Rock Art Interpretation

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How to Interpret Rock Art?

Rock Art interpretation in essence is an archaeology of the ancient mind. Essentially, It represents the sorting and deciphering of ancient thoughts reflecting ancient knowledge and important events. Each rock art represents a thought bordering the imagination sphere bounded by the era knowledge they were recorded. When interpreting rock art always begin with the assumption that rock art is not art imitating life; it is a visual record of religious beliefs practiced long ago and not an expression of daily life. That is an important distinction, many researchers focus on interpreting the visual scenes leading them to false conclusions.

Rock Art opens for us a window to ancient thoughts with very different content that exists today. Adjust your mind and think accordingly. Such a twist turns out rock art interpretation to a more complicated task and requires a reconstruction of old knowledge piece by piece. The guidelines for rock art deciphering, outlined here, will definitely help your interpretation. As always, your initial assumptions are the most important, they can steer you correctly or lead you astray beyond the visual rock art scene meaning. Therefore stop here and think!

Although it may sound like an overstatement rock art deciphering requires knowledge of many regional subjects such as Archeology, Astronomy, Mythology, History, and Religion. Without some background in these subjects, you may go astray trying to decipher the rock art engravings swaying you to focus on the artistic pane only. Erase your modern bias, don’t judge the rock art childish scene as a primitive expression. I found that beneath the first visible layer in rock art exists a rich cultural world with subtle deep meaning. So, adopt the following assumptions that form my guidelines for rock art deciphering:

A general rule:  “All rock art are linked to heavens – either directly or through myths”.

     • Rock art describes a heavenly story.
     • Hunting scenes are cosmic struggles.
     • Rock art is sacred and belongs to the realm of faith.

1. Understand the historical background

Rock Art just didn’t sprout out of thin air! Their roots begin at the ancient base of our knowledge representing the region’s pre-history that usually attempts to answer life’s big questions. So, study them! Collect regional anecdotes and myths and even look for their continuation nowadays (see Santa and ibex connection). Enter the ancients’ minds and try to understand their world and thoughts. Their art reflects thoughts brewed together for a long time composing their world wanders into a visual scene. Each rock art hides a story that extends beyond your visual impression, so dig into its regional history and find it there! It will never be what you see at first sight, so ignore the misleading first impressions and dig deeper to unravel its true meaning.

2. Classify your rock art

Rock Art classification is essential to interpret symbols and aid you in deciphering the whole scene. Decoding the symbol role from a single rock art is futile. You need to have a comparison of many rock art utilizing the same symbol to understand its purpose. Combine similar rock art scenes or recurring patterns into categories.  I found that repetitive symbols such as (sun, moon, boat, fish, ibex, weapon, … etc)  or even complete scenes (creation, fertility, hunt .. etc) that repeat in many scenes. Sometimes just grouping the symbols into one scene reveals its intent. Don’t look for any order in the scene, the symbols are scattered around and therefore scenes may overlap each other. I define rock art categories as scenes that represent a unique symbol arrangement that in essence forms the artist’s intent. These reflect regional rituals or interpretations of natural phenomena. Listed the categories that I discovered in my deciphering efforts, click them  to learn more:

Categories of rock art

Calendar engravings
Seasonal drawings of constellations
Hunting scenes depicting imaginary struggles
Regional Mythology   
The Sun journey myth

For effective deciphering, frame your rock art into the suggested guidelines or find a new one. Search in your rock art collection for a connection to astronomy or major popular myth from ancient times. It may be a full story such as (Creation)  or just an idea like a  (Heavenly Gates).

3. Find a connection to Astronomy

Sky worship is apparent in ancient religious expressions, be it a burial site, a tomb, rock art, or early script. Astronomy developed from ancient Astrology that assumed an active role and formative event to each star. These stars represented ancient gods that, by an ancient thought, mastered life on earth and therefore were followed religiously. When interpreting rock art pay attention to small details such as dots that may represent a star or a constellation. Look for orientation, patterns of lines, dots, squares, circles, and more, don’t ignore them! If you find some pattern it is probably an important old counting mechanism such as the Moon calendar or other calendar markings.

The Sun and the Moon and Equinox, and Solstice days were very important events in ancient times. They are the old astronomical clocks that commenced the life rhythm in every culture. They are major symbols that regulated yearly events in ancient times.  In this respect, look for a connection to annual seasonal stars and constellations appearance since they are celebrated in every culture.

4. Find a connection to Myth

Myths conveyed oral ancient wisdom and at the ripe time, rock art replaced them followed by a script or fully written story.  Before the invention of writing, the transmission of wisdom and knowledge carried by oral tradition conveyed primarily by myths. When rock art matured they continued this tradition with pictures, or rock art, that illustrated the same knowledge.  Myths are connected to creation, fertility, seasons, natural forces, and other unexplained natural wonders that captured man’s imagination.  They are the old cultural milestones in every ancient culture, so look for them in your rock art.

See examples of deciphered rock art in our Articles section and more in my book Rock Art in Israel online.

Copyright © All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed in whole or part without the express written permission of 

Yehuda Rotblum 2019

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