Art copyright Andy Hemingway

Form & Meaning in Altered States & Rock Art

This was published in 1999 in the final issue of The Ley Hunter magazine (no. 133).

Rock art has recently begun to cause more than a little conflict in academic archaeology. Curiously, the controversial discovery that some rock art was inspired by what we call ‘shamanism’ and ‘altered states’ was made through the dogged pursuit of scientific method, not through ‘fringe’ research. But as these areas brush against some of the deepest levels of the human psyche, they have inevitably raised a few hackles.

While not made in reference to these aspects of rock art, Richard Bradley’s comment that rock art research “must contribute directly to archaeology if it is to achieve anything of value” (Bradley 1997: 8) is interesting. Evidently archaeologists are eager to keep their ‘sub-discipline’ firmly in their grasp. It can’t help to have bugbears such as shamanism and altered states arriving on the scene. The first is a classic example of a multi-disciplinary phenomenon, due to it being essentially ‘pre-disciplinary’. The latter, more often than not, utterly transcends such conceptual categories. Gradually, more and more respectable archaeologists, like Bradley, are paying heed to the ‘trance interpretation’ of rock art. But perhaps there is a lingering fear that the act of studying altered states and shamanism will influence those doing the studying, as it has in areas such as anthropology and psychology. Such influences may begin to dangerously loosen the boundaries of archaeology—boundaries that have been diligently erected in archaeology’s long struggle to gain the status of being a ‘science’…

A Trojan Horse?


The ‘entoptics’1 theory of geometric rock art arose from comparisons with hard neuroscience data. But however much the theory was smothered in references to neurological studies, and decorated with reassuring graphs and tables, it carried with it the unmistakable whiff of non-ordinary consciousness. For perhaps the first time, this phenomenon could confidently raise its head in archaeology as well as anthropology, neuroscience and psychology departments. Not the romanticised magic associated with prehistory by early antiquarians; not the megalithic astronomy described by Professor Thom; not even the communal experience of formalised ritual. All these have been dismissed or absorbed by archaeology with relative ease. But the personal experience of losing contact with consensus reality and entering a wholly Other world raises too many questions and, let’s face it, fears. Can we really grapple with this sort of subjectivity when envisioning the distant past? We have so many problems tackling it now!

Altered states can not only shed light on the origin of form in some rock art; they can assist in assessing the possible significance of all rock art. Altered states radically affect our apprehension of meaning, and help considerably in expanding our capacity for modes of signification that are less linear, monolithic and immutable than the traditions Western thought has inherited. Thus, worked with sensitively, they may provide keys to unlocking symbolic possibilities in prehistoric art and architecture—even if these relics’ only connection to ‘altered states’ is the fact that they were created by cultures whose entire mindset was constantly ‘altered’, in relation to our own.

Models of trance

To begin with, we must look at the distinctions made in the ‘pure’ trance theory of rock art. ‘Entoptic’ images are generally understood to be abstract geometrical images (lines, dots, dashes, circles, spirals) that arise in the early stages of a trip to the otherworld.2 ‘Endogenous visual phenomena’ are entoptics whose forms are seen to specifically arise from neural structures, especially those of the optical nerves.

This preliminary arena of geometrical imagery should be familiar to all with even mild experience of altered states. The literature associated with dimethyltryptamine (DMT) seems particularly relevant here. Although DMT occurs in many plants with a history of shamanic usage, and can even occur naturally in the human brain (Most 1986), it is usually used in the West in its smokeable synthesised form. When smoked, one immediately feels its effects; within a minute or two one reaches the peak of the trip. And one returns to ‘normal’ consciousness after about 15-20 minutes. The astonishingly rapid action of this compound means that the various stages of trance are tightly compressed, and are thus made clearer for explanatory purposes. Building on extensive accounts of various people’s experiences, Peter Meyer (1994) breaks the DMT trip into levels, which may be used to model many similar forms of trance:

