Middle Palaeolithic engravings on bone, Oldisleben, Germany.

Middle Palaeolithic engravings on bone, Oldisleben, Germany.

It is estimated that most surviving palaeoart, certainly over 90% of it, consists of rock art. The much smaller component, portable palaeoart, is made up of a diversity of materials, whose key determining feature it is that they are small enough to be carried around easily by humans, and which in many cases can be worn on the human body in some fashion. Included in this are beads and pendants, as well as other ‘decorative’ objects; mnemonic devices (such as ‘message sticks’), portable engravings and figurines, plaques, objects bearing series of notches or lines, and ceremonial objects (e.g. in Australia tjuringas and cylcons); and manuports such as crystal prisms, fossil casts, unusually coloured or shaped stones and mineral pigment pieces.

One aspect many of these classes of objects share with rock art is their susceptibility to misidentification by archaeologists. In the majority of such published cases, natural objects bearing no evidence of anthropic modification or use have been pronounced to be art objects, but there are also many cases on record of authentic palaeoart objects that were claimed to be natural phenomena. A study of the reasons for such misidentifications reveals significant differences between these two basic types. While the former, the pronouncement of natural markings or objects as artificial, is most common in non-Western countries, the latter, typical in some Western countries, often seems inspired by the perceived need to explain away evidence that seems to contradict faddish interpretations in archaeology. Some examples are cited elsewhere on this site. In an analytical sense it is important to note the considerable similarities between these epistemological issues and those in misidentification of rock art. Indeed, in some instances the problems involved are identical — for instance when animal scratches on a cave wall have exfoliated in small pieces and their markings are claimed to be human handiwork (Bednarik 1998a).

This site consists of the following pages:

Manuports and very early palaeoart

Portable engravings

Beads and pendants

Figurines and plaques

Fakes and misidentifications

Technological analyses