ArcheoScience Talks

Interview to Ines Domingo, rock art expert and recent discoverer of a new Levantine rock art site in Spain

 Interview to Ines Domingo, rock art expert and recent discoverer of a new Levantine rock art site in Spain.

This discovery has had a huge impact in major International, National and regional media (newspapers, as well as several radio stations).

 Daily mail (UK)

 The art Newspaper (US)

 El Mercurio (Chile)

 Il Messaggero (Italy)

 Diario el Pueblo (Uruguay)

 Origen (Mexico)

 El País (Spain)

 As well as: el Mundo, Levante.emv, el periódico mediterráneo, la voz de Galicia, 20 minutos, la Vanguardia, Navarra información (Among others).


What do you think about the new policy to visit Altamira?

In my opinion, opening our Heritage to the public should be a priority, but provided that experts properly regulate the access, the site is constantly monitored, the access is sustainable, and it doesn’t impact on the long-term preservation of the site.
If we talk specifically about Altamira, though, the situation is far more complex. There is an increasing social demand, since this site was the first rock art site being scientifically accepted worldwide as produced by prehistoric societies, thus accepting the capacity of prehistoric humans to communicate through a symbolic language.

But we are all familiar with the impact the initial opening had on the preservation of this site, and therefore, if there is an interest in reopening the original, it has to be done following a science-driven conservation protocol. It cannot only respond to political interests, since we are talking about a unique sample of prehistoric art that cannot be replaced.
If conservation experts suggest a maximum of 5 visitors per day, to ensure preservation and minimize the impact, we have to follow the experts’ advice. If I agree or disagree with the system in place to select the visitors each day, is a different issue. But with such a small number of visitors per day, any selection system can be easily criticized.

Do you think there is social awareness of the need for heritage preservation?

I like being positive and thinking that social awareness of the need to protect and preserve our common cultural heritage is slowly increasing, but still not enough. Both Public Administrations and Research Centers should work together to promote more innitiatives for public education on the values and benefits of our Cultural Heritage through conferences, workshops, an so forth. We do not have an innate capacity to value our cultural heritage. We have to be taught how to do it, as we do with Maths, English or Science.

Only when we feel the heritage belongs to us, we start being concerned and involved in heritage protection, promotion and conservation.

What are the steps an amateur should follow when discovering a new sample of prehistoric art?

If we are talking about Spain, we should remember that the National Heritage Act requires obtaining an official written permit to conduct any sort of archaeological survey. Thus, I’m assuming you are asking for a casual find (accidental discovery). Of course, in such a case they have to report the find to the Heritage unit of their Autonomous Community as well as to the appropriate specialists from Universities and research centres. They are responsible for checking that the find is genuine and set the protocol to be followed to ensure proper conservation, scientific study and, if appropriate, dissemination, once the authenticity is confirned.

What is the role of Public Administration today in the care of rock art?

Again, in Spain, the Spanish Historical Heritage Act of June 25, 1985 declared all samples of prehistoric rock art, either known or unknown, as Bien de Interés Cultural (National Heritage site). This is the highest level of recognition and protection a sample of Cultural Heritage can reach in our country. According to this law, rock art sites cannot be damaged or destroyed, and it is the responsibility of the regional governments (the Autonomous Communities), with delegated powers regarding Heritage, to ensure such protection.

We all know that any intervention on a site requires an official written permit from the Regional Administration and therefore the Administration is responsible for law enforcement. Their role is to authorize, monitor, approve and inspect any intervention. Similarly, both the State and the Autonomous Communities have to finance archaeological works and promote archaeology.

Main differences between Levantine and Schematic rock art?

Both of them are samples of post- Paleolithic rock art. They are both mainly produced in open air rock shelters, and in both of them paintings are more common. But there are substantial differences in their geographical distribution, the degree of naturalism of their motifs, the techniques used or the subject matter depicted.

Levantine rock art is limited to the Mediterranean side of the Iberian Peninsula, while Schematic rock art spreads throughout the Iberian Peninsula and beyond, with regional differences regarding chronology and subject matter.

Regarding the themes depicted, Levantine rock art is naturalistic and includes very dynamic narrative scenes, illustrating hunting activities, wars and dances, territorial marches, maternity or death scenes and so forth. Human figures (men, women and even children), adorned with bows, arrows and a variety of body adornments populate the panels. And they sometimes share scenes with various species of wildlife: deer, wild goat, bull, wild boar, and to a lesser extent horses, insects and rarely carnivores or rabbits.

