Deciphering Rock Art

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How to Decipher Rock Art?

Rock Art opens for us an ancient unknown world made of very different thoughts and ideas that exist today. It has a shape of a fragmented story built from leftover pieces of memory floating in the realm of current experiences. Deciphering Rock Art of forgotten past naturally turns into a complicated task but not impossible! In order to interpret rock art, you have to reconstruct the old knowledge like you assemble a puzzle, piece by piece. The guidelines outlined here will definitely help you. 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!

Always start 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.  In addition, although it may sound like an overstatement rock art deciphering requires knowledge of many regional subjects such as Archeology, Astronomy, Mythology, History, and Religion. Beware, that without a firm background in these subjects, you may go astray trying to decipher rock art by just following your initial hunch describing only the artistic pane. Erase your modern bias, don’t judge the rock art childish scene as a primitive expression. From my experience, I found that beneath the first visible layer in rock art exists a 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! They have roots that constitute the ancient base of our knowledge. They are deep-rooted in the region pre-history and usually attempt to answer life 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’ mind by understanding their world. Their art reflects thoughts brewed together composing the 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 visual impression from your first guess and dig deeper to unravel its true meaning.

2. Classify your rock art

Rock Art classification is essential in order to decode the meaning of a symbol and aid you in deciphering the whole scene. To decode the symbol role from a single rock art is futile. You need to have a comparison of many rock art utilizing the same symbol in order to understand its role. 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 scenes. Sometimes just grouping the symbols into one scene reveals its intent. Don’t look for the order of the symbols, usually, they are scattered around containing many other symbols since few scenes drawn together. I define rock art categories as scenes that represent a unique symbol arrangement that forms the artist’s intent. These are connected to a regional ritual or interpretation of natural phenomena. Listed here are 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 assigned an active role of events on earth to each star. Stars represented ancient gods that mastered life on earth and therefore were followed religiously. Therefore, when deciphering 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 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. When rock art matured they continued this tradition with pictures that illustrated the same knowledge.  Myths are connected to creation, fertility, seasons, natural forces, and other 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 much more in my book Rock Art in Israel available 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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One Comment to Deciphering Rock Art

  1. Avatar Janet Masters says:

    Great article.

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