Friday, May 8, 2009


Back around 1980 when I first began studying Native American rock art interested students in archaeological study programs were forbidden from trying to figure out the "meaning" or content of rock art. The dogma of the time was that there were just too many variables and that looking for meaning would be a waste of time, or worse, could provide misleading or inaccurate results. Coming from a background of art history, however, I was used to the idea of trying to understand a work of art, and used to applying a number of criteria in the process of analysis.

The first criterion would be that we are all human, and that there are very many things that we have in common, irrespective of cultural differences. These commonalities give us an innate ability to understand the thoughts and feelings of others, sort of an application of empathy, as it were.

The second criterion is that we do have considerable knowledge of many cultures through ethnography, archaeology, mythology and history, and that this knowledge contains many of the clues necessary to approach some understanding of the meaning of a work of art. If we have ethnographic records of the mythology of a culture, and if the images at a rock art site display symbols that seem to refer to that mythology, then an attempt to understand those images by applying our knowledge of the mythology only makes sense.

The third approach to understanding a work of art is a concept that I formulated back in the 1970s, that of Implied Content vs. Inherent Content. Implied content being the intended meaning of a symbol or work of art. The message that the original artist was trying to convey, or the interpretation given to that symbol or work of art by later viewers. Inherent content is, on the other hand, the knowledge that can be extracted from the basic physical attributes of the symbol or work of art. Factual information about its location and orientation, materials, size, and other quantifiable data that can be derived by studying the image itself.

Inherent content could be found in the materials used to produce the image. If it is a painted image (pictograph) you can analyze the materials in the paint and make judgements about the artist's knowledge of the resources in his area, you can also make estimates of the amount of work required to produce the amount of paint used. By combining the figures for the amount of work required to produce the materials for that size image with an estimate for the amount of work required to actually produce the image, we can get an estimate for the total effort invested and thus, make guesses as to the depth of motivation for the effort. Similar estimates may be made for petroglyphs with measurement of the hardness of the rock and the amount of rock removed by pecking or incising the image. For this we need to assume that the originator would have been willing to go to a lot more trouble and work to create an image for an "important" reason (spiritual, etc.) than for a trivial one (doodling).

Various estimates on the amount of material removed can be hazarded by careful measurements, including depth measurements. A contour gauge can provide readings on depth, width, and shape of the groove in the rock. Hardness of rock can be easily determined by using a set of Moh's Hardness points, available at scientific supply stores. A simple mathematical action involving the figures for hardness and amount give a figure that we can relate to that motivation. Other inherent content might relate to microscopic examination which could tell us information about tool materials and use.

This is all to point out that there is much that we can learn from rock art without any clues at all to its content, and if we can apply ethnographic knowledge of its creators to the analysis we can often learn a surprising amount about its "content" as well. We just might be smarter than we think we are.

No comments:

Post a Comment