A Measure of Conviction: Recording Emphasis in Scandinavian Rock Carvings

By Coles, John | Antiquity, September 2003 | Go to article overview

A Measure of Conviction: Recording Emphasis in Scandinavian Rock Carvings


Coles, John, Antiquity


For over a hundred years the rock carvings of north and west Europe have almost always been presented in publications in a single traditional way--as black images on a plain white background. The pattern began with pioneers such as Axel Holmberg (1848) and Lauritz Baltzer (1881) in Bohuslan, Sweden and Clarence Bicknell at Mont Bego (1913), and was continued by a number of authorities such as Emmanuel Anati at the Val Camonica, Italy (1960) and Sverre Marstrander in Ostfold, Norway (1963). The tradition has been adopted by modern compilers in Scandinavia (e.g. Milstreu 1996; Coles 2000; Sognnes 2001; Bengtsson & Olsson 2000) and also in Italy (e.g. Anati 1982; Fossati 2002) and elsewhere, although here and there are hints of refinement (e.g. Beltran 1982; Coles 2000, none consistently) and some authors have sometimes been able to indicate overlapping carvings by different shading (e.g. Beckensall 2002).

Such presentations are accurate in two dimensions but do not show the true hierarchy of carved images on complex sites. Of course, the relative size of the images, their place upon the site, and proximity to other carvings are crucial to any analysis of a site, and can be shown by any accurate, scale-drawn plan. However, this is not the full story and there are two additional aspects.

The first is the shape of the site itself, the character of the rock, its pattern of cracks, exfoliation, roughness and slope. Saetersdal et al. (2002) have commented on the tradition noted above, 'of drawing figures as solid black marks on smooth white paper', and lament its inability to capture the natural shapes of the rock canvas; they surprisingly omit the obvious solution--a photograph at appropriate width and depth, with enhancing light (e.g. Sansoni et al. 1999; Hasselrot & Ohlmarks 1966). We can however agree to their call for 'a fresh start' to recording. Site photographs are essential in almost all cases as a preliminary to the mote detailed representation of the carved surfaces, which must show the rock face with its blemishes, cracks, wrinkles, warts and all (e.g. many illustrations in Bahn 1998). Such constrictions to the artist's canvas are sometimes shown schematically (e.g. Bengtsson & Olsson 2002) and help our comprehension of why the images we see avoid otherwise logical positions on the rock.

The second neglected aspect is the expression of the character and depth of the carved images themselves. This paper tries to set out the importance of this aspect, by showing several examples of what should become, for me at least, standard practice for the presentation of rock carvings, one that aims to provide a beginning to interpretation while maintaining an objective record of the site (e.g. Coles 2002). This is perhaps best approached by looking at how specially important (we think) images were nominated on the rock.

There are three obvious ways by which some sort of dominance of particular images can be expressed on the rocks. The first is by central positioning of the image, with surrounding and thus somewhat diminished carvings. The second is by size, whereby one special image is shown in exaggerated scale in comparison with the others. Where centrally-placed, the dominance is increased. The third is by association, by which a particular image can be surrounded by subservient and augmenting carvings, which may direct attention by angle or shape to the central focus. These three ways of expressing importance are those shown by almost all of the site plans that have been published. But there is a fourth way of identifying and depicting a special significance for a carving, and that is by the depth and quality of carving. The latter is quite difficult to quantify or to demonstrate by scale drawing, and photographic representation is a preferred method; even so, it may well be a subjective evaluation on the part of the describer, and will not be pursued here; I have tried to address this in Coles 2003. …

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