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ROCK ART, TAPHONOMY AND EPISTEMOLOGY Robert G. Bednarik
Abstract: An epistemological examination of the relationship
between traditional archaeological method and the demands of a rigorous
study of rock art suggests the existence of significant differences.
The effects of archaeological theory and the use of statistics in rock
art research are considered, and it is shown that they are likely to
generate taphonomically precarious hypotheses. Using taphonomic logic
as a means of testing the refutability of archaeological hypotheses it
is shown that they are of little consequence in the scientific study of
rock art, which is better served by scientific fields, which may be as
diverse as semiotics, geochemistry and hominid ethology.
A number of recent papers prompt me to address the subjects of the
scientific study of rock art, archaeological perspectives of rock art
and other forms of palaeoart, the effects of taphonomic logic and the
role of epistemology. I will avoid being directly critical of specific
articles or individual scholars (hence the short bibliography),
concentrating instead on general issues, epistemological trends in
science and current paradigmatic shifts in rock art studies. This field
of enquiry, after all, has attained a certain level of independence
I will examine some aspects of the decline of certain modes of
archaeology; the relationships between its methods and models, and
those of 'prehistoric' art studies; and the question of how recent
developments might affect 'cognitive archaeology'. I will argue that
the latter can survive the epistemological crisis in archaeology: while
scientific interpretation of archaeological 'data' may often not be
feasible, certain hypotheses about pre-Historic (rather than
'prehistoric') arts may be susceptible to refutation. Only the briefest
discussion is possible of the various topics related here, but they
have all been discussed by me elsewhere in greater detail.
Rock art studies and archaeology
In all disciplines, the acceptance of hypotheses is more often
based on the biases of scholars than on actual objective merits
(Feyerabend 1975; Kuhn 1970; Thomas 1982; Bednarik 1985, 1990a; Cameron
1993). But while in the 'hard sciences' hypotheses tend to find
themselves subjected to rigorous testing sooner or later, falsification
of archaeological interpretations is frequently not possible,
especially where they are intentionally couched in non-refutable terms
(Bednarik 1992a: 27). In all disciplines, the popularity of an
hypothesis may be governed by political factors (Lewis-Williams 1993),
but in archaeology it is not necessarily possible to displace unsound
models, because falsifiability remains so often elusive. 'Speculation
and the subjective are part of the 'scientific' process' in archaeology
(Hodder 1984: 28), its non-scientific nature has been revealed 'by a
scientific style of discourse' (Hodder 1990: 51), and its role as a
sociopolitical tool for the creation of idiosyncratic archaeologies has
been recognised (Hodder 1986: 161; see also, for example, Shanks and
Tilley 1987; Tangri 1989; Fletcher 1991; Tilley 1993).
Archaeology acquires its 'accepted fiction' (Bahn 1990: 75) with
(a) a frequently untestable methodology;
(b) a store of accumulated knowledge, much of which is probably invalid;
(c) vast quantities of ethnocentrically selected materialist 'data'; and
(d) methods of induction which would not be credible even if the data were valid (see Huchet 1991, 1992).
Not only is it quite impossible to infer the substance of a complex
archaeological phenomenon from its surviving 'observable phenomena'
alone (Bednarik 1985), the naive logic archaeologists sometimes apply
results in misinterpretations. To quantify data, subjective and
entirely etic taxonomies are imposed on the finds. The arbitrary
classes so derived are then treated as if they were real and emic
entities, even though they reflect the cognitive categories of
archaeologists, not of the producers or consumers of the artefacts.
'Crucial' indices are perceived, and changes in them are interpreted as
indicating some demographic, cultural or ecological changes. Yet there
are pronounced sedimentary and various other biases in the preservation
of archaeological material, which are likely to be reflected in
perceived distributional and compositional patterns of the evidence.
