Traditional approaches to interpretation
| Traditional forms of interpreting rock art iconographies, which account for most published work in the field of ‘rock art studies’, are essentially autogenous formulations that were generated by the effects of pareidolia and by autosuggestion, the psychological process by which a person induces self-acceptance of an opinion or belief. With some rare exceptions there is nothing to tell us reliably what a rock art motif depicts or means; there is usually only autogenous suggestion based on the perception of one observer, that of several observers, or of all observers. We need to remember that a consensus among even all contemporary observers is no substitute for testable (refutable) propositions about the meaning of rock art, which is not accessible by any of the means so far proposed in this field. It is essential to appreciate that the meaning of pre-Historic rock art is not a part of rock art science until ways are found to present propositions about it in a falsifiable format. Globally, we have only a very limited range of interpretations by the artists themselves, or by their cultural peers, in the form of ethnographic interpretations (but see below). Our own perception does not define reality, and even less does it define the realities perceived by other cultures; it is heavily conditioned by culture (‘culture’ in the wider sense; scientifically, ‘culture’ is the result of non-genetic transfer of practice). This is a fundamental difficulty in rock art research, but there are several supplementary barriers preventing alien researchers from effective access to meaning.One of the cardinal problems in the study of rock art is the traditional assumption that ‘researchers’ possess some special insight into the meaning of the iconography, somehow acquired through many years of ‘observing’ such art traditions. There is no rational explanation for the presumed acquisition of this ability, nor are there even published attempts to justify this form of self-delusion. I have long tried to discover the basis of this belief of archaeologists that they ‘communicate across vast time spans … each time they … visit a painted cave’ (Mithen 1998: 181). I have not detected any significant difference between this belief system and the beliefs of other beholders of graphic productions that these arts communicate meanings to them. Children, for instance, are avid interpreters of rock art, and their interpretations, like those of any other intelligent organism not familiar with the graphic conventions of the artist’s society, are excellent reflections of their own perception, cognition and visual skills. They are therefore instrumental in the study of the interpreting intellect and perception, but they are of no value in the scientific study of palaeoarts. The desire of intelligent organisms such as humans to detect meaning in anything from clouds to animal scratch marks or petroglyphs is most certainly of great interest in the study of, for instance, the origins of art-producing behaviour, but its results in the case of creative rock art interpreters are of no value to this discipline, be they the interpretations of juveniles, archaeologists or intergalactic visitors.That is why, in rock art science, we place all motif designations or ‘identifications’ in quotation marks.
Maynard (1977: 399) is of the view that what she interprets as a motif of a man holding a boomerang is to be separated into two figures, ‘because man and boomerang are separate motifs in their own right’. There are several reasons why this definition would be difficult to uphold. How many motifs would there be in a Saharan or Chinese rock art image of a ‘horse-drawn chariot with a warrior’? Four horses, a chariot, a man, his shield, his lance, the reins … . Would the wheels be separate motifs, and if not, why not? They may form part of the chariot, but they are detachable, whereas the man ‘is not’ a warrior without the lance and shield drawn. Or in the case of a Gwion anthropomorph from Kimberley, Australia (formerly called ‘Bradshaw figure’): if the ‘man’ is one motif, and the various objects attached to his image are separate motifs, who decides what is and what is not ‘detachable’? To determine this we would have to know what each aspect depicts (headdress or coiffure, woomera or Lightning Brothers’ ‘long thumb’?), which we certainly do not.
Therefore Maynard’s definition of a motif is unworkable, and we need one that is practical and logically consistent. I favour the view that if the so-called boomerang is shown attached to the so-called hand, then it is part of the anthropomorphous motif. If it is separated from it than it represents a separate motif. While this may not necessarily reflect the intent of the artist, it is logically more consistent because we must not neglect to remember that Maynard’s identifications as ‘man’ and ‘boomerang’ are themselves unsubstantiated assumptions, they are not real identifications in the sense that they are testable — even though they may well be valid. In other words, in a scientific perspective it must be unacceptable to employ subjective identifications of parts of motifs in deciding how many separate objects there are depicted in a composition. All we can say with some certainty is which parts of a composition are physically connected. Conversely, strong reasons would have to be offered to consider unconnected parts of a composition as forming parts of a single motif. Such reasons would include distinctive spatial relationship of elements, e.g. a centrally placed cross or cupule within a circle. In most cases I think a motif includes all parts that are shown together and are connected physically.
One of the most recent advocacies of the iconographic identification of rock art motifs is by Chippindale (2001), who (in the context of what purports to be a ‘handbook’ of rock art research) fails to cite a single justification for his own ‘identifica-tions’. He presents a number of rock art motifs and tells us what they depict, but he fails to inform us what qualifies him to make these pronouncements. Every one of his examples can readily be interpreted differently, and the interpretations of these same motifs by young children are more interesting, illuminating and relevant. To illustrate his academically vacuous approach, I cite his example of a tree-like petroglyph motif, which most juveniles seem to see as a fir or spruce tree, although to me it looks much more like an archaeologist’s trowel. Chippindale claims it depicts a dagger, and because it resembles in his view Bronze Age daggers (which, actually, it does not, but this is an unimportant point) he goes on to assume that the petroglyphs are of such age. Presumably he would argue that the shape of the ‘dagger’ ‘proves’ it is of the Bronze Age, which confirms his dating claim. At no stage in his circular reasoning has Chippindale explained why his own iconographic perception should be relevant to the determination of subjects in an alien art, or how one is expected to test his tautological proposition without having full access to the neural processes of Chippindale’s visual system. What he offers is reminiscent of Lewis-Williams’ suggestion that one sees a circle as either an orange, a breast or a bomb, depending on one’s preoccupations.
To illustrate the futility of iconographic identification in most rock art, many examples could be cited. I chose to select an example from Karelia, Russia: the ‘identifications’ of four specific motif types by eleven analysts are compared in Table 1, illustrating how pointless these preoccupations are. Much the same could be compiled from the existing literature about many rock art regions.
R. G. Bednarik, 2001