Skip to main navigationSkip to main content
The University of Southampton
TAG 2016 Southampton

S27. Unvisualising Rock and Cave Art

Session organizer:

Steve Dickinson (member of the The Prehistoric Society,

Session abstract:

Communication through visualisation is routinely seen (sic.) as key to any effective grip on meaning. This session aims to turn this idea on its head. Rather than seeking meaning in rock art imagery it-self, the overarching aims of the session are to explore the sensory, tactile, material and sensual contexts of the production and experience of rock art in outdoor, monumental, cave and rock shelter locations.

Specific session aims include exploring:

  • The acoustic properties of rock art contexts.
  • The material situations of rock art, including examining tactile and sensory experiences surround-ing and including the art.
  • Visual recognition, perception and cognition of rock art locations and how these might have af-fected, and effected, comprehension of the art.

Paper topics might, for example, include:

  • Consideration of monument, cave, rock shelter and outdoor art location acoustic effects on art comprehension.
  • Exploring specific rock art contexts, with particular emphasis on experiencing the effects of dif-ferent contexts; such as stone surfaces, water and weather.
  • Exploring general landscape, monument or cave/shelter contexts that might have affected or ef-fected comprehension of rock art. These might, for example, include exploring: (1), specific visual fields and/or viewpoints, (2), approaches to the art that involve sensual (audito-ry/visual/tactile/other) stimulation.
  • Inferences or evidence of prehistoric animal activities or movements that might have affected or effected comprehension of the art.

    Contibutor Abstracts:

    The Body in the Cave: A sensory exploration of caves

    Dr Julian Jansen van Rensburg (Dahlem Research School POINT Fellow, Freie Universität Berlin)

    Caves are powerful multi-sensory environments that have been socially, culturally and spiritually appropriated by humans over several thousand millennia. When attempting to understand the appropriation of space within caves there is, however, a tendency to divorce the production and placement of rock art from their sensory context. After all, the senses do not leave vestiges that are readily accessible. Nevertheless, if we are to begin to understand this space we need to undertake a more holistic view, one that allows us to combine the full range of our senses to fully articulate the profound experiences of the sacred spaces within caves. Indeed, when we consider the range of sensory experiences that are involved in the manifestation of sacred spaces such as churches, where bells are heard, incense is smelt and saints are touched, it would certainly appear that non-visual cues are an essential part of sacredness of space. Accordingly, in this paper I aim to analyse the profound sensory experiences related to entering, being in, and departing from caves to explore the potential of the interface between the placement of paintings and the phenomenology of caves and reveal aspects of the ontological backdrop for this ritual practice.

    Stonehenge Reloaded: Rock art and the monumentalising of the sacred in Neolithic Britain and Ireland

    Steve Dickinson (Independent Researcher, Member, The Prehistoric Society)

    Discoveries of abstract rock art in the valleys of the Lake District, Cumbria, UK, have provided new perspectives on the area’s montane early Neolithic stone axe blade production sites. Blades from these were widely distributed across Neolithic Britain and Ireland. Recently, rock art was found in Upper Eskdale in Cumbria. This was found associated with cairns and megaliths at the focus of a dramatic mountain sanctuary. These discoveries can be set alongside others from Orkney to the Boyne that indicate the builders of major stone monuments in Neolithic Britain and Ireland c.3800-2500 cal BC were drawing upon concepts of legendary sacred landscapes; in the design of their monuments, the reiteration of cycles of memory, remembrance and performance, and in the acknowledgement of the power of the sources of their stone axe blades. This paper explores the implications of this in the stone contexts of two of the best-known Neolithic monuments in Britain; Avebury and Stonehenge. Implications for the understanding of Stonehenge are explored in the context of a modelled animate world where legendary beings and animals coexisted in connection with solar and lunar events, and where the materiality of stone was transitioned into power across the Neolithic of Britain and Ireland.

    Are we not seeing the whole picture in Rock and Cave Art?

    Sandra Claggett (Birkbeck, University of London)

    The combination of the audio visual and societal in relation to rock art both in caves and open sites complement each other and in our quest to understand our past it is important to consider all aspects. I aim to show that there is a bigger picture than just the material culture of the art itself and that it could have a larger significance to our understanding of our ancestors in the past. 

    In this session I will be looking at the position of the art within its location in both the audio and visual aspects. The use of natural phenomena to produce sound and human made musical instruments. I will also consider the use of light to illuminate the art itself and create the idea of motion. Was the Art used as a performance vehicle to bring people together from within the group or wider groups for survival or exchange of mates? Was it to demonstrate a connection with ancestors who used the site and try to receive aid from them? Was it to lay a claim to the land around or maintain that claim? 

    Finally I will consider whether these areas could have been used as gathering and possible performance areas to forming and maintaining cultural identity and bonds.

Privacy Settings