Rock Art Interpretation

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How to Interpret Rock Art?

Interpretation of rock art is, in essence, an archaeology of the ancient mind. It represents the sorting and deciphering of ancient knowledge and events that shaped the path of our culture. Each rock art represents a thought bounded by the imaginary sphere of the era in which it was created. Always begin your interpretation 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 since many researchers focus on interpreting the visual scenes with a mind setup that leads them to false conclusions.

The rock art we see today provides us with a window into ancient ideas with very different content than what exists today. The past is reflected in them, and I would recommend adjusting your thinking accordingly. Such a twist turns rock art interpretation into a complicated task that requires the reconstruction of the old knowledge piece by piece. 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 overstated, rock art deciphering requires knowledge of a variety of regional subjects, such as Archeology, Astronomy, Mythology, History, and Religion. In the absence of a background in these subjects, you may be tempted to analyze only the rock art artistic presentation. Erase your modern bias, don’t judge the rock art childish scene as a primitive expression. Under the first layer of rock art, I discovered a rich cultural world with subtle deep meaning. Consider the following assumptions as guidelines for deciphering rock art:

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! We can trace their roots to the ancient base of our knowledge that represents the region’s pre-history, that in essence 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 embodies many ideas that have brewed together for a long time, composing a scene of their insights into a visual form. Each rock art hides a story that goes beyond your visual first impression. Explore its regional history to uncover it. Never trust your first impressions, but examine the rock art closely to reveal the true meaning.

2. Classify your rock art

The classification of Rock Art is essential for understanding its symbols and for deciphering the whole scene. Decoding the symbol role from a single rock art is futile. To understand its meaning, you need to compare various rock art featuring the same symbol. 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) repeat in many rock art. 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, so scenes may overlap. I define rock art categories as scenes that represent a unique symbol arrangement that encapsulates 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

Use the suggested guidelines for deciphering rock art or create your own. 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 (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, which assigned an active part and formative event to every star. According to ancient thinking, the stars represented gods that were considered masters of life on Earth and therefore worshiped 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. As such, look for a connection to the annual appearance of seasonal stars and constellations, since they are celebrated in every culture.

4. Find a connection to Myth

In the days before writing, wisdom and knowledge were transmitted primarily through myths. When rock art matured, drawings, or rock art, continued to illustrate 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 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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