Saturday, March 23, 2019


Public Domain.

Following the heights (at least the artistic heights) of the Magdalenian culture in Western Europe was the period known as Azilian "in the Franco-Cantabrian region of northern Spain and southern France. It probably dates to the period of - around 14,000 years ago (uncalibrated) and followed the Magdalenian culture. It can be classified as part of the Epipaleolithic or the Mesolithic periods, or both." (Wikipedia)

"Archaeologists think the Azilian represents the tail end of the Magdalenian as the warming climate brought about changes in human behavior in the area. The effects of melting ice sheets would have diminished the food supply and probably impoverished the previously well-fed Magdalenian manufacturers, or at least those who had not followed the herds of horse and reindeer out of the glacial refugium to new territory. As a result, Azilian tools and art were cruder - than their Ice Age predecessors - or simply different." (Wikipedia)

Public Domain.

We, as humans, seem to have a tendency to evaluate any large cultural change as a cultural collapse or loss of civilization, instead of just a change, and the transition from Magdalanean to Azilian has been no exception.
"Diagnostic artifacts from the culture include Azilian points (microliths with rounded retouched backs), crude flat bone harpoons and pebbles with abstract decoration. The latter were first found in the River Arize at the type-site for the culture, the Grotte du Mas d'Azil at Le Mas d'Azil in the French Pyrenees. These are the main type of Azilian art, showing a great reduction in scale and complexity from the Magdalenian Art of the Upper Palaeolithic." (Wikipedia) Up until very recently the major form or category of decorative art we knew of  associated with Azilian sites was large numbers of those painted pebbles.

Science Illustrated,
July-August 2012, p. 10.

"Azilian pebbles carry simple designs colored and/or decorated with paint made from red ochre (iron peroxide), applied from the creator's fingers. Dots, borders and bands of color, zig-zags, ovals and dashes are featured. About 1400 pebles like these were found at Le Mas d'Azil, southwestern France - the painted motifs have been suggested to represent words or numbers, as in writing." (Wikipedia)

Public Domain.

Other suggestions have related to calendrical or mathematical purposes, game pieces, or even just interior decoration (home beautification). I actually find many of them to be quite decorative and I am more disposed to assume the decorative explanation than accept mathematical or calendrical explanations. Perhaps, when a batch of paint had been manufactured for some other purpose, the painted pebbles represented a way to use up what was left1I would think that a lot of these painted pebbles lying around the rock shelter would provide a cheerful atmosphere. We have our bric-a-brac lying around our houses, why wouldn't they?  This has been treated by most authors as cultural impoverishment, but, in the words of cosmologist Martin Rees (as cited by Carl Sagan) "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." (

Now, a new discovery of an Azilian site in France shines a brighter light on this interpretation. "While major changes in stone tool technology between the Magdalenian and Azilian clearly mark important adaptive changes, the discovery of 45 engraved schist tablets from archaeological layers at Le Rocher de l'Impe'ratrice attests to iconographic continuity together with special valorization of aurochs as shown by a "shining" bull depiction. This evidence suggests that some cultural features such as iconography may lag far behind technological changes. We also argue that eventual change in symbolic expression, which includes the later disappearance of figurative art, provides new insight into the probable restructuring of the societies." (Naudinot et al. 2017) But, while the authors of this paper see the continuation of large animal symbolism as iconographic "lag" perhaps this imagery still fitted the spiritual need of the population. Our common religion has lasted for close to 2,000 years without a major change in symbols, perhaps the large animals are symbolic of the Azilian people's beliefs. Indeed, some artists still find creating images of animals to be pertinent and satisfying. If you are doing it right why change it? At least it should prompt a reinterpretation of the cultural and social life and accomplishments of the Azilian people. More on this newly discovered Azilian art next week.

1. Considering the amount of effort that would have been expended manufacturing paint, and the value of high quality red ocher, the remainder not used up for body painting or whatever primary purpose they had, might have been used to put those patterns on pebbles just to avoid wasting it.

NOTE: Some images in this posting were retrieved from the internet with a search for public domain photographs. If any of these images are not intended to be public domain, I apologize, and will happily provide the picture credits if the owner will contact me with them. For further information on these reports you should read the original reports at the sites listed below.


Naudinot, N, Bourdier C, Laforge M, Paris C, Bellot-Gurlet L, Beyries S, et al.
2017 Divergence in the Evolution of Paleolithic Symbolic and Technological Systems: The Shining Bull and Engraved Tablets of Rocher de l'Ime'ratrice, PLoSONE 12(3):e0173037. doi:10.1371/journal. pone.0173037, March 3, 2017.

