New Developments In British Rock Art

University of Durham / 8 March 2002

It’s a good three and a half years since I became too busy with London and web work to follow my interest in prehistoric rock art—carvings or paintings on rock surfaces—as closely as I used to. I attended a lively one-day conference on the subject up at the University of Durham back in 1998, so when I heard about their 2003 conference, entitled "New Developments in British Rock Art", I thought it would be a good chance to catch up on what remains a fascinating topic for me.

Fascinating or not, I didn’t get up in time for the first two lectures, which appeared to promise the most. Richard Bradley, the carefully open-minded author of Rock Art and the Prehistory of Atlantic Europe (Routledge, 1997), delivered a series of updates to this academic milestone. Following this, the much-loved, much-respected, and famously prolific non-academic researcher Stan Beckensall informed the less-lazy-than-myself of his recent perceptions of British rock art landscapes.

Naturally, my missing these two key lectures almost disqualifies me from being able to appraise this conference fairly. In fact, even as the marvellously engaging anthropologist Robert Layton summed up the day’s proceedings, I was writing off the idea of bothering with this review at all. However, the round of questions and answers at the end raised a couple of points that engaged me through making my blood boil. But before I mount my hobby-horse and lead a stampede of controversial ideas, please accept the caveat that I’m consciously using my impressions of this event to address my own obsessions.

Clive Waddington kicked off the afternoon with an interesting lecture that sought to draw contrasts between the European petroglyphs found in passage graves—predominantly in Ireland, but with some further south in France, Spain and Portugal—and those found outdoors on rocky outcrops, all along the Atlantic seaboard, inland in northern England, further northeast in Scandinavia, and down south in Italy. His argument centred on a series of binary oppositions, drawing attention to such contrasts as the predominantly organic, curvilinear forms in the outdoor rock art and the frequently angular, symmetrical patterns found in passage graves. He argued that these contrasts pointed to differing traditions of rock carving, perhaps separated by time, perhaps separated by modes of living.

This series of oppositions definitely had something to them, but were obviously—and I think Clive would acknowledge this—most fruitful if taken as starting points for debate rather than rigid categories. Certainly much of the discussion at the end dealt with elaborations on and refusals of Clive’s schema. I found it interesting in that part of his argument saw the ordered symmetry of patterns from passage graves—such as diamond shapes and zig-zag formations—as originating in human consciousness, and the rougher, less regimented forms out on rocky outcrops—most evident in cup-and-ring designs that blend with the natural weathering of rock surfaces—as being inspired by natural forms.

What caught my attention was the fact that in both cases, the argument was that these forms were inspired by perceived shapes: in the first instance, shapes theoretically perceived in "the mind’s eye", so-called endogenous ‘entoptic’ patterns seen in trance states (see my ‘Form & Meaning in Altered States and Rock Art‘ for more on this); in the second instance, naturally occurring forms seen in the environment, such as ripples in water. One guy grilling Clive about his models used the term "non-representational" as a general description of the glyphs being discussed, immediately reminding me of my old personal maxim, "There’s no such thing as abstract archaic rock art." I brought the issue up, fluffing it slightly due to lack of experience in public speaking, and Clive acknowledged that yes, "non-figurative" is probably a better term. Art can represent things other than human or animals forms.

Of course, this is one of the "puzzles" of British rock art: why are there no unarguable instances of figurative petroglyphs? In more human terms: how come France and Spain get all those lovely famous caves of palaeolithic creatures and we get this jumble of lines and circles? This might seem unscholarly, but it’s a real issue. Modern culture’s lack of appreciation for non-figurative art has resulted in a much greater public focus on the caves of Lascaux and Altimira than on the moors of Yorkshire and the graves of Ireland. Granted, the cave art is much older, but I maintain that our inability to psychologically interact with apparently "abstract" art is one of the biggest hurdles in the way of a successful pan-European project to assess these archaic relics. There was some talk of motions towards such a project at the conference, and funding was obviously the sticking point. But I offer my outsider’s view here: funding follows engagement and interest, and when there isn’t the obvious identification with figurative forms to draw out our human curiosity, we need to probe deeper into consciousness, past such ego-identifications.

