UNITS IN PREHISTORIC ART RESEARCH: ARCHEOFACTS OR REALITIES?
Universidad Federal de Minas Gerais. Belo Horizonte. Brasil.
When modern western thinking divided knowledge in several strictly
separated areas by 18th - century, then appeared the idea that "art"
was a specific category, that I. Kant characterized as "its own
finality". Actually, the concept of art doesn't exist in most cultures.
Even in Latin, ars, artis means technological hability (the one
of the craftsman - artisan, artesão, artesano in neo-latin
languages) as well the capacity to create some lovely thing (proper
of our artist).
Plato wrote upon Beauty, but he did not create an aesthetic. The
very word "art", thus, when applied to a different cultural context,
is very ethnocentric and problematic one. Should it be possible
we study prehistoric productions like "Rock Art" from our mental
categories without we speak exclusively about ourselves?
We can see two main groups among the many western scholars that
have studied the artistic phenomen from the begginning of the 20th
- Century. In the first one we find mostly artists and aestheticians,
that study non western objects from an aesthetic point of view,
as if there were universal categories; in the second one, and mainly
from the second half the 19th - century, some archaeologists and
ethnologists have tried to discover ethnic realities. But even the
concept of ethnicity has been created - as a political instrument
- in western culture, during the 19th - Century...
We can say that archaeologists that have studied prehistoric art
have worked in three main directions:
- archaeometric studies: trying to date the objects, to identify
technics of elaboration, raw materials, etc.
- temptatives to discover what was the significance of the artefacts
or graphisms for theirs authors.
- the search of implicit information (ethnic, sociological, aesthetic,
economic, perception of reality...) that we can find about the authors
through their so called "artistic" production. Prehistoric people
were, putatively, not always conscient of this type of informations.
In this paper, we shall consider only this last orientation and,
mainly, the temptatives that have been made to identify ethnic,
social or gender groups. Concepts like "style", "tradition" (and,
in Brazil, "variety" or "facies", are generally used to characterized
the production of such putative populations.
This way, it is important to know if these categories express
objective realities, or if they are only the expression of our ethnocentrism.
Are Rock Art descriptive units archaeofacts, or realities?
To discuss this point, we need understand what were the objectives
of the differents archaeologists when they proposed stylistic units.
We also can try to test the validity of these categories looking
at western historical art. With concrete examples, we'll also try
to show how (and with what limitations) ethnographic examples can
be used by archaeologists.
2 - Prehistoric Art Research: a short History
Since the 16th- Century, "tourist" guides mentionned the painting
of Niaux cave, in France. Obviously, they were not considered of
prehistoric age (this concept did not exist yet ), but they people
thought they had been made by peasants that did not know well how
to paint - within the naturalistic manner of Renaissance period.
There were, thus, object of curiosity but not of investigation or
of aesthetic pleasure.
Sketch of the animals painted
on Altamira cave by José de Argumosa,1880.
The first scientific interest arose in Europe on the late 19-th
Century, when engraved bones were found on paleolithic levels. People
was amazed by the fact that prehistoric Man should have time enough
to waste on artistic productions; early Man, and even the so called
"primitive" living populations were seen as poor people that had
to cope with a world too hard to allow high intellectual activities.
In any case, the first scholars did not think that prehistoric art
needed to be studied: they interpreted it as the expression of purely
aesthetic expression, in conformity with the neo classic or Parnassian
ideas about art.
The comparativist and evolutionnist period: magic and hunting
On the beginning of the XX century, as the same time there were
a worldwide expansion of ethnological research, prehistorian remained
evolutionnists and thought that the behaviour of modern "primitives"
should explain past societies belonging to the same "evolutionnary
stage". The time of analogy had come. Some aboriginal populations
were said to paint animals before they hunt them, to catch their
souls - and later, their body - in a "sympathic" magic way. So,
scholars like H. Breuil pointed the frequence of animals in the
just discovered rock art of Franco-Cantabrian Caves to interpret
them in a hunting perspective. Linear geometric figures were supposed
to be weapons and circular ones, representations of wounds. Every
animal with a round belly would be the representation of pregnant
female, to increase the reproduction of the preys. These explanations
were used for the whole palaeolithic art of Europe.