Friday, March 15, 2019


Rocher de l'Impe'ratrice,
Archaeology Magazine,
March/April 2019, p. 44.

As I wrote in RockArtBlog last week art historians have long considered the Azilian (ca. 14,000 BP) descendants of the great Magdalenian culture in Europe to be culturally deprived and impoverished. The main art form for which they were known were painted pebbles which, while decorative, are unimpressive compared to the beautiful Magdalenian cave paintings that preceded them. All in all they seemed to have lost a lot of ground when evaluated on cultural achievements. Cave art from the preceding periods in Europe left the magnificent animal panels of Lascaux, Chauvette, Altamira, and the other decorated caves. Azilian sites seemed to show no such art.

               Rocher de l'Impe'ratrice,
Archaeology Magazine,
March/April 2019, p. 49.

This picture has, however, changed considerably with the discovery of carved stone plaques in the Azilian layers at the rock shelter of Rocher de l'Impe'ratrice, Rock of the Empress, in France. "Rocher de l'Impe'ratrice" is a small rock-shelter approximately 10 m long, 3 m deep and 2 m high, located near Plougastel-Daoulas at the western extremity of Brittany (France). The shelter is at the foot of a 50 m high quartzite cliff dominating the Brest roadstead. The site sits about 50 m a.s.l on a southern steep slope overlying Brioverian shale bedrock. The steep topography is covered by silty-clayey solifluction deposits rich in shale flags." (Naudinot et al, 2017:3)

           Aurochs plaque (both sides),
            Rocher de l'Impe'ratrice,
Public domain.

"Le Rocher de l'Imper'ratrice has provided 45 decorated stone pieces so far. With one exception, they all appear to be small, thin fragments of former larger slabs. Forty-three are less than 10 cm long, 29 of which are less than 5 cm. Three physical refittings have already been achieved. All the blanks are local shales." (Naudinot et al, 2017:11)

Some of the subjects portrayed on these engraved slabs are monumental animal forms, directly referencing the large painted panels on Magdalenian cave walls, suggesting a continuity of belief.

             Horse plaque (both sides),
              Rocher de l'Impe'ratrice,
Public domain.

This new discovery "provides critical data to investigate the tempo of technological and symbolic change during the Azilian. The association of a lithic industry with a rich artistic assemblage of 45 engraved (and sometimes charcoaled) schist stones suggest a clear arrhythmia between symbolic production and technological adaptations. Here the possible techno-economic adaptations to climatic changes appear to have had no direct influence on the symbolic and perhaps spiritual universe of the first "Azilian" people who perpetuated an age-old tradition." (Naudinot et al, 2017:2)

                Rocher de l'Impe'ratrice,   ,
Public domain 

This should be a reminder to us to be very careful about underestimating so-called "primitive" peoples. Instead of the culturally impoverished people that the Azilians had been portrayed as, we find they were the inheritors of this magnificent tradition that we have long admired. The only lack was our lack of evidence, and now that we have that a whole re-evaluation would seem to be in order.

NOTE: Some images in this posting were retrieved from the internet with a search for public domain photographs. If any of these images are not intended to be public domain, I apologize, and will happily provide the picture credits if the owner will contact me with them. For further information on this report I direct you to the original report at the site listed below.


Naudinot, N, Bourdier C, Laforge M, Paris C, Bellot-Gurlet L, Beyries S, et al.
2017 Divergence in the Evolution of Paleolithic Symbolic and Technological Systems: The Shining Bull and Engraved Tablets of Rocher de l'Impe'ratrice, PLoSONE 12(3):e0173037. doi:10.1371/journal. pone.0173037, March 3, 2017.

Saturday, March 9, 2019


Supposed Ute map,
engraved in wood,
with explanation.

Supposed Ute map,
left side,
with explanation

Supposed Ute map,
right side,
with explanation.

I have been writing recently on the phenomenon known as Apophenia - the "human tendency to seek patterns in random information." (Wikipedia) This is manifested in pareidolia (recognizing ponies in the clouds, for instance), and also by fascination with mimetoliths (items that naturally look like something else - mimic them).

Identified as a Map of Stratton
Open Space and Drainage.

Well, it turns out that there are plenty of people who experience that, whose facility for seeing artifacts in natural objects is considerably more sensitive than mine (or they are just a lot better at fooling themselves). I was recently sent a number of photos of pieces of pine branches showing insect boring patterns that the discoverer is certain represent maps created by Ute Indians. He has even been able to identify the area they portray, now a neighborhood in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Now, to me, they represent prime examples of Apophenia/Pareidolia, and even could be classified as Mimetoliths (mimicking actual maps), but the discoverer appears completely convinced by what he has found. Indeed, he apparently agrees that most pieces of wood that can be found with these markings are merely insect tracks, but he believes he can tell a difference and recognize the few examples that he has collected as "the real thing."

