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At the Edge / Bob Trubshaw /

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Issue 8

December 1997


  • Bob Trubshaw


    World-wide it is estimated that there are at least 150 major areas of rock art - where a major area is defined as having over 10,000 motifs in a area of less than 1,000 sq. km. Examples of rock art can be dated to different eras spanning at least 40,000 years. Yet this wealth has been all-but ignored by academics - the apparently healthy activity in rock art research is almost entirely by ‘avocational’ researchers.

    The decorative motifs and symbols used in rock art are often ambiguous or abstract. ‘Rock art’ is an unfortunate term and some prefer to use such terms as ‘petroglyphs’ to avoid any implication that we are studying something that is primarily aesthetic. Furthermore, the term ‘rock art’ has at least two different meanings. For some people it means motifs carved or scratched into the rock surface. For others it also embraces images painted on to rock surfaces (invariably within caves or ‘rock shelters’ if they are to survive the first rain storm). Recently in America, motifs associated with the local carved rock art have been also been found preserved on the mud-covered walls of remote caves - leading to the neologism ‘mud glyphs’. In this article I will use the term ‘rock art’ as an all-embracing term - in Europe this mostly means carved stones, whereas in Africa and the Americas painted images predominate.

  • Stan Beckensall

    Prehistoric Rock Art - Progress and Problems

    Recent research has established that rock art appears within the landscape in marginal areas which would have been of more vital use to pastoralists and hunters than to agriculturalists. It is almost always on sedimentary rocks, either outcrop or earthfast. Most is situated at viewpoints overlooking fertile valleys. Although it can be at the highest point in the locality, it does not have to be so in order to command wide views.

    Few of the marked rocks can be seen from a distance, and people must have known where the rocks were in order to view them. In some cases, such as the Brimham Rocks, Broomridge and Dod Law, there are prominent natural landscape features such as cliffs or dramatically-eroded outcrops that create an unusual focal point. Even so, most motifs are on near-horizontal surfaces and would soon become obscured by vegetation. Many marked surfaces are less than a metre in size. The motifs make use of the shape of and irregularities in the rocks, so that motifs and rocks blend into the landscape of the high moorland sympathetically.

  • Bob Trubshaw

    Many levels of significance

    Richard Bradley is Professor of Archaeology at the University of Reading and is highly respected for his original approach to both the social prehistory of Britain and, with Altering the Earth, to the study of megalith monuments as parts of the landscape. His ability to synthesise the research of other archaeologists into innovative and wide-ranging interpretations is rare. The ability to do so and present the results in a readable style is unique.

    Does his latest book, Rock Art and the Prehistory of Atlantic Europe, live up to this reputation? Yes; indeed, and exceeds expectations. By attempting to integrate rock art studies into wider issues in prehistoric archaeology, Bradley brings new interpretations to both the rock art itself and to the wider issues of prehistory and, as a result, reassesses the fundamentals of approaches to landscape archaeology.

  • Jeremy Harte

    Narrow Road to the Deep North

    Imagine the scene. Over the swelling waves a Viking longship lurches home, heavy with plunder from a raid. Crouched by the tiller, a bearded warrior spins out the lonely watch telling the crew tales of a yet more daring journey - the ride of a hero-image through darkness to the realm of the dead. ‘That’s funny’, pipes up a Celtic monk lying bound in the corner, ‘a mate of mine saw just the same thing when he was given up for dead’. ‘Never!’, chorus the Norsemen, ‘do tell us more about it . . .’

    Well, I admit it doesn’t sound very likely. But how else can we explain how the hell-ride of Scandinavian legend comes to share so many features with the otherworld visions of mediaeval Christianity? The pagan skalds had a very clear idea of the road to the land of the dead. Hermodr’s ride to seek Baldur involves a long journey northward through dark valleys, the crossing of the golden Gjallar bridge, and a leap over a great wall separating the world of the dead from the living (Sturluson 1954 [c1223]: 83). Many other stories ring the changes on the journey through danger and the dark; Hading goes through mist and darkness, crosses a river full of weapons, and comes to a wall too high to be leapt over. In the eerie journey of Thorkill through a land of eternal darkness, we again encounter a river crossed by a bridge of gold, and the journey ends at the walled stronghold of the demonic dead and their lord Geirrodr (Ellis 1943: 172).

    If you're wondering what this has to do with rock art, Jeremy Harte goes on to question the assumption that the 'tunnel vision' associated with some trance states have a shared 'neurophysiological template'.

  • Valtars Grivins

    Latvian Rock Art

    At the end of August 1986, Latvian naturalist Guntis Enins was breaking through thick bushes and wind-fallen wood, which had made the glacial valley of the River Brasla almost impassable. He made his way to the last previously-unobserved rock face in the canyon, hoping to find a new cave or other interesting natural feature. What he actually found was something much more exclusive, and opened a new page in the cultural history of Latvia.

