A Survey into the Relationship between
Animal-Engravings and Cupules
Introduction by the Bradshaw Foundation
Cupules and their relationship with rock art
Rock Art of Twyfelfontein in Namibia, Africa
Maarten van Hoek was completing his extensive survey about the possible relations in rock art between cupules and animal imagery at Twyfelfontein in Namibia when he approached the Bradshaw Foundation towards the end of 2002. Not only would this survey throw light upon the enigma of cupules and their relationship with rock art, it would provide a comprehensive and overdue update of the Twyfelfontein material from 1975.
Pecked or Rubbed Cupules
North West Australia
Pecked Pit wall panels
North West Australia
Cupules can be found in rock art sites on every continent. They represent some of the earliest and most fundamental art forms, as well being executed today in traditional societies. In the Kimberleys in north-western Australia a site has been recorded containing over 3000 pecked cupules on a vertical rock face. It is likely that the laborious task of pecking and abrading this number of pits may date from a time when the now extremely hard rock surface was of a more workable form. This suggests the cupule art culture predates climatic changes associated with transformation of the rock surfaces, supporting the antiquity indicated by their patination and weathering. Conversely, whilst researching a cupule site in Hawai'i where cupules had been carved within the past 10 years, Dr Georgia Lee broke for the rainy season. She returned to the site to find that 3 new cupules had been added in her absence. Sensing desecration, she tackled the Chief who laughed and informed her that three births had occurred in her absence and that the mothers had individually ground the scab from the navel of the baby into the rock, creating a cupule in an Earth goddess ritual.
The meanings and significance of cupules vary considerably and remain, where we have no oral tradition, open to debate. Van Hoek states that 'another distinction is that cupules may appear on horizontal, steeply sloping and vertical surfaces, whereas grinding hollows almost exclusively are found on rock surfaces that are horizontal or nearly so.' Thus it can be argued that cupules are a non-functional phenomenon. Van Hoek states that cupules below the tail of an animal might relate to fertility beliefs'. Very frequently cupules have feminine connotations, being associated with the vulva [J.Clottes 2002]. The 'Baby Rocks' at Keystone in California get their name from the fertility rituals practiced by the Hokan Indians at these sites. It was believed that the rock powder generated in hollowing out the cupule would facilitate conception when placed in a woman's body before she had coitus.
Boulder with Cupules
Arica, Northern Chile
Another theory propounds a more sonorous view. Van Hoek observes that ' several of the sandstone rocks at Twyfelfontein, especially the harder rock types that have been incompletely fractured, produce a deep resounding effect when hit, even with the bare flat hand.' The same can be seen and heard at 'Ringing Rock' at Kahoolawe in Hawai'i.
Clottes describes a further belief associated with cupules in central Australia [J. Clottes 2002]. During rites intended to encourage the procreation of certain birds that were of importance in the lives of the aboriginals - birds they hunted and whose eggs they collected - the aboriginals hammer and hollow out cupules from a particular rock. This was done to release the bird's spirit, and in so doing impregnate the rock, symbolised by the powder that rose into the air as the cupule was being hammered out. Airborne, this spirit would fertilize the female birds, which would then lay more eggs.
Panel with Cupules
Kilmartin, Argyll, West Scotland
Block bearing Cupules
Inverness, North East Scotland
Van Hoek's survey into the possible relations in rock art between cupules and animal imagery at Twyfelfontein, along with the Site Report of Sven Ouzman, has provided an essential analysis and interpretation of the very significant rock art of this region of Namibia, and will no doubt lead to a deeper understanding of both the site's uniqueness as well as shared rock art characteristics, styles and meanings.
Peter Robinson, Project Controller.
2 October 2003