From the Upper Palaeolithic and down through the Neolithic, the Chalcolithic and into the Bronze Age, our ancestors in western Europe left behind traces of their thoughts and beliefs through rock art, characterised by cup and ring marks, spirals and other designs, particularly depicting deer and sometimes also hunters, warriors and weapons.
Dating these carvings, which are called petroglyphs, is difficult but in Galicia, in north west Spain, the carvings include images of datable objects such as Bronze Age swords. Many of them are close to settlements datable to the Bronze Age and carbon dating of fires which had been lit in cups carved into the rocks also points to the Bronze Age. So the consensus is that many of Galicia’s images must be of Bronze Age provenance.
Petroglyphs are found all over Europe and there are many examples of geometric designs in Britain, particularly the numerous cup and rings marks of Kilmartin in Argyll . Besides Galicia, sites which depict more than simple cups and rings include Macao in Portugal; Mont Bego on the south coast of France; Valcamonica, Italy and nearby Carschenna, Switzerland, both in the Alps; Namforsen and Tanum, Sweden (where there are famous depictions of boats and men with erections, and brandishing weapons); the River Vyg, Russia; and Alta and Vingen, Norway (where there is a reindeer).
We have yet to see these, but we have visited Lipci near Rhisan in Montenegro, where a sheer cliff face is decorated with scenes of does, and stags with prominent antlers, scattered naturally, as if seen by a hunter (though no hunters are depicted), together with swastikas and squares divided into four parts by crosses. These are dated conservatively to about 800 BC, but they have a great deal in common with those in Galicia which have been dated convincingly to the early Bronze Age.
Many (though certainly not all) of such images are found reasonably close to the sea. Geology is a factor in their distribution, for the existence and survival of rock art requires the presence of flattish rock surfaces which are soft enough to allow them to be engraved. The technique used was very similar to that used on cave walls and elsewhere during the Ice Age. An outline was scratched quickly with sharp quartz, and then the lines were scooped out into ‘u’ shaped grooves using quartz hammer-stones. Remains of such implements have been found in digs near petroglyphs. Sometimes, the edges of the resulting carving were then smoothed, though of course it’s often hard to tell what was done then deliberately, and what has resulted from later weathering.
Galicia’s Rich Variety of Petroglyphs
Petroglyphs are found all over Galicia, but mainly along the Atlantic seaboard, particularly in the Rias Baixas, reaching their greatest density along the River Lérez, close to the estuary of Pontevedra, and it is here that the variety of images is greatest too. At Campo Lameiro , ten miles inland from the sea at Pontevedra, you can visit and stroll around a preserved and well signposted upland landscape peppered with flat rocks, on which our Bronze Age ancestors had drawn a great variety of symbols.
Geometric designs found in Galicia are common in other rock art areas along the Atlantic seaboard – cup marks, spirals and concentric circles, some with a line drawn down from the middle (which are termed ‘labyrinths’, but they are only mazes in the loosest sense: one could not possibly become lost in one). There are also squares with rounded edges, grids, zigzags, swastikas and three-legged ‘trisquels’ (similar to the three-legged emblem of the Isle of Man). But Galicia is special for the many other motifs found there – deer, animals and riders, serpents, boats and weapons.
Horses are shown too, sometimes with riders, as on rock the Campo Lameira’s most famous rock, the Laxe dos Cabalos, though the figure is extremely simple and feint: if these are from the Bronze Age then they tie in rather well with the current theory that both bronze working and horse riding spread across Europe with immigrants whose ultimate origins lay in the lands of the Yamnaya, north of the Black Sea.
Deer appear much more frequently. Sometimes they are in groups and look as if they have been drawn to represent a natural herd. Sometimes a stag and a group of does is shown – the autumn rut, as seen through our Bronze Age ancestors’ eyes. Some drawings have been interpreted as a stag and doe mating. The most impressive of all is a stag, also on the Laxe dos Carballos. It stands next to two ‘labyrinths’, and its back has been pierced with six lines, which are surely spears.
Some scenes, such as the rock panel of Nabal de Martiño at Ponte Caldelas near Pontevedra, seem to include humans, particularly a man holding weapons (a similar image, in Siribela, shows a similar character with a prominent penis, clearly hunting deer).
Weapons appear, most prominently on the large rock of Auga da Laze near Gondomar, not far from Pontevedra: here are unmistakable images of Bronze Age swords and halberds, points all upwards, together with what appear to be shields.Tales of Bravery and Mythological Battles
Such images may be celebrations of weaponry and hunts, marking these locations out as places where warriors and huntsmen gathered to train and tell tales of real bravery, or to recite stories of mythological hunts and battles. Or maybe the significance went further, and these were places to pray for success, to ensure the fertility of tribes and herds.
Either way, the dominance of men and male activities is clear here, and so these rocks speak to us very eloquently of the transition from the matriarchal societies which we infer for Ice Age and Neolithic societies, with its emphasis on images of women (or goddesses shaped as women), to the male-dominated society which was ushered in by the arrival of metal-working. We can guess at a change from the reverence of goddesses to the worship of gods in Galician society at this time too.
Sometimes, the deer are incomplete, and these semi-images are often in conjunction with cracks in the rocks, and spiral and zigzag images. In these instances, we may speculate further, that hallucinogenic mushrooms or poppies had been taken here (capsules of opium poppies were found through archaeological digs at Buraco de Pala, not far across the Portuguese border, so this idea is not without some supporting evidence).
The images on the rocks may have resulted from shamanic trances, the geometric designs recalling the entopic images wired into our brains and released by trances and drugs. The deer may then be seen as emissaries between two worlds, appearing from or disappearing into the spirit world which was believed to exist beyond the apparently solid surface of our planet’s rocky surface.
Perhaps these images are, as some Galician archaeologists believe, representative of the transition of the human spirit into the afterlife. The Campo Lameira’s Outeiro dos Cogoludos rock has an image which could be interpreted as animals coming or going from a circular combination, perhaps entering or leaving the other world.
We can never know for sure the precise circumstances and purposes of the Galician petroglyphs, but we cannot doubt their importance in the Bronze Age society which flourished there, and we leave with the sense that, just as they may have reached out through the membrane of rocks to touch the spirit world, we have for a fleeting moment reached out through the images which our Bronze Age ancestors left behind, and touched them.