Detail of the Laxe dos Carballos  at Campo Lameiro, Galicia, Spain

A Walk Amongst the Petroglyphs of Galicia: Prehistoric Designs Trace Life and Times of Bronze Age Europeans

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From the Upper Palaeolithic and down through the Neolithic, the Chalcolithic and into the Bronze Age, our ancestors in western Europe left behind traces of their thoughts and beliefs through rock art, characterised by cup and ring marks, spirals and other designs, particularly depicting deer and sometimes also hunters, warriors and weapons.

Palloza houses in eastern Galicia, an evolved form of the Iron Age local roundhouses.

Palloza houses in eastern Galicia, an evolved form of the Iron Age local roundhouses. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Dating these carvings, which are called petroglyphs, is difficult but in Galicia, in north west Spain, the carvings include images of datable objects such as Bronze Age swords. Many of them are close to settlements datable to the Bronze Age and carbon dating of fires which had been lit in cups carved into the rocks also points to the Bronze Age. So the consensus is that many of Galicia’s images must be of Bronze Age provenance. 

Petroglyph with circles and lines, Vigo, Spain

Petroglyph with circles and lines, Vigo, Spain. ( CC BY 2.0 )

Prehistoric Designs

Petroglyphs are found all over Europe and there are many examples of geometric designs in Britain, particularly the numerous cup and rings marks of Kilmartin in Argyll . Besides Galicia, sites which depict more than simple cups and rings include Macao in Portugal; Mont Bego on the south coast of France; Valcamonica, Italy and nearby Carschenna, Switzerland, both in the Alps; Namforsen and Tanum, Sweden (where there are famous depictions of boats and men with erections, and brandishing weapons); the River Vyg, Russia; and Alta and Vingen, Norway (where there is a reindeer).

We have yet to see these, but we have visited Lipci near Rhisan in Montenegro, where a sheer cliff face is decorated with scenes of does, and stags with prominent antlers, scattered naturally, as if seen by a hunter (though no hunters are depicted), together with swastikas and squares divided into four parts by crosses. These are dated conservatively to about 800 BC, but they have a great deal in common with those in Galicia which have been dated convincingly to the early Bronze Age.

Petroglyph in Campo Lameiro.  Galicia, Spain.

Petroglyph in Campo Lameiro.  Galicia, Spain.  (Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez (Lmbuga)/ CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Part of the cliff face at Lipci, Montenegro, showing symbols including swastikas.

Part of the cliff face at Lipci, Montenegro, showing symbols including swastikas. (Photo courtesy author)

A stag and a doe at Lipci, Montenegro.

A stag and a doe at Lipci, Montenegro. (Photo courtesy author)

A stag at Lipci, Montenegro.

A stag at Lipci, Montenegro. (Photo courtesy author)

Many (though certainly not all) of such images are found reasonably close to the sea. Geology is a factor in their distribution, for the existence and survival of rock art requires the presence of flattish rock surfaces which are soft enough to allow them to be engraved. The technique used was very similar to that used on cave walls and elsewhere during the Ice Age. An outline was scratched quickly with sharp quartz, and then the lines were scooped out into ‘u’ shaped grooves using quartz hammer-stones. Remains of such implements have been found in digs near petroglyphs. Sometimes, the edges of the resulting carving were then smoothed, though of course it’s often hard to tell what was done then deliberately, and what has resulted from later weathering.

Galicia’s Rich Variety of Petroglyphs

Petroglyphs are found all over Galicia, but mainly along the Atlantic seaboard, particularly in the Rias Baixas, reaching their greatest density along the River Lérez, close to the estuary of Pontevedra, and it is here that the variety of images is greatest too. At Campo Lameiro , ten miles inland from the sea at Pontevedra, you can visit and stroll around a preserved and well signposted upland landscape peppered with flat rocks, on which our Bronze Age ancestors had drawn a great variety of symbols.

he landscape of Campo Lameira in Galicia, with plenty of rocks left lying about by nature, inviting humans to draw on them.

The landscape of Campo Lameira in Galicia, with plenty of rocks left lying about by nature, inviting humans to draw on them. (Photo courtesy author)

Geometric designs found in Galicia are common in other rock art areas along the Atlantic seaboard – cup marks, spirals and concentric circles, some with a line drawn down from the middle (which are termed ‘labyrinths’, but they are only mazes in the loosest sense: one could not possibly become lost in one). There are also squares with rounded edges, grids, zigzags, swastikas and three-legged ‘trisquels’ (similar to the three-legged emblem of the Isle of Man). But Galicia is special for the many other motifs found there – deer, animals and riders, serpents, boats and weapons. 

