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Art (Pre)History: Ritual, Narrative and Visual Culture in Neolithic and Bronze Age Europe

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Abstract: Can we reconstruct how prehistoric people perceived things (their “ways of seeing” or visual culture)? This challenge is made more difficult by the traditional disciplinary assumptions built into prehistoric art studies, for instance focusing narrowly upon a single body of art in isolation. This paper proposes an alternative approach, using comparative study to reveal broad regional changes in visual culture. Although prehistoric art specialists rarely work comparatively, art historians are familiar with describing continent-wide general developments in visual culture and placing them in social context (for instance, the traditional broad-brush history from Classical to medieval to Renaissance systems of representation). This paper does the same for Neolithic (6000–2500 BC) vs. Bronze Age (2500–800 BC) and Iron Age (800 BC–Classical) rock and cave art from sites across Europe, uncovering broad patterns of change. The principal pattern is a shift from a Neolithic iconic art which uses heavily encoded imagery, often schematic geometric motifs, to a Bronze/Iron Age narrative art, which increasingly involves imagery of identifiable people, animals and objects. Moreover, there is also an increasing tendency for motifs to be associated in scenes rather than purely accumulative, and with contextual changes in how art is used—a movement from hidden places to more open or accessible places. Underlying all these changes is a shift in how rock and cave art was used, from citations reproducing ritual knowledge to composed arrays telling narratives of personhood.



Article, Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Europe, Prehistoric art, Rock art, Cave painting, Megalithic art, Visual culture, Narrative

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Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory

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Springer US
Wellcome Trust (096510/Z/11/Z)