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Chapter 10 - From the tyranny of the figures to the interrelationship between myths, rock art and their surfaces

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 April 2018

Knut Helskog
Affiliation:
Department of Cultural Sciences, Tromsø University Museum, 9037 Tromsø, Norway
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Summary

Rock art was often deliberately made where communication with the spirits was believed to be good. It was therefore made in caves and shelters, on steep cliffs, high in the mountains and on the shore – a range of localities all considered transitional spaces between cosmic worlds (Lewis-Williams & Dowson 1990; Tilley 1991; Whitley 1998; Helskog 1999). This emphasises that rock art is often just one part of a broader ritual landscape. This chapter focuses on the physical rock art panel, the surface with art, and how this art engages with the rock art figures. On some surfaces, specific topographic features enhanced the form of the figures. Figures directly associated with cracks and fissures appear to be climbing out from inside/under the surface, or a serpent depicted in a basin is interpreted as a serpent within water, or the tracks of the bear entering a basin are interpreted as the bear going underwater, passing through to the underworld (Helskog 1999). To secure a prosperous field season at Besov Nos on the east coast of Lake Onega in Karelia, some Russian archaeologists always start fieldwork by sacrificing a shot or two of vodka into the mouth – a fissure – of the large rock engraving called ‘the demon’. Fieldwork is always good.

Topographic features might be one reason for selecting a particular surface; orientation to the sun, dark hidden places, colours and the presence of water are others. It is to be expected that around the world the reasons will be numerous, the locations different – each particular to a specific culture and to that people's rituals and understandings of their life in the known universe. However, in many areas it is clear that surfaces were selected with great care, for specific reasons, all connected with the symbolism of the rock art. These points are demonstrated for a series of rock art panels made by prehistoric hunter-fisher-gatherers in Alta, Arctic Norway (Figure 10.1).

THE TYRANNY

During the last few years, my understanding of rock art has changed. The process began when I saw compositions in which bears were the central ‘actors’ (Figure 10.2). These seemed to be illustrations in which the animals moved through space and time. This was a story in which I could recognise some key elements without needing to know the full meaning (Helskog 1999).

Type
Chapter
Information
Seeing and Knowing
Understanding Rock Art With and Without Ethnography
, pp. 168 - 187
Publisher: Wits University Press
Print publication year: 2010

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