Tracing by H.Breuil.
Differences in the way animals were painted were mainly seen as
the result of an evolution: primitive artists would have progressively
discovered the laws of perspective from Aurignacian to Magdalenian
Rich rock art was soon discovered in non European regions like
Tassili, where H. Lhote identified successive chronological periods,
each one characterized by thematics: the first one, of hunter-gatherers
- depicted wild animals (Bubalin period); during another one, pastoralists
painted their livestock (Bovidian period); last, horse herders of
bronze period represented charriots.
From such few regional sequences, evolutionists developped the
idea (implicit or explicit) that each type of rock art should show
the evolutionary stage of its authors. Such idea remain alive and
is very clear for example, in Anati«s works (1993: 47) that lists
what should be the dominant characteristics of archaic hunters art
(wild animals, masked humans figures, psychograms; scenes rares),
evolved hunters (anecdotal scenes, imaginary beings), pastoral breeders
graphems (domestic animals, idealization of forms) and complex economies
art (implements and weapons, mythological scenes, schematic and
Reaction against ethnographic comparativism: the structuralist
A new era began in the 1960', from the independent works of A.
Laming-Emperaire and A. Leroi-Gourhan (that went on in a direction
predicted by M. Raphael in the 40'). Both didn't accept naive ethnographic
analogy; they considered than indigenous populations were not fossilized
"primitive" and should not offer keys to interpret paintings made
thousand years ago and thousand kilometers away. They pointed out
that scholars like Breuil used, in their publications, always the
same figures, to comprove their ideas; on fact, most of palaeolitical
animals depicted are not wounded or pregnant...
As it was not possible anymore to use living people in order to
explain prehistoric art, it was necessary to find in the very prehistoric
corpus informations that should not be inspired by any ethnic discourse:
nor european, nor aboriginal.
The new goal was to understand what themes were chosen by prehistoric
Men, what ones were excluded, and the way they should be a coherent
expression of organized symbols. Specific interelationship between
horse and bovidian representations (later, Leroi-Gourhan added deer/goats),
or between linear/round shaped geometric forms were recognized.
They intended to find relationship between some type of symbols
and topographic feature (horses and bovidians in central places;
dots at the entry of corridors, "dangerous", animals at the end
of corridors...). This associations, generally binary, were seen
as oppositions in a structuralist way of thinking, influenciated
by Boole's algebra. So, we should ask if this is really an universal
or an historically determined vision of the world.
Though Leroi-Gourhan (like Breuil before him) recognized the existence
of chronological modifications during the millenia (he proposed
the existence of 4 successive styles), his approach let him to privilegiate
statistics using the whole corpus of palaeolithic figures, as if
they were the product of only one thinking. This was probably to
underestimate possible variability during millenia and from one
place to another one.
Male symbols. Typology by
After they showed some forms of organization in european palaeolithic
rock art, Laming-Emperaire and Leroi-Gourhan tried to understand
their meaning (for example, when they see the association bovidian/
equidian as the expression of male/female duality). This way, they
were not anymore searching "objective" structures, but making subjective
interpretations. Anyway, all the subsequent semiotic works on rock
art (like those of Sauvet and Wlodenczyck, 1977) continue on the
way opened by both French scholars.
Diversification of approaches on the late XX century
During the 70' and 80', hundreds of new sites were discovered
in all continents; it was not anymore possible to study them in
the same way and many new approaches appeared.
One of them, is ethnographic interpretation, where indigenous
traditions might putativly offer informations about the traditional
meaning of regional rock art; in western Canada or northern Australia,
this has been used for regional purposes. But some interpretations
are being also tentatively proposed as general keys for other places;
for example, many scholars used the ideais of J. Lewis-William and
T. Dowson that many paintings or engravings should depict visions
of shamans when their conscience was altered by hallucinogenic mushrooms
or other technics. Most geometric figures, found everywhere, should
be phosphenes and for this reason, universal. As Lewis William accepted
that south african animal representations were made to improve good
results during hunting parties, the presence of geometric figures
as phosphenes reinforced old BreuilÕs theories. At the same time,
this idea contemplate our modern obsesssion with drugs; so, in several
parts of the world began the search for hallucinogenic vegetal representations
and like phosphene forms: San Pedro cactus was identified on Chavin
sculptures in Peru; An old Salish woman explained north american
engravings from visions and dreams of starving youngs during initiation
phases (A. York, R. Daly and C. Arnett ,1993)...