In modern terms, "abstract art" and "representational art" stand opposed. Abstraction implies existence in the mind rather than in physical reality; representation means the duplication—allowing for artistic embellishment—of forms perceived in physical reality. In this sense, Clive was arguing that passage grave art is abstract (literally, if it depicts forms from trance visions), while the open-air glyphs lean more towards being representational (even if they are abstracted to an extent to cater for whatever the purpose of the art was).

At the heart of the argument, then, is our ontology: where is the line separating physical and mental reality? To me, the controversy and confusion caused by theories about trance states are rooted in this philosophical minefield. It is true that some trance states bolster the idea of mind being separate from matter; but it is also true that some obliterate this distinction. And sometimes a trance journey encompasses both perceptions, its course being mapped and defined by the constantly evolving relationship between mind and matter. Pursued honestly, this realisation results in a relativist view of consciousness wherein virtually every state of consciousness is a form of trance, and part of the trance’s definition is to what extent it maintains or dissolves the boundaries between mind and body, and between body and environment. This, as Nietzsche might say, is dynamite. It challenges our identities, and our sanity. It is also the least-explored, widest, and most crucial road in our age-old investigative inquiry into the nature of our place in the world.

To ground this vision in the topic of prehistoric art, look at the idea that the more regular, ordered, symmetrical patterns in passage grave art attest to an imposition of the human mind on nature. No doubt this is a strong element in understanding this art—it neatly reflects the growing human control of the environment in the agriculture of the time (the Neolithic). But my own experiences reveal another, vital layer to the issue. While experiencing dynamic visual distortions due to hallucinogenic intoxication, the rough, organic irregularities of the surface of a boulder I was gazing at gradually coalesced into shimmering lattices of regular patterns: diamond shapes, nets, webs, grids… classic entoptic patterns. But I saw this on the rock surface. Due to my cultural background, and the relatively low dosage of drug I had ingested, I could easily recognise this—after the experience if not during it—as the projection of my own neural patterns onto a natural surface.

But how can we be so sure about a Neolithic person’s perception? We can’t be sure in any direction, but all ethnographic evidence points towards primitive cultures holding a much looser conception of the distinction between culture and nature than we do. I’m inclined to believe that 5000 years ago, someone having the same experience as I described above could well see these forms as arising from the rock itself. Besides being evidence of a delusion—mistaking neural projections for environmental phenomena—this also reveals a subtle truth: that our brains are wholly embedded in the natural matrix, and operate in this continuum. It is culture that maintains the boundaries in this continuum. While I’ve no doubt that prehistoric cultures did have boundaries of this nature, I think that our own very rigid boundaries (almost inviolable in most quarters) drastically limit our ability to appreciate this archaic art.


Stan Beckensall unwittingly touched on something important near the end of the day with a throwaway comment about theories regarding the origins of these abstract forms in altered states of consciousness. Other questions from audience members prevented me from trying to get on my high horse in person about this, so please allow me to do so here. His comment was (I’m paraphrasing): "We live in a very drug-oriented culture, so I think we should be wary of this in our thinking. I’m interested in a more naturalistic approach to this, looking at the shapes in children’s drawings."

The first point to raise here, which my friend scribbled to me on my notepad, is that you don’t need drugs to alter consciousness: music, dancing, sensory deprivation, physical pain, isolation, and a host of other techniques work pretty well for many people.

Beyond that, there are a series of what I consider very important points about consciousness-altering drugs. Much as I respect and identify with Stan’s independance of mind and enthusiasm for his subject, his shortfallings are revealed here as a cultural blindspot. It’s a vast blindspot, widely shared by others, so it’s worth addressing here without it being seen as a specific attack on Stan’s views.

