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ROCK ART IN THE HEADLIN

Rock art has been grabbing public and media attention as neverbefore in Europethisyear. First there was the late January announcement by France's Culture Minister of the discovery of more than 300 spectacular Palaeolithic rock paintings at Chauvet Cave in southern France. 'Lions, Hyaenas, Rhi nos, Bears !' proclaimed Newsweek, reflecting some thing of the excitement of the find as it captured media imagination worldwide.

The age of the art was esti mated at 18 000 to 20 000 years (i.e. Solutrean). The first results of direct dating sug gesting they were far older were hailed as 'electrifying' and 'astonishing' therefore, when qnnounced in early June. Based on eight paint samples analysed in three laboratories, they indicated an Aurignacian age, of the order of 30000 BP. This throws into question the notion of stylistic development, from simple to complex, in the depiction of animals - the basis of the origi na.l estimates. Actually, com parison with mobiliary art in the German Aurignacian, Joao Zilhao has since com mented, shows that 'both as concerns style and the ani mals represented (rhino, horse, lion, bear), the dates for Chauvet make perfect sense'.

Controversy meanwhile was brewing in Portugal over rock engravings scheduled to be submerged by a new hydro electric dam in the C6a Valley in the north east of the country. A shop owner from a nearby village, quoted in Time in January, declared 'we want the water. rf they want the rocks, let them take them to Lisbon'. However unprecedented sup port, both local and interna tional, lay and professional, soon mounted for preserving the engravings in situ. Almost a million signatures on a petition

were collected by local young sters and T-shirts and stickers were produced; with banners,

chants and songs locals led what Paul Bahn (writing in An tiquity) reckons was 'probably the world's first rock art dem onstration'.

The significance of the Coa Valley engravings is that, sty listically, they match the art of the Ice Age, and, Bahn sug gests, 'it is safe to say that if most of these figures had been found inside caves they would have been classed as Palaeolithic without hesitation.' Another five similar sites have been found jn far western Europe in the last fifteen years and may confirm 'what had long been suspected by some researchers' -that the renowned cave art found in some 300 west European caves is actu ally 'unrepresentative and un characteristic of the period, owing its apparent predomi nance in the archaeological record to a taphonomic fluke'. Bahn argues that it is 'ex tremely probable' that the vast bulk of Ice Age art was pro duced in the open air - in situ ations where chances of the art's survival are far flimsier than in caves. The six known sites with these engravings - amongst them, the C6a Valley

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    'are all the more precious'.

But are they really this old ? Not so, claim Robert Bednarik, Alan Watchman and others who believed the engravings could be dated directly, and had been appointed to do so by Electri cidade de Portugal (EDP), the company building the dam. At a July press conference, EDP announced that the site was in fact post-Palaeolithic and lacked, in their view, the importance at tributed to it by archaeologists and rock art researchers - and there was no reason to aban don construction of the dam! Curious has been an apparent reticence by the investigators to make public their full reports - by September only their con crusions had been revealed in various press statements. Bahn reports that the recent rock art conference in Turin

The Digging Stick

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'was dominated by the Coa saga' (pers comm), with Joao Zilhao, one of the principal campaigners, responding in a paper emphatically entitled The stylistically Paleolithic petroglyphs of the Coa Valley (Portugal) are of Paleolithlc age. A refutation oftheir {direct dating' to recent times. As politicians were drawn into the fray, scientific arguments con cerning the chronology of the art were being transformed into a critical topic in the strug gle to save it. Zilhao's paper (to appear in Trabalhos de An thropologia e Etnologia, and a shorter version in Antiquity) systematically shows up 'false or unverified assumptions' ... 'contradictions'... 'demon strably false arguments'. At least one proposition was so 'ludicrous' that its refutation 'in normal circumstances ...would be a waste of time'.

Joao Zilhao ends by stating 'the only possible conclusion that on present evidence can be extracted from the contro versy regarding the dating of the stylistically Paleolithic pet roglyphs of the C6a Valley is that there is absolutely no valid reason to question their chronological attribution to the Upper Paleolithic, that is, to the period between 10 000 and 30 000 years ago'.

In May the Portuguese prime minister had ordered work on the dam to be slowed, and by September it had technically (but not formally) stopped. Following the erection of a new government in early Oc tober, the new Secretary of State has several times de clared himself to be a 'friend of the C6a rock art' - and a pro posal is to be presented to Parliament by one of the MPs to turn the area into an archae ological park. 'Prospects seem very favourable/ says Zilhao, 'but we have to keep vigilant. International pres sure continues to be of the utmost importance'.

Vol12 (3) Nov 1995

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