These taphonomic biases are not adequately accounted for in the
interpretation of data, or in translating the empirical evidence into
The ultimate (long term) purpose of pre-Historic art
studies is to explore the processes that have in some way contributed
to the formation of human concepts of reality. All human knowledge
claims are in terms of these concepts, and if we were to find means of
illuminating the origins of anthropocentrism (the interpretation of
reality in terms of the material stimuli experienced by humans) we
would be likely also to acquire a new understanding of the limitations
it imposes on the human intellect. Such insights may free that
intellect from the restrictions imposed by its epistemological limits,
in the distant future. The deficiencies of a conceptual model of
reality cannot be perceived from within such a model, by uncritical
recourse to the biological intelligence that is its own product
(Bednarik 1990b). In an anthropocentric system of reality, ideas or
mental constructs must adhere to its inherent order not only to be
acceptable, but even to be able to be conceived. (An analogue is
provided by my present paper, which will have to be rejected by those
whose thinking is dominated by epistemological models that grant the
human intellect access to objectivity.) In short, palaeoart studies are
intricately connected with epistemology; indeed, I see them as
providing the raw data on which all epistemology should ultimately be
The processes that led to human models of reality are attributable
to the frames of reference created by the early cognitive evolution of
hominids (Bednarik 1992b). The earliest cosmologies that are
'accessible' to us are those that are detectable in the oldest known
externalisations suggesting the existence of human consciousness. We
may still lack viable methods of dealing systematically with this
tenuous link with the origins of our anthropocentrism, but to disparage
palaeoart studies by relegating them to a subsidiary role in the
humanistic branch of hominid ethology, as some archaeologists would
tend to do, implies a grave misapprehension about the purpose of the
About the scientific study of rock art
Many archaeologists believe that studies of early art are either of
no relevance to 'proper archaeological practice', or that they can only
be of very limited use in archaeological interpretation. Indeed, the
ideas some archaeologists have about the purposes of palaeoart studies
seem absurd when one considers the sort of models they have in mind.
These include the iconographic identification (i.e. using one's own
cortical processes of matching neural patterns of objects with visual
graphic input) of objects supposedly depicted in the arts (such as
tools, weapons, animal species, tracks etc.), which is scientifically
untenable (cf. Clegg 1983; Tangri 1989; Cameron 1993); or the
determination of 'stylistic' and other perceived distribution patterns
which are seen as encoding various types of demographic, emblemic and
cultural information: for instance, tribal boundaries, cultural
diffusion, even population densities. Some archaeologists have adopted
a distinctly ahistorical approach to rock art, they regard the
assemblage of a site as belonging to a single tradition unless
otherwise demonstrated (Bednarik 1988). The culturally crucial function
of rock art, that of a cultural determinant (Bednarik 1991-92), remains
ignored, as does its study as a record of cultural dynamics (rock art
re-use, retouch, cultural responses). Statistical approaches are
favoured, but they provide a false sense of security, producing
unreliable results of generally limited relevance (see below). Thus
archaeologists have not only neglected the true scientific potential of
palaeoarts, they have utilised them for comparatively trivial purposes,
and in schemes for which they are poorly suited.
To begin with, distribution and changes in rock art 'styles' over
time are not necessarily functions of economic, environmental,
cultural, social or even religious factors (Tangri 1989). Neither is
apparent stylistic continuity proof for cultural (or any other)
continuity. Even if it were it would be of no help, in view of
archaeologists' ambivalence as to where style resides in an artefact
(Conkey & Hastorf 1990). Thus direct correlation between
'quantifiable' archaeological 'data' and rock art poses serious
problems, and the lack of reliable dating for nearly all rock art in
the world only aggravates these. To make matters worse, the principal
tool in the archaeological analysis of rock art, statistics, is
scientifically invalid when applied to quantitative rock art data.
Taphonomic logic decrees that such data can only be relevant in
describing a present state of a corpus of rock art, they are not
directly related to the archaeological significance of the art.
To illustrate effects of applied taphonomic logic, I give some
well-known examples. The distribution of the Upper Palaeolithic female
figurines found in Eurasia is often described as reflecting the
distribution of the hypothetical tradition that produced them (Bednarik
1990b). This is most probably a fallacy, because it would be an
incredible coincidence if the distribution of that hypothetical
tradition coincided with the distribution of sediments suitable for the
preservation of these artefacts. Nearly all of them consist of calcium
carbonate (dentine or limestone), and all were found in loesses or
limestone caves, i.e. in calcite or dolomite-rich, high-pH soils
(Bednarik 1992c). Similarly, the apparently exclusive occurrence of
Upper Palaeolithic rock art in caves indicates not that it was endemic
to caves, but in fact that it was not so (Bednarik 1986: 41).
Archaeological misinterpretations, then, are attributable to erroneous
determination of the common denominator of phenomenon categories (see
below). For instance, a geomorphological common denominator is
interpreted as an archaeological one, and it should be self-evident
that this can result only in misinterpretation. Therefore taphonomy
demands that most interpretation in archaeology must be expected to be
false, and this is particularly evident in palaeoart studies (for
discussions of taphonomic logic as applicable to palaeoart, see
Bednarik 1993, 1994a).