Level I: Pre-hallucinatory experience
This stage is characterized by an interior flowing of energy/consciousness.
Level II: Vivid, brilliantly coloured, geometric visual hallucinations
Here one is observing a patterned field, basically two-dimensional, although it may have a pulsating quality. One may remember having seen this before.
Transitional Phase (Level IIB?): tunnel or breakthrough experience
One may see or fly through a tunnel… A veil may part, a membrane may be rent. There is a breakthrough to another world (or perhaps even a series of breakthroughs). Alternatively, it may happen that the transition from Level II to Level III is abrupt, almost instantaneous, with no experience of transition.
Level III: Three- or higher-dimensional space, possible contact with entities
This stage is characterized by the experience of being in an “objective” space, that is, a space of at least three dimensions in which objects or entities may be encountered. Sometimes the entities appear to be intelligent and communicating beings.

Level II is the arena of entoptic imagery, and is the prime concern rock art researchers looking at abstract geometrical shapes. It is these forms that are posited as being transcultural, arising from the very structures of the human nervous system. The ‘transitional’ phase also enters this arena in rock art studies. Bradley (1997) associates the concentric circular patterns in cup-and-ring art with tunnel-like images common to entry into profound altered states; Dronfield (1996) associates these images with both the tunnel-like entrances and the spiral art found in passage graves in Ireland.

Level III is what I call ‘full visionary consciousness’, and can relate to rock art that depicts representative forms (e.g. therioanthropic images). This level is seen by most rock art researchers to be culture-bound. That is, the forms of entities (spirits, gods, ancestors) encountered here—and the transformed identity of the voyager—are clothed with culturally-defined expectations. Thus, for example, an Amazonian ayahuasquero‘s3 Level III may be replete with jaguars and anacondas, while a San medicine man’s Level III may be clothed with antelope and giraffe.

An obvious question, though, is whether a San person taken to the Amazon to partake of an ayahuasca ritual will still find the otherworld populated with African fauna. Are Level III’s ‘clothes’ contained within the acculturated portions of a person’s mind, or can they emerge from a highly transpersonal interaction with the immediate ecosystem? A friend visited the Amazon recently and, during an ayahuasca ceremony, saw, alongside angels from his Catholic upbringing, a very unusual animal he had never encountered before. Days later he saw this otherworld animal’s real counterpart in the jungle. Suffice it to say that Level III is much too vast a can of worms to really prise open in this article!

Narrow visions

I’ve only come across one archaeologist who has busied himself with dismissing the ‘trance theory’ area of research. In British Archaeology, Paul Bahn wrote an article called ‘Stumbling in the footsteps of St Thomas’ (1998). He compared the rise in attempts to interpret prehistoric rock art in terms of shamanic altered states to 16th century Christian missionaries who attributed ‘footprints’ in South American rock art to St Thomas. This analogy was in fact a thinly disguised attack on the students of the MA in rock art at Southampton University, which was devised by Thomas Dowson (the analogy also insinuates a degree of hoodwinking in Dowson’s teaching methods). The students on this course responded to the attack, and in his reply to this Bahn said that his article had brought much congratulatory feedback, and that the only negative response was from the students in question. Nevertheless, the only response to the article printed in British Archaeology (not from one of the students in question) rightly criticised Bahn for universally dismissing the ‘shamanic hypothesis’ (Chapman 1998). And in the commentaries on Dronfield’s article in Cambridge Archaeological Journal, from a variety of experts in the field, Bahn stands alone in his dismissal of altered states.

Bahn appears to be quite isolated in his opposition to this field of study, and criticism of his reactionary views may appear redundant. However, his biases are no doubt shared by many other less public voices, and a close examination of what they represent should prove useful in divining and breaking down restrictive attitudes to rock art and altered states in general.

Firstly, it must be said that his main point of criticism is actually based on important perceptions:

Interpretations in rock art studies—and indeed in archaeology as a whole—come in cycles or phases that often reflect their period and cultural background. Hence Lerio-Gourhan’s binary and sexual approach was born of the French structuralism and the sexual revolution of the 1950s and 1960s, and the astronomical approach came into its own during the Space Age. The current paradigm, trend, fad or bandwagon—as one might call it depending on where one’s own sympathies lie—seems to be the direct legacy of the drug culture of the late 1960s and 1970s, with its attendant interest in mysticism and shamanism, hallucinogens, altered states of consciousness, etc., all of which have coalesced into the massive ‘New Age’ literature of the 1980s and 1990s.