    In the newspaper Rigas Balss (9th March 1995) Enins wrote about his impressions of that time: ‘At one moment I even endeavoured to move like a monkey through and over bushes. Then I noticed a little lighter place in front of myself and after just a few minutes I was standing at a small, almost white, rock. I stared at this like some bewitched character in our folk-tales. My assistants were all stuck somewhere back in Brasla’s “jungles”, so quite alone I looked at this rock, out of which deeply engraved but incomprehensible signs, similar to old hieroglyphical writing, stared at me.’

  • Graeme Chappell

    Rock Art and Folklore<

    'But to return to the spot from which I have been looking at the cup marks at my feet, I am struck by the extreme scarcity of any real tradition regarding them. Only once do I remember hearing anything genuine. There had been a good deal of illness in some miserable old houses where I was visiting, and in speaking to an old man about it, I expressed my wonder that the people did not remove some boulders which obstructed the light out of the small windows, and the drainage about the doors; and added, that it could easily be done and would make the houses more healthy. No doubt it would he agreed, but then it would not do to destroy these old worship stones (Clachain Aoraidh). He said that there had been one near his own door which was very much in the way, but that he had, with great labour dug a hole into which he had let it drop and covered it up, for it would never do to incur the anger of the spiritual beings by breaking it up. This was more than thirty years ago. The boulders seemed to me natural and of no significance; but my attention being thus, called to them I found similar stones at almost every old house or site - many of them, undoubtedly, placed there of intention. Some of them had cup marks, but on many I could find none. . . .'

    'Notes on some cup marked stones and rocks near Kenmore, and their folklore' Rev J.B. Mackenzie, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Vol. 34 (1899–1900) p330.

  • Graeme Chappell

    Rock Art Resources on the Internet

    When at its best the Internet can serve as a vast reference library giving access to information from all around the planet. Archaeological resources are well represented in this "library" and the study of petroglyphs and pictographs (carved and painted images) or rock art is perhaps one of its most developed areas in terms of Internet presence.

    Want to read on? Go to the full text of Rock Art Resources on the Internet.

  • Danny Sullivan

    Campaign for the protection of Stoney Littleton long barrow

    Everyone will be familiar with the ongoing problems at Stonehenge and the dreadful state of the site, the visitor facilities and the perennial access problems. On a smaller scale these problems exist at a number of less well-known, but as important sites. Vandalism is the main problem. However the response to these and other problems exists at a number of less well-known but important sites. As a result we are faced with the prospect of ancient sacred sites and monuments being closed to public access while their custodians whinge about lack of finance to deal with the problem.

    I would like to draw your attention to the pitiful state of Stoney Littleton long barrow, near Wellow, Somerset. Anyone who has visited this site in the recent years will have been disappointed to find that access to the interior of the barrow has been denied. The roofs of the chambers and passage have been shored up and notices inform us that repair works are under way, but in the last three years no noticeable improvements seem to have been made at all. On the contrary, the condition of the barrow has sadly deteriorated. An ugly makeshift timber door has been erected across the entrance to the ante-chamber, behind which is another, steel barrier. This hoarding has been vandalised recently - no mean feat as 4" x 2" timber has been broken in two in an unsuccessful attempt to gain entry. In the process the lintel stone has been damaged.

  • ABSTRACTS - summaries of articles in academic journals, newspapers, etc.
    • Jennifer Westwood (ed) SACRED JOURNEYS (Gaia Books 1997)
    • Adrian Bailey THE CAVES OF THE SUN - THE ORIGIN OF MYTHOLOGY (Cape 1997)
    • Philip Heselton MIRRORS OF MAGIC - EVOKING THE SPIRIT OF THE DEWPONDS (Capall Bann 1997)
    • Jeremy Harte RESEARCH IN GEOMANCY 1990 - 1994 (Heart of Albion Press 1997)
    • Treence Meaden STONEHENGE - THE SECRET OF THE SOLSTICE (Souvenir 1997)
    • Michael Parker Pearson and Colin Richards (eds) ARCHITECTURE AND ORDER (Routledge 1994; paperback edn 1997)
    • John Collis THE EUROPEAN IRON AGE (Routledge 1984; paperback edn 1997)
    • Geoffrey Ashe THE TRAVLLER'S GUIDE TO ARTHURIAN BRITAIN (Gothic Image 1997)
    • Laurence Main CAMLAN - THE TRUE STORY? (Meirion 1997)

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At the Edge / Bob Trubshaw /
Created February 1998; updated November 2008