bégo, at least if they are not meant by some simple rectangle. The usual form of the shields of these periods seems to have been rectangular, often with a rounded or semicircle-shaped upper edge. Sometimes eyes, eyebrows and a nose give them a human appearance. The shield and the protecting deity merge into one entity so that an identification to be find in the literature as shield as well as idol may well be justified (Züchner 1998).


Settlements and agriculture (Figure 6)

Evidence from excavation and aerial photography normally provides only a limited insight in the structures of settlements and field systems of the Neolithic and the Early Metal Ages. They tell us even less about the elevation of buildings, as usually only ground plans or vague positions of posts have been conserved. Especially in this respect rock art provides information which otherwise would be difficult to obtain.

Topographic representations, which means maps in the broadest sense, are an important element of prehistoric rock art (Züchner 1986/87, 1989, 1994 a, 1996, Arcà 1999). Two main types can be differentiated which replace each other at the turn from the Copper to the Bronze Age. First, there are more or less regular rectangles which are subdivided into smaller parts in different ways. Some are structured simply, others in a very complex way. Apart from single ones, there are also greater entities which are connected with each other. This type belongs mainly to the Copper Age and is common in the Alps area, in Spain and in the Moroccan Atlas mountains. But it can also be found in the megalith tombs of Portugal, Spain and Brittany. In literature this rectangular type is sometimes called ”land registers” (Malhomme 1959-1961, Searight, Hourbette 1992) and looks very similar to the ”Celtic Fields” which still exist in South England (Fleming 1988). They go back to early prehistory and seem to have been the usual form of agriculture in many parts of Neolithic Europe. The fact that this type occurs in megalith constructions of West Europe (Shee Twohig 1981, figs. 37, 38, 93 etc.) and other, chronologically similar context, justifies its dating into the forth and third millennium B.C..

In the course of the Early Bronze Age these grid patterns are replaced by more complex maps in Valcamonica, on Mont Bégo and in Galicia. Now they show very concretely more or less extended farms and villages with their gardens, fields, paths and roads. They provide a very concrete idea of the settlement structures and the land use during the Bronze and Iron Age.


Cultural interrelations (Figure 7)

Rock art can sometimes say more than artefacts do about cultural interrelations covering great distances and about the exchange of goods and ideas (Acosta 1968, Züchner 1985, 1994 b, 1995). In this respect, only two examples will be given.

When comparing the daggers (Chenorkian 1988) of Mont Bégo with those of Valcamonica, it is striking that in both areas totally different handles and pommels are to be observed. The rectangular or approximately hour-glass-shaped form of Mont Bégo which not infrequently is ornamented, point to comparable objects from Western Europe, Brittany and England, but also to the bell beaker daggers of North Spain and to the engravings in Morocco. There are, however, no daggers with a stick-shaped handle and an arched or semi-circle-shaped pommels which may be decorated with rivets. This form occurs in the Upper Italian Remedello Culture, but is mainly distributed in the Eastern Mediterranean. This means the cultural relationships tend much more towards the Near East than to the neighbouring regions in the west and north. Branigan (Branigan 1966) emphasized the relation of the Remedello daggers with those from Crete many years ago. And indeed, in Crete there are some original pommels of the Early Bronze Age which could as well belong to the Remedello daggers (Zervos 1956, figs. 199, 293).

In a similar way halberds testify to relationships covering even those areas where bronze artefacts are rare. Despite the great distance between England, Ireland and Mont Bégo, all the types which Harbison (Harbison 1969) has distinguished in Ireland, are present in the approximately 450 pictures of this sacred mountain. Some of them are so precise and the similarities are so great that the respective types were obviously commonly known, even if apparent lack of finds seems to deny such interrelations over such distances at first. Together with other arguments it becomes obvious that Morocco is closely linked to the Atlantic cultures of the Bronze Age as well, although from this country there exists only very few evidence so that it is neglected by European scholars, as a rule(Züchner 1998).

Numerous other examples of these material and cultural contacts could be mentioned, but this would go to far here. It may be sufficient to draw attention to the manifold interrelations between Atlantic Morocco and Europe revealed by the engravings of High Atlas mountains (Morocco), Spain, France and Italy (Züchner 1998).


Hoard and individual finds (Figure 8)

Since the Copper Age at the latest, precious objects were deposited isolated or in hoards of smaller or bigger size in many parts of Europe; in caves, moors, springs, under rocks and in other remote places. As is known, the reason for this depositing was very controversially discussed. They were interpreted as offerings, as hidden goods of traders or as hideaways in connection with military conflicts. The hoards are too different to just mention one reason for its depositing. Rock art at least can provide arguments important for the understanding of early hoards. In Tyrol, Valcamonica and Valtellina there are steles and stele-like stones (Anati 1968, 1990) of more or less human appearance. On some of them there are sets of weapons whose combination is more or less the same as that one of hoards and grave goods of the same period. Here, the individual weapons and other items - belts, neck rings, ornamental discs, groups of animals and fields - were drawn in one moment. They form an entity and did not accumulate in the course of an unknown space of time. They correspond to equipment of the person depicted, be it an outstanding warrior or a deity. The importance of the person is represented by these objects and can be emphasized by ”multiple equipment” in the same way as there are grave equipments with just a single weapon or a simple set and graves in which the deceased was buried with several specimens of each type of arms. This means that pictures and real objects are two facets of the same custom and the same belief.

There also is a clear connection to the early hoards. Their composition often is similar to that one engraved into steles and stele-stones. Objects can be present once or multiple, according to the importance of the offering person or of the addressee. This shows that depicted and real hoards are offerings backed by a concrete meaning. The same applies to the respective individual finds from extraordinary situations. Depicted and deposited items are the two sides of one custom. They are votives or gifts offered to certain deities at special events, like those at Christian pilgrim churches. The differences are probably more of a local than a content-wise nature and complement one another.



It was the intention of this contribution to draw attention to a rich and widely-spread kind of source which is hardly noticed in prehistoric studies in Central Europe and often even rejected as not serious. It was only possible to mention some selected examples here. But it would cause no difficulties whatsoever to cite numerous other convincing examples in order to show the close connection between the different remains of prehistoric cultures and by this outline a much more colourful picture of past epochs than archaeological artefacts, often so austere, allow.


Selected bibliography

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 by Dr. Christian Züchner - Institute of Prehistory - University Erlangen-Nürnberg Kochstr. 4/18 – D-91054 Erlangen GERMANY

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