Paul Bahn (in Dronfield 1996)

Some crucial distinctions need to be made in this inaccurate morass of classification, if we are to clearly understand the cultural juncture we stand at which has made academic contemplation of theories about phenomena such as entoptics possible.

His use of the term ‘New Age’ implies an awareness of this field not very far removed from that of the average tabloid reader. The social phenomenon that calls itself ‘New Age’ is not really concerned with hallucinogens and authentic shamanism. The “drug culture of the late 1960s and 1970s” has not coalesced into the ‘New Age’. A diversification has occurred, leaving the more fad-driven factions in the public eye. However, far below the cultural horizons of Daily Express readers thrives a bunch of serious researchers concerned with psychedelic shamanism (see works by Terence McKenna, Jonathon Ott & Jim de Korne) and altered states in ritual (see works by Dave Lee, Phil Hine & Jan Fries).

But then all this solid exploration would be neither here nor there to those who see it as some backwash from the sixties. To these people, interest in altered states is merely a decadent and temporary fad, which we’ll probably all ‘grow out of’ sooner or later. Just like the Amazonian ayahuasqueros, Mexican curanderos, Indian tantrikas, African Bwiti cultists and San medicine men, Siberian and Eskimo shamans, Haitian voudon priests, Australian Aborigines, Nepalese sorcerors, Hawaiian Huna healers, Huichol Indians, and Native Americans, I suppose.

The dismissal of the “cycles” of archaeological theory as ‘fads’ amounts to a misperception of the way we are gradually recovering awareness of our environment and experience. Professor Thom’s megalithic astronomy theories may well have been made possible by the cultural milieu of the Space Age; but they uncovered a vital aspect of megalithic culture that now has a firm place in the archaeologist’s collection of lenses with which to view prehistory. The “‘shamanism’ bandwagon” we are now “suffering” (Bahn 1998) is neither a bandwagon nor something to wake up screaming about—unless of course your ego structures are so rigid that they view challenges such as altered states with abject terror. No—it is a recovery of awareness.

Interpretations old & new

I have begun to take a shine to the view that all cultures have ‘interpreted’ art and monuments left by previous cultures. And yes, each interpretation says as much about the interpreting culture as the originators. Medieval peasants often ‘interpreted’ prehistoric cup-marks as places to make libations to elemental spirits (see Bennett 1998). The clergy from the same period had very different ideas about such relics, usually involving Satan and his little wizards. Interpretations in the twentieth century have chopped and changed as rapidly as Western culture in this period. But there is a vital distinction to be made between the interpretations of country folk up into living memory, and those made by academic researchers. Pre-twentieth century rustics, unlike most rock art researchers, still retained the archaic feeling that the land is alive with spirit. And, most importantly, they used and interacted with these remnants of cultures long gone.

Most academics, in looking at the “cycles” of modern interpretation, neglect the larger picture. Our current view of archaic art reflects our alienated paradigm, wherein we study the environment in an uninvolved way, never thinking (or daring?) to interact with it. In this sense, there is a much larger gulf between medieval peasants and us than there is between medieval peasants and their Neolithic ancestors. I fully recognise the difficulties in using folklore collected over the past two hundred years to gain ideas about the original purpose of prehistoric carvings and monuments; but even if the specifics are wide of the mark, the essential perception that nature is alive, and bursting with sentience, brings us much closer to understanding these relics than any quantifiable, measurement-based fieldwork.

Another interesting aspect of Bahn’s attack is that he cites our obvious inability to “be sure” what rock art motifs were intended to represent as an argument against the ‘trance vision’ interpretation. All I can say is that a human whose vision is only interested in what can be known with absolute certainty is hideously impoverished. Bahn says that “one of the joys of prehistoric art is that it does not necessarily require interpretation, and can convey huge amounts of information of other kinds—in its technology (including pigment analyses), in its location, … and in its dating.” (1998) Joys?! In the end it’s each to their own—but I’d rather not limit myself to such meagre data purely because it’s a ‘safe bet’. That isn’t to dismiss the essential work in the arenas mentioned; it’s just to say that a timid self-restriction to these ‘certainties’ cannot hope to fulfil healthy human curiosity and need for meaning.