The vastly differing longevities of pigment types, or the changes
of colour many pigments experience over time (e.g. all iron oxides and
hydroxides used in rock painting pigments are metastable; Bednarik
1979, 1987, 1992d; I have also described white pigments that become
completely black, and McNickle 1991 reports black pigments that change
to light-green) lead to similar conclusions, as do the effects of
petroglyph depth on repatination processes (Bednarik 1979) or on
petroglyph longevity, and a variety of similar aspects. It is no
coincidence that the oldest rock arts outside of caves regularly
consist of deep-red pigment of a particular hue (ochres age towards the
haematite phase, which is also the most stable iron pigment, and the
one best suited for interstitial retention in sandstones; Bednarik
1992e) or of deeply carved line motifs. For example, most Australian
petroglyphs are not engravings, but sgraffiti (not to be confused with
graffiti), in which natural cutaneous rock laminae of differing colours
rather than groove relief were utilised for contrast. Much of this art
cannot be expected to survive for longer than total repatination takes,
and what have been seen as 'chronological' trends in rock art are far
more likely to be attributable to selective survival: the
quantitative characteristics of extant rock art are a result primarily
of taphonomic processes, and secondarily of art production. Most
rock art can be assumed to have been lost over time, which means that
the cultural significance of extant statistics is subordinate to their
taphonomic significance. The fact that the latter has not been
considered so far at more than the most rudimentary level does not bode
well for archaeological speculations based on statistics.
The extent of archaeology's deficiencies can be fathomed by
considering that perceived trends are often presented as evolutionary,
chronological (by circular argument) or empiricist evidence. In
addition to geomorphological biases, many other factors can also
greatly distort the statistical characteristics of rock art. Among them
are location, recorder’s bias, historical responses to alien
iconographies (e.g. iconoclasm), or indeed any process that contributes
to the degradation of the art.
The statistical analysis of rock art
Generally speaking, only a remnant sample of the art can have
survived at most rock art sites (Bednarik 1992e). We cannot know which
quantifiable characteristics of the surviving sample are culturally
determined, and which ones are determined by other factors, such as
location, type of rock support, or other environment-related
circumstances. To illustrate this point one could imagine a cultural
convention restricting all motifs of one type to granite surfaces,
those of a second type to limestone: after a few thousand years, none
of the motifs of the second type may have survived, because exposed
limestone surfaces are dissolved by weathering. The statistical
characteristics of the surviving sample would be so much influenced by
geomorphological selection processes that it would be futile to
speculate about their archaeological significance. They would be
significantly different from the statistical variables of another site
of the same tradition that had been subjected to very different
The most serious limitation of statistical analyses in palaeoart
research is that posed by the inherent subjectivity of the data.
Irrespective of the actual method used, statistics that address the
content of rock arts always involve a taxonomy of motif elements,
because the grouping of motifs perceived to be similar is a
prerequisite for such treatment. Yet any such taxonomising process is
entirely based on the iconographic perceptions or graphic and depictive
conventions defining the researcher's own (etic) system of reality, and
does not necessarily reflect the artists' graphic (emic) cognition.
Archaeological empiricists seem to realise part of this problem,
but their belief in their own objectivity still allows them to perceive
meaningfulness in the arbitrary selection of criteria to create
taxonomies. They believe that they can detect and correctly recognise
the visual clues hidden in an alien art without recourse to the
cognitive or epistemological framework of the culture concerned; that
they can perceive 'meaning' and identify objects reliably (Bednarik
1990b). It has been demonstrated that the reliable identification of
the iconic content of an art is restricted to participants of the
culture in question (e.g. Macintosh 1977), yet the most common
preoccupation of students of rock art is to muse about the nature of
the objects depicted in the art, and to base chronologies and
interpretations of meaning on their subjective notions. Not only are
animal species confidently identified, many other aspects of the
pictures are interpreted in a seemingly ethnocentric fashion. For
instance, motifs of the Franco-Cantabrian 'cave art' are often
interpreted as pregnant, falling, dead or dying, and so forth, just as
depictions in other arts are prone to be pronounced as dancing,
praying, adoring, flying, worshipping etc. In general, these
interpretations are based on the assumption that depictive conventions
in the arts of pre-Historic or ethnographic peoples are identical to
those determining the enculturated perceptions as well as the cognitive
abilities and limitations of the contemporary observer. It may well be
true that the modern beholder can in certain cases correctly interpret
iconographic aspects of palaeoart, but this is not the issue. It would
need to be demonstrated that the cortically established patterns of
detecting iconicity are identical in the mute artist and the
contemporary observer, i.e. that the past and present strategies for
detecting and interpreting visual clues in a marking are similar.
