Bangkok, 18 June 2016
As readers of this blog cannot have failed to notice, I’m a bit of a history buff. I suppose it runs in the family. My father had an extensive collection of history books, which as I grew up I filched for a quiet read in bed, and my elder brother actually teaches the subject.
As perhaps we all do, my interest in history started with the grand events, the Kings, the Queens, the battles. But with age, I became more interested in the history of the voiceless: the poorer segments of society, the goods and chattel which we humans have enslaved and used for our own material comforts, and – the topic of this post – our forefathers from the time when there were no written records: pre-history. Precisely because they have no written history, the latter can only talk to us through the material remains they have left behind, and through the chemical and biological tracers they have scattered about, from our genetic codes to such mundane things as pollen records. This post is about a particular material remain left to us by the voiceless, rock art.
My first meeting nearly half a century ago with this art form was not very propitious. They were rock paintings, in the middle of Lake of the Woods, on the US-Canadian border, where I was spending a week canoeing. They were painted on a small overhang on the water’s edge of one of the many small islands that dot the lake, so that we could bring the canoe alongside to study them. They looked something like this.
If I’m to be honest, I didn’t think much of them. They were pretty crude drawings, and awfully faded. I was far more excited by the very old man we met on another island, who told us that he remembered as a child being hurriedly bundled off into a hiding place because the local Indians had gone on the warpath. Wow! Indians on the warpath! To a boy of 15, that was something to talk about, not those crude, faded rock paintings.
At about the same time as I was gazing with a certain skepticism at the rock paintings on Lake of the Woods, I came across my first rock engraving. It was the White Horse, carved in the mid-19th Century into the escarpment of the Yorkshire Moors near my high school.
I have to say, though, that I was more taken by the gliders soaring silently on the updrafts created by the escarpment than the White Horse carved into it.
Well, time passed, I grew up, and I became wiser (I hope). My growing fascination with pre-history meant that I became more interested in rock art. Not that I saw that much rock art in the flesh, as it were. For instance, I have never managed to see the rock engravings in Valcamonica up in the Alps, not that far from my wife’s home town of Milan, even though it was one of the first places to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
On the other hand, when my wife and I visited Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona early on in our marriage
we came across some rock engravings among the old American Indian pueblos.
I may not have been seeing much rock art, but I was reading up on whatever new finds were being made. For instance, new caves were being found in France and Spain with art from the Paleolithic era, adding to what was already known. I give here just a few examples from some of the better-known caves:
Now this is really art! Visiting these caves is on my retirement bucket list – if we can manage to get in. Many of them are closed, or access to them is severely restricted, to protect the paintings. Forget the problem of stray fingers touching where they shouldn’t. Even our innocent breath deteriorates the artwork.
Several of the articles I read were about rock art in Australia. For instance, there was much excitement several years ago when it was announced that some rock art in the Northern Territories had been dated to 28,000 years ago, which made it Australia’s oldest dated rock art, and some of the earliest in the world.
Then there were articles a few years before that about the fascinating rock art in Kakadu National Park, also in the Northern Territories, which goes from the ancient
All this meant that I approached the rock art which we visited on our recent tour of the Kimberley with a lively interest. We found ourselves confronted with two quite different styles of painting. The more recent, Wandjina art, is dominated by these alien-like faces.
To my mind, these paintings were only mildly interesting. Of much greater interest was the considerably older Gwion Gwion art, which is peopled with stencil-like figures like these.
In contrast to many of the representations of people in rock art, where they tend to be reduced to mere stick figures, Gwion Gwion art shows them dressed and coiffed. I don’t think it’s too fanciful to say that one can get an idea of what the painters of this art might have looked like if we had met them.
There are very recent articles reporting scientific analyses which suggest that these paintings could be 50,000 years old. This very much favors the theory which I mentioned in my previous post, the author of which argues not only that African peoples sailed to the Kimberley and brought the baobab tree with them but also that they were the authors of the Gwion Gwion art. He claims similarities between this art and the rock art of the Sandawe people, hunter-gatherers from Tanzania.
Personally, I’m not convinced. But hey, I’m no expert. In any event, reporting this claim has allowed me to segue smoothly to Africa, a major storehouse of rock art. And here I will leave my readers with some remarkable rock art from the Sahara, once a green and verdant land full of game and peopled by the humans who hunted them and who recorded their lives on the rock.
Lake of the Woods rock painting: http://www.panoramio.com/m/photo/8653359
White Horse, Kilburn: http://www.jdw-fitness.co.uk/ben-campbell-5k-10k-trail-races/
Rock engraving Valcamonica: http://www.italia.it/it/idee-di-viaggio/siti-unesco/valcamonica-larte-rupestre.html
Rock engraving Valcamonica: http://www.invasionealiena.com/misteri/articoli-misteri/963-arte-rupestre-delle-alpi-la-valcamonica.html
Canyon de Chelly: http://www.thousandwonders.net/Canyon+de+Chelly+National+Monument
Canyon de Chelly pictographs: http://www.inn-california.com/arizona/apacheC/canyondechelly/rockart.html
Cave wall, Lascaux: https://www.reddit.com/r/Showerthoughts/comments/2xfe1z/what_if_cave_drawings_are_done_by_cavechildren/
Hunters, Lascaux: https://hartogsohn.com/category/טכנופוביה/
Bisons, Altamira: https://www.pinterest.com/gfrilli/prehistoric-art-altamira/
Horses, Chauvet: http://popular-archaeology.com/issue/september-2011/article/prehistoric-cave-paintings-of-horses-were-spot-on-say-scientists
Bears, Chauvet: http://www.ancient-wisdom.com/francechauvet.htm
Rhinoceros, Chauvet: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/10920920/French-cave-paintings-inscribed-on-Unesco-World-Heritage-list.html
Reindeer, Font-de-Gaume: http://artdiscovery.info/rotations/rotation-1/packet-1/
Nawarla Gabarnmang: http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2012/06/24/spe31.asp
Kakadu woman: http://fr.123rf.com/photo_10231459_aboriginal-rock-art-namondjok-at-nourlangie-kakadu-national-park-northern-territory-australia.html
Kakadu kangaroo: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/521502831831829461/
Kakadu boat: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/10/photogalleries/australia-aboriginal-art-photos/photo4.html
Wandjina art: https://www.pinterest.com/rosadevaux/wandjina/
Gwion Gwion 1: our photo
Gwion Gwion 2: http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/bradshaws/bradshaw_paintings.php
Gwion Gwion 3: http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/bradshaws/photographs/
Sandawe rock art: http://africanrockart.org
Giraffe, Dabous, Algeria: http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/giraffe/
Cattle, Djanet, Algeria: http://africanrockart.org/rock-art-gallery/algeria/
Antelope, Oued Dider, Algeria: http://africanrockart.org/rock-art-gallery/algeria/
Man and dog, Djanet, Algeria: http://africanrockart.org/rock-art-gallery/algeria/
Archer, Oued Djaret, Algeria: http://africanrockart.org/rock-art-gallery/algeria/