Interrogating Rock Art Interpretation


Interrogating Rock Art Interpretation: A Theoretical Perspective

Friday, 22nd of August 2008

By Job Amupanda

Generally rock art can be defined as figures pecked or painted on rocks. It can be categorised in two ways in terms of their description, namely pictographs and petroglyphs. Pictographs entails design painted on stone surface while pictoglyphs is the design pecked or incised on stone surface.

The paintings were made of ochre-clay pigment mixed with albumen. The red colour is derived from haematite, yellow from limonite while black emanated from manganese.

The pecked figure (rock engravings) is said to have been done with the use of stone tools even though some scholars argue that some Iron Age tools might have been used in some cases. The topic of rock art is a topic of interest nowadays to historians, archaeologists, anthropologists and many other various scholars whose academic work entails coming into direct or indirect contact with the art.

In the 21st century the art has created or attracted a lot of attention across the board and as a result even politics have found a place on it. The art also contributes to the revenue of many states via tourism. In this regard, hotels, campsites and other tourism facilities have been constructed nearer various rock art sites. This has led to the shift of focus as people are now only looking at rock art with an economic eye, which is very sad and indeed disturbing for an African child.

According to Coulson (2007), every continent, except Antarctica, has rock art, but Africa has more rock art and the greatest diversity of art than any of them. It also has some of the oldest art.

Almost every country in Africa has rock art but the greatest concentrations occur in North Africa’s Sahara Desert and Southern Africa. In North Africa, the earliest works were made by Stone Age hunter-gatherers with no knowledge of writing. Later paintings and engravings in the Sahara were made by Negroid and Berber pastoralists and in central and eastern Africa by ancestors of Twa and Sandawe/Hadza-type foragers. In southern Africa, artists were ancestors of Bushmen/San forager-hunters, Khoe herders and Bantu-speaking farmers.

Coulson (2007) argued that Africa’s oldest rock paintings were found in southern Namibia in 1969 and carbon-dated to 27 000 years of age. In a shelter in Zimbabwe’s Matobo Hills archaeologists found probable palettes with paint which were dated to more than 40 000 years of age.

These could also have been used for body paintings and skins. Meanwhile, earliest fragments of painting according to him have been dated to 10 000 years. A few years ago, according to Coulson (2007), a piece of ochre with abstract scratching was found in the Cape, South Africa, which has been dated to over 70 000 years old. Also contributing to the literature that provides an in-depth look into rock art studies, is Parsons (1993), in his book entitled ‘A new history of Southern Africa’, in which he gives a brief outline of the art and religion of the San people, the earliest indigenous people of Southern Africa who are said to be the greatest contributors to rock art in southern Africa, Coulson (2007).

He started by saying that “there are many thousands of rock paintings and engravings surviving in hilly regions of southern Africa. Most of these are ‘naturalistic’ art portraying wild animals or humans, while others are ‘schematic’ art consisting of geometric patterns. Over the past few years, archaeologists have begun to offer detailed explanations of this rock art”.

He argues that some of the ‘naturalistic’ rock art can be looked at as records of events such as fighting battles between people, and even apparently the coming of ships and wagons in the last few hundred years. On ‘schematic’ art such as engravings, he referred this to have been probably a kind of map, recording the whereabouts of water holes and camps. Finally and most importantly he said that most rock art is probably concerned with religion and magic.

Secret Ceremonies

“Many of the rock art sites were probably kept for secret ceremonies. Healers and rain doctors, whom anthropologists sometimes refer to as Shamans*, used the sites to prepare themselves for healing ceremonies and rain making.

Painting new pictures on the rock, with animal grease and coloured pigment might help healers to become ‘entranced’ or ‘possessed’ by animal-spirit when they danced around the camp fire that night. Painting of beasts such as rhino and eland, which had grown strong from eating grass, may have given strength for rain making,” he concluded.