(Iconicity refers here to the visual quality of a motif which conveys
to most contemporary observers, especially Westerners, that a specific
object is depicted. It is merely a subjective definitional tool.)
Otherwise such interpretations would be no more susceptible to
falsification than other archaeological interpretations.
It would initially appear that non-figurative art, consisting of
'geometric' arrangements, is more accessible to statistical analysis
than figurative art. In fact the opposite is true, because while there
is some merit in assuming that the observer shares iconic perceptions
of the artist, that cannot be verified in non-iconic art. No two rock
art motifs are identical in every respect, yet in order to prepare a
site's assemblage for statistical treatment, apparently similar motifs
must be grouped and considered together. Without this process no
statistical treatment of any corpus of rock art is possible. Each and
every motif possesses thousands of characteristics, and the analyst
must decide which ones are to be considered. Otherwise there will
inevitably be as many motif types as there are motifs at any one site.
Among the characteristics available for selection are metrical indices,
qualitative or formal aspects, aspects of the motif's relationship to
the site, to other motifs at the site, to the motifs at other sites, to
the topography of the site, to petrological or past vegetational or
hydrographic aspects of the site or of the surrounding landscape,
spatial or syntactic context, the identity or status of the artist (is
a circle engraved by a man the same motif type as one engraved by a
woman, and if not, how would an archaeologist detect the difference?).
Not only can single elements have wide ranges of 'meaning', definable
only in terms of pre-Historic context (consider Munn 1973), the number
of characteristics of each motif is practically unlimited. Many of
those characteristics that defy archaeological definition may be
crucial in identifying motif types (e.g. the sex of the artist). Thus
the parameters the analyst chooses will inevitably reflect her/his
personal, cultural, historical, ethnocentric, academic and cognitive
biases and limitations. Consequently the information so derived is
useful only in studying the analyst's own culture and cognition, and in
studying the way in which s/he applies these in examining the surviving
graphic traces of alien cognitive systems to which s/he has no
cognitive access. However, that information is not scientifically
relevant to the study of the pre-Historic culture concerned, except for
limited descriptive purposes. It cannot be expected to provide valid
data for statistical analysis, or valid interpretations of the
About science and epistemology
Everything said so far in this paper implies a rejection of
interpretational approaches to palaeoart. One can selectively gather
data about rock art and portable art, one can compare these, speculate
about them, generate an endless variety of hypotheses from them (cf.
Marshack 1989: 17), discuss the individual merits and probability
ratings of these, but no amount of iconographic or statistical
information provides falsifiable (Popper 1934) or refutable (Tangri
It seems almost inevitable that palaeoart studies will share the
fate of ecological/materialist or empiricist archaeology (cf.
Lewis-Williams 1993), but I will argue here that the opposite applies.
Some archaeologists have traditionally treated rock art research in a
condescending manner, because its cultural and idiosyncratic
dimensions, i.e. its essentially human qualities, make it so difficult
to extract what is considered to be 'valid archaeological information'
from it. Yet it is precisely these much derided human aspects that
permit truly scientific access to early art.
Philosophically, this should have been self-evident. All phenomena
of the physical world are made up of large numbers of variables, of
which humans can only detect those their sensory faculties and
intellect allow them to perceive (Bednarik 1984: 29). From them they
select what I call 'crucial common denominators of phenomenon categories',
which are the basis of all cosmological taxonomies. Their selection is
not determined by objective criteria in terms of how things really are
in the world, but by the 'anthropocentrising' dynamics of hominid
reality building processes: by how phenomena were interpreted and
integrated into a system of understanding based entirely on human
faculties. Since the latter were derived from human evolution, which
was never in terms of defining cosmic reality but in terms of survival
value, they must be assumed to provide only a narrow spectrum of
objective reality. Consequently, scientific constructs of reality
cannot be expected to reflect real and objective reality.