In any case, it appeared that the Shamanistic theory should not
explain all forms of rock art (Clottes & Lewis-William 1996).
The "information" theory of the 90' tried to show (mainly from
european rock art examples) that prehistoric figures were didactic
representation to improve hunting success (type of tracks, for example)
also prooved not to be an all embracing-theory explanation. In any
case, from this approach we know that some palaeolitical european
paintings were far more naturalistic that has been thought before;
sazonal diferences and behaviour are shown from antlers, fur and
gestures, (Bouvier & Dubourg, 1997). Medical problems and specific
pathologies are also pointed out in anthropomorphic figures (Duhard,
On the early 70', Marschack's and Ouy's works on european art,
Prous' ones on southern brazilian cultures (Marshack, 1972. Ouy
& Ouy-Parcszewska, 1972; Prous, 1977) tried to demonstrate the existance
of mathematical or rythmic records. On the same period, archaeoastronomy
turned fashionable, searching for celestial phenomenons (comets,
supernova explosions...). Very recently have appeared observations
upon acoustic properties of some sites (Dauvois 1992); there are
also ethnographic evidences that Californian historical tribes used
places with special sound propagation for ritual purposes (K. Hedges,
1993). Gender point of view was introduced, for instance in the
study of the palaeolithic "Venus" body (McCoid & Mc Dermott, 1996).
Systematic experiences to replicate and analyse prehistoric preparations
of pigments, that began with Couraud (Couraud & Laming-Emperaire,
1979) have had a great developpment in last years (Menu, Clottes,
1990) with chemist and archaeologist grewing cooperation. Chemists
found how to extrate diminute quantities of organic material to
be dated by AMS (Russ, Hyman, Shaffer & Rowe 1990): direct dating
of some rock paintings and engraving turned thus possible. At the
same time, the gesture and chronology of groove making on walls
and bones was studied through the micro analysis of the grooves
But what we should name "ethnicity research" turned a very important
approach. Where evidences like frequent superimpositions showed
that successive populations had painted the sites, each in a different
way, scholars work to establish the chronology of styles or traditions,
like Lhote had done in Sahara, Chaloupka in Australia, Prous in
central Brazil... In Australia, ancient tribal territories identification
from the study of their mythological representations, turned a priority,
when aboriginal peoples where allowed to come back and claim their
right to control the sites that symbolize their cultural identity.
Notwithstanding, some ethoarchaeological studies refute the putative
one-to one correspondance between styles and ethnic units (Franklin,
In Europe, regional styles are being valorized and the new dates
allow the scholars to analyse the technic and thematic modifications
during Late Palaeolitihic. They have speak of a "post stylistic
era" (Lorblanchet), to make clear that the unilinear view of european
rock art that characterized Breuil and Leroi-Gourhan periods is
finished. But this doesn't mean that the style concept will not
be used anymore, as it remains usefull when applied in a more restricted
Main approaches of rock art in Brazil
Artists and naturalists discussed the meaning of brazilian rock
art from early XIX century: J. B. Debret (in 1839, from the drawings
of Spix & Martius, that he retouched for this purpose) or T. Sampaio
(op. cit. 1918) interpreted the paintings as description of travels,
battles or funerary inscriptions.
On the late 1960', D. Aytai published a remarkable structuralist
paper about Itapeva rock art (S‹o Paulo state), where he tried to
find an organization of the pictographs in a way that remember Leroi-Gourhan's
works - though he did not know the papers on rock art of this scholar;
Aytai also suggested an interpretation, using Gê indians'
mythologies (Aytai, 1969). This ethnographic analogy was renewed
recently, when M. Beltrão explains some paintings of Bahia
state from indigenous traditions (Beltrão, 1994); but she
uses the ones of Tukano, a western amazonian tribe that live thousand
kilometers far from the sites - what is rather problematic (moreover,
the painting are claimed to be very ancient - some of them, of Pleistocene
age). Even where there are indigenous traditions about the rock
art existing in their present territory (as occurs with the Krenak
indians, in Minas Gerais state), it is quite sure that their speech
is a recent interpretation that helps them to built a new ethnic
identity and not a fossilized original interpretation (A. Baeta
1998). For this reason, most of Brazilian scholars, even if they
sometime mention interesting local ethnographic similarities (A.
