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Rock Art Theories

24 Apr 2015
Bradshaw Foundation
Article

Rock art theories: a brief overview of the salient theories concerning Palaeolithic rock art in Europe and around the world.

Art for Art's Sake

The Foundation will be releasing a series of articles that consider the earliest and the latest theories concerning Palaeolithic rock art. Each theory will be presented in the Latest News forum, prior to a more in-depth section on the Foundation's site.

The Bison of Altamira

The Altamira Bison

In 1879, a young girl named Maria was accompanying her father, Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, while he was exploring a cave at Altamira in northern Spain. Looking up she exclaimed "Look Papa, oxen!" 

The Cave of Altamira was the first cave in which prehistoric cave paintings were discovered. When the discovery was first made public in 1880, it led to a bitter public controversy between experts since many did not believe prehistoric man had the intellectual or religious capacity to produce any kind of artistic expression.

Therefore the first theory about rock art was to become known as art for art's sake. It was proposed by Edouard Lartet & Edouard Piette, and stated that rock art had no specific meaning. It was purely decorative. The scholars conceded that the parietal paintings may have been associated with some form of ownership or territory, or that they reflected some form of seasonal statement, but essentially they were the product of a Palaeolithic society that had time on its hands.

Rock art deer hunting scene from Cavalls in Spain

Deer hunting scene from the Cavalls Shelter, Valltorta, Spain (replica from the Valltorta Museum). 

This theory was soon discarded with the discovery of parietal art such as that of Altamira; clearly something more involved had taken place, as studies by the likes of Emile Cartailhac revealed that the caves themselves, whilst not being occupied, contained spectacular paintings with repeated patterns and techniques, with some panels that were heavily over-painted and some panels without a trace of paint. The hunting scene at the Cavalls Shelter (above) is not as straightforward as one might think; why are some of the deer partially depicted? Does this scene present the rock face as some form of metaphor? Caves were recognized as sanctuaries rather than places to relax. The complexity of the compositions demanded another explanation. 

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