Comments

While we cannot dismiss out of hand deep meaning in the petroglyphs and other artistic expressions of the prehistoric creators, we must also not discount the quite obvious possibility that many of these carvings were done purely for creative release, out of boredom, or for territorial marking. A child of today will draw circles, spirals, zigzags, and other geometric and quasi-geometric designs, and it's not because he or she is expressing religious sentiments, foggy hallucinogenic journeys, or cultural values; rather, it's just something to do. It might reveal underlying cultural or experiential themes, but no more than that in telling the tale of his society, culture, values, and life.

We find petroglyphic spirals from Africa to Europe, from Asia to the Americas, and archaeologists claim they are all representations of drug-addled shamanistic voyages into the inner mind, the depths of dreams, the pit of death, or what have you. How about this?—Spirals are easy and fun to draw. So, too, are animals. Ditto for zig-zags.

"Hey, I saw this guy drawing these when we were on foray into the Lowlands. We killed him, but his drawings were pretty cool." Does this sound less reasonable than a poundingly tedious, complex theory of transcontinental, similar expressions of beliefs, gods, stoner priests, and artistic expressions of deeply torpid existentialist reactions to post-Neolithic modernism?

Heaven help the aspiring archaeologist of this mindset who would venture into a public toilet stall and start reading the graffiti. We might end up with a full dissertation, three peer-reviewed journal articles, a speaking tour culminating in tea and biscuits in Leeds, and a chair at the London School of Economics (known for its affinity for old fossils, considering its staff of lecturers).

But I digress... as usual.

Anthony Adolph's picture

There are certainly arguments that these images, and many other types of prehistoric art, were mere graffiti. The chief argument against is the amount of time and effort needed to create these images: if the teenager was bored when he started painstakingly picking out one of these images, he certainly would have been by the time he had finished. The positioning, the care and effort taken, and the sparing choice of images is more suggestive of a more serious purpose. 

To address your final point, if some graffiti from a public loo was virtually all that survived in 3000 years time of 21st century society, it would rightly be the subject of much interest as one of the few windows available into that part of the ancestral past and, if you think about it, it would tell those interested something about 21st centry society, albeit not in the most edifying way.  

But I think the comparison you make is entirely unfair to our ancient ancestors. 

 

Auntie g's picture

No child I ever knew (including myself, many, many years ago) would EVER have gone to the trouble of pounding on a rock-face for days/weeks because he/she was “bored.”  Have you ever tried it?  Double dare ya. Had to be pretty serious – for whatever reason.  Just sayin’.  g

“Many of them are close to settlements datable to the Bronze Age and carbon dating of fires which had been lit in cups carved into the rocks also points to the Bronze Age. So the consensus is that many of Galicia’s images must be of Bronze Age provenance.”

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is…….. Science.

 

Anthony Adolph's picture

I’m afraid I do not quite see the point of this comment. Curiosity alone invites us to attempt to date these fascinating images, and in the article I attempted to provide a summary of what the archaeologists who have studied these images think – which is that they have been attributed to the Bronze Age. The fact that some of them depict Bronze Age weapons, as I also wrote in the article, must also be significant. 

Hi Anthony, thank you for this interesting article. I must admit that the "cup & ring" petroglyph's have always been a favourite of mine, there have been occasions when I've looked at them and wondered about their meaning, and the experience has been akin to trying to remember a particular word that is "on the tip of your tongue" but never quite getting there as it were. Could it be that somewhere in our collective conscious the answer lays just out of reach of our grasp?

Anthony Adolph's picture

I’m very glad that you enjoyed the article! I suppose that depends on whether we have a collective consciousness: I don’t think so, but perhaps there are elements of the human brain which we all have in common which lead to certain sorts of behaviour, and stimulate certain responses to symbols, and the desire to produce symbols like this may perhaps fall into this category. It’s an interesting line of thought... . 

lizleafloor's picture

Thank you Anthony – I find it to be a fascinating article on a topic I hadn’t read much on previously. The wealth of petroglyphs in Galicia and their design and clarity was a suprise to me. I’m not sure I understand the cynicism some are displaying about the issue. These images are a direct window into prehistoric times – until we build a time machine this is what we’ve got to work with. 

Anthony Adolph's picture

Exactly – thank you! And a window into the past has an inherent value, regardless of how we then chose to interpret what we see. 

The "lit cups" were placed to reflect constellations.

Anthony Adolph's picture

I have heard that theory, yes. I’m not sure how far anyone has gone to proving it by matching arrangements of cups with known constellations – do you know if anyone has done this?  

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