Rock Art Interpretation

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How to Interpret Rock Art?

The meaning of rock art. Deciphering rock art from Israel, israelrockart.com.

Interpreting rock art is essentially an archaeology of the ancient mind. It involves sorting and deciphering ancient knowledge in order to reconstruct the past and its associated beliefs. Each rock art is a representation of a thought, encapsulated within an imaginary wisdom sphere, symbolizing the collective ideas at the time it was created.

Always begin your interpretation by assuming that rock art is not an imitation of life, but a record of religious beliefs practiced long ago. Researchers with a modern mindset often fall into the trap of only interpreting the visual scenes, which can lead to false conclusions. It may seem overstated, but deciphering rock art requires knowledge of various regional subjects, including archaeology, astronomy, mythology, history, and religion. A lack of a background in these subjects may lead one to focus solely on the rock art visual plane. It is important to let go of one’s modern bias and not consider the childlike rock art scene as a primitive expression. I discovered that beneath the first layer of rock art visuals exists 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 did not sprout out of thin air! We can trace their roots to the ancient base of our knowledge that represents the region’s pre-history. In essence, it 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). Ancient art embodies many ideas that have been brewing for a long time, weaving them into a visual form. Each rock art hides a story that extends beyond your initial impression. Explore its regional history to uncover it. Never trust your first impressions, but examine rock art closely to reveal its true meaning.

2. Classify your rock art

The classification of rock art is essential for understanding its symbols and for deciphering the whole scene. It is impossible to decode a rock art’s symbolism from one image. To understand its meaning, you need to compare many rock art featuring the same symbol. Combine similar rock art scenes or recurring patterns into categories. In many rock artworks, I found that repetitive symbols (sun, moon, boat, fish, Ibex, weapon, etc) or even complete scenes (creation, fertility, hunt, etc) appear. Sometimes just grouping the symbols into one scene reveals their meaning. 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. The following are categories that I discovered in my deciphering efforts. Click them to learn more:

Categories of rock art

Fertility 
Afterlife  
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 Classical Astrology, which assigned an active part and a 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 appearance of the Sun and the Moon and the changing Equinox, and Solstice days were very significant events in ancient times. They are the old astronomical clocks that established the rhythm of life 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 encapsulate past wisdom through stories such as creationfertilityseasons, natural forces, and other unexplained 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  israelrockart.com 

Yehuda Rotblum 2019


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