On the contrary, Schematic rock art is less naturalistic, with a simplification of the anatomical features of both humans and animals, which are reduced to basic lines. Alongside these motifs, we also find others like eyed idols, geometric motifs (zigzags, slashes, dots), and so forth.
The differences are also substantial regarding techniques. The colours are quite similar, dominated by red and black, but there are important differences in the type of brush strokes. While the thin and modelling brush strokes of Levantine art evidence the use of very fine brushes, Schematic art characterizes by thick and less naturalistic lines which could be achieved with thicker brushes or even with the fingers.

What are the more traditional methods used today to date rock art with reliability?

This is a good question, which would require a long answer . So I will only refer to the most used methods. As in the study of any other archaeological remain, to date the art we use both relative and absolute methods.

One of the most used relative dating methods is stylistic dating, which involves the creation of chronological sequences through the study of superimpositions and looking for consistent patterns of representation and association. With this sort of analysis we can classify the art into different stages or phases, but still do not know when these phases were produced. Therefore, to establish a chronological framework for these phases or stages, we need to look for stylistic parallels (or similarities) in samples of portable art, found in well-dated archaeological contexts.

For the direct dating of rock art using absolute methods, we all know that the preservation of some organic material is necessary. Fortunately it has been possible in different sites with Palaeolithic art, where the motifs have been depicted using black charcoal.  But this is less common in Post-Palaeolithic art. When some organic remains are preserved, carbon-14 dating is the most widely used dating technique. But the results are not free from controversy. Why? Because what we’re dating is the wood itself, but not necessarily when it was burned and/or used (which means that the wood or the charcoal could be older than the paintings).

In recent years new techniques are proliferating. One of them, Uranium thorium dating, has recently provided the oldest dates for Spanish prehistoric art (and also the oldest date for world rock art), opening a hot debate on the possibility of Neanderthals being the authors of some of the paintings. This technique doesn’t date the paintings themselves, but the age of the calcium carbonate materials covering the art, thus providing a minimum age for the paintings.

The problems for dating rock art are not solved yet, and thus, the best we can do is to combine both absolute and relative methods.

Furthermore, we should remember that the art was not produced to be visited only once, but periodically, and that old rock art was also visible for new inhabitants. Thus, while absolute dates may inform us on when the art was produced, they tell us little about the continuity of their reuse.

What was the role of the rock art in prehistoric societies? Was it art?

Ethno-archaeology informs us that the concept of “art” as understood by western societies today, is not applicable to the art produced by Indigenous communities. It is not simply produced for to delight the audience. Rock art in these societies, together with music, dances and songs is used to convey beliefs, traditions, laws, rules, ideas, and so forth.. But unlike music, dances and songs, rock art remains on the walls remains for a long time, playing a key role as a reminder of all those beliefs and traditions.
In my opinion, this role of rock art can be extrapolated to all illiterate societies (including prehistoric societies), in which art is one of the main vehicles of visual communication.


Next Interview to Inés Domingo. Discover the relevance of Prehistoric Art to understand the origins of visual communication and complex human behavior

Dr. Domigo is an ICREA Research Professor (Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies) at the Department of Prehistory, Ancient History and Archaeology (University of Barcelona).  Dr. Domingo’s research is conducted in the framework of SERP (Prehistoric Studies and Research Seminar). Her current research focuses on two independent but interconnected research lines: the study of prehistoric art in the Iberian Peninsula and the ethnoarchaeological study of australian Indigenous rock art. She is also interested in increasing public awareness of the values of rock art to ensure the long term preservation of this heritage.

ArcheoScience will interview Inés Domingo at the end of April as a launch of our new section “ArcheoScience Talks”.

We will talk about the relevance of Prehistoric Art to understand the origins of visual communication and complex human behavior, as well as the significance of this cultural heritage in the XXI century. Our journey will begin talking about the origins of art and its evolution and the analysis of different techniques. We will discuss what impulsed our ancestors to start placing these markings on natural stones. We will also try to understand what were they painting or how, and where are the main places discovered so far.

The study of Rock Art today is conducted mixing multidisciplinary perspectives, including from the more traditional archaeological analysis and classification methods, to new digital recording techniques (2D digital tracings, 3D photogrammetry and laser scanner), new dating methods or physico-chemical analysis to identify the natural and mineral compounds and recipes used to produce pigments.

Finally it’s important to be aware of the historical, artistic and cultural significance of this Prehistoric Art. Thus, we will explore the procedures used today to guaranty their conservation, direct and inderect protective measures (legislation, enclousures, and so forth) and protocols to control public access to the sites.

This will be an exciting interview and ArcheoScience wants to share it with you all. We also offer you the opportunity to participate in this interview sending your own questions. You can post them in the “ArcheoScience Talks”  group within the community within the discussion forum “Interview to Inés Domingo. Discover the relevance of Prehistoric Art to understand the origins of visual communication and complex human behavior (April 2014)