Multiple meanings

Various meanings ascribed to circular forms in aboriginal Australian art by aboriginal informants. From information collected over the past 100 years from across the continent (after Layton 1992)
Various meanings ascribed to circular forms in aboriginal Australian art by aboriginal informants. From information collected over the past 100 years from across the continent (after Layton 1992)

We’ll never decisively nail down the significance of prehistoric rock art, obviously. But why should we not try to unfold the many possible meanings, and let them exist untethered? This may broaden our vistas of past art, and perhaps of present and future art, too. Indeed, much ethnographic evidence (e.g. Layton’s study of Aboriginal art, 1992) suggests that preliterate artists never even intend that elusive singular ‘meaning’, the certainty that scientistic researchers vainly lust for. Abstract symbols such as Aboriginal concentric circles or European cup-and-rings are obviously amenable to polysemy, the existence of many meanings. In Australia we have clear ethnographic accounts to help us in interpretation; in Europe we have scant folklore (though this may often be useful, as I have already mentioned). But even if we cannot safely ascribe Aboriginal meanings to cup-and-rings here, we can at least appreciate the importance of polysemy in preliterate signification—and realise that we can neither nail singular meanings to our prehistoric art nor shy away, in reactionary fear, from attempts to raise plausible possibilities.

Petroglyphs from Puuloa, Hawaii (after Cox & Stasack 1970)
Petroglyphs from Puuloa, Hawaii (after Cox & Stasack 1970)

A linguistic example of polysemy, which may show how alien singular meanings are to many non-Western cultures, occurs in relation to petroglyphs in Hawaii. At Puuloa, a large hill of solidified lava, there is testimony from the nearest inhabitants that cup-marks are used when a child is born (Cox & Stasack, 1970). They translate ‘Puuloa’ as meaning ‘Hill of Long Life’; when a baby is born, they go there to carve a new cup. They place the baby’s piko—which may mean ‘umbilical stump’ or ‘umbilical cord’—in it, cover it with a stone, and leave it overnight. “If the piko remained overnight (or disappeared—there is conflicting evidence about which would be effective) long life would be assured for the child.” (ibid.) But piko is not limited to only two possible meanings:

As a noun it refers to the navel, navel string, and umbilical cord. Figuratively it can be used to refer to a blood relative and also to the genitals. It can be used to describe the summit of a hill, the crown of the head, tip of the ear, end of a rope, and the place where a leaf is attached to the stem. There are many other meanings, as is the case with very many Hawaiin words.


Polysemy reveals a richness of signification that has become more and more alien to us since monotheistic literalism and the codification of language represented by dictionaries. The associations that polysemy weaves between different ideas and forms—wonderfully evident in the above example—allow for a perception of the world that owes more to the self-similar hierarchies of fractal theory than to the cut-and-dried isolation of meaning inherent in the Western rationalist paradigm.

But how in hell do you know what someone’s going on about with this many possibilities? In short: the ambiguities of communication are ironed out with context—either surrounding words and symbols, or, more interestingly, bodily presence. In using language that can refer to many things, it is vocal tonality, and the silent expression of gesture, eye contact and generalised ‘body language’ that steers verbal vehicles of expression:

In more traditional worlds … I’ve noticed that people remain much more attuned to the languages of gesture; where there’s no TV & “nothing ever happens”, people watch people, people read people… I never knew this till I lived in Asia. Here in America, people react to you most often on the basis of the idea you project—thru clothes, position (job), spoken language. In the East one is more often surprised to find the interlocutor reacting to an inner state; perhaps one was not even aware of this state, or perhaps the effect seems like “telepathy”. Most often, it is an effect of body language.

Hakim Bey

Here we need to appreciate the subtleties implied in the term ‘altered state’. It needn’t necessarily imply a wild trance, a voyage into the otherworld. A native of Darjeeling, in relation to our ‘normal’ consciousness, is in a constantly ‘altered state’. Culture is a drug—and each variant has its own nuances, induces differing sensitivities to environmental cues and sensory stimuli. We rarely notice that we’re loaded on culture because most people around us are too. This awareness of ‘altered states’ needs to be applied to signification in prehistoric art—to realise that these carvings were originally perceived from a totally different standpoint to ours, even by ‘passers-by’.