“The oldest dated rock art in southern Africa is in Apollo 11 cave in the Hus mountain of Namibia, just north of the lower Orange river. It was buried in the middle Stone Age when part of the cave collapsed, and it has been dated around 24 000 BC.” – Parsons (1993).

Rock Art in Namibia is believed to have been done by the San people. The Khoekhoe are also said to have some rock art as well as the Bantu people.

Gwasira (1998) via an article entitled ‘Rock art in Namibia, its past, present and future’, eloquently gave a brief historical outline of rock art in Namibia. He said research into the prehistory of Namibia has proven for the past five decades to be more concerned with rock art.

In relation or to justify his argument, Gwasira (1998) gave an example of the Heinrich Barth Institute for pre-and proto-history at the University of Cologne that has for the past 30 years been carrying out systematic documentation of the rock art from the Brandberg. He said the following when he went back into history with regard to rock art in Namibia: “Namibian rock art was catapulted into the international limelight through the works of both amateur and professional researchers. In 1910, Jochmann, a German officer published a report in a popular journal. The result of this publication increased interest in Namibia’s rock art and set the stage for systematic research. Reinhardt Maack’s discovery of the ‘White Lady’ in January 1918 raised the interest of even internationally acclaimed rock art researchers such as Abbe Henri Brevil, a French priest and respected specialist in European Cave Art. Perhaps it was Maack’s discovery of the ‘White Lady’ that marked the beginning of real systematic research in southern African rock art.”

Rock art is a very important component in historical, archaeological, anthropological, artistical and many other studies in various disciplines in the academic arena. It is for this reason that we as academics engage in studies that attempt to explain and understand rock art. The 21st century has proven to be a century in which more questions are asked as to why things happen the way they do and why they are the way they are. Rock art is not immune to such questions; therefore we should make sure that we have answers when questions are posed to us about rock art.

Empiricism Theory

Also known as the Cologne school of thought, Empiricism emanated outside Africa in the western world at the University of Cologne. The Cologne school of thought argues that there is realism in rock art. This is taken to mean that the painting captures the reality.

The theory uses scientific methods of documentation or in other words, documenting paintings scientifically. The thinkers of the theory argue that we can learn about the environment from the painting (environment intactness).

This theory prefers a simple explanation of the paintings. Empiricism is of the view that the art speaks for itself and assumes that most paintings were the product and embodiment of an aesthetic sense and depict everyday activities or historical and mythical events. – Coulson (2007).

David Lewis-Williams is one if not the most influential author in rock art studies of Southern Africa especially the literature that has to do with the two schools of thought. In his book entitled ‘Images of Power’, he gives a satisfactory look at the school of thought at hand (Empiricism).

Williams (1989) argues that empiricists are of the opinion that the art is little more than the record of everyday life. This can be genuinely taken to mean that the theorist assumes that anyone can look at the art and tell what the picture means without any knowledge of the artists, their life and beliefs.

Williams (1989) puts it this way, that the theory argues that the artists painted everything that caught their fancy, such as hunting escapades, fights, dances, amusing incidents and many other events of their daily lives. In summary the Cologne school of thought argues that the picture is simply a reflection of the world around the artist’s environment and the world around him. It argues that we can learn about the environment of the rock art artists by looking at the paintings and engravings.

Interpretive Theory

Also known as the South African school of thought is a truly African interpretation that originates from South Africa. This theory fosters a look and understanding of the life of the artists (the San people) in terms of their religious beliefs. The theory goes beyond just the pictures and discovers the true meaning of the paintings.

The theory believes they there is no realism in paintings. Interpretive teaches us that every painting or engraving on the rocks has symbolical significance to the San people (metaphorical).

Paintings can be understood very well by looking at the religious way of the life of the San people. This religion is what is called trance dance which can be defined as the altered state of consciousness. In the life of San people, there are two worlds, the spiritual world where they get in by experiencing a metaphorical death and then get into contact with the ancestors, and the ordinary or material world.

For one to access the spiritual world, he has to go into a trance (altered state of consciousness). The people who usually go into a trance are Shamans, also known as medicine men.

