Rock Art and the Prehistory of Atlantic Europe: Signing the Land

Rock Art and the Prehistory of Atlantic Europe: Signing the Land

Rock Art and the Prehistory of Atlantic Europe: Signing the Land

Rock Art and the Prehistory of Atlantic Europe: Signing the Land


Along the Atlantic seaboard, from Scotland to Spain, are numerous rock carvings made four to five thousand years ago, whose interpretation poses a major challenge to the archaeologist.In the first full-length treatment of the subject, based largely on new field work, Richard Bradley argues that these carvings should be interpreted as a series of symbolic messages that are shared between monuments, artefacts and natural places in the landscape. He discusses the cultural setting of the rock carvings and the ways in which they can be interpreted in relation to ancient land use, the creation of ritual monuments and the burial of the dead. Integrating this fascinating yet little-known material into the mainstream of prehistoric studies, Richard Bradley demonstrates that these carvings played a fundamental role in the organization of the prehistoric landscape.


As archaeologists, we sometimes wonder how we can know about the past, but members of the public may have a different question in mind, for time and again they ask us where we get our ideas.

Our answers are often rather pretentious, and sometimes they are misleading, for we claim that our research grows directly out of the body of abstract ideas that we talk of as archaeological theory. That is both true and false. It is true that without an explicit range of theories and assumptions we cannot say anything at all about the past, but such a reply is also rather evasive. Archaeologists work in many different ways, but as often as not the cue for a new piece of research is a pattern that is identified by chance and one which has not been predicted. That moment of recognition is first and foremost an experience, but an experience that can only be understood in terms of a theory. We may have some ideas about the significance of that discovery, but from then onwards the experience itself becomes less important. If the initial observation is to be communicated—still more, if it is to be understood—we must work out why it occurred in the first place. We have to retrace the processes by which that experience was formed and, having done so, we must analyse them as strictly as we can. We must find out whether such an imaginative leap was justified by any evidence and we must trace its implications using the theories and methods at our command.

The subject of this book is one which easily provokes such reflections. For years it has attracted the attention of ‘alternative archaeologists’, nearly all of whom have interpretations of their own. Whilst I was excavating a monument which contains several prehistoric rock carvings, members of the public suggested many reasons why these designs were made. Nearly all those ideas emerged spontaneously from what they saw, and a few were certainly influenced by strong personal beliefs. the sources of such ideas are important to those who suggest them, and they must not be dismissed by archaeologists. the question is whether there is any method by which such interpretations can be assessed.

The late Ronald Morris, who spent many years studying the prehistoric rock carvings of the British Isles, heard many accounts of this phenomenon. in fact he . . .

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