Victor, 1997), generally avoid this approach.
On the 70', scholars prefered a stylistic treatment, that should
indicate social and cultural units (territories, ethnic groups...).
In this moment, it was clear for V. Calderon (Bahia State), N. Guidon
(Piaui state) and A. Prous (Minas Gerais state) that rock art was
very different from one region to another. In the last state, we
also pointed out drastic chronological modifications in the many
places we were studying (Lagoa Santa region, Peruaçu valley,
Montalvânia...) and tried to establish regional chronostylistic
sequences. We also began to see how buried pigments could be characterized
and used in a comparison with rock art (Prous, 1991); chemical analysis
began to be made, in Piaui (Lages 1990) and Minas Gerais (Costa
& alii 1989) states.
On the 80', it seemed possible to know who had made what; homogenous
thematic complexes should be credited to authors which use a same
code (código) and should be differenciated from other complexes,
putatively made by other tribes. Traditions were defined to express
cultural continuity; for example, one characterized by the dominance
of specific geometrical drawings; another by human beings organized
on ritual scenes, a third one by the association of some kinds of
Technical attributes (the way of drawing, the morphology of the
figures) or minor variations in thematic have been used to define
stylistic sub-unities (varities, styles, facies) typical of a small
region or periods within one tradition. The result should be seen,
in a some way, as a like culture/historical approach (I. Wüst,
1991). This type of classification, that began with Prous and Guidon,
has be very successful, in the sense that quite 200 traditions,
styles etc. were created in one decenium. M. Consens and P. Seda
discussed then this multiplication of "stylistic units", generally
very poorly characterized; for example, the definition of one of
them was: "engravings on boulders near/on waterflows", without other
specific information (Consens & Seda 1989). In several papers, Prous
and its collaborators also discussed what should be the meaning
of differences and similarities that they used to create the stylistic
units; for them, it was clear that they were not only ethnic markers
(Solá, Prous & Silva 1981; Prous 1997).
3- The definition of stylistic units: what are the "good" criteria?
It is time to reflect upon the classifications that we, archaeologists,
make, and upon the significance of the attributes we choose to make
Similarity and difference
When they create classifications for bones, ceramics, stones or
petroglyphs, the archaeologists compare the artefacts, seeking theirs
similarities and differences. The first question is: are we looking
at what prehistoric man would have see? Or: what is significant
for us, would be significant for prehistoric people too? The second
question is: if our classifications would have made no sense for
prehistoric "artists", are they worthy or not to increase our knowledge
of the past?
About the first question, I'ld like to tell a story that happened
to an anthropologist, when he was in a brazilian tribe. One indian
showed two girls to him, saying they looked like very much each
other. Looking at their faces, the Whiteman saw no similarity and
told it. The indian answered "look at the shape of the breast".
Obviously, we use to see the similarities between people mainly
in the naked part of them: hands and face. Indians see others parts,
because they don't hide their body; probably, in a traditional iranian
village, people should compare the general silhouette, the way the
girls would walk...
This way, we can see that, if we want perceive what was significant
for one prehistoric culture, we must be ready to look at a great
number of attributes, with the hope that some of them were really
important (something like the so called emblemic categorie, in Wiessner
sense) and that our study shall be able to demonstrate it. We must
not use exclusively one or a few aspects, like iconography, to characterize
a stylistic unit.
What attributes could be important?
In order to make comparisons among graphic complexes (regional
complexes, sites of the same region; pannels in the same site; chronological
levels in the same pannel...), we must look not only at the drawings
themselves, but also at the natural and cultural context in which
The reasons of the choice of a site by prehistoric people has
to be considered. It may be for its visibility on the landscape,
upstanding topographic position, proximity of water supply, orientation
and exposure to the sun... And we can judge this point only with
caution; in 1976, we found 20 rock art sites during a survey in
Montalvânia (Brazil), and pointed out that all had the same
orientation; next year, we discovered more 30 in other geological
alignements and it appeared that their orientation had not been
an important point.
