Three Views of a Cave Painting: How Intention Influences Archaeological Interpretations

I wrote this paper for an archaeology class back in 2015. My goal was to discuss three base perspectives that influence interpretive efforts in the study of rock art. The researcher’s view focuses on consuming rock-art as data. The manager’s view seeks to control and protect rock-art sites form contemporary site interactions. The creator’s view refers to the original experience at the site. These views reflect a tendency of researchers to focus on specific sources of data, rather than a fully holistic combination of method and theory. While this can be useful in illuminating the activities at a site, it can also provide fodder for misinterpretation.

Introduction to the Study of Rock-Art

Rock-art, alternatively referred to as parietal art and various other terms refers to human placed imagery on the landscape. There is a disagreement among researchers on whether rock-art can really be called art at all. Many of the terms and definitions used for rick-art are a result of previous discourse and interpretations. Pre-defining imagery into the category of art is considered by some to present a bias of interpretation (Whitley, 2005). The features that generally fall under the category of rock-art are called petroglyphs, pictographs, and earth figures. Repatination, the accumulation of dust and weathering create the contrast between the inner host rock surface and the outer surface over time. A petroglyph is etched or pecked into the surface of a rock, removing the outer layer of patina (Whitley, 2005). Pictographs is the term used to describe images that have been applied onto surface of rock. These are paintings and drawings that are often created by using organic materials, such as ochre or charcoal (Whitley, 2005). A concentrated grouping of petroglyphs or pictographs is often referred to as a panel. Other features which are sometimes considered to qualify as rock-art are earth figures. These refer to large-scale constructions such as geoglyphs and earthwork formations (Whitley, 2005).

The Researcher’s View: A Data Driven Perspective

There are many ways archaeologists attempt to decipher the meaning of images on rock. One way is to interpret data relating to important themes of culture. The researcher view seeks out rock-art as data to illuminate the story of humankind. Researchers specialize on some aspect of the imagery in relation to symbolic, landscape, biological.
The symbols and images of people and animals in rock-art panels have led researchers to interpret them relating to concepts of totemism, shamanism, and as evidence of clan social structure. Totemism implies some connection between a human group and an animal species or specific plant, and is different from the concept of hunting magic. In hunting magic, it is assumed that cultures are attempting to assert control over their natural environment (Pearson, 2002). In clan imagery, one might expect homogenous art centered on a specific animal (Clottes and Lewis-Williams, 1998). To validate if images were related to clan social structure, it is asserted that they would appear as multiple occurrences of the same animal at a site, rather than a variety of animals. (Pearson, 2002). Intangible cultural beliefs and concepts are expressed through systems of symbols and metaphors, and the assumption is that these have been physically preserved through rock art. General interpretations of rock art are difficult due to the basis of multiple historic theories having their basis in a single cultural case. There is a tendency in rock-art research to allow the data to match existing theories.

A more landscape oriented focus on data sees the placement of rock-art in the broader site context. Landscape archaeology looks at humans in relation to their experiences with the surrounding landscape (Renfrew and Bahn, 2012). At rock-art sites, landscape is generally found through interpreting symbols as a form of hunting magic, or astronomy (Bahn, 2002). One of the main goals in applying landscape theories to rock-art research is to explore whether art was performed as an integrated part of normal life, or something more separate and sacred (Bahn, 2012). According to Ouzman (2011), some spaces are chosen for a specific quality, for example acoustic properties. The removal of flakes or of adding art can be seen as indicator that there was some important designation of a site.

George Nash (2010) compares the placement of graffiti and the placement of rock art panels within or near archaeological sites. This study is heavily influenced by the landscape as it is primarily focused on imagery and placement and does little to consider the possible modern bias in such a comparison.

Researchers have long theorized about the underlying biological mechanisms which may have developed alongside language art, and music. One example of these theories is the evolution of social consciousness, or language. Take for example Aiello and Dunbar’s correlation between neocortex size, group size, and the amount of time spent grooming in non-human primates. They theorize that language evolved as a similar bonding mechanism, as grooming which led to more efficient use of time (Aiello and Dunbar 1993). Combining biological evidence with archaeoacoustic theory may show a similar evolution for sound and the mind.

