Fads and beliefs
| This raises a prominent aspect in the interpretation not only of rock art, but of general archaeology as well. The discipline is notoriously susceptible to faddish interpretations and in certain respects resembles a belief system (Freeman 1994). The structural causes of this tendency may appear complex, but the lack of falsifiability of purely archaeological propositions is no doubt a key factor. It permits the presentation of capricious hypotheses and encourages their energetic defence, relying on their lack of refutability. The history of archaeology can be seen as a succession of fads, which seem to arise when hypotheses, irrespective of their objective merits, happen to become popular. Kuckenburg (1997) has particularly well explained the historical dynamics that give rise to such favoured hypotheses. They inevitably reflect the social mood of the societies in which they arise, the political constellations and currents of the times, and similar essentially historical influences that reflect no systematic ‘search for truth’. For instance, while it was fashionable to extol the virtues of competition and the survival of the fittest in the ‘cynical’ 1990s, the then popular tales of the genocide of the Neanderthals would not have gained any currency in the ideological climate of the 1960s. Throughout the period during which archaeology exercised influence on social norms, through its ‘explanations’ of past societies, it operated in fact largely the reverse way: archaeological models and fads reflected the social currents of their times. Archaeologists subconsciously tailored their interpretations to suit the social mores of their societies, thus merely adding to historically contingent predispositions of their own social-cultural milieu. Political correctness is an integral factor in favoured models, which in turn feed the fantasies of both the public and the archaeologists.While this already questions the ideological independence of the discipline, a second historical factor distorts archaeological preoccupations in a very different way. At any time in its history, the discipline’s models depended on the information available to it, generally derived from finds made in an essentially random fashion. For instance, Palaeolithic tools were accepted historically before Palaeolithic art was reported, and for that reason the latter’s authenticity was rejected: its sophistication was considered incompatible with the acknowledged tool technology of the period. Yet the sequence of discovery of all archaeological finds is without design, it is attributable largely to ‘accidents of history’. Had Palaeolithic art been discovered before Palaeolithic implements, the latter would have no doubt been rejected because they would have been considered incompatible with the art. Hence in archaeology there is nothing systematic in the sequence of knowledge acquisition, which is often in contrast to the hard disciplines.Since Boucher de Perthes had his ‘worthless pebbles’, the Acheulian tools, rejected for many years by establishment archaeologists, his experiences have been repeated over and over for almost two centuries, by dozens, even hundreds of scholars who challenged the discipline’s beliefs (consider C. Fuhlrott, M. de Sautuola, E. Dubois, R. Dart, L. Leakey, A. Marshack). This pattern continues to the present day, and yet most of the major models Pleistocene archaeology offers today are either false or without adequate epistemological justification. Scholars who present evidence or hypotheses contradicting its dogma are treated with contempt, and so archaeology remains the one discipline that manages to continue ‘getting it wrong’ more often than any other in all of scholarly endeavour.
Rock art research needs to appreciate these conditions — not just because archaeology often claims it as part of its discipline (the ‘archaeological octopus’ of Lorblanchet 1992: xxii) and imports its faulty epistemologies, but to avoid repeating the very same mistakes. Rock art study also is heavily influenced by fads, frequently derived from archaeological interpretations of its iconography. Their range includes specific beliefs, such as those that rock art is generally the work of shamans, and general beliefs in ‘archaeo-lore’, such as in the ability of experts to recognise ‘Palaeolithicity’ in rock art. While it has been difficult in the past to test such beliefs, recent improvements in rock art science will render their falsification increasingly possible. Specific beliefs tend to be more short-lived, or they display alternating phases of growth and decline, oscillating in accord with societal preferences. For instance the shamanistic model has been advanced in several such cycles for at least a century, with minor modifications perhaps, but always without the presentation of testable hypotheses. General beliefs, on the other hand, can be long-lived and seemingly unassailable. For instance, the belief of all Palaeolithic art experts of Europe to possess the ability of determining the age of a rock art motif thought to be of the Upper Palaeolithic from its style alone was established early in the 20th century, and was not effectively challenged until it was refuted (Bednarik 1995c). This has not been conceded so far by most of the experts concerned, so their collective belief in their own capability, from which they derive their expert status within society, continues to be held and defended without justification.