Inside a site, the selection of the wall to be worked is not neutral.
In Lapa Vermelha dolina, near Lagoa Santa, the many wide, flat,
smooth and well illuminated walls that every western modern man
should have used were not decorated (Baeta, Silva & Prous 1992).
Prehistoric artists prefered much less regular surfaces. In Peruaçu
valley, each tradition had its own preferences: S. Francisco people
chose the higher part of large and flat surfaces; in the same sites,
Piolho do Urubu painted the lower part of the same pannels; Desenhos
artists also used lower places, but mostly chose fallen blocks;
Nordeste people used discrete and generally marginal places... In
fact, it is so much important to know why a site or a pannel has
not be used as it is to know why another one was choosen.
In the same way, when we study the iconograpy, it is not sufficient
to point out what are the dominant and secondary themes; it is also
worthy to identify what has not been depicted. In central Brazil,
the more praized animals fot indian hunters are deer, peccari (wild
american pigs) and tapir. But in the rock art of Minas Gerais state,
deer are the dominant painted animals in Planalto tradition, while
pecaris are quite completely absent and tapir cannot be seen; the
same occurs in the subsistance refuse on archaeological layers:
would one of them be good to be drawn and eaten, but not the other
ones? Obviously, a dominant iconographic theme only is not sufficent
to create a tradition; on the contrary, Planalto tradition would
exist over several continents, where numerous deer are also depicted...
The way that the figures are made is full of informations, even
if they might be more assertive than emblemic. In Brazil, for instance,
anthropomorphic figures of Planalto Tradition are generally very
little (more little than the associated animals) and schematic,
but in Agreste tradition they are greatest and more naturalistic.
The very disposition of figures may be typical of a stylistic
unit. For example, spear throwers appear always on the hand of a
hunting human being in Nordeste tradition; in S. Francisco one,
they are far from anthropomorphic figures; they can be isolated
(in Januaria style) or they can make alignement (Montalvania facies).
Some aspects of the sensibility of prehistoric people can be found.
In central Brazil, São Francisco people liked splendid drawings
and bright colours that can be seen at distance; Nordeste liked
to express movement in their little figures that must be seen from
a very short distance; logic spatial and iconographic organization
is characteristic of Montalvânia facies petroglyphs; Planalto
paintings use to be profusely cast on the walls in a confuse manner.
We can go further than main great stylistic units (tradition,
style, facies, variety...) that are supposed to characterize wide
social groups. It is not an irrealistic goal to identify individuality
through the observation of idiosyncratic patterns. May be the present
moment of brazilian archaeology doesn't justify the high investment
to reach this level of study, but it has occured that we recognized
immediatly the manner of some artists in deer representation of
serra do Cipó (Prous & Baeta, 1992/3).
4- The significancy of archaeological categories
What reality, if some, do our classifications reflect ?
We saw that the stylistic units that have been proposed in Brazil
were, consciously or not, a temptative to identify prehistoric people,
through what A. Leroi-Gourhan named "ethnic style".
Is it possible to do so? On the last years, it became clear that
archaeology cannot help us to find cultures ou ethnies in the modern
sense, but only the remains of some behaviours.
Let us consider historical examples. If we look at an european
and a Viet Nam Catholic churches, we hope that iconography will
be the same (Cross, Mary, some Saints) because they belong from
the same tradition (this word in the way we use it in Brazil); but
some stylistic patterns might be differents, that introduce oriental
conventions (in this case, they should characterize an oriental
or, at least, a southeastern asiatic) facies. We use to associate
eastern culture not with Catholic religion (or iconography), but
with stylistic patterns. But Viet Nam Catholics have quite the same
rituals and ideas upon God that their european brothers in Faith,
but are different of them in many ways. On the same manner, we cannot
be sure that Nordeste rock art tradition was produced by one tribe,
one linguistic or racial technological group; nor even we can suppose
they have the same lithic technology... Even thus, the stylistic
unit create by the archaeologist means something important: it expresses
a kind of sensibility, of knowledge and thinking that is the same
for every Nordeste drawing people.
