Neolithic rock-art in the north of Europe; structures, discourses and agency

Smith, Robert
Neolithic rock-art in the north of Europe; structures, discourses and agency. PhD thesis, University of Liverpool.

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Archaeology involves creating meaningful narratives of prehistoric societies, using only the remains of their material culture. This study focuses on Neolithic rock-art in two very different regions – Jämtland (Northern Sweden) and Cumbria (North West England) – seeking to explore, directly, the ‘meaningfulness’ of this art. During the Neolithic period in Britain (c. 4000-2400 BC) and Northern Sweden (c. 4000-1800 BC), rocky outcrops were elaborated either by pecking abstract designs (Britain) or by carving and painting animal and human representations (Northern Sweden). Prehistoric rock-art in Britain and Scandinavia is usually understood and made ‘meaningful’ in relation to one, or a combination of, methodological approaches: it may be understood as part of the landscape (experienced through the human body (phenomenology)), or given meaning in light of ethnographic evidence. All of these approaches, however, ignore the subtle ways in which the rock-art itself was structured. The study, presented here, employed three methodological approaches in order to attempt to understand rock-art in a new and, arguably, more meaningful way. Firstly, a structure- based approach involved establishing the primary methods that the carvers used to create meaningful rock-art narratives. Secondly, a discourse- based approach was used to uncover how these basic design forms were articulated, to allow communication and dialogue of Neolithic ideas into the sphere of social practice (discourse being an attempt to identify themes within the rock-art narratives, which act as intermediaries between structure and agency). Finally, the third agency- based approach blends structure with discourse (agency allowed meaningful social action to occur during the Neolithic). The structure-based approach in Cumbria revealed that the art of the central fells region was based on the manipulation of natural and cultural cups or circles into linear patterns. This is in contrast with the approach in eastern Cumbria, where the reverse was found- with lines being manipulated into circular shapes. In Jämtland, the fundamental structure of the art was based on the division of elk into both male/female and moving/stationary categories. The results of the discourse methodology revealed that three themes dictated the style of rock-art carvings during the Neolithic, in both Cumbria and Jämtland; naturalistic, stylised and abstract. The agency approach concluded that the visual statements made using the rock-art were examples of agents’ changing relationship with the natural world and the resources it contained- especially the quarrying of stone for axes. Metaphorically, it is argued that the three changing discourses of rock-art were a reflection of the changing relationship people had with the quarrying of stone and its exchange. One of the main implications of this research is the finding that there is still a place for investigating rock-art and material/visual culture. Furthermore, using the methodological approach of this research, we are in a position to explore some of the deeper dimensions of visual culture, and its relationship to social structure and agency, in the Neolithic.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: Date: 2015-03 (completed)
Subjects: ?? DA ??
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Depositing User: Symplectic Admin
Date Deposited: 10 Dec 2015 10:59
Last Modified: 17 Dec 2022 01:27
DOI: 10.17638/02018533