Transcending the borders of sense

Our understanding of polysemy may also be fruitfully enhanced by more intense altered states. Most interesting of all are experiences of synaesthesia (most common when using potent psychedelics), where signification becomes a complex trans-sensory experience that far surpasses frozen words. Polysemy is no longer: “This thing here may refer to that, that, or that”—because the extra dimensions and dynamic nuances involved in psychedelic spaces allow a transcendence of the linearity of language, and the ‘piecemeal’ signification it involves.

Clearly, some form of mutually agreed-upon system of signification is still needed to understand symbols arranged in such a space; but a right-brained task like this may well be simpler for ‘preliterate’ cultures than for our own, just as it is often simpler for someone who is stoned on tryptamines than for someone who isn’t. Terence McKenna’s fieldwork in the Amazon has convinced him that the “magical songs of the ayahuasqueros, the folk medicos of the Indians and mestizos of the jungle back rivers, are not song as we understand the term. Rather they are intended to be seen and to be judged primarily as visual works of art. To those intoxicated and adrift upon the visionary reveries unleashed by the brew, the singing voice of the shaman has become a magical airbrush of color and organized imagery that is breathtaking in its alien and cosmic grandeur.” (McKenna 1991)

A mild experience of such synaesthesia once opened me up to new possibilities in rock art. Having taken some 2CB (a synthetic phenethylamine), I went to the Badger Stone on Ilkley Moor to experiment with harmonic chanting. I put my face about 5 inches from a bare, uncarved surface and began chanting. I kept my eyes open. What occurred was a meshing of entoptic phenomena (usually assumed to manifest behind closed eyelids) and exterior reality—in this case the plain rock surface.

But it isn’t ‘plain’ at all. It is alive with the tiny crystalline structures that compose the rock surface itself. There’s no ‘blank canvas’ in rock art! As I chanted, the irregular pattern of these crystals smoothly coalesced into a regular lattice-work pattern, always gently shifting. Embedded in this lattice were diaphanous symbols—the usual lines and circles, again always mutating. Their form and movement appeared to correspond to the modulation of my voice.

Drawing showing carvings on the Badger Stone, Ilkley Moor
Drawing showing carvings on the Badger Stone, Ilkley Moor

As I hit a certain tone, the patterns seemed to reach a certain stability, and the atmosphere was charged with a pregnant and slightly ominous expectation. Nothing dramatic followed. But my feeling was that if I had taken a slightly larger dose, or perhaps if I had managed to side-step the familiar shock that impending tears in the fabric of reality induce, I would have gone into the rock.

This reminded me of an article I had read:

In many cultures, the shaman in his trance passes through the rock into the spirit world, and to communicate what had happened in the trance, the shaman depicts what had happened on the other side on the rock… In addition, several contemporary shamans have acknowledged that the rock art is a marker for where a shaman could enter the rock.

Grant S. McCall

Could vocally-induced altered states, perhaps aided by other trance induction methods, have played a part in the genesis of some rock art? There is strong evidence that acoustic effects such as echoes play a part in the Korku tribe’s decisions for locating rock paintings, and Steven Waller has found unusual echoes at over 100 rock art sites across the globe (Trubshaw 1997). Whether this idea can be extended to include the more intimate use of voice seen in my own experience is unclear; but the notion of entoptic phenomena being seen, not behind closed eyelids, but on the rock surface itself, is surely intriguing when considering rock art. Even more intriguing is the idea that the genesis of some prehistoric visual forms may have been rooted in synaesthetic experience, and owed as much to sonic performances as they did to purely ‘visual’ phenomena.

