THE LEWIS-WILLIAMS REVOLUTION: studying rock art in southern africa and beyond
The overall theme and structure of this book serve to explore how best we study rock art when there exist ethnographic or ethnohistoric bases of insight, and how we study rock art when there do not appear to be ethnographic or ethnohistoric bases of insight – in short, how we understand and learn from rock art with and without ethnography. We are not aware of an exact precedent for this, although the way archaeologists work best with and without ethnography is a perpetual issue of the discipline.
The ten years between 1967 and 1977 were, we can now see, a revolutionary period in southern African rock art research. In those years the older, colonial approaches to studying San rock art were rejected and replaced with approaches based on San cognition and ethnohistory – concerns which continue to be strong in the region and are increasingly influential outside it. In particular, studies of the meanings of San rock art have received wide notice.
This is more than a local or a regional concern. For a century – ever since the unexpected discoveries of Ice Age rock art in its deep caves astonished Europe – researchers have found rock art difficult. Striking though it often is in its aesthetic force, it has been hard to date and hard to make sense of within conventional archaeological frameworks. So observant, so well done, so accomplished, it must have meant something in ancient times – but what? In South Africa, David Lewis-Williams has accurately called the well-meaning and unhappy approaches that resulted ‘gaze and guess’ (Lewis-Williams & Dowson 2000). Guesses have come and gone in passing fashions over the decades as archaeologists have struggled with rock art – from totemism to sympathetic magic to aesthetic self-enjoyment to daily narrative to structuralism, back to totemism (Jones 1967) and so on – in a way that gives no confidence that the present fashion will be more than a passing phase, or even that knowledge accumulates, building and extending from stage to stage. Ideas seem just to flit about, one sometimes popular and one sometimes not, within much the same level of necessary ignorance.