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

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?  

The "lit cups" were placed to reflect constellations.

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. 

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

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... . 

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