Before there were urban murals, before there was written language, there was rock art.
Pictographs (images painted on rock) and petroglyphs (images pecked into rock using a sharp object) are the oldest extant forms of visual communication we as a species have created, with the most ancient panels dating from at least 10,000 years ago in North America and possibly up to 28,000 years ago in other parts of the world.
I majored in anthropology as a college student, and was endlessly fascinated by both the content and quantity of rock art panels around the world. I was deterred from studying them more deeply because of the difficulty of applying scientific rigor to their analysis. Simply put, it’s really hard to fix dates for rock art. Unlike other remains, panels aren’t embedded in soil, so applying the dates of burnt carbon-based materials found in the same layer (a common archaeological dating technique) usually isn’t an option. You can make guesses about the panels’ ages based on nearby sites or on the styles of the figures represented, but these are really just guesses. Without a date in time and a knowledge of which culture created which panels, there’s no “study” to be done – in the eyes of many scientists, anyway.
That didn’t do much to derail my curiosity about them; it just moved them from the artifact compartment of my brain to the art department.
Art connects people. We draw pictures, write stories, and compose songs hoping and trusting that the thoughts and feelings we experience are shared by others. The artist creates because he or she is inspired by an idea. This idea is embedded and encapsulated in the work. Each and every time the work is experienced, the idea, thought, or feeling is released from its capsule and gets new life. In the process, it changes just a little bit. If the artwork is a successful one, the creator and the observer share a common experience – and, at the same time, inject a little of their own individuality into it. The experience becomes one that is both completely universal and totally individual at the same time – which is so very cool.
When stand under a rock art panel, I know someone has stood in the exact same spot thousands of years prior to me. I know we have the common experience of seeing and appreciating the sandstone and the blue sky of that location. Looking at the panel, I share with the artist the feelings of desiring to leave my mark, record a special day, or simply see mental images come to life. And, I also am aware of the fact that I am looking at the panel from a body dressed in 21st century clothes. I’m holding a camera and may have a communication device in my pocket. The brain that’s processing the panel knows how big the world is, and even what that world looks like on the other side. In most cases I’ve arrived at the panel in a fossil-fuel powered metal box, listening to music that the ancient artist would have never even imagined. I am sharing the artist’s experience, and yet my experience is completely unique.
Everyone loves to guess what the figures on rock art panels symbolize. Does the ubiquitous spiral commemorate a comet’s passing or a birthday? Are the animals creatures they have hunted or creatures they have raised? Do dots signify the passing of time or a trail through a physical space? Of course, we’ll never really know for sure. And, I am not sure it matters. As with all forms of art, what matters is that someone had an idea and took the time and trouble to express it, and someone else interpreted and rebirthed it.
In the case of rock art, the artist and the observer are separated by time but not by space. For me, this makes each and every panel like a little time capsule that is opened and re-opened every time someone walks by. My observation of the art tosses a thought into the time capsule, making this miniscule contribution to the world. Not only do I have a moment of connection to the artist; for a split second, I share something with every observer that has passed the panel before me.
In the meantime, the idea represented on the panel endures, outliving every one of the individual lives that contributed to its sustenance.
As someone who doesn’t believe in an afterlife, I somehow find that reassuring. Immortality via artistic expression. I think I can live with that.