geometric signs symbols cave rock art

Geometric Signs & Symbols in Rock Art

Research Methodology

Detailed Descriptions & Findings for the Geometric Signs of Ice Age France (35,000 - 10,000 years ago) by Genevieve von Petzinger

Sub-divisions of the Ice Age into Stylistic Periods
(From Clottes 2008)
Name of Period From To
Aurignacian 35,000 years ago 28,000 years ago
Gravettian 28,000 years ago 22,000 years ago
Solutrean 22,000 years ago 17,000 years ago
Magdalenian 17,000 years ago 13,000 years ago
Late Magdalenian 13,000 years ago 10,000 years ago

The Worldwide Geometric Signs Chart contains a brief overview of each of the sign types that I identified and worked with throughout my MA research. As I now embark on my PhD, it is important to remember that this typology is far from finished. As I begin to add other countries and regions, as well as re-visiting some of the distinctions that have been made between different abstract shapes, there is a definite possibility that more categories will be added, while others may be revised. Having said that, this typology still acts as an excellent tool with which to study the geometric signs, and some of the results of this survey of Ice Age France are quite fascinating and suggestive.

Other than some difficulties in accumulating sufficient data for each site, probably the most challenging part of this project was creating a typology of the French geometric sign types out of several regional versions. Gonzalez Morales has cautioned that we must be aware of the possibility that these categories were created because they appeared to have the same meaning to the researcher, rather than having been organized this way by the artist (1997: 195). Many of the earliest sign types were assumed to be narrative, or pictographic in nature, and were named accordingly using a Latin-based typology (for example penniform = spear or arrow, tectiform = hut or animal trap, and claviform = club), as well as being based on a hunting magic interpretation (Bahn & Vertut 1997: 167). Bahn has suggested that while these interpretive names are no longer taken literally, they are now so embedded in the literature, that they have been retained as general descriptions of certain sign type shapes (1997: 167). Based on this, I included these descriptive category names in my typology since they are the most widely recognized designations (see below for the full description of each of these categories within the typology).

With different researchers working in each of the regions, often at separate times, some of them chose to use alternate category names, or grouped the non-figurative imagery in a different way. This resulted in some confusion when trying to ascertain whether geometric signs from two different sites were in fact the same (especially if there were no images), which was necessary during the creation of an amalgamated typology. Part of the issue with multiple names for the same abstract shape seemed to stem from the desire of later researchers to distance themselves from the early interpretive names. In an attempt to be more objective, what used to be called an arrow is now sometimes identified as "a chevron with a median longitudinal line" (Bahn & Vertut 1997: 174), but if not everyone is using the same criteria; this unfortunately does not really fix the problem. Within this overview, I will be defining the significant characteristics of each sign type, as well as acknowledging the alternate names which I have collapsed into each category.

One other important thing to keep in mind when it comes to the distribution of sign types across the time period of the Ice Age is the problem of differential preservation. The further back we go, the less likely we are to find sites intact. For example, 75% of cave and rock shelter sites from the Aurignacian period have had their walls and ceilings collapse, and all we have left are the markings found on broken blocks and fragments of rock at these sites. In nearly all of these cases, it is the engravings that have survived, since they endure the weathering process a lot better than the paintings. There are also several sites such as La Ferrassie, Abri Castanet and Abri Belcayre, where all we have on the blocks are remnants of what were paintings when they were on the walls. Since many of the blocks fall face down, the paint tends to come off, leaving us with only faint hints of what used to be on them. This has resulted in the Aurignacian period in particular, being labelled as consisting mostly of engravings. But when the circumstantial evidence such as paint flakes, and partial paintings on fragments is taken into consideration, the reality is probably that there was a more even mix of both, but it is difficult to prove.

What this means for us as archaeologists studying these sites, is that while we can tell that these sites used to be decorated with both paintings and engravings, we are no longer able to tell what the majority of the paintings were. And when it comes to identifying specific images, both for figurative and non-figurative representations, we know that we are at a real disadvantage with the old sites since so much has been lost. This is one of the reasons that the discovery of the site of Chauvet in 1994 was so important to this field of research. With Carbon 14 dating this site to older than 28,000 years ago, and over 450 painted and engraved images identified so far, Chauvet is allowing us to learn more about the earliest days of rock art in Europe, as this is a rare site where the imagery remains largely intact on the walls.

Genevieve von Petzinger | An Introduction
What are Geometric Signs? | Worldwide Geometric Signs Chart
Research Methodology
Geometric Signs in France | Page | 1 | 2 |
Sign Types Present in Countries and Regions
Bibliography | for photos and drawings | A to L | N to Z |

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