On the contrary, we cannot be sure that every type of social unit
must have only one stylistic expression. For example, there is,
among Brazilian tribes, a great difference between womenÕs art and
menÕs one, even in drawings made with a pencil on paper. The former
produce angular geometric figures, that point out one detail to
signify the whole reality. The Men draw generally curvilinear figures
that fit better in our concept of "realism". Scholars explanation
of this particularity is that coiling and baskettry activities,
that allow only geometric figures, are strictly women technics and
should have determined their perception of reality (Prous, 1977).
Such gender differenciations do exist in our culture: in France,
baby girls traditionally uses mostly pink and baby boys, mostly
blue clothes. Classic Ballet has been considered a feminine - or
better, not male - activity from XIX century... In our society,
there are also many styles that co-exist: classic music was for
old people and rock, for youngs, in the 60'. Rock and classic belong
to the same modern western tradition (heptatonic temperate tonal
music from XVIII Century) but they are different styles, one of
them showing non european influences. Would some brazilian rock
art styles express the same thing?
To be sure that the styles we create are really chronological
ones, we have to be sure that their figures are separated by a long
time. In Lapa Vermelha dolina (Baeta, Silva e Prous, op. cit), we
thus tried to see if different styles should have coexisted. I shall
use once more an historic analogy. The iconography of Christian
churches is not homogenous, even in the Western World: both Catholics
and Orthodox pray the Virgin, but the Greek Church prays Saints
(like St John Chrysostome) that don't appear in western Europe (where
St. Francisco or St. Anton are typical Latin Saints). We can say
that there are geographical facies in Christian mediterranean art.
Other differences are less geographic, like the one between catholic
and protestants churches: we'll not see the Virgin or Saints in
the later ones, though both churches can be found in the same territory.
We can also point out more subtle differences, like that we can
see between churches that are of the same period, same region and
belong to the same faith, like brightly decorated clunisian monuments
and ascetic and plain cistercian ones. They express varieties within
the same medieval christian community. Diversity can also be funcionals:
in Ouro Preto, a barroque Brazilian town, two churches, both consacrated
to St. Mary, exhibit the images of distinct Saints because one (Sta
Maria do Rosário) was the temple of Blackpeople congregation
and the other, the one of aristocrat's godmother (Sta Maria do Carmo).
The same thing may have occured in prehistoric times and it is quite
possible that moities, clans, genders, age classes etc... have left
distinctive marks on the shelters. Obviously, there is also the
progressive modifications of fashion during the millenia: a roman
sculpture is different from a gothic one, that stays in the same
church); the products of all these kinds of variation can be used
by archaeologists to create stylistic units (styles, varieties)
within a tradition.
It is sometimes possible to study the relationship between different
traditions (Prous & Seda, 1987). In Peruaçu valley, we found
an evidence of respect when figures of Caboclo style
are painted on the periphery of eldest Januaria pictograms. We see
neutrality among Januaria paintings, that don't avoid superimposition;
but the authors of Desenhos petroglyphs expresses a negative
appreciation of the eldest traditions, hiding them under a red layer
of dye before they pecked zoomorphic figures. In Lagoa Santa and
Serra do Cipo regions, the "artists" of a new tradition sometimes
peeled the rock to destroyed previous works.
Attitudes like recovering or renewalling of ancient
paintings are also frequents; the first one occurs when an ancient
painting is put in a new context. Example of recovering should be
an ancient isolated zoomorphic figure, that receives a new interpretation
when surrounded by anthropomorphic ones, as if it were hunted; or,
in Peruaçu valley, a geometric figure that has been transformed
into a vegetal. Renewal occurs when some part of a figure is reinforced,
like many old and patinated that received a new layer of dye (frequently,
other colour) in Lagoa Santa; or the eyes of animals that were painted
and painted again in australian desert.
