Rock Art Ramblings… away from home!

Ireland? No - it's Rock Art in Italy

Ireland? No – it’s Rock Art in Italy

At our talk in Ballydehob yesterday I mentioned briefly the world-wide context of Rock Art: this generated a lot of interest during and after the event so I thought it worthwhile to write a post about non-Irish Rock Art. portugal stamp The carvings in Ireland appear to be part of a cultural phenomenon that runs down the Atlantic coast – from Scandinavia to Iberia – taking in Ireland and Britain on its way. However, Rock Art is widespread across the world, and over the whole time spectrum of human occupation of land. There is a UNESCO World Heritage site in Portugal – the Côa Valley Archaeological Park – which is based on finds of Rock Art. When the project was opened in 1996 its Director stated: “…The Upper Paleolithic art of the Côa Valley is an exceptional illustration of the sudden development of creative genius at the dawn of human cultural development…” That’s quite an announcement! The Park is home to some 25,000 carvings created at various periods over the last 10,000 years. Some of it is visually similar to our own Neolithic / Bronze Age examples (which were probably made within the last five Millennia) but other earlier examples seem – surprisingly – more sophisticated: mainly very beautiful representations of animals.

Canary Island example

Canary Island example

Where do we find the oldest Rock Art? Possibly in India: the Bhimbetka Caves show evidence of human habitation dating back more than half a million years, and in one particular site – known as the Auditorium Cave – carved cupmarks were found under human debris deposits that could be dated to at least 290,000 years ago. This means that the cupmarks must be as old as that date. Some scientists claim that they could be twice this age. Those cupmarks are exactly the same as the ones we have in Europe – and when found they contained traces of red pigments, suggesting that the carvings might have been painted.

India – Norway – Africa – Europe – the Americas – Australia… Ancient rock carving has been found in all continents of the world excluding Antarctica. It’s not all the same as Irish prehistoric Rock Art – where the simple motifs are familiar to regular readers of this blog – but cupmarks do seem to predominate as a common occurrence, and are usually apparently carved in the same way wherever you find them: shallow circular indentations are picked out using one hard stone tool striking another.

What does it all mean? Finola did a good job of sidelining that question during yesterday’s talk but came up with some plausible pointers: it is, of course, impossible to be certain when we are so out of touch with the peoples who produced the marks. We should also be careful of making any assumptions based on our own cultural ways of thinking. An archaeologist (Mountford) witnessed cupmarks being carved in central Australia in the 1940s: he reports that these were made as an increase ritual for the Pink Cockatoo (Kakatoe leadbeateri). The particular rock the cupmarks were hammered into was thought to contain the life essence of these birds, so the mineral dust rising from the activity was believed to fertilise the female cockatoos and thus increase their production of eggs, which the Aborigines valued as food.

I have mentioned before the cupmarks which are found carved into the lava stone in Hawaii’s Volcanoe National Park: it’s worth noting again that they are very similar to those we find in Ireland and Britain – even to the extent of having concentric rings around some of them. Hawaian families who go a long way back will tell you that they are made to receive the umbilical cords of newly born babies – to ensure health, long life and fertility. The carvings are known as ‘Puka’.

Rock Art is fascinating. I want everyone to be excited by it. It’s a ‘poor relation’ archaeologically speaking: it’s very easy to miss. It’s also an ‘endangered species’: in Ireland, some examples which have been recorded in the past can no longer be found. Perhaps our exhibition and talk will at least have raised awareness.