Map of Stratton Open Space,
Parks Department, City of
Colorado Springs, CO.

I think of this situation as paralleling the rock art/ogam controversy. I know those marks are not ogam, but I cannot convince the proponents - indeed, I have no way of proving it to them. This is the power of Apophenia, it is psychologically ingrained deeply into our makeup. Once, our ancestors were on the lookout for predators in the underbrush who could be recognized by the shape of a lion's ear through a break in the foliage, the contour of the side of a jaguar's head in a shadow, this is instinctive and was basic to our very survival. Our subconscious does this all the time, it is primal and not under our conscious rational control. Whereas scientific facts are merely new ideas on the surface that we trade between ourselves, nowhere near as powerful in our overall conscious-subconscious makeup.

So, I do not expect to be able to convince the discoverer of what I recognize as the truth - insect chewed wood. That would be merely boring fact. He has the power of belief on his side, and he knows down to his soul that he has made this important, historically significant discovery. He is, of course, wrong, but I almost envy him the strength of his belief. (Although I suspect that with a microscope we could detect the actual bite marks of the larvae that tunneled through the wood.)

This also represents the ideal time to introduce another term sometimes applied in this field - a Manuport. "In archaeology and anthropology, a manuport is a natural object which has been moved from its original context by human agency but otherwise remains unmodified." (Wikipedia) These pieces of tree limb are manuports because they interested their collector enough to pick them up and take them back to his residence. Mimetoliths that are seen to be interesting enough often become Manuports. In this case - you be the judge.

NOTEFor these particular objects I cannot use the term mimetolith (which basically translates as rock that mimics) because they are not rocks. Perhaps we can call them mimetoports to indicate that they are mimics that were collected by a human and transported. 

Also: I am purposely withholding the name of this individual to preserve his privacy. If he wants me to release it he can e-mail me and I will pass it along.


Saturday, March 2, 2019


The mountainous face on Mars
in the most favorable light.
Public domain.

One phenomenon that we have to keep in mind when discussing meaning or intention in rock art is pareidolia. "Pareidolia is a psychological phenomenon in which the mind responds to a stimulus, usually an image or a sound, by perceiving a familiar pattern where none exists. Common examples are perceived images of animals, faces, or objects in cloud formations, the Man in the Moon, the Moon rabbit, hidden messages in recorded music played in reverse or at high- or lower-than-normal speeds, and hearing indistinct voices in random noise such as that produced by air conditioners or fans." (Wikipedia)

The so-called face on Mars
under the more normal lighting
conditions. Public domain.

The moon rabbit
(dark areas). Public domain.

One example of pareidolia that recently received considerable attention among fringies was the so-called face on Mars, a rock formation that under certain lighting conditions resembles a human face, but under other lighting conditions can be seen to be just a mountain (of course that did not stop the fringies from adopting it as proof of alien civilization).

"Los toros," The bulls of Altamira,
Spain. Public domain.

I can think of a couple of excellent examples of pareidolia in classic rock art. The first (literally the first discovered) is the bulls of Altamira. Even back in the 1960s in the very small unit on Cave Painting and Paleolithic art in Gardner's Art Through The Ages we were told that the bulls were on the cave ceiling because natural rounded projections from the rock reminded the painter(s) of their shape, and they were painted to fit those contours and shapes.

Spotted horses, Pech-Merle, France.
Note: the horse's head fits shape of
rock wall on the right. Public domain.

The second example of pareidolia in cave painting that comes to mind is the Spotted Horse in Pech-Merle, where the horses head and placement were suggested by the shape of a rock projection on a corner of the cave wall. In both of these instances a form recognized in the shape of the rock suggested the content of the painting - pareidolia.

Robert Bednarik gave a number of examples of pareidolia in rock art in an excellent paper in 2016 (see below). Do yourself a favor and read it. What examples can you think of?

NOTE: Some images in this posting were retrieved from the internet with a search for public domain photographs. If any of these images are not intended to be public domain, I apologize, and will happily provide the picture credits if the owner will contact me with them. For further information on these reports you should read the original reports at the sites listed below.


Bednarik, Robert G.
2016 Rock Art and Pareidolia, Rock Art Research, Vol. 33, No. 2, pp. 167-181.