These attitudes are the same we know from art history in Europe:
when there is a social continuity, "classic" masterpieces that glorify
the elites are preserved by their successors. But when there is
an ideological gap, we see Protestants breaking the statues of Saints,
French revolution breaking king images, Catholics and Hebreus destroy
idols. But we also see missionaries recovering pagan sacred places,
by a cross engravig.
The many possible classifications for one social group A question
we have heard many times is "how can we justify the creation of
rock art traditions, the works which have been produced by people
that have also been classified from their stone or ceramic production?
For example, would not be stupid we have two labels for the same
people that made Serranopolis phase lithic instruments and should
have painted São Francisco pictograms? First, we have to
remember that it is very hard to make chronological correlation
among art, technology etc. and we need classifications for all these
kinds of reality. Last, but non the least, we use parallel classification
for our own historic framework ; the same people or culture is said
to be Catholic (religious concept) and mercantilist (economic one).
We also know that nor every catholic is mercantilist, and nor every
mercantilist is catholic. Today, the same person belongs to different
memberships: family, social class, religious congregation, politic
party etc. and can be analized within the different categories that
are used to study each subject. It would be tragic if archaeology
were more totalitarist than the others fields of knowledge and wanted
lock up a multiface reality within only one rigourously labelled
As wrote Consens & Seda (op. cit., 1990) about the hundreds created
stylistic units, if brazilian scholars have seen differences, these
should be real. The archaeological categories probably express some
kind of reality, if they are well defined. To give a name to the
phenomena we can see is correct and usefull to discover cultural
or social identities, but is not sufficient.
The problem is how to interpret these units. We have seen that
the differences between rock art corpora are significant of several
kinds of reality. Some of them may be similar to what we name ethnic
groups. In fact, people that live in XIV century on southwestern
part of France did not find them "ethnically" or politically "french",
nor "english", nor even, maybe, "gascon" in the modern sense of
these concepts. They know they were to-day subjects of the king
of France and should be to-morrow those of the king of England,
but really depended of the Earl of Pau; they belonged to an universal
religion, had membership within a little peasant community and spoke
regional dialect. On the same way, most people that lived in Gallia
on the V century AD didn't know they were on the doorstep between
Antiquity and Medieval periods (Prous, 1967); this fact doesnÕt
invalidate these concepts that are ours, as they are useful from
our point of view. What matters is we know that similarities and
differences may expresses realities that are not those of our society.
Even if we diversify our observations, we can't be sure we'll
be able to perceive what was essential for prehistoric indians.
But even our typologies are valids if are useful to the approach
we have chosen. We are not anymore searching for the old adaequatio
rei et intellectu, but for an adequatio instrumentis et quaestionis.
Our work is not an illusion, as he helps us to contrast our values
with those of others cultures. We know that our point of view is
not the only possible, but it can produce significant observations
about the phenomena of which prehistoric men were not aware. Surely,
our view of rock art manifestations is much more aware of their
"artistic" aspect that prehistoric people's one was. This is because
we express our linkage with a consumerist society in which art is
a per se product. In its "art", Karajá indians should express
their gender complementarity; other tribes should project their
clanic o class values.
The archaeologists have, thus, to avoid three dangers. The first
one is to create a great number of little significant stylistic
units (a real danger in this moment of Brazilian archaeology). The
second is to trust that these units are objectives realities; it
is necessary we use them as simple instruments, used as long they
are worthy, but to be cast when they are not anymore useful. A fossilization
of the classifications would break the energy of the research. The
third danger, maybe the worst in this post modern era, should be
to desist because of the impossibility to fully understand the cultures
of the past. This attitude will conduce, or to a sterile scepticism
in relation to archaeological discourse, or to the ideia that we
are free to make a subjective discurse without serious implications
for a real - though partial - knowledge of the past.
As we intend to participate in the expansion of some kind of knowledge,
we are not afraid if we have to use stylistic units that are archaeofacts
(create by the archaeologist) for research purposes that express
the kind of interest we have about the past. The descriptive units
may change, but the reality that they express is not an illusion.
This way, we reconcile the consciousness we have of our subjectivity
with our scholarly exigency. We are not engaging an empty discurse
upon ourselves, to excuse the pretext of an invented Other.
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andré . Stylistics
units in prehistoric art research. Archeofacts or realities?.
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