There are, however, exceptions to this rule: a phenomenon that is
created by humans specifically for the purpose of relating to a human
sensory faculty can only consist of crucial variables determining its
phenomenological externalisations which are accessible to human
perception. Art is such a phenomenon; there can be no crucial common
denominator for phenomenon categories in art that is entirely
inaccessible to humans. Therefore art is the only phenomenon in the
real world that can be shown to provide human access to its crucial
variables. Indeed, one can invert this postulate by defining art as the
collective phenomena in human experience about which we can argue
objectively. This is a philosophically sound definition of art (cf.
This truism explains readily how humans attained their unique
neural structures of relating to the world, i.e. their humanness,
through art ('art' as defined here). The introduction of phenomena
consisting only of humanly perceptible variables (earliest mark
production) would have prompted several developments: 'intentional'
marks (consider, for example, those resulting from rhythmic
manipulation of tools) would have rendered perceived reality
'conceptually manageable', by providing complete sets of percepts
rather than fragmentary ones, promoting visual and mental taxonomising
processes and the inclusion of the new neural structures in cybernetic
feedback systems. 'Conscious experience', or rather, what we understand
by it, became possible because the neural structures prompted by the
early art production became available for the processing of stimuli of
the non-artificial material world, in a taxonomising format. This
explains why the ultimate result, humanly perceived reality, is in the
final analysis determined by art, and why it is at the same time valid
and inadequate. As I have noted elsewhere (Bednarik 1992b), a false,
cultural cosmology or epistemological model can be formed and
maintained indefinitely by a biologically intelligent (Jerison 1973)
If the artificiality of art permits us an empirical access, at
least theoretically, that is not available for natural phenomena,
'direct' scientific access to palaeoarts may be similarly feasible.
Assuming that the human faculties that are involved in present-day art
production (especially the visual system) have remained physiologically
similar during recent human evolution (Deregowski 1988), some heuristic
access should be similarly possible to pre-Historic arts. (This is the
'neurological bridge' I proposed in the early 1980s; it has never been
discussed, and archaeologists have been more fascinated by the
pseudo-scientific confirmationist arguments about shamans, a most
unfortunate offshoot of my work; Bednarik 1990c.) Other physiological
factors affecting art production would be the tactile ability of the
fingers, the competence of performing the so-called precision grip, and
that of precise and well-controlled arm movement. A precondition for
producing art (other than finger marks and stencils) must have been to
procure, hold and direct marking instruments with confidence and
precision, involving not only motor skills, but also the co-ordination
of tool-mediated skills with the operation of the visual system
(Marshack 1984). A proficiency in tool making provided two
prerequisites for art production: precision of vision-oriented motor
skills, and the experience of observing the effects of altering crucial
aspects of the perceptible environment through participation. These
factors would have contributed to establishing neural structures that
would prompt the behavioural patterns producing early 'art' (Bednarik
The scientifically most reliable access to palaeoart is therefore
likely to be via non-conscious universals. The above epistemological
model postulates the existence of such universals, and aspects of them
are likely to be detectable by humans. In any comparison of universals
in art we will first need to establish whether the proposed common
denominator can reasonably be assumed to have applied at the time the
palaeoart in question appears to have been produced. Subject to this
proviso, I propose that it should be possible to detect in archaic art
universals that can be identified, studied and quantified in
contemporary art production (e.g. Arnheim 1964; Berger 1972; Getzels
and Csizszentmihalyi 1976; Levy and Reid 1976) under conditions of full
refutability. To be eligible for consideration, universals must be
unrelated to such factors as cultural experience, cognitive systems or
individual preferences. Universals that may be susceptible to conscious
variation, or that may themselves be the product of long-established
traditions of art production (such as the canons of aesthetics), are of
no value to us here.
I emphasise that, because of the special position of art in the
human construct of reality, it is far more accessible to scientific
examination than any other external stimulus in the human experience,
and any universals in it are fundamentally more reliable than the known
variables of any other external stimulus known to us: the phenomenon
they define exists wholly in the realm of human experience, it has no
dimensions of reality other than the ones we as humans can know. Hence
the universals I refer to (I emphasise that this concept of universals
is far more sophisticated than, and not connected to, notions of
shamanic or epigraphic 'universal' connotations) may offer an
epistemologically sound approach to rock art. Together with the greatly
effective analytical tool of taphonomic logic, such approaches promise
a scientific rigour in the palaeoart studies of the twenty-first
century that is probably unattainable by conventional archaeology.
Robert G. Bednarik
P.O. Box 216
Caulfield South, Vic. 3162
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