Aiello and Wheeler’s Expensive Tissue Hypothesis presents an evolutionary discussion on the relationship between diet and brain and gut size. The authors argue that a meat and protein based diet shift was related to increased brain size. It is relevant to rock art as the increase in brain size correlates with the presumed origin of language and art. (Aiello and Wheeler, 1995). The social brain hypothesis presented by Dunbar explains that the reason primates have a proportionately large brains to body size ratio compared to other vertebrates. Dunbar’s hypothesis relates the evolution of the large primate brains to developing complex social systems (Dunbar, 1998).

Researchers often combine data sets in an effort to develop a more holistic interpretation. For example, Lewis-Williams mixes ethnographic data and rock art imagery to determine that San rock art occurred in reference to supernatural experiences of San Shamans (Lewis-Williams, 2006) Lewis-Williams then claimed that neurological systems are biologically identical across cultures, therefore the same entoptic phenomena occur during altered states of consciousness. Entoptic phenomena refer to visual effects in the eye, which are studies in relation to consciousness (Lewis-Williams, 2004). A Neurophysiological model of entoptic phenomena presents three stages which he claims are universal in human hallucination. The Stage 1 is geometric imagery, often called entoptic phenomena. These are the universal images which are given context in the later stages. In stage 2, the subject begins to add cultural context to the imagery. Stage 3 represents a full connective transformation beyond the cultural and into the natural spirit world (Clottes and Lewis-Williams, 1998). This model however, was developed using San cosmology and has been scrutinized over the years (Lewis-Williams, 2006).

The Manager’s View: Ethical Ownership

Archaeology sites exist in the contemporary present just as much as the past, and the manager view is concerned with the dynamics of this modern interaction. Theories relating to land ownership and how to ethically control cultural resources.

Sherry Hutt describes the competing theories that can be applied to cultural resources. Often many of these theories influence policy relating to the management of archaeological sites and resources. One way managers see the situation is from a nationalist based perspective. This would designate the original location as the determinate of ownership (Hutt, 2004). There is little force in this theory, as the risks outnumber the benefits. In order for this perspective to work without tension or war, both parties would need to be agreed on the perspective. There is also the chance that leaving the item in place may eventually end up in the destruction of the item, especially if the country of origin is not preservation/conservation minded.

Nationalist theory is concerned with politics, not human rights (Hutt, 2004).
More internationally concerned arguments favor who can best protect and care for the resource. There is no consideration of cultural sovereignty, and a ward relationship is implied. This is relevant especially in the United States, where we implement cultural resource training classes for Native American groups. Although it is beneficial for interested cultures, the implication is that they cannot care for their own resources (Hutt, 2004).

Property law theory is relevant to rock art as well. This theory looks at the ethics of ownership. Property, according to this viewpoint, can be “agreed” into commerce or other ownership. I think of the Dawes Act, and how much land in the United States was agreed into commerce at this time. For rock art, I am especially interested in private property rights. I recently came across a photograph on Facebook where a property owner had spray painted “Private Property No Tresspassing” over a pictograph. The comments underneath however, referred to the rock art as belonging to many other groups (Hutt, 2004).

Scientific Theory is concerned with access to data, more than property rights. There are many researchers concerned with the impact of research potential that vandalism has on rock art sites. Hutt also presents a market theory which is especially applicable to the study of rock-art. Although primarily concerned with commodification and collectors, the authors specifically mention the right of the artist. Hutt describes the rights of the individual artist as nontransferable, regardless of other potential considerations in the present (Hutt, 2004).

James Young discusses the ethics which may be applicable to policy decisions on cultural heritage ownership. He asserts that it is possible for a specific culture to claim rights to archaeological materials. He introduces four types of owners (“candidates”) who may have a claim to stake. This discussion on ownership relating to individuals, cultures, nations, and all of humanity collectively, will be helpful in a similar discussion of perspectives on rock art for my advocacy page (Young, 2006). Individual candidates can be personal owners or institutional entities. According to Young, the specific situation will designate which candidate is the most ethical choice for ownership. A key point brought up by the author is that regardless of any ideas of ownership, in reality, a decision must be made as to who has possession (Young, 2006).

