The Coa Petroglyphs: An Obituary to the Stylistic Dating of Palaeolithic Rock-Art

Article excerpt

The Coa petroglyphs, seen in the established framework of rock-art studies, belong in the corpus of west European parietal art of late Pleistocene age, as found in scores of caves and some open-air locations. One of the four researchers who this summer studied the age of the figures using modern rock-art science, summarizes the group's conclusions, and states how they kill off the stylistic dating of Palaeolithic rock-art.


The difficulty archaeologists may have with new scientific methodology is that archaeology has always been conducted as a basically unfalsifiable framework of knowledge-claims (Tangri 1989) based on inductive uniformitarianism (Cameron 1993) but one in which extensive use was made of falsifiable knowledge-claims imported from various other disciplines. This culture of knowledge in archaeology has facilitated the preservation of many false models, ardently defended by protagonists who rely on the perceived lack of refutability of such models (Bednarik 1986; 1995a): 'Archaeology is what the most powerful practitioners, usually professors, say it is' (Lewis-Williams 1993: 49). Whenever a new scientific method becomes available to test some of these models, it threatens to discredit sections of the archaeological community and their entrenched positions. This was the case in 1953 when the Piltdown hoax was examined by new methods. The similar process seen at the present time in Portugal has very major implications elsewhere.

The introduction of scientific dating of rock-art has been a somewhat painted process for archaeology in various parts of the world. In France and Spain, direct dating methodology remained ignored for a decade after it had been introduced elsewhere, until it was suddenly and enthusiastically accepted by a few senior scholars in France in 1990, leading to a flurry of dating activity. In Portugal, direct dating has just been introduced.

Dating the Coa valley petroglyphs

During the 'discovery' of the Coa valley petroglyphs and the subsequent controversy over their proposed flooding (Bahn 1995a; 1995b; Bednarik 1995a; 1995b; 1995c; most of the rock-art has been attributed to the Upper Palaeolithic period on the basis of its style. This initial pronouncement has been unanimously supported by all specialists of European Pleistocene art (e.g. Bahn 1995a; 1995b; 1995c; Clottes 1995a; and numerous media commentaries), except the present author (Bednarik 1995a; 1995b). The consensus opinion is that the rock-art is of the Solutrean, and roughly about 20,000 years old.

This estimate derives from stylistic or iconographic beliefs: animal figures were identified as depicting aurochs, horse, ibex and deer, and their styles judged wholly Palaeolithic. Until May 1995, not one of the known open-air Palaeolithic art sites across the Iberian peninsula and to the French Pyrenees, including Mazouco, Siega Verde, Domingo Garcia, Santa Maria La Real de Nieva, Bernardos, Ortigosa, Carbonera Mayor, Piedras Blancas, Fornols-Haut and now the Coa complex, had been subject to scientific dating or any other credible analytic work. Some motifs have been disfigured or vandalized by the archaeologists recording, them which may prejudice their dating potential.

Since modern rock-art science accepts neither dating by style (Bednarik 1990/91; Lorblanchet & Bahn 1993), nor the belief of archaeologists in their ability to identify objects depicted in rock-art (Bednarik 1991), the archaeological dating of all these sites must be questioned (Bednarik 1995b). In response to a recommendation by Unesco to conduct scientific research in the Coa valley, the Portuguese government instructed the site manager, Electricidade de Portugal, to arrange a series of blind tests to establish the antiquity of the rock-art. After consulting Dr Jean Clottes, Unesco's principal adviser on rock-art, the Portuguese authorities asked three rock-art dating scientists to participate in this unique experiment. …