Firstly, there is the idea that primitive societies using drugs is somehow contentious. This is without question our own cultural prejudice. I’d be interested to hear about any other cultures in history who have waged such a vigorous war on drugs as us. Again, ethnographic evidence shows us that none of our distant cousins who prefer to live without cities and states are in the slightest bit prudish about sampling plant intoxicants and socialising or ritualising their use. Drug use is as natural to humans as making tools. Indeed, their use may be even more "natural" than tool-use. Zoology tells us that animals, too, like those bits of nature that get them off their heads (I’ve not read it yet, but Giorgio Samorini recently published a definitive book on this subject, Animals and Psychedelics: The Natural World and the Instinct to Alter Consciousness). In this sense, then, in observing children drawing, we are looking at a much less "naturalistic" phenomenon than that of tripping on mushrooms.

Then we come across a more obvious hole in Stan’s comment. Not only is drug-taking apparently an entirely natural part of a conscious organism’s interaction with the environment, the specifically consciousness-altering chemical compounds in many plants are either found as, or are close relatives of, neurotransmitters in the human brain. Most significant, I think, is the tryptamine family, which comprises psilocybin (4-phosphoryloxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine: the main active compound in psychedelic mushrooms) and DMT (N,N-dimethyltryptamine: found in the Amazonian ayahuasca brew), among others. Sat closely alongside these we find Serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine: a very important human neurotransmitter). Actually, DMT itself is found in trace quanitities in human spinal fluid.

This is important enough to warrant repetition: our own bodies naturally contain compounds that, when found in plants and eaten, are viewed by many with suspicion, their ingestion being "unnatural". Once you take this on board, it never fails to astonish!

Observing children drawing is extremely important to understanding pre-literate art. But my view is that it’s effectively the same chemicals at work. Adults often need a neurological boost, in the form of a top-up of tryptamine activity, to access this "uncultured" state. I find it quite funny to be arguing this point now, when four years ago I wrote an article where I tried to demonstrate the primal nature of vortex-like imagery by juxtaposing a drawing given to me by a friend’s young daughter, and a painting I myself did while intoxicated with mushrooms.


Robert Layton’s summing up contained an important observation. In dealing with questions like the origin and meaning of art in prehistoric societies, questions that by definition can never be finally answered, the important thing is knowing when to stop. I immediately recalled Hakim Bey’s discussion of Saussure finding anagrams in Latin poetry (see ‘Aimless Wandering‘). The influential linguist found, for example, that "syllables of character’s names were echoed in words describing those characters". However, he was perplexed when he begun to find such hidden correspondences everywhere, even in prose, and in Latin poetry by modern authors. He wrote to these living classicists to ask if they were

the heir to a secret tradition handed down from Classical antiquity—or are you doing it unconsciously? Needless to say, Saussure received no answer. He stopped his research abruptly with a sensation of vertigo, trembling at the abyss of pure nihilism, or pure magic, terrified by the implications of a language beyond language, beyond sign/content, langue/parole. He stopped, in short, precisely where Chuang Tzu [the Taoist sage] begins.

I would say that the roots of humanity in prehistory qualify as an intellectual abyss equivalent to that of the roots of language: abysses that can be banished, via reductionism, for the purposes of getting on with mundane intellectual work, but which will haunt the theorist if they are not allowed any space to breathe. For myself, I’m continually fascinated by the point where Saussure stopped and Chuang Tzu begins, and the fruits of traversing back and forth across it. Most academics have the comfort of being professionally obliged to stop short of this vertiginous boundary. But I believe this course of inquiry will grow ever more stale if the significance of what lies beyond is continually dimissed.

So, for me at least, there were no new developments at this conference. For people with other obsessions, perhaps there were. All I can say now is that I’m not holding my breath in waiting for a significant number of people in this field to fully digest the implications of the psychedelic experience for the study of the earliest human art.

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