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Art Rocks!

Por: | 11 de julio de 2013

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Art history is helping to date ancient rock art.

Paintings and engravings made by our forebears have been discovered in places all around the world, such as in France, Spain, the Sahara, Australia, and California. Each drawing tells a story; for instance, about the person who drew it, about the animal that is represented, or about the climate or the environment of its time.

A few years ago, during a trip to the Monte Castillo caves in Spain organised by the University of Brussels, I had the opportunity to see real rock art for the first time. Fascinated by the detail of their making, I chose them as the subject for my master’s thesis. Currently, as a doctoral candidate, I am elaborating on this topic further by studying the engravings of north eastern Luxemburg. By defining the age of rock paintings, we are able to illustrate the life of prehistoric peoples a little more and acquire a better understanding of our origins. However, dating rock art has been a struggle for archaeologists ever since the first discoveries in the late 19th century.

When it comes to dating ancient material, we use two methods – absolute (direct) and relative (indirect) chronology. Absolute chronology, such as carbon dating, is performed in a laboratory and gives an exact age up to approximately 50,000 BC. Carbon dating involves measuring the amount of the carbon isotope C14 in the organic matter of a sample. This isotope is a radioactive variation of the atom C12 and is absorbed by every living thing. The incorporation ceases with the creature’s death, at which point the stored isotopes start to decay. Their quantity halves every 5,700 years. Artefacts’ age can be determined by measuring the amount of this isotope left: the less there is, the older the sample is.

However, only organic matter can be dated directly using carbon isotope decay; mineral pigments and engravings, such as most cave paintings, cannot. In order to date such specimens, archaeologists have looked for methods in other disciplines, in particular art history, which works with indirect tools such as attributing a figure to a specific artist and evaluating the style of a painting to generate a relative timeline based on comparison of multiple works of art.

Many archaeologists have tried to create an artificial timeline for rock art using assessments of style similar to those applied by art historians. The method consists of grouping paintings on the basis of their stylistic components. We select specific criteria that are the same in a selection of pictures. The criteria are then used to create an artificial set that can be used as a “base sample” against which to compare other paintings. The chosen criteria can be details like the absence of paws, features like eyes or fur, the redouble of certain strokes, or the blank spaces between two anatomical segments. Then when dateable paintings are found, their components can be matched with those in the stylist groups of paintings and a whole swathe of disparate paintings can be dated.

Most archaeologists hesitate to use this approach as a regular tool. Only a few, like the archaeologist and specialist in the subject of style Emmanuel Guy, are working on this topic. He was among the first researchers to test the art history method in the field of prehistory. I made some minor adjustments to his method (mainly in the choice of the selected criteria) for the work in Monte Castillo and in Luxemburg. At first, I limited my research to the Stone Age (2,600,000-9,000 BC), although the style method, with properly adapted criteria, can be applied to any kind of art.

The paintings in the four Monte Castillo caves in Spain cannot be dated accurately using C14 because most of the paintings were made with mineral pigments. C14 dating was attempted in the Las Chimenas Cave, which estimated that the paintings were made roughly between 13,900 and 15,000 BC. However, a recent study showed that the dating of these paintings is inaccurate because they also have sampled an insufficient amount of organic matter, so the stylistic approach was used.

The predominant animal in the Las Chimeneas cave is the deer, and although the theme of all the figures is the same, the animals were drawn in two different styles: a geometrical, rougher way and a curvy, smoother one. This means that prehistoric people came into the cave twice to draw, because they represented the deer in two totally different ways. By using this approach, we have been able to update the research for the Monte Castillo, for which the only book was published in 1912.

Style has become an important asset to our research for when pure science cannot provide us with the information we need to date cave paintings. Studying rock art is important in order to provide usable data to other researchers, to protect these fragile artefacts and especially to create a timeline for the rock art phenomenon all over the world.


Conny Reichling
Université Libre de Bruxelles

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