“Rock art has been described before, but it has never been read,” declares a triumphant Italian archaeologist, surveying the largest expanse of rock art in Europe. Emmanuel Anati, the world’s leading authority on the Valcamonica site, believes that the prehistoric rock engravings are not just artworks but an early form of writing. “The turning point was to consider the rocks as messages – messages which are legible ten or fifteen thousand years after they were written.”
Valcamonica, north of Lake Iseo, has been inhabited since the Neolithic era, when the Camuni tribal civilisation first etched itself into existence. For generations, these hunters and farmers recorded everyday life and their relationship with the other world. As a tribal record of a civilisation, the valley offers a span of creativity stretching from Stone Age culture well into Roman times, when the Camuni, hunters rather than warriors, were easily crushed and assimilated by the Roman imperialists.
Dubbed `stickmen’ by modern valley people, the primitive carvings of people and shamans have always had resonance locally. The rock-carvings date back to 6000 BC, with the earliest images featuring rudimentary animal figures in static poses, usually deer and elk, which represented local deities. More sophisticated narrative art emerged during the Bronze and Iron Ages, while the Etruscans, Romans and Christians continued in their ancestors’ footsteps: this natural blackboard was only abandoned in the late Middle Ages. Archaeologists began to work out the `grammar’ of this proto-writing system by using a unified system of signs known as pictograms, ideograms and psychograms. If pictogams are pictures resembling what they signify, ideograms represent concepts, while psychograms symbolise psychological maps. By deciphering a number of rocks, Anati has far more sense of the messages: “We concluded that the majority of the inscriptions refer to mythological accounts and information about initiation rites.” The deciphering is an ongoing task but the initial findings tap into a daring thesis: that there is a universal structure to world prehistoric rock art. Similar themes recur, such as sex, hunting, food and the territorial imperative. The boldest conclusion is also the most mundane: that prehistoric peoples resembled one another; and that our prehistoric ancestors were much the same as us.