The scientific issue here is how to test their belief, which would require that it be rendered quantifiable, repeatable and falsifiable. Style is not accessible to scientific definition, it is a subjective dimension that does not exist until it is perceived to exist — by the alien archaeologist. Since stylistic constructs in archaeology are autogenous formulations of self-appointed experts which have no independent existence outside of this belief system, it appears to be extremely difficult to analyse these self-proclaimed abilities. One possibility would be to devise blind tests, but efforts to conduct such work suggest that Palaeolithic art experts are reluctant to subject themselves to such tests. Indeed, it is said that ‘blind tests are unethical’ in archaeology, they are ‘disrespectful’ to colleagues (Zilhão 1995). Presumably this means that it is inconsiderate to practitioners to demonstrate that they are wrong. Freeman (1994) has examined the astounding similarities between the procedures in validating religious shrines, especially in the Roman Catholic church, and validating the ‘sanctuaries’ in Palaeolithic art sites. He even observed similarities in the discovery myths disseminated for both types of sites, such as the involvement of ‘innocents’ (children, dogs, primitives; note the claimed involvement of dogs in finding both Altamira and Lascaux — no dog was involved in either case). Freeman concludes that ‘these two manifestations of belief, reverence, and validation of experience have the same origin at a deeper structural level’ (1994: 341). Again, the covert similarities with religion are evident, as they are also often in the terminology of those writing about Palaeolithic rock art. The term ‘sanctuary’, for instance, is widely used, yet there is no objective justification for its use.
The recent refutation of the belief of Palaeolithic art experts that they can determine the age of motifs by their style is based on the observation that all chronological stylistic constructs designed in the 20th century are negated by data presented in 1995. Some practitioners accept this to be the case, for instance Michel Lorblanchet admits that the discovery of Chauvet Cave in 1994 and the subsequent dating of paintings and soot traces was an ‘earthquake’ in pre-History. However, the majority of his colleagues have reacted in precisely the way one would expect the Catholic church to react to the claim that it has erred in validating religious shrines.
Not only has Chauvet Cave shown that a sound stylistic chronology of Palaeolithic rock art does not exist, the application of that chronology has also come to grief at other sites. Many Eurasian claims of Pleistocene age have been made for much younger rock art, especially on the Iberian peninsula, and they are all based entirely on the ‘identification’ of Palaeolithic style. The very same experts whose claims to be able to attribute rock art to specific Palaeolithic technological periods have been refuted are presenting the very same claims for a series of open air petroglyph sites. A typical example would be the Spanish site Siega Verde, where numerous horse and bull pictures are claimed to be 15 000 or 17 000 years old. Yet the local villagers say that they were made by shepherds, and the first cursory scientific examination showed that they could only be a few centuries old at most. The nearby series of similar petroglyphs in the lower Côa valley occurs in identical geological and site-morphological conditions, most of it is also only in the order of centuries old, yet all Palaeolithic experts of Europe insist that it is of the Pleistocene. A major campaign to locate evidence for this claim (Aubry et al. 1998; Anonymous 2000) has become an acute embarrassment (Abreu and Bednarik 2000): no dating results were disclosed, sham claims were made, occupation layers with ceramic remains were pronounced Palaeolithic, and in one instance a colluvium was used to ‘date’ a rock art panel.
These examples show that the study of rock art should not be entrusted to a discipline that relies on autogeneous formulations about style in arriving at its chronological constructs, and then defends these in the fashion of a religion defending the foundations of its belief system. The dating and analysis of rock art should be the exclusive preserve of rock art science, and it would benefit from a discontinuing of the disingenuous interference by archaeologists. In two centuries they have squarely failed in developing the study if rock art into a scientific discipline, producing instead lots of fads, beliefs and controversies about rock art, but very little of real substance. Their treatment of rock art researchers, from de Sautuola to the present time, is an indictment of their discipline.
R. G. Bednarik, 2001