Young’s two basis for a cultural claim on a find are to trace its potential ownership through history and to ask what would be of benefit to most of humanity. He discusses key issues with determining ownership. One issue is that inheritance was likely not meant for an entire culture, and another is complications arising from cultural change (Young, 2006). Young uses the cultural significance principle, which suggests that the claim to a find should be proportional to the significance, or meaning to the culture. This is particularly relevant for rock art preservation. There are many groups who have an interest in protecting rock art, such as tribes, outdoor enthusiasts, and researchers such as myself. As Young points out, applying this principle will be balancing process that looks to include as many alternate perspectives as possible (Young, 2006).

Carman (2005) suggests that the term Property itself pulls the issue into the realm of economics and law more so than archaeology or history. He discusses materiality, as defined by Godlier emphasizing the designation of nature and environment as separate form human material culture, and insinuates that it is perspectives such as these that lead to a property mindset (Carman, 2005). Rather than perpetuate these ideas, the Carman advocates viewing ecofacts as essential to the human interpretation. I think this is especially interesting when considering rock art features. They have often been read as artifacts but are inherently integrated into the environment. One key discussion managers have relates to community versus private ownership and subsequent reflection of value. This is an essential discussion as it also relates to issues of cultural appropriation as well as responsibility for cultural resources (Carman, 2005).

The Creator’s View: Individual Context

Rock art has been used as a tool by archaeologists to serve as a source of metaphoric data, can be used with cultural context to study the outward expression of past human thoughts and beliefs. In cognitive archaeology, the goal is to develop a methodology by which we can hope to understand not only how the ancient mind worked, but also how those processes influence action. The primary issue in cognitive archaeology is the problem of the other mind. This is the problem where it is impossible to know what was being thought when rock imagery was produced. Although it is impossible to know what is thought at the time an action is performed, archaeologists attempt to observe residual behavior (Johnson, 2010).

Attempting to explain the past through the beliefs of modern descendent communities is one way researchers try to hone in on the accuracy of their interpretation of rock-art. According to Whitley many ethnographic concepts are expressed metaphorically, and an effort can be made to decipher such metaphors through rock art (Whitley, 2005). Although ethnoarchaeological evidence from can be used to add information regarding a specific image or artifact, there should be a demonstrable continuity between the ancient and modern cultures being compared (Renfrew and Bahn, 2012).

Consciousness is a difficult concept to define. It relates to the state of human being, but is best understood in relation to unconsciousness or altered states of consciousness (Clottes and Lewis-Williams, 1998). Since rock-art is created by connecting mental processes with physical application, researchers believe it can provide insight into fundamental epistemological questions of knowing the ancient mind (Clottes and Lewis-Williams, 1998).

Understanding the ritual experience of an ancient individual requires and understanding of many contextual influences. Interpretive archaeologies understand humans as products of their environment, culture, biology, agency and self-identity (Johnson 2010). Interpretive archaeologies, or hermeneutics, seek to understand past societies within their own unique contexts (Renfrew and Bahn, 2010). Although Stable Isotope analysis is not directly used in phenomenological interpretation, it can be utilized as part of a diverse dataset to understand the human experience of the past.

Previously, phenomenological interpretations have focused on the relationship between visual and cultural data by comparing rock imagery sites with ethnographic information. This focus has resulted in a strong bias toward the meaning of the imagery, rather than the surrounding context. Researcher Sven Ouzman asserts that the visual bias can be mitigated through examining a more synesthetic experience (Ouzman, 2010). Employing a wider range of evidence can provide each speculative interpretation with a quantitative reference.

For example, researchers Pearson and Meskell applied stable isotope analysis in combination with figurine and burial evidence from Çatalhöyük. The researchers used this evidence to understand long-term food consumption as an investment (Pearson and Meskell, 2015). The carbon and nitrogen isotope data showed that there was a distinct difference in diet between youth and adults. This, along with the considerations of more prestigious grave goods in adults persuaded the researchers to interpret beyond the favored mother goddess cult interpretations (Pearson and Meskell 2015). These new interpretations saw the figurines representing not a strictly female form, but a ritual significance to the bodily flesh (Pearson and Meskell 2015).

