Art and Prehistoric Archaeology
Considerations on an underestimated source of information
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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.
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Beiträge zur Allgemeinen und Vergleichenden Archäologie 18,
by Dr. Christian Züchner - Institute
of Prehistory - University Erlangen-Nürnberg Kochstr. 4/18 –
D-91054 Erlangen GERMANY