geometric signs symbols cave rock art

Geometric Signs & Symbols in Rock Art

Why Should We Care about the Geometric Signs?

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Initial findings from the study of 146 French rock art sites
By Genevieve von Petzinger

There were two especially significant findings that came out of this study. The first was the early age at which we already see 70% of the signs being used. There is an ongoing debate in this field regarding the timing of the "creative explosion" that is generally seen to mark the beginning of symbolic behaviour in modern humans (Bar-Yosef 2002). Art (both rock art and portable), musical instruments, body ornamentation are the archaeological evidence commonly used to identify abstract thinking in modern humans. This behaviour is often thought to have really emerged for the first time during the European Ice Age. However, with the use of geometric signs already appearing to be well-established at that time, it suggests that the origin of this behaviour could have been earlier, possibly even before our distant ancestors left Africa and prior to when the "creative explosion" is often thought to have taken place. Secondly, over time and space there was a high degree of repetition of this limited number of shapes, with some being replicated throughout the 20,000 year time span of my study. This continuity arguably removes any previous speculation that these signs were random doodles, as we would expect to find more variety if this were so. Based on these results, I was able to conclude with a fair degree of certainty that there was intentionality and that they were making conscious choices about which signs to use at a site (no sign type appears everywhere).

Rock Art Claviforms Dots
Claviforms & Dots

"The non-figurative category of Ice-Age markings was neglected until relatively recently, for the simple reason that it seemed uninteresting, or impossible to explain and define"
(Bahn & Vertut 1997: 166)
Regarding meaning, while I do not know if we will ever be able to decipher exactly what any sign means, I do think that the geometrics probably represent abstract ideas or concepts that were important to those who created them. The way I approached meaning for my study was to look at it indirectly - with such a limited number of signs being used for over 20,000 years across the whole region of France, I do not need to know exactly what they meant to know that they were obviously important to the people who drew them. By this I mean that repetition of the same sign for so long, and the choices that they were making regarding what to portray in each site point towards intentionality. No sign appears everywhere, so they were obviously making decisions as to what they should represent rather than anything being an automatic inclusion.

I know that a lot of people would like to think that the signs are writing, but I do not believe that this was a full-blown writing system like those found in later cultures which include structural elements such as grammar and sentence composition. Probably a better way to describe it would be that this was a foundational step for our ancestors in communicating with each other in a physical form. From my limited understanding of linguistics, I believe this behaviour is generally seen to be the first step towards writing, and is usually described as being iconographic at this stage, or is categorized as an ideogram. This focus on the geometric signs is not meant to exclude the likelihood that the animal and human imagery also had a more symbolic meaning than just being representative. Leroi-Gourhan referred to the whole body of art as the "language of the Upper Paleolithic" (1992), and he may very well be right.

I believe the signs are so interesting because they are abstract, and therefore completely symbolic, making it much more difficult for us to understand what they mean. However, at the same time they provide good evidence of the complex thinking and communication that our ancestors were capable of. Concentrating on France kept my MA research a reasonable size, and allowed me to use it as a test case to see if this type of trending was even possible to do. Now that I know it is feasible, one of the main goals of my PhD research will be to expand this database to include all known rock art sites in other countries and regions in Eurasia. This should result in there being about triple the sites that I currently have documented. These countries include Spain, Portugal, Italy, the UK, Russia, the Czech Republic and Slovakia so far, though I am still hopeful that I will be able to find sites in other countries as well.

I believe Spain will be especially important because there are almost as many decorated sites as in France, and a preliminary survey suggests very strong similarities in the sign types between these two regions. I am also very interested in learning more about rock art in Central and Eastern Europe, as I think this part of the continent could play a very important role in understanding the larger implications of what was going on during this period. The research I have done so far is really just scratching the surface, and I believe that it will be during my next phase of expansion that the really interesting temporal and spatial trends will start to emerge.

Genevieve von Petzinger | An Introduction
What are Geometric Signs? | Worldwide Geometric Signs Chart
Research Methodology
Geometric Signs in France | Page | 1 | 2 |
Sign Types Present in Countries and Regions
Bibliography | for photos and drawings | A to L | N to Z |

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