Interpretive archaeologies reveal specific contextual experiences from the archaeological record. Illuminating the whole story requires a multi-stranded approach to data collection and analysis, and this is improving exponentially as new technologies and scientific insights develop. This is an important considering the wealth of information that has already been collected to the archaeological record. There are great benefits to incorporating new technologies with previously studied data, especially when applied shifting common interpretations and biases of the past.

Ouzman relays the creation of space from visual reduction for the San medicine dance, and describes the shadows and light of a flickering fire (Ouzman, 2001). This manipulation of space served as a function of consciousness for Ouzman, who draws support from Lewis-Williams perspectives on Shamanism and entoptic phenomena. Sound facilitates the trip to the spirit world, by first numbing pain and inducing an altered state of consciousness. Ouzman provides data of the percussive sounds of the dance reaching the 10-hertz alpha cycle of the brain, which would be a different state than normal waking. The percussive sound also acts as a constant, to guide the shaman back to the ordinary world. He also considers the audience which may be present during a ceremony, that there may not be a singular Shaman creating their own space, but a communal experience which adds an escalated rhythm and sound.

Watson (2008) studies contemporary in comparison with Paleolithic arts. He is attempting to better understand reoccurring imagery phenomenon and production techniques. Watson measured the brain activity of persons drawing and doodling, and this article presents the results. Ben Watson’s study of doodling behavior in adults resulted in parallel figures as well. These images are produced in an absent-minded state, where the mind is generally preoccupied with something else, apart from the drawing itself. Thus, these images could be the result of a produced and intentional hallucination or as a side effect of boredom (Watson 2008).

Discussion: Interpretive Bias in Rock-Art Studies

These views reflect a tendency of researchers to focus on specific sources of data, rather than a fully holistic combination of method and theory. While this can be useful in illuminating the activities at a site, it can also provide fodder for misinterpretation. Sven Ouzman (2011) suggests researchers have been “blinded” by the view, and that the overreliance on a single sense ignores the interdisciplinary nature of the senses which can skew the metaphor. Ouzman presents the non-visual considerations in rock art research, specifically hearing, touch, and desire illuminated through cultural examples of the San of Southern Africa. According to Ouzman, rock-art exists as a visual type of data so researchers tend to focus on what can be seen in the imagery versus what occurred at the site (Ouzman, 2011).

A counterargument to visual primacy is to aim for synesthesia. Ouzman asserts that combining data relating to multiple senses allows for a form of holistic validation. He suggests that acknowledging experiences such as sound, touch, and desire along with sight would allow a more realistic perspective. This is great for holism in theory; however Ouzman proceeds to support his argument from a single region and theoretical standpoint. In a true synesthetic perspective, each of the views discussed previously would be taken into account, along with the consideration of sensory data. The consideration of smell, taste, and sound, along with the visual data allow a more complete interpretation of experience.

For example, Ouzman presents sound as an essential human experience which often accompanies ritual behavior. He uses the example of gong rocks, naturally occurring ironstone boulders which resonate when struck. Many, but not all of these rocks bear evidence of human striking, although the marks correspond with a sound resonance, rather than any visual depiction. Such non-representational marks may be evidences left behind from a repetitive percussive striking (Ouzman, 2001). Touch is another non-visual aspect Ouzman presents as integral to human experience, which like sound is difficult to study without a visual presentation of data. Flintknapping, the making of stone tools is one example of how a synesthetic experience may be felt (Ouzman, 2001).


Rock-art presents a unique type of information for researchers to explore. The uniqueness of a site however should not create a focus on one specific type of data. Segmenting data focus to illuminate a specific inquiry is useful, however applying a theory which has been packaged for another culture has influenced a slow conversation in rock-art research. Creating a primary interpretation for a site using only information related to a panel tells only one portion of the story. Regardless of whether a site contains panels or not, it is possible to bring a holistic and unbiased approach to discerning meaning.


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*Title derived from James P. Blaylock’s story, Two Views of a Cave Painting