Transmedia contexts

We should realise the full extent to which our division of ‘the arts’ into respective media—writing, song, dance, visual arts, etc.—may blind us to the function of rock art. The term ‘multimedia’ has recently narrowed in meaning to refer to shoving a CD into a computer. Perhaps we should adopt the term ‘transmedia’ to refer to attempts to break down the walls between various artistic media in an active, body-centred way (see P-Orridge, 1997). ‘Transmedia’ is to separate artistic media what synaesthesia is to the five senses; and both may inform our view of preliterate cultures.

Citing Nancy Munn’s research into the teaching systems of Aboriginal mothers, where symbolic visual elements, hand gestures and language are utilised simultaneously to impart information about the mythical landscape, Robert Andreas Fischer (1997) argues:

So-called orality within indigenous societies has … never existed. Oral communication is the tag non-alphabetical literate societies have received from alphabetic literate societies. In reality, so-called oral communication is composed of an extremely sophisticated, multi-layered, polysemic codification-system of simultaneous communication systems. The “orality” of indigenous societies is actually a form of “savage multi-mediality”.

We cannot let any trace of our ‘frame & gallery’ approach to visual art distort our investigations into carvings that were probably part of a culture where different artistic media flowed into each other, and merged with the environment.

In the archaic universe all things were signs and signatures of each other, inscribed in the hologram, to be divined subtly.

Giorgio de Santillana & Hertha von Dechend, Hamlet’s Mill

In unearthing rock art’s many possible meanings, we must be cautious about saying that meanings ‘belong’ to such-and-such a painting or petroglyph. Especially when dealing with abstract symbols. For if we are to take the Aboriginal mothers’ methods of teaching to be a viable contextual possibility for prehistoric rock art, we must consider the possible replication of the symbol in other media, and even in the environment.

What I mean by this can be seen if we visualise scenarios around, say, the Badger Stone. Perhaps some symbols on the stone are replicated in geoglyphs on the ground before it, or on body paintings or tattoos. It is impossible for those present to consider these symbols as wholly distinct from the bodily motions, ritual actions, vocal performances or stories woven around and among them. The symbols on the stone are not the foundation or ‘base’ of the web of significance; they are merely elements in the network. (But then the same is true of all symbols, even today—only the linearity of prose blinds us to this.)

This network extends outwards beyond human society. A cup-and-ring could relate to the form of a burial construction (see Bradley 1997), a water source, a heavenly body (e.g. the Pole Star—see Oakley 1998), a whirlpool, a tunnel to the otherworld, or the circle of the horizon. The network of meanings could also extend inwards beyond culture: to the eye, mouth, breast, nipple, navel, vagina, anus, or neural structure. Any or all of these references could coexist simultaneously in the web of meaning.

Similarities between the forms of cup-and-rings and monumental structures (after Trubshaw 1997)
Similarities between the forms of cup-and-rings and monumental structures (after Trubshaw 1997)

This vision of signification, with meanings floating in a complex pool of cross-references, where symbols are only anchored to human life through ritual and the body, is what I have been led to through my experiences of altered states and my study of rock art. It obviously presents a difficult challenge to Western academic traditions (be they institutionalised or not). Because the only language that can grapple with this vision is one that owes as much to poetry as to prose, and more to play than to work. Finally, maintaining this vision requires something that totally breaks the present boundaries of intellectual study: active involvement.

There is a huge amount of study to be done, and fun to be had, in interpreting and revitalising archaic artforms. We should not let the inherent uncertainty and multiplicity of meaning involved in this task discourage us; but rather appreciate and enjoy the many-faceted, unfixable nature of reality that makes these things inherent. Beyond entoptics, I feel that it is in the comprehension of this more general paradigm that altered states—both subtle and intense—will benefit rock art research.


  1. Championed by David Lewis-Williams and Thomas Dowson. ‘Entoptic’ literally means ‘inner eye’. [back to text]
  2. I like the term ‘otherworld’, despite its neo-Celtic connotations. To me it simply signifies a self-consistent world that is Other than this one, only accessible via altered states. Its after-death connotations are, given shamanic testimony, entirely appropriate. [back to text]
  3. An ayahuasquero is a shaman whose sacramental psychedelic is the potent brew called ayahuasca. This comprises varying hallucinogenic plants, usually DMT-containing varieties, plus the harmine-containing Banisteriopsis vine. [back to text]


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