Saturday, October 3, 2015


Scratches on a stone plaque
Gonnersdorf, Germany. From
Bahn and Vertut, 1997.

"A palimpsest is a manuscript page from a scroll or book that has been scraped off and used again. The word "palimpsest" comes through Latin from Greek  παλιν + ψαω = (palin "again" + psao "I scrape"), and meant "scraped (clean and used) again." Romans wrote on wax-coated tablets that could be smoothed and reused, and a passing use of the term "palimpsest" by Cicero seems to refer to this practice. - -  The term has come to be used in similar context in a variety of disciplines, notably architectural archaeology." (Wikipedia)

In art cases the term palimpsest is usually used to describe a composition with traces of previous work (or pentimenti) showing through. In rock art or cave art it would most often refer to trying to pick a recognizable image out of a mass of marks (scratches or lines). Some early recorders picked out whatever image they could decipher and often only recorded the lines of that image, ignoring all the other markings.

Paul Bahn explained the modern attitude toward such recording in his 1997 book Journey Through The Ice Age:

"Deciphering or copying images on a cave wall is rather like an excavation, except that the 'site' is not destroyed in the process; the pictures are 'artifacts' as well as art and, if superimposed, they even have a stratigraphy. Moreover, instead of selecting and completing animal figures from the mass of marks, like early archaeologists seeking, keeping and publishing only the belles pieces and ignoring the 'waste flakes', the aim for the last thirty years has been to copy everything. This helps to reduce psychological effects akin to identifying shapes in clouds or ink-blots: faced with a mass of digital flutings or engraved lines, the mind tends to find what it wants to find, in accordance with its preconceptions, and often detects figurative images which ae really not there. In addition, one needs to counteract the psychological effect whereby the eye is drawn to the deeper lines (although these may have been of secondary importance) and to lines in concave areas which are generally better preserved than those on convex areas which are more exposed to wear and rubbing.

To eliminate lines we do not understand is an insult to the artist, who did not put them there for nothing; where there are so many lines that it is difficult to 'isolate' anything, however, it is still necessary to 'pull out' any definite figures which exist hidden in the complex mass (this is also far less strain on the eyes), though one should still try to publish the mass, leaving the reader free to make a different choice. In his herculean twenty-five year study of the 1512 slabs from La Marche with their terrible confusion of engraved lines, Leon Pales isolated and published only those figures which his expert knowledge of human and animal anatomy revealed to his eye: but he estimated that only one line in 1000 has been deciphered on these stones. Unfortunately, there are very few scholars with similar skills in deciphering and reproducing Palaeolithic engravings." (Bahn 1997:55)

Horse image from plaque, Gonnersdorf,
Germany. From Bahn and Vertut, 1997.

In his book he illustrated a detailed tracing of an engraved stone plaque (20 cm. by 18 cm.) from Gonnersdorf, Germany, and then a horse figure extracted from the mass of lines.

Horse on plaque, Gonnersdorf,
Germany. From Bahn and
Vertut, 1997.

One can search such a mass in the attempt to identify additional images as I have attempted to do. In my short examination of the detailed drawing I located a possible lion head in profile immediately behind the head of the horse. The lines are certainly there, but the question is was that actually intended to be a lion by the original creator, or is it merely a figment of my imagination. How many other figures can you find?

Horse and possible lion. Gonnersdorf,
Germany. From Bahn and Vertut, 1997.


Bahn, Paul G., and Jean Vertut,
1997    Journey Through the Ice Age, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles.


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