Southey and others (1999) said that “Shamans are frequently artists as well, making objects for use in their rituals. In essence, the Shaman is a mediator or go-between, bringing the material and spiritual worlds together through the experience of the trance.

A Shaman connects the affairs of the dead with the affairs of the living and links the supernatural with the natural … a special characteristic of a trance state is the experience of hallucination – visual and sensory perceptions formed in the central nervous system rather than as a result of normal vision and physical feeling. Hallucinations provide the Shaman with extraordinary visions and experiences, which are regarded as a means of access to the spirit world.”

They continued by telling us that “the women sang and clapped the rhythm of the ‘medicine song’ that had supernatural powers, while the men, many of whom were Shamans, danced in a circle around them until they entered an altered state of unconsciousness.”

During the trance, the Shaman performs important symbolic functions such as rain-making and healing of the physical and social evils. The trance creates a boiling energy in the stomach and as a result a person (Shaman) starts shivering and sweating.

The sweat that comes from the person in a trance results in healing once it lands on a sick person. The Shamans (medicine men) when they get into a trance, they get a vision that they then draw on rocks as they see life and other messages from their ancestors when they are in the trance.

The drawings of the Shamans are what we see today as rock art. During the trance, one sees features such as nose bleeding, laying down their belly, raised hands and supporting sticks. These are the most common features in many rock paintings in Namibia and the South African school of thought just helps us understand them more.

Looking at the Two Schools of Thought

Although all the schools of thought are interpreting rock art, which is a very nice thing to do because this will not only give us an intellectual understanding, but it will also leave a large pool of knowledge for our future generation.

On the same note, it is of outmost importance that we cross-examine the two schools of thought so that we can weigh them to determine the one that holds more water and the one that carries weight in a true and authentic interpretation of rock art.

To start with, empiricism sees rock art as a reflection of actual life of the San people and that there is realism in rock art. It argues that everyone can get to know the meaning of the paintings even if they do not know the life, religion and belief of the artists.

This is the first absurd argument that I have ever come across from academics. To make it worse, it originates outside Africa and it was architected and spearheaded by people of western origin who do not know much about first-hand historical experience and whose perspective and way of thinking is totally different from that of Africans.

Scholars also came out strongly in rebuking empiricism. Williams (1989) argued that “there are numerous reasons why such comments distort Bushman rock art. Perhaps the most telling reason is that they result from viewing the art through western eyes … it is, then, far less likely that a westerner can look at foreign art like that of the Bushmen and know intuitively what it means. Yet this is exactly what the Abbe Breuil thought he could do with his White Lady … . Each art must be seen, as far as it is possible, from the point of view of the people who created it. If we do not try to adopt the artists’ viewpoint, we may appreciate and enjoy an exotic art’s beauty, but we shall never know what it means.”

The South African school of thought (interpretive) is more convincing than empiricism for many reasons. To start with, it is from an African perspective and it goes to the extent of looking inside the way of life of the artist.

It goes to the extent of understanding the life, religion and beliefs of the San people, while empiricism merely focuses on the analysis of the person that just stood next to the picture and gives an interpretation.

Southey and others (1999) argue that the drawing of an animal we know to have had religious significance for San hunter-gatherers cannot be regarded as simply an illustration of that species. Instead, they argued, we should regard it as a symbol of the values attached to the animal by that society.

While South African school of thought looks at all the types of paintings, the Cologne school of thought specialises on selective paintings mostly putting its focuses on animal paintings. When one looks at what oral history is saying and even the records of people like Dr Wilhen Bleek, you can really see that there is a link between stories, records and Trance and Shamanism theory more that the western Empiricism.

In Africa we don’t just do art because we feel like drawing the next object nearer you, but we do it to convey a message and express a particular feeling.

On this note empiricism or the Western Cologne school of thought does not make logical sense and in a way it makes a mockery of our ancestors’ intelligence.

*** Job Shipululo Kanandjembo Amupanda is a 3